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Tyr: One Hand or Tiw?

Tyr and Tiw, Norse and Anglo-Saxon Gods

by Catherine Heath

As an Anglo Saxon inspired kindred, we at Great Valley Kindred have always kind of skirted around the topic of Loki. After all, we have no actual evidence of him anywhere outside of Scandinavia that was not brought by Viking Age Scandinavians. However, while it is nice to be able to avoid the ‘Loki vs Noki’ fight seen so often in Heathen communities, every now and again a question arises that makes us wonder if the matter of Loki really is none of our business.

The most recent of these questions was whether Great Valley Kindred considered Tiw to have one hand or two. Unfortunately questions like this, are somewhat more difficult to answer for AS or Continental Germanic Heathens than they are for our Norse counterparts. The sources we look to tend to be sparser, and we often find ourselves engaging in some degree of comparativism in order to find the answers we need. However, it was a good question, because if the answer is “one hand”, then it becomes incumbent upon us to ask just how he came to be one-handed in the first place.

In this essay, we will first examine the etymology of Tiw, before taking a look at the oldest sources both on the Continent and in the British Isles. Then finally, we’ll take a look at parallel figures in Irish myth, the implications of one-handedness with regards to sovereignty, and the possible process by which Tiw’s demotion occurred.

Etymology: *Tīwaz
The name of our god Tiw may be traced back to the Proto-Germanic *Tīwaz, and in turn to the Proto-Indo-European god, *Dyḗus Ptḗr, a name which means ‘Shining Sky Father’. * Dyḗus Ptḗr is theorized to have been the most important deity to the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and his ‘sons’ may be found in the Roman Jupiter, Greek Zeus Pater, Illyrian Dei-patyro, Vedic Dyaus Pitar, Baltic Dievas, Luvian Tatis Tiwaiz, Palaic Tiyaz Pāpaz, and of course, the Germanic *Tiwaz.

The name *Dyḗus Ptḗr is related to the word *déiwos, or god, and while he was by no means the only god of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, that he is known in so many descendant cultures is highly suggestive of his prior importance among the Indo-European peoples. Unfortunately, as we will see, this prior importance is not always so clear from the Germanic and Scandinavian sources (Serith 51).

Earliest Evidence I: Germanic Mars
The earliest potential mention of Tiw/Tiu, can be found in chapter IX of Tacitus’ Germania:
“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. Of the occasion and origin of this foreign rite I have discovered nothing, but that the image, which is fashioned like a light galley, indicates an imported worship. The Germans, however, do not consider it consistent with the grandeur of celestial beings to confine the gods within walls, or to liken them to the form of any human countenance. They consecrate woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to the abstraction which they see only in spiritual worship.“ (Tacitus 108-109)

As you can see here, Tiw is rendered as Mars by the conventions of interpretatio romana. However,
interpretatio romana is not without its issues, and as Enright points out, is both “notoriously encompassing” and “often produces strange hybrids”(Enright 249-250).

In order to determine whether we might consider the Germanic Mars of Tacitus to be analogous to Tiw/Tiu, it is necessary to examine other examples of Germanic Mars and his characteristics (where possible).  This will require us to move forward in time to the 3rd century C.E, and to the rough terrain of the land surrounding what was once Hadrian’s wall.

The Roman forces defending the wall were a diverse group of people, and the small, irregular cavalry force of Frisian tribesmen who arrived at the end of the third century in Housesteads (Northumbria), would not have stood out. The Cuneus Frisiorum or ‘Frisian Formation’ as they were known, left both altar stones and a temple in honor of “the god Mars” (to whom they also gave the name “the god Mars Thincsus”), as well as to other deities. We also learn from these inscriptions that these men were from a place called ‘Tuihantes’, which is now the modern day Dutch town of ‘Twenthe’. For the scholars who work at Housesteads though, the identity of Mars Thincsus is already clear: he is a Romanized aspect of a Germanic war god (“Housesteads – Vercovicium”).

Above the altar erected by the Cuneus Frisiorum at Housesteads, there was a relief; a description of which is provided by Saussaye in his ‘Religion of the Teutons’:

“Teutonic soldiers serving under the Romans in other provinces of the Empire may also have worshipped their ancestral gods beyond the borders of their own native land. That such was actually the case is shown by two inscriptions of the third century, found in 1883 at Housesteads in the north of England, near the wall of Hadrian. The altar on which they are found was erected by Frisian soldiers from Twenthe,- which is rather strange inasmuch as Twenthe belonged to the territory of the Salic Franks,- and is dedicated ‘Deo Marti Thingso et duabus Alaesiagis Bede et Fimmilene.’ The relief above the altar shows an armed warrior with helmet, spear, and shield, at whose right a swan or goose is seen. Both of the receding sides (the relief is semicircular in form) shows the same figure of a hovering female, with a sword (or staff) in the one hand and a wreath in the other.

“What we do know is that the Frisian cuneus, encamped in Britain under Alexander Severus, worshipped Mars, ie Tiu, doubtless as god of war, as the armed figure in itself indicates. A fragment of nature mythology, according to some scholars, lies concealed in the swan, to be interpreted as the symbol of either light or cloud, and to be brought into connection with the Swan-knights of legendary lore.

“It appears likely that the Frisian cavalrymen, who call themselves citizens, saw in Tiu the god not only of the squadron but also of their popular assembly, the thing, and that the two side figures are to be regarded in the same light, their names having been explained from certain forms of Frisian legal procedure. However that may be, the fact that these Frisian soldiers worshipped Tiu does not seem to show conclusively that this god of the sky was originally the chief god of all Teutons.” (Saussaye 106).

Regarding this iconography, Anne Ross makes the point that the “swan or goose” seen to the right of the god is far more likely a goose due to the connection between geese and war in Celtic mythology:

“The goose is a bird associated with war in Celtic mythology, and the Germanic god Thincsus, equated with Mars at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall, likewise has the goose for attrribute.” (Ross 276-277)

She then goes on to conclude that:

“Mars Thincsus would seem to be the only non-Roman god to figure as an orthodox Roman warrior.

“It has been noted already that the Germanic god, Mars Thincsus who is invoked along Hadrian’s Wall, is frequently accompanied by a goose.

“The goose is the frequent companion of Mars Thincsus in the northern frontier region.

  • “The goose appears below a representation of Mars on a slab from Risingham, Northumberland, erected by the Fourth Mounted Cohort of Gauls. The bird also accompanies what is taken to be a representation of Mars Thincsus (a Germanic god) at Cilurnum (Chester) on Hadrian’s Wall.”(Ross 344)

    Simek ultimately agrees with this interpretation of Mars Thingsus and points to the interpretatio romana of the names of the days of the week for his evidence. To offer some brief explanation: the day that was known as Dies Martis to the Romans, became tīwesdæg to the Early English; tyrsdagr to the Norse; and eventually became Tuesday for us. According to Simek, these all ultimately derive from the Proto-Germanic *Tīwaz (who Simek describes as being the “Germanic god of war, the skies, and the Thing”). The OHG dingesdag word for ‘Tuesday’, he explains, is probably derived from another form of *Tīwaz, which is also to be found in the name Mars Thingsus (Simek 334).

    If the Mars that Tacitus writes of, and the Mars Thincsus of the Cuneus Frisiorum are indeed the same as the Germanic Tiw/Tiu, then we are left with two potential conclusions regarding this god:

  • He was a god of war whose early iconography probably included geese.
  • He was also potentially a god of the Thing.

    With regards to the second conclusion, it is noteworthy here that the Mars/Thincsus inscriptions made by the Cuneus Frisiorum were also accompanied by the names of beings whose names “have been explained from certain forms of Frisian legal procedure”.

     The Thing was both a gathering of (a) people/s, and a time and place in which legal disputes were settled. It could be a place of both justice and reconciliation, however this is an aspect of Tiw (if Mars Thincsus is indeed Tiw), that is not only absent from the Old Norse sources but expressly denied:

    “Hárr said: “Yet remains that one of the Æsir who is called Týr: he is most daring, and best in stoutness of heart, and he has much authority over victory in battle; it is good for men of valor to invoke him. It is a proverb, that he is Týr-valiant, who surpasses other men and does not waver. He is wise, so that it is also said, that he that is wisest is Týr-prudent. This is one token of his daring: when the Æsir enticed Fenris-Wolf to take upon him the fetter Gleipnir, the wolf did not believe them, that they would loose him, until they laid Týr’s hand into his mouth as a pledge. But when the Æsir would not loose him, then he bit off the hand at the place now called ‘the wolf’s joint;’ and Týr is one-handed, and is not called a reconciler of men.” (Brodeur 40)

    Like his ‘brothers’ on the continent and in the British Isles, the Scandinavian Tyr is connected with war. However,the loss of Tyr’s hand seems to accompany the loss of authority at Thing. Because the final sentence of “and Tyr is one-handed, and is not called a reconciler of men” ,is not only clearly indicative of a changed final state, but also collocates the two statements. This, I believe, suggests a connection between the event of Tyr losing his hand, and no longer being called a reconciler of men.

    Unlike Tyr’s connection with the Thing though, the connection with war, and even Mars, is one that would endure. We see this continued connection with Mars even as late as the 15th century; the Icelandic Rune Poem verse for the Tyr rune, includes the epithet Mars tiggi, or ‘King Mars’ (Dickins 30-31, Lapidge 27, Wolf 953).

    Earliest Evidence II: Gods of War Arise
    The Migration Period (400 C.E – 800 C.E) was a time of great upheaval and change in Northwestern Europe. Places recently abandoned by the might of the Roman legions made for attractive conquests for over-populated, land-hungry peoples trying to survive. The people who would come to be known as the Anglo-Saxons, were originally a diverse mixture of tribal groups that had been moving progressively south-westwards for at least two centuries before Horsa and Hengest ever set foot on British shores.  These migrations had had the effect of breaking down individual tribal barriers, and so by the time Bede came to write of the peoples who would come to constitute the early English, the only groups that made it into his record were the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (Owen 6).

    Unsurprisingly, these Germanic peoples also brought their gods with them to the British Isles. The cult of Tiw is attested in several place-names: Tyesmere (Worcs.), which though obsolete suggests a lake sacred to Tiw; Tislea (Hunts.), also obsolete; and Tuesley (Surrey). The –lea/ley suffix in Tislea and Tuesley indicate a grove or open space (which if we recall from Tacitus, was often the site of not only worship, but horse divination). Interestingly, there is a hill in the parish of Tysoe (Warwickshire) upon which there was a horse cut into the red clay (which led to the hill being called the ‘Vale of the Red Horse’). The scholar Gale Owen, theorizes that perhaps this is an indication that horses were associated with Tiw in that place, and references the account from Tacitus’ Germania which describes the practice of keeping horses in sacred groves for divination (Owen 28).

    The majority of evidence for Tiw in this era comes from finds of a martial nature; Tiw runes have been found carved upon sword pommels and spears. This is reminiscent of the advice from the Norse poem Sigdrifumal to carve victory runes and the name of the god Tyr upon weapons. The Tiw rune is also one of the most common runes and rune-like symbols to appear on early English cremation urns (Owen 28-29). Dr Ellis Davidson explains this inclusion of the Tiw rune on cremation urns by theorizing that Tiw and the god Seaxnet were one and the same, and that he was claimed as an ancestor by Anglo-Saxon kings of Essex (Owen 30).

    As the only rune which appears consistently, the presence of the Tiw rune upon artifacts is noteworthy, and may be considered to be both protective and invocatory (Owen 92). The Old English Rune Poem for Tiw is suggests a connection with a stellar constellation, but outside of the Rune Poem, there is no further evidence that the Pagan Anglo-Saxons connected their god Tiw with any asterism (Owen 57). On a personal note, I find it interesting that Tiw is described as “a guiding star” in the Old English Rune Poem (Dickins 19) when the PIE root of *Tīwaz, *Dyḗus Ptḗr’s name translates as ‘Shining Sky Father’.

    Unfortunately, as Christianization occurred quite early on in the history of the English, our Heathen period sources are rather limited. As legal codes attest though, the gods were not entirely absent  from English shores with the arrival of the Rood. Moreover, with the arrival of the Vikings in the 8th century, they would have a new advent. However, the Tyr brought by the Vikings would differ in one critical way from the Tiw worshipped by the Heathen English:

    He would be a god no longer whole.

    A Whole God?
    At this point, it’s all too easy to consider the Norse Tyr to be something of an aberration in his one-handedness, or the product of a late Heathen period conception of the world. After all, the description of the relief of Mars Thincsus says nothing of having only one hand. We also have no reason to suspect one-handedness from the (admittedly) sparse evidence of Heathen period of early England, and the trait of one-handedness is notably absent in his analogs in other cultures.

    However, as the Migration period Swedish bracteate found in Trollhätten suggests, this theme of Tyr’s one-handedness is one which pre-dates the Viking age (Hauk 29). So how did the North Germanic Tyr come to have only one hand instead of two?

    Given Tiw’s origins in the PIE high god *Dyḗus Ptḗr, it has often been assumed that at some point, Tiw must have been eclipsed in prominence by Woden/Óðinn. The idea of ‘Wodenization’, in which Woden began his elevation in status to high god during the Migration period is not unknown to scholars (Gunnell “From One High One to Another: The Acceptance of Óðinn as Preparation for the Acceptance of God”). Could it be possible that the North Germanic Tyr was an early casualty of this process?

    This cannot have been an easy demotion either. As Enright points out, evidence from the early runic script that dates back to around the second century shows Tiu to have been the most venerated god by the Germans. He is also the only deity whose name is explicitly present within any runic alphabet despite the later associations of the runes with Woden (Enright 249, 257). Yet for his demotion, Tyr loses no honor. To demote a god in such a way that his honor is preserved would require a sacrifice on a grand scale; it’s the kind of sacrifice that a true king makes on the behalf of his people.

    In the Irish Book of Invasions, we see a similar demotion of one god’s status, and the eventual assumption of that status by a figure who is considered to be analogous to Woden/Óðinn – Lugh. In The First Battle of Moytura, it is initially Nuada who is the king when the tribe of gods, the Tuatha De Danann, first arrive in Ireland. However, when Nuada loses his right arm at the hands of Sreng of the Fir Bolg, he also loses his kingship. In the Second Battle of Mag Tured (Moytura), we are told that his kingship becomes contentious because of his one-handedness:

    A contention as to the sovranty of the men of Ireland arose between the Tuath Dé and their women; because Nuada, after his hand had been stricken off, was disqualified to be king. They said that it would be fitter for them to bestow the kingdom on Bres son of Elatha, on their own adopted son; and that giving the kingdom to him would bind the alliance of the Fomorians to them. For his father, even Elatha son of Delbaeth, was king of the Fomorians.

    As we can see here, kingship is something that is bestowed by an outside, feminine force. More specifically in this case, it is the women of the land who are the ones to bestow that sovereignty, and when the high king is disqualified by the loss of his limb, it is they who choose to take it away. There is a parallel for this idea of woman or indeed goddess-bestowed sovereignty among the Germanic tribes too. Enright argues that it is the cup-bearing Lady of the Warband who stands in for the goddess who bestows sovereignty; her own role an imitation of the sovereignty bestowed by Gaulish Rosmerta upon her soon-to-be-Germanic husband Mercurius (Enright 260-274).

    To return to the narrative of the Second Battle of Mag Tured, Nuada is eventually healed by means of magic:

    “Now Nuada was in his sickness, and Dian-cecht put on him a hand of silver with the motion of every hand therein. That seemed evil to his son Miach. He went to the hand which had been struck off Dian-cecht, and he said joint to joint of it and sinew to sinew,’ and be healed Nuada in thrice three days and nights. The first seventy-two hours he put it over against his side, and it became covered with skin. The second seventy-two hours he put it on his breasts. The third seventy-two hours he would cast white [gap: meaning of text unclear/extent: one word] of black bulrushes when they were blackened in fire.”

    However, despite this healing (which presumably left him some semblance of whole once more), we are still told that “Bres held the sovranty as it had been conferred upon him.”  So the king is whole, but not unblemished, and perhaps even sullied by the healing, as we are told that “that cure seemed evil to Dian-cecht.”

    When Bres is driven out though, the kingship briefly returns to Nuada. That is, until the arrival of “a warrior calling himself Samildánach (or ‘equally skilled in many arts’, an epithet of the god Lugh). Lugh, after much testing, proves his worth and skill to the Tuatha de Danann. Nuada then steps down from the king’s seat, and allows Lugh to ascend for 13 days in order to place his people under Lugh’s leadership so that they might be victorious against the Fomorians:

    “Now Nuada, when he beheld the warrior’s many powers, considered whether he Samildánach could put away from them the bondage which they suffered from the Fomorians. So they held a council concerning the warrior. This is the decision to which Nuada came, to change seats with the warrior. So Samildánach went to the king’s seat, and the king rose up before him till thirteen days had ended.

    In other words, Nuada the king who was rendered unfit for kingship by the standards of his people (or at least those who conferred sovereignty), returned to his throne out of duty, then voluntarily changed places with the unblemished, many-skilled warrior he believed could bring his people victory. Like North Germanic Tyr, his sacrifice was one that was for the greater good of his people. Unlike Tyr though, Nuada would not survive the coming battle, and Lugh would keep his place upon the throne.

    The similarities between Woden/Óðinn and Lugh are also quite striking. Both gods are chief gods of their respective peoples, and both are warleaders. Lugh plays a critical role in the second battle of Mag Tured, and Odin plays a critical role in the war between the Æsir and Vanir. Both Lugh and Óðinn carry spears and are associated with battle magic. Lugh is the patron of poetry and Óðinn is the patron of skalds, and both Lugh and Óðinn are connected with ravens. Both gods have fathered heroes. Lastly, Lugh closes one eye when he performs magic, but Óðinn is one-eyed (Enright 276).

    While Irish Celtic society (or perhaps the representatives of sovereignty) required a king to be whole, there doesn’t seem to have been any such stipulation among Germanic peoples. Tacitus even writes that Germanic women held no such prejudice:

    “The soldier brings his wounds to mother and wife, who shrink not from counting or even demanding them and who administer both food and encouragement to the combatants.”

    This perhaps explains why Lugh performs magic with an eye closed, as opposed to an eye missing and sacrificed like Woden. Quite simply, the sovereignty with which Lugh has relationship would not allow him to remain king were he to do so. Similarly, would Tyr’s sacrifice have necessarily have made him ineligible to rule given that Óðinn rules despite having only one eye?

    However, for Lotte Hedeager, the answer to this conundrum of one-handedness is simple. For Hedeager, myths such as that of Tyr losing his hand to Fenrir, and Baldr’s death, were newly invented. Yet despite their recent provenance, they already held a prominent place in Old Norse belief by the first half of the fifth century (Hedeager 206-207). These myths, according to Hedeager, appeared at around the same time as the Trollhätten bracteate, and were part of a conscious religious change that was triggered by Hunnic migrations into Scandinavia in that period. As further evidence for her theory, Hedeager presents a concise survey of Hunnic material culture in Migration Period Scandinavia (Hedeager 191–211).

    As for the parallels between the stories of Nuada and Lugh, and Tyr and Ódinn, it is well known that there was interaction between the Irish and Norse. It is not hard to imagine one culture inspiring the other (though whether the Irish and Norse inspired each other in the creation of this ‘new’ myth is hard to determine). Were this the case, the question of which culture was the source of that inspiration is likewise difficult – if not impossible to answer.

    Final Thoughts
    At the beginning of this essay, I began with the simple question of whether the Tiw worshiped by Great Valley Kindred has one hand or two. First, I examined Tiw’s etymological and theorized Proto-Indo-European origins as the ‘Shining Sky Father’, and his potential ‘high god’ analogs in various other Indo-European cultures. Then I looked at evidence for Tiw/Tiu on the Continent and in England herself, paying special attention to Mars Thincsus. Lastly, I compared the myth of Tyr’s one-handedness with that of Nuada from the Irish Book of Invasions, before making the point that there is some evidence that the myth of Tyr’s one-handedness was quite simply invented during the Migration Period.

    The ultimate problem with questions such as these, is that ultimately everyone wants to find some kind of absolute truth.  However, that rarely works in reality, and especially not when it comes to something as pluralistic as Heathenism. There was no one Heathenism; only threads of commonality and lots of tribal religion. So when it comes to finding the ‘truth’ about our gods and wights, the only truth we have is how we have come to understand them, and the blessings we have known as a result of the reciprocal relationships we have built with those Holy Powers. Our Tiw is a god of war, he is a god of the Thing, and by extension, a god of justice and law. He is a fearless and wise god who was invoked with runes on weaponry, and whose symbols marked cremation urns. The most important role he plays for us though, is that of the guiding star. He is the (two-handed) lord of the Thing to whom we look; the one who guides us as we endeavor to keep good faith among ourselves, and with our friends in the wider community.

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