Why Is Tyr Such an Unimportant God?

Some Norse gods are famous – Odin, Loki and Thor, for example. Others, like Forseti or Magni, are only known to the cognoscenti. Tyr isn’t quite as obscure as those two, but he can’t compete with the big three. It seems strange that a god whose name means “god” should be so little-known. Did he fade away, or is there another explanation?

Tyr: what we know

There are two myths involving Tyr, one that tells how he lost his hand so the Aesir could bind the Fenris wolf, and another about how he and Thor stole Hymir’s cauldron so the giant Aegir could brew ale in it. Some have argued that Tyr doesn’t belong in the second myth, which is a bit discouraging considering how little we have about him.

Place-Names

While there’s no record of any actual worship of Tyr, there is indirect evidence of a cult based on place-names. According to Stephan Brink’s survey there are two places named for Tyr in Norway, none in Sweden or Iceland, and thirty-three possibles in Denmark:

  • Tysnes (Norway), a parish on the island of Njarðalog in Hordaland
  • Tislaunan (Norway), if it goes back to Old Norse Týslog, meaning a legal district dedicated to Tyr (like Njarðalog above) although this is speculative
  • six Tislunds (Denmark)
  • three Tisets (Denmark)
  • four Tisbjerg (Denmark)
  • three Tishøj (Denmark)
  • Tissø on Sjælland (Denmark)

(Obviously this list leaves out some of the more unlikely ones.) Some lists include Tiveden in Sweden, but Brink says it’s more likely to come from the plural tivar, deities, suggesting it could mean “the forest where deities dwell”, and Tésalir in Norway, but the Té can’t come from Tyr according to the linguistic rules. (Magnus Olsen thought it might indicate another god, Tér, who might be a Tyr-like god.)

Although there’s no record of any offerings to Tyr or buildings dedicated to him, if anyone did worship him it must have been the Danes. Perhaps their closeness to Germany explains why Tyr had his base there, as there does seem to be a similar god among the Germanic tribes.

German war-gods and Mars

The main evidence for Tiw’s existence is that the Germans named a day of the week after him. The Roman dies Martius, or Mars’ day, became Tiw’s day, tiswesdæg or tiwesdæg. Also, Anglo-Saxon glosses on the name Mars call him Tiw or Tig, so the two must have been fairly similar.1 (Simek: 334).

Another form, Ziu, seems to survive in the Old High German name for Tuesday, Ziostag. One of the Wessobrunn prayers names the Alemanni Cyowari (worshippers of Cyo) and their capital as Ciesburc. Simek thinks this Cyo was a form a Ziu. The Wikipedia article on Tyr gives Ziu a consort, Zisa or Cisa, based on Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie. (While most scholars seem to think Zisa never existed (Simek: 52), it hasn’t stopped her taking a place in modern heatherny.)

Ziu and Tiw could be forms of the same Mars whose worship Tacitus mentioned in his books. His general remarks in the Germania include the statement:

Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.
(Germania 9, Tacitus. trans. Alfred John Church)

But in his Annals he describes how the Hermunduri killed their prisoners in Mars’ honour:

The war was a success for the Hermunduri, and the more disastrous to the Chatti because they had devoted, in the event of victory, the enemy’s army to Mars and Mercury, a vow which consigns horses, men, everything indeed on the vanquished side to destruction.
(Annals 13.37, Tacitus, trans. Alfred John Church.)

And he quotes a speech by an ambassador from the Tenectri giving thanks to Mars:

“For your return into the unity of the German nation and name we give thanks to the Gods whom we worship in common and to Mars, the chief of our divinities, and we congratulate you that at length you will live as free men among the free…”
(Histories 4.64, Tacitus, Alfred John Church)

The inscription to Mars Thincus

It seems that the Dutch followed a similar god, as a dedication to Mars Thincsus from Hadrian’s Wall in England shows. The Roman army recruited from all over the empire, and the many dedications to the Matres show that German soldiers garrisoned the Wall. (These often mention the dedicant’s home town or tribe, a touching bit of homesickness as well as a boon to scholars.) In this case dedicators came from the Twenthe tribe, probably in the district of Twenthe, in the province of Over-Yssel, Holland.

Altar to Mars Thincus and the Alaisiagae. Wikimedia.

The offering must have been part of a larger structure,as one inscription is on a door jamb (R.I.B 1593), another on an altar (1594), along with a lintel carved with a god accompanied by a bird, possibly a goose2, and two goddesses, probably the ones mentioned in the first inscription, which reads:

To the god Mars Thincsus and the two Alaisiagae, Beda and Fimmilena, and to the Divinity of the Emperor the Germans, being tribesmen of Twenthe, willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow.
(R.I.B. 1593, translation from their website)

You can see the door jamb below, and I’ve given a link to the original article, which also has a drawing of the lintel, in the references. The other inscription, on the altar, is essentially the same.

The inscribed door jamb with the dedication to Mars Thincus, Beda and Fimmilena. Wikimedia.

Pairs of goddesses are not uncommon on German dedications, like Dea Vercana and Meduna, or Alauna and Boudina, who teamed up with Deo Voroio on one altar. (Another altar mentions two more Alaisagae, Baudihillia and Friagabis.) Mars Thincus was probably the god of the Thing, a legislative assembly of free men, and the Alaisagae goddesses of law and justice (from the Frisian law terms Bodthing “summons” and Fimelthing “sentence”. (Simek: 5-6))

Big in Denmark?

This all seems to add up to a German war-god, or set of gods, whose names, Tiw and Ziu, are etymologically similar to Tyr’s. Given his strong presence in Germany (and possibly Holland, as Mars Thincus) he may have been primarily a Germanic god, with little presence in Scandinavia. The place-name evidence seems to back this up, as names associated with Tyr come from Denmark, which shares a border with Germany.

It may well be that Tyr, like the Danish goddess Gefjun, wasn’t well-known outside his own territory. Snorri Sturluson knew enough about them to put them in his Prose Edda, but they only get one myth each: Tyr and the Fenris wolf, Gefjun plowing up Sjælland.

I would also speculate that their Danish origin might explain another similarity between them: their connection with the giants. Gefjun had four sons by a giant, and according to Hymiskvida Tyr’s father is a giant. It’s often thought that Tyr’s role in that poem is a mistake, but maybe it’s a characteristic of Danish gods and goddesses.

Thirty-three possible place-names in Denmark suggests that he wasn’t so obscure to the Danes. Perhaps if Snorri Sturluson had been a Dane, things might be different.

Dumézil and Tyr

Perhaps we wouldn’t expect so much from Tyr if it wasn’t for his name, and the influence of Georges Dumézil’s theory of a three-part society with gods of each part. (I say gods on purpose – he didn’t have any place for goddesses.) Odin and Tyr were supposed to be the gods of the first function, sovereignty.

Odin would have been the dark, magical element of rulership, while Tyr represented the light, justice and law part. But while Odin is certainly the god of aristocrats and prominent in the myths, Tyr is a disappointment to the theory, since he seems to be mainly a Danish god, with very little to do with justice. He seems more at home with Thor in the second function, war.

There have been many criticisms of Dumézil’s theories as applied to Norse myth, so I’m not going to go into that here, but two main ones are: 1) it assumes a stable Norse pantheon, which is not necessarily the case, and 2) it ignores the way that the major Norse gods tend to be “multifunctional”, i.e. Freyr is god of fruitfulness, but he’s also a royal ancestor and closely connected with kingship, especially in Sweden.

If we step away from the theory, then we can see Tyr as a battle-god, like the Germanic Tiw and Ziu, who was best-known for having made a major sacrifice to stave off Ragnarok. So perhaps not so unimportant after all?

1. It depends on what you’re comparing, though. I wrote a post once on why medieval Icelandic scholars would have glossed Saturn as Njord.
2. Geese were associated with Mars for reasons that anyone who has ever encountered geese does not need to have explained.


References and Links

Brink, Stefan 2007: “How Uniform was the Old Norse Religion?” in Learning and Understanding in the Old Norse World, eds. J. Quinn, K. Heslop, T. Wills, Brepols: 105-36. (Brepols; paywall)
Gunnell, Terry 2015: “Pantheon? What Pantheon? Concepts of a Family of Gods in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions,” Scripta Islandica 66: 55-76. (academica.edu)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Wikipedia article on Tyr (and Tiw)
Our Troth article on Tyr and Tiw (also addresses Dumézil’s theories in relation to Tyr)
Archaeologia Aeliana article on the Housesteads finds ((2nd series, no. 10)
Tiw or Mars Thincus
Tyr: One Hand or Tiw? (differences between the two)
Sacrfices to the Norse God Tyr? (Danish National Museum, covers finds at Tissø)
Ben Waggoner on Is Tyr/Tiw the supreme god?

The image at the top is of a seashore in Denmark. The original is here.

3 thoughts on “Why Is Tyr Such an Unimportant God?

  1. Pingback: Odin’s Eyes: Sun and Moon? | We Are Star Stuff

  2. Pingback: Will the real sun-god (dess?) please stand up? | We Are Star Stuff

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