You know what you have to do right now is the right thing to do. You know it, but it is hard or scary or dangerous. You do it anyway, because you have a sense of justice. Or maybe you have to do it for the greater good.
Would you put your hand in the mouth of a beast you knew would become incredibly dangerous and destructive if you didn’t? Would you offer your hand for the good of all?
That’s what the Norse god Tyr did with Fenrir the wolf.
Tyr (pronounced like tier) was the Norse god of war and battle. He was a popular god in the Norse world. Warriors would often inscribe their swords with Tyr’s rune and pray to him before going into battle.
Tyr’s story is bound up with the great wolf monster Fenrir, a spawn of Loki. Odin, through his great love of Loki and wolves, had allowed Fenrir to live with the gods from the time he was a pup. As the wolf grew bigger, only brave Tyr would approach Fenrir to bring him food. It didn’t take long for the wolf grew to an enormous size, and he had such a rapacious appetite that the gods all grew afraid of him.
The gods had a meeting and resolved to bind Fenrir. Now, Fenrir was no fool so the gods decided they’d bind him with fetters from which he could escape–they wanted him to believe he could best the gods. After each time the gods bound him, Fenrir escaped from his fetters. After each time, he grew confident that the gods could not bind him. The shackles were all too weak for him.
For the third attempt the gods asked the dwarves for help in creating a rope strong enough to hold Fenrir, one from which he could never escape. This time, even Fenrir’s enormous strength would not help him. The dwarves outdid themselves and created Gleipnir (glaip-neer), which means “open.” In Gleipnir the dwarves wove six magical ingredients: the sound of a moving cat, the beard of a woman, a fish’s breath, the spit of a bird, the roots of a mountain, and the sinews of a bear.
However, Fenrir was no fool and refused to be bound a third time. There was something uncanny about Gleipnir and he suspected a trick. He demanded assurance: one of the gods would have to put his hand in the wolf’s mouth. The gods grew silent. All knew they were betraying the wolf; none wanted to lose a hand. Tyr, one of the bravest of the gods, volunteered. He placed his right hand in Fenrir’s mouth.
The gods bound Fenrir with Gleipnir. He struggled and thrashed, but could not break the magical binding. As Fenrir struggled to be free of the rope Gleipnir, he gnashed his teeth. He clamped down on Tyr’s hand and severed it at the wrist.
The gods then tied Fenrir to a boulder with a sword propping open his enormous mouth. There he will remain until Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse.
It was a great sacrifice for Tyr. As a war god, giving his right hand, his sword hand, was the ultimate sacrifice. That Tyr knew it when he placed his hand in Fenrir’s mouth gives me great respect for Tyr. He understood what it meant for the world to have Fenrir bound, and he did what he needed to do to make it happen.
Tyr is now known, and is depicted as, the one-handed god.
One last thing: how do we get the word Tuesday from Tyr’s Day? In Old English, Tyr was called Tiw, making the day Tiw’s Day. In the Old English it would have been spelled Tiwesdaeg. And that’s how the word Tuesday came to be.