T is for Týr

Tyr (pronounced like the English word “tier”; Old Norse Týr, Old English Tiw, Old High German *Ziu, Gothic Tyz, Proto-Germanic *Tiwaz, “god”[1][2]) is a Norse war god, but also the god who, more than any other, presides over matters of law and justice. His role in the surviving Viking Age myths is relatively slight, and his status in the later part of the Viking Age may have been correspondingly minor. But this wasn’t always the case. Other kinds of evidence show us that Tyr was once one of the most important gods to the Norse and other Germanic peoples.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Little remains documenting the achievements of Tyr. A note in the translation by Henry Adams Bellows of Hymiskvitha, The Lay of Hymir in the Poetic Eddas, indicates that the two great achievements of Tyr, the god of battle, were “thrusting his hand into the mouth of the wolf Fenrir so that the gods might bind him, whereby he lost his hand . . . , and his fight with the hound [of hell] Garm in the last battle, in which they kill each other.” [3]

Tyr’s sacrificing of his hand parallels Odin’s sacrificing of his eye in some ways. Where Odin’s sacrifice was in search of wisdom, Tyr’s was in defense of justice. For if the gods had succeeded at binding Fenrir through trickery, there would be no justice in their actions.

While references to Tyr are scant in the Poetic Eddas, there is evidence that the Romans knew of him and considered him to be the same god as Mars. The fact that in Latin languages the name for the third day of the week (Mardi in French, martes in Spanish, martedì in Italian) is based on the name of Mars, in Germanic languages the name for the same day (Tuesday in English, Dienstag in German, tirsdag in Norwegian and Danish, tisdag in Swedish), is based on Tyr, though the German version relies on a Latin version of the name for Tyr and the others go back to an alternate spelling, Tiw.

One of the runes in the Futhark alphabet (named by spelling out the first letter of the names of the first six runes where th represents one rune) is Tiwaz, the Proto-Germanic spelling of Tyr’s name. The rune means victory and honor. This connection with Tyr represents both his status as a god of war and of justice.

Many names referred to in the Poetic Edda end in “tyr” which in that context means “god of.” For example, Hangatyr, one of the Odin’s names, literally means the “god of the hanged.”[4]

In other words, he must have been an important god, though few tales remain.

[1] de Vries, Jan. 2000. Altnordisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. p. 603.

[2] Orel, Vladimir. 2003. A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. p. 408.

[3] Bellows, Henry Adams. 1923. Poetic Eddas p. 102

[4] Wikipedia entry for Tyr

Image credit: By John Bauer, Public Domain, Link

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R is for Ragnarøk

Ragnarok (Old Norse Ragnarök, “The Doom of the Gods”) is the name the pre-Christian Norse gave to the end of their mythical cycle, during which the cosmos is destroyed and is subsequently re-created. “Ragnarok” is something of a play on words; an alternate form, which sounds almost identical when spoken, is Ragnarøkkr, “The Twilight of the Gods.”

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Whether it is The Doom of the Gods or The Twilight of the Gods, the gods knew it was their destiny. As much as they worked to change it, when the first sign appeared, Baldur’s death, they knew Ragnarok was coming.

Odin gathered as many warriors as he could in Valhalla, to strengthen his army against the giants. But he knew even that would not prevent their destiny. The best outcome would be the destruction of the giants so that they could not return, even if it meant the destruction of the gods at the same time.

The occupants of Midgard, humans, also played a role in the coming of Ragnarok. They abandoned their traditional ways and kinship bonds and fell onto wayward paths.

The weather changed. Three years of winters passed without summers intervening.

At last, Fenrir and his father Loki, both of whom had been bound by the gods in attempts to prevent the destruction of Asgard, broke free of their bindings and joined with the giants as they moved to attack. Heimdall saw the giants coming and sounded the alarm with Gjallarhorn.

The fire giant, Surt, attacked with a sword of fire and set everything in flames. Surt killed Freyr, who did not have the protection of his sword because he had given it to his servant, Skirnir, for his assistance in obtaining the hand of Freyr’s wife, Gerd. In the battle, Freyr also kills Surt, just as Heimdall and Loki kill one another.

Jormungand, another of Loki’s offspring, attacked Thor, who was able to strike the serpent with his hammer, Mjollnir, and crush his skull before the serpent could unleash his venom on the earth. But Thor could only step back nine steps before the serpent blew his venom which killed Thor.

Fenrir ran with his jaws wide open so that he devoured everything in his path between the land and the sky. Fenrir killed both Odin and Tyr, though he was killed by Odin’s son, Vidar, about whom little is known except for his role in Ragnarok and that he survived along with his brother Vali, and Thor’s sons, Modi and Magni.

At the end of the battle, the cosmos collapsed, returning to Ginnungagap.

But all did not remain dark and void. The earth returned from the seas, Baldur returned from the dead, two new humans, Lif and Lifthrasir, awoke in the newly green world, and the gods returned to take up their old lives.

Ragnarok destroyed the cosmos. Ragnarok made the way for a new cosmos to arise. The cycle continues. As do all cycles. Day becomes night which becomes day again. The full moon wanes to the new moon which waxes to become full again. Spring becomes summer which becomes autumn which becomes winter which becomes spring again. Seeds sprout and grow plants, plants blossom and grow more seeds, plants die and the seeds fall to the earth to be planted and sprout again. Birth leads to life which leads to death which leads to rebirth.

Life is cyclical, always leading to a new starting point. It is not a straight line connecting two opposing points.

Image credit: By W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932) – The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 276. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from https://archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft This image was made from the JPEG 2000 image of the relevant page via image processing (crop, rotate, color-levels, mode) with the GIMP by User:Haukurth. The image processing is probably not eligible for copyright but in case it is User:Haukurth releases his modified version into the public domain. Public Domain, Link

F is for Fenrir

Fenrir (pronounced “FEN-reer;” Old Norse Fenrir, “He Who Dwells in the Marshes”[1]) is the most infamous of the many wolves in Norse mythology. His importance for the pre-Christian Scandinavians is demonstrated by his being depicted on numerous surviving runestones, not to mention his ubiquity in Old Norse literary sources.

He’s the son of the god Loki and the giantess Angrboða, which makes him the brother of the serpent Jormungand and the underworld goddess Hel.

–from Norse Mythology for Smart People by Daniel McCoy

Fenrir, the wolf, contrasts with a number of other named wolves in Norse mythology. For instances, the wolves Geri and Freki (Old Norse, both meaning “the ravenous” or “greedy one”) accompany Odin and are often depicted at the side of his throne, as his protectors.

Fenrir, on the other hand, is no friend to Odin. Neither were Loki’s other two children.

The gods tried to banish Loki’s children in an attempt to escape the foreboding destiny they feared from them. They threw the Jormungand serpent into the sea where he then encircled Midgard, the land of humans. They relegated Hel to the underworld, also called Hel, one of several final destination for the dead. Perhaps they hoped she would be satisfied ruling over that portion of the Norse cosmos.

But Fenrir was scary. They decided they needed to keep him close, in Asgard. Fenrir grew quickly and soon became so large the gods feared he would destroy wherever he was kept. Binding him and locking him away seemed the only answer.

The gods used trickery and Fenrir’s vanity by telling Fenrir they wanted to challenge his strength by wrapping him in chains which he then would break free from. Over and over, they wrapped Fenrir with ever stronger chains, and each time Fenrir broke loose.

Eventually, the gods turned to the dwarves, the master craftsmen of the cosmos, and asked them to create a binding so strong that Fenrir couldn’t break free. The dwarves used ingredients that do not exist, such as the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of mountains, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird, to create a ribbon they named Gleipnir. Since the materials used in the binding do not exist, there was no point in resisting it.

When Fenrir saw the lightweight ribbon, he became suspicious and only agreed to be bound with it if one of the gods would place his hand in Fenrir’s mouth while the gods bound him. Only one god, Tyr, was brave enough, though he knew he would lose his arm when Fenrir realized he couldn’t break free.

Once Fenrir was bound, the gods moved him to an isolated spot and held Gleipnir down with a large boulder. They also forced Fenrir’s mouth open with a sword to keep his jaws open.

And that should have been that. But this is mythology. More dramatic events must follow. Watch for R is for Ragnarök later this month.

The full story of the binding of Fenrir can be found in Norse Mythology for Smart People.

Tales of Fenrir are mentioned in the Poetic Edda, stanzas 40, 44, 47, and 51-53 of Voluspo, The Wise Woman’s Prophecy.

Geri and Freki are mentioned in the Poetic Edda, stanza 19, of Grimnismol, the Ballad of Grimnir.

[1] Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. p. 81.

Image credit: By George Wright (1872-1951) – Mabie, Hamilton Wright. 1908. Norse Stories Retold from the Eddas. Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. Frontispiece. Digitized version from the Internet Archive., Public Domain, Link