Who initially led the Old Norse Pantheon? Tyr vs. Odin as the chief god

Did Odin replace Tyr as the head of the Old Norse pantheon? This is a question that I often hear but never satisfactorily answered. So to answer it, let’s further look into some mythology about why a King would lose a hand. And my conclusion might surprise you. 

So let’s start by answering the central question: “Was Tyr ever the head of the Old Norse pantheon?” And the short answer to that is no. However, we must consider that the Old Norse pantheon and the Old Norse period date from the 7th century CE to the early middle ages and covers the culture and populations that originated in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland. We know at this time, and in these places, Odin, Freyr, and Thor were always the main deities. So although the chief deity of these three did change depending on when and where you were, it was usually one of these three gods. So who was Tyr, and was he the head of any of the major Indo-European pantheons? If so, what makes people think Tyr was the head of a pantheon, and why did Odin replace him?

 Answering these questions is problematic because they skip some of the most interesting etymological and mythological considerations because it is a bit of a minefield due to the lack of direct evidence of the structure of the pantheons in the bronze and iron ages. So this leads to a level of speculation. However, I think it is fascinating to discuss these things, despite the criticism from academics about the value of speculation. However, in doing so, I think you will learn some new things about the mythology and the gods of north-western Europe. 

The period before the Old Norse culture is often referred to by different names, such as Proto Norse or Old Scandinavian, roughly before 500CE and 1500 years ago. While our historical knowledge of the cultures involved in this period, we know a few things and use them to get some ideas about what could have been going on. This is the time of the bronze and iron ages when many European cultures changed as technology evolved to take advantage of the new metals, wealth, and power. It was also when a religious revolution, Christianity, headed to Europe with the help of the Romans. As the Roman Empire expanded, existing pantheons were naturally evolving, and all these things had an impact. 

People wonder if Tyr could have been the head of a pantheon at some point because of the etymology of the word Tyr. It is a linguistic derivative of the Proto Indo-European Dyēus or Indo-European Diēus, which evolved into the Greek Zeus, and the Roman Jupiter. The name then evolved into the proto-Germanic Tiwaz and the High German Zîo. Finally, it crossed into England as the Old English Tīg before evolving to Tīw. 

norse-myth-tyr-swordThus, Tyr could be cognate with the Proto Indo-European’s chief God, their Sky Father, Dyēus Phter. So, it is quite suitable to theorize that the Indo-European Dyēus Phter probably evolved into the Norse Tyr. If this is the case, why wouldn’t Tyr have led the Norse pantheon like the Sky Father did in the Russian Steppes in the times of the Proto-Indo-Europeans? Again, the answer is complicated because, in all surviving sources of Norse myth, there is no mention of Tyr being the lead god of the pantheon. And there is no direct evidence saying that Odin took over from Tyr either.

So to expand on this, Tyr is also a generic word for God. However, suppose the word or a variation of it is mentioned somewhere else. In that case, we have to confirm if it is being used as a name for a God called Tyr or as a general word for a god. This is a crucial issue as there are other god’s names, such as Freyr, that have a similar issue similar to this. For example, Freyr is best described as meaning “Lord.” However, it isn’t a personified name of a god, as scholars believe Freyr’s personified name was probably Ingvi. 

The next issue is that the Old Norse pantheon bears very little likeness to the Proto-Indo-European pantheon regarding names of gods that are cognate with earlier gods. So why would Tyr be cognate with Dyēus Phter when almost no other god in Old Norse has a name that is cognate with another Proto-Indo-European god? Therefore, it is only logical to assume that more than one God would have migrated into Germania and Scandinavia. Fortunately, there is another god whose name also evolved from the Proto Indo-Europeans, the Storm God Perkunas.  In the Old Norse and Old English, Fjörgyn is cognate with Perkunas, the original storm god of the Proto-Europeans, which has some interesting implications. First of all, we know Fjörgyn was a god in Germania, as he was a god in Scandinavia and England. So the common root here is he came from the Germanic Tribes. 

Secondly, Fjörgyn is described in the Eddas in both a female and male capacity. Here is where it gets interesting. As a female, it is presumed that she is the personification of the Earth Mother, and so the mother of Thor, and eventually, a partner to Odin. But, Fjörgyn is also referred to as a male, the father of Frigg, whose daughter went on to become the wife of Odin. This immediately shows a pantheon affected by two different mythologies, one that has evolved from one to the another or into two separate entities. 

So basically, we have a storm god who has been moved in the pantheon to be an Earth Mother, or Father-in-Law of Odin, both of which hold high ranks. But, of course, the changing sex isn’t entirely uncommon in the evolution of gods and pantheons. But what is intriguing is that Fjörgyn stops being a storm god. Instead, Thunoraz (eventually Thor) emerges, and he is not just a Storm God. Instead, he is a Sky god.

Now I’m pretty confident someone will tell me I’m mistaken. Thor is a storm god. His weapon and name imply this. However, according to the Romans, his equivalent was Jupiter. This indicates his role in the first millennium was the equivalent of the Sky Father, a more prominent role than just a storm god. So if this is the case, could Thor have taken the role of Tyr? This creates a problem within the Prose Edda, where Snorri Sturluson says that Tyr is the son of Odin in the Skáldskaparmál. It contradicts the Poetic Edda, which says he is the son of the giant Hymir. So while we have no definitive attestation to Tyr’s position, we still have all these remnants of things that may have happened in the pantheon previously.

To pursue this further, let us examine why Tyr wasn’t seen as a substantial Norse god in the Eddas but was important enough to have a day of the week named after him and an essential role in Ragnarǫk with the binding of Fenrir. The primary sources here are the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. But, unfortunately, both were written in a time closer to us than the start of the first millennium. So the stories told within them may not have even been told in the period we’re interested in (before 500CE). While the earlier versions of stories are lost, five hundred years is enough time to rewrite a pantheon and its creation myths completely. To understand this, we have to examine what else remains that might help us understand who Tyr was. 

Thor was the most popular God in Norway and may have been the chief God in many places due to this popularity. This can be seen in place names, making him more popular than Odin towards the end of the first millennium CE. This didn’t mean he was more powerful. He was just more relatable to the average person, as gods were more associated with personas than being considered a god of something.  It is unlikely that all these towns were named after Tyr and then later renamed. So it appears that Tyr never made a significant impact in Norway. However, Thor did. This shows Thor was a Sky God, a chief god, and Tyr simply was not. However, if we look at Denmark, we see 31 sites, from the 1st century until the middle of the 5th century, with names that could be aligned to Tyr. Archaeological studies have suggested that these sites may have been where armies were conscripted or enlisted, particularly an army by the name of the hirð. This hints at Tyr’s role being that of a war god, not a sky god. But a vital god nonetheless. When these towns in Denmark were built, the Romans were at war with the Germanic tribes, a clash that lasted for hundreds of years. So, if your war god isn’t helping you win wars, is he really the right war God for you? Would you need a new war god? 

Returning to the place names associated with Tyr, there may be a couple of towns whose names can be associated with Tyr in Norway. Still, none in Sweden suggests that Tyr was nowhere near as popular as he was in Germania. And if a god isn’t popular in those places, it suggests that Tyr wasn’t leading that pantheon at that time.

We also have Tyr mentioned as a day of the week, Tuesday, Tyr’s day. In the romance languages, Tuesday is known as Martes or Marti, which links Tyr to the Roman God Mars. This indicates that Tyr was the equivalent of the Roman God Mars, a war god, not a sky god. The sky god of Rome was Jupiter, so we don’t see a connection with a Sky Father archetype such as Dyēus Phter. So this suggests that Tyr was not viewed as a Sky God around the start of the first millennium. Because many Germanic and Norse gods were associated with war, one could argue that to be associated with Mars, the war god, meant that you were the most prominent of the war gods in the pantheon. So this is potential evidence that Tyr was prominent in Germania as a war god, even if he wasn’t chief of the pantheon or known in Scandinavia. 

Another antidote is seen in the inscriptions by Germanic peoples that strengthen this link between Mars and Tyr. For example, in the Netherlands, there is a 1st-century inscription that reads “mars halamarðus” (meaning Mars, murderer of men). And let’s not forget the famous inscription on Hadrian’s wall, “mars thingsus,” from the 3rd century, by Frisina mercenaries. These individual pieces of evidence are important because the Roman army paid mercenaries from north-western European Tribes to fight for them. So these warriors interacted with Romans and other people from other cultures. So intrinsically, the different beliefs would have affected each other, with these modified views taken home after their contract ended. More importantly, one of these inscriptions implies that the war god Mars was the presider over the Thing, the Germanic and Nordic name for the meeting of general assembly.

You could argue that to preside over the General Assembly, one should be considered a chief god, possibly even a Sky God, but that is a relatively weak assumption. If Tyr (Tiwaz) were a celestial deity, this would have been long before the Germanic tribes existed. Along the same line of thinking, you would expect the inscription to refer to Jupiter if Tyr was a Sky god. We can see from this that Tyr was a war god amongst the North-western Europeans at the beginning of the war with the Roman Empire at the start of the first millennium CE. 

To further emphasize the war god idea, the T rune of the Elder Futhark and Old English Futhark are all associated with Tyr. And we clearly see this in the Poetic Edda’s Sigdrífumál, Stanza 6. 

Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,

And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;

Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,

And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

So here we read that you must carve the Tyr Rune onto your sword’s hilt, blade, and sheath, and then call Tyr’s name twice if you want victory in battle. Again this strengthens the idea that Tyr appears to be a war god. In archaeological terms, we also find bracteates from around the middle of the first millennia CE with images of Tyr losing a hand to Fenrir and a Tyr rune. This suggests that Tyr’s place in Ragnarok was established over 1,500 years ago, and any events where the hand was lost were written in the first part of the first millennium. 

Another argument centers on one undeniable feature about Tyr that needs to be discussed more: why Tyr has just one hand. Now the prominent answer is that Fenrir bit it off. If you don’t know the story, then I will read the shortest of two variants in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, which is from chapter 25 of Gylfaginning, and it goes. 

“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.”

Again, this implies that Tyr is a war god and a wise god. But the passage doesn’t suggest Tyr is a chief god, a Sky Father. However, the loss of a hand can represent the loss of power and also suggests Tyr was a war god. The lore suggests that there were three types of man in society, the priest or sovereign, the warrior, and the freeman, the farmer producing food. These three types of men are represented by three body parts, which align with the parts of the body used to build the earth. So the sovereign would typically suffer a head wound, loss of an eye, or their head would be chopped off. We see this with Odin losing an eye and in Beowulf when Grendel’s mother beheads the King’s top nobleman. Beowulf also beheads Grendel’s mother, and the lead character is rewarded with advice about Kingship. So the link between the wounding of the head and kingship is undeniable.

In the case of the warrior, feet are injured, legs cut off, or an underpart of the body is attacked. For example, Fenrir is bound by his foot in the Prose Edda, as is Egil in Egilssaga. We also see Wiglaf and Beowulf wounding the dragon in the underbelly. Grendel eats a warrior by “hand and feet,” and Beowulf tears off Grendel’s arm. These narratives are in myths from Egilsaga to Beowulf, from Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda to Waltharius, and the Latin Epic from Germany. So is the severing of Tyr’s hand the beginning of the process to move him down from the upper ranks of the pantheon, or does it mean he was there as a war god, not a sky god? 

Now let us look at the other side of the coin and discuss Odin. The development of this god is complex, and his origins aren’t from the Proto-Indo-European pantheon. He was not a god who evolved with the pantheon as he was not a representation of Manus, Yemo, or Dyēus Phter. Instead, his origins were more primitive as he was formed from the wōðu, personified to Woden, a god of death. Only in Scandinavia did his role encompass magic. We know that Tyr’s role there was always much less than that in Germania. So this indicates that if a change occurred, it was earlier in the timeline and firmly entrenched in the pantheon before it influenced the Norse culture. 

I think that Tyr is an ancient god, his name no doubt stems from the Proto-Indo-European Sky Father. He once held a high place in the proto-European cultures, but conflict and war turned this God into a war god as his principal place in the pantheon. When coupled with the fact that Thor is a more suitable replacement for the Sky Father than Odin, we can suggest an answer: Odin didn’t take over from Tyr in the Germanic pantheons. It was Thor. 

I believe this because we see Perkunas, the ancient storm god, changing to Fjörgyn as the Celtic tribes battled with the Romans in Germania. At the same time, Thor, or the Germanic Thunaraz, was created and replaced Tyr as the chief God because of his warrior talents and because he was a Sky God. Thus Thor became an important figure in the mythology of the gods and also an influence on Odin. Unfortunately, this left little room for Tyr to be placed anywhere significant, so he was eventually devolved under Odin. This change wouldn’t have been immediate and widespread in Europe. It would take time and might have happened as Odr and Odin combined in Scandanavia, suggesting there must have been a perceived benefit to the tribes for doing this. It is also possible that Odin’s rise also influenced Tyr’s status change. This happened before 100CE, judging by the archaeological record and texts we have from Rome. This may also explain why Tyr wasn’t such a well-known god in Scandinavia. In fact, it is possible that he never achieved the head role of the pantheon there, having his power taken before he arrived. 

So this is my speculative answer to that nagging question. Sure, it’s not watertight, but it is a decent guess considering what we currently know and considering all the possibilities of what happened. I hope that discussing it provided some knowledge about gods you weren’t aware of and gave you an answer you can discuss and challenge. 

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