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Re-examining the role of Týr in Ragnarök

Is it possible that a misinterpreted word could change the whole outlook of Ragnarök? The word týr as we know has a dual meaning, it is used as the literal meaning for “god” but it also serves as the Old Norse name for Tiwaz known in the Eddic sources as Týr. This becomes even more clear with the use of the plural tívar which means gods. Due to this dualistic meaning it is hard to determine when the literal meaning is implied instead of the name for Tiwaz. In many ways this is the same issue faced with Ullr as his name is frequently used in kennings to illustrate the concept of God / Gods. As such this has opened up a potential scribe error that has been echoed since Snorri’s time.

Lets examine the passages:

Þá er ok lauss orðinn hundrinn Garmr, er bundinn er fyrir Gnipahelli. Hann er it mesta forað. Hann á víg móti Tý, ok verðr hvárr öðrum at bana.

Then shall the dog Garmr be loosed, which is bound before Gnipa’s Cave: he is the greatest monster; he shall do battle with Týr, and each become the other’s slayer.

Gylfaginning 51, Prose Edda – Thorpe translation

In Thorpe’s translation many of the scribes since Snorri, this passage has been scribed as Týr doing battle with Garmr, however the battle does not make sense; in many ways this battle seems to be more Óðinnistic in nature and appears to be an overshadowing. It is well established that Óðinn and Fenrir fight in which Fenrir swallows Óðinn who is immediately avenged by Viðarr, who kills Fenrir by tearing the wolf into two halves.

There is also the fact that both Garmr and Fenrir are bound and have a relationship to Hel; on this alone it would seem more likely that Garmr is in fact Fenrir; as it is implied in the Völuspá.

Geyr nú Garmr mjök fyr Gnipahelli,
festr mun slitna en freki renna;
fjölð veit ek fræða fram sé ek lengra
um ragna rök römm sigtíva.

Now Garmr howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight.

Völuspá 58, Poetic Edda – Bellows translation

The similarities between Garmr and Fenrir can not be ignored when it is looked at closely. As we know from the Prose Edda that Fenrir was bound after having run loose causing chaos and destruction; this is further supported in Nordic folklore and warnings about the great wolf. The lore does not give an account to why Garmr is fettered, it is simply stated as such as Óðinn passes him at the entrance to the Gnipa-Cave where the seeress who knows Baldr’s killer lies. In addition to the binding of both Garmr and Fenrir the lore says both howl and bay out as if they are in pain; in the case of Fenrir we know this cause of pain is a sword that is placed in his mouth. For Garmr there is no lore that explains why he howls out.

With this connections between Garmr and Fenrir it is possible that both are the same; in that Garmr is a shadow of Fenrir and the product of poetic creativity.

As such getting back to the confusion between týr and Týr; if one approaches the battle of Ragnarök now with Garmr and Fenrir being one in the same; it removes Týr from the final battle. Which would be more fitting as by this time of the late Viking Age Týr played such a minor role in the Nordic countries where he was barely known as Týr. The mere fact that the Nordic people referred to him as “God” suggests his ancient stature; in fact he is so old that his name had been forgotten where as in the regions further south in Germania the proto-Germanic Tiwaz becomes Zîu in Old High German and in Anglo-Saxon England Tíw or Tí(g) (í and ig both mean long i) his name is remembered and therefore shows the separation of the being from the role.

It is well established that Óðinn was increasing his role as the Christian influence over Heathen beliefs in the north took more root and moved the society towards a monotheistic view point. With the expansion in role at the time the lore was recorded by Snorri some 200+ years after Heathenism in Iceland the confusion between “god” and Tiwaz would have well been cemented in the minds of those recounting the stories of their ancestors.

So what does it mean now?

If the lore passages are re-evaluated to:

** Then shall the wolf Fenrir be loosed, which is bound before Gnipa’s Cave: he is the greatest monster; he shall do battle with god, and each become the other’s slayer. ** — indirectly Óðinn is the slayer of Fenrir as proven by Viðarr the son of Óðinn.

** Now Fenrir howls loud | before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst, | and the wolf run free;
Much do I know, | and more can see
Of the fate of the gods, | the mighty in fight. ** — this passage makes a lot more sense when referring to Fenrir and not Garmr.

Notice the only changes I made in the above passages was changing the dog Garmr to the wolf Fenrir and Týr to God. I bolded the wolf passage in the Völsupá to show the key to the whole reworking of the lore. I think this is an important correction that is long over due both in ancient and modern thinking. With this correction it shows that Tiwaz was indeed not involved in the battle or at the very least will not be killed in Ragnarök.


Posted in Forn Seðr.

2 Responses

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  1. Marion says

    Yes, well pointed out. Some have wondered about Garmr as an echo of Fenrir, and you make a good case for its being so and for the implications.

    The linguistic history can be confusing, but in this case is pretty clear: Tiwaz was the “proto-Germanic” or Common Germanic form of the god’s name, and the Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Old High German forms are all descended from it, reflecting the divergences between the languages. Nobody forgot the god’s name in this case (as opposed to Freyr and Freyja, where their names were evidently concealed or simply fell into disuse.) We don’t have enough evidence from the languages other than Old Norse to be sure, but it looks as if only in Old Norse, his name also came to be used to simply mean “a god” – and that usage is very clear in the fact they use the plural, “tívar,” for “gods.” That and the frequency with which his name and Ullr’s are used in kennings suggest how old they both are. And how dear. I do not think tehre is any implication of forgetting him, rather the reverse. The Völuspá poet writes very allusively and unclearly, and was a major source for Snorri, who has demonstrably misinterpreted and simplified the poem in places. So I think the misunderstanding here is Snorri’s, probably encouraged by Classical models of a dog in the underworld who is a guard dog, although it’s possible it was already the Völuspá poet’s view. (The “cave,” “hellir,” in Gnipahellir is an old view of the nature of the underworld that it is possible the poet had from a poorly understood source. It’s also possible the poet was deliberately combining contrasting pictures – as with the two views of the world sinking under the waves and being blasted by fire.)

    Since Old Norse poetry does use kennings, it’s possible to read it either way around – as testament to how important Týr was or as evidence of how his importance had faded. I think both are probably true, depending whether we’re talking about a king and his sycophantic followers or a person who realized hierarchies like that were not progress 🙂


  2. Noil says

    Well maybe not forgotten, that was perhaps not the right word. The concept of cave association to death I think is one of the founding principles to many civilizations as the cave is the natural transition to the use of burial mounds. In Germanic terms the burial mounds take a unique role within our culture, and still plays a vital and important role today.

    It is possible that both the Völuspá author and Snorri were both classical trained, we know as fact Snorri definitely wanted to appear Classically trained, as such the parallels to the Greek stories of Cerberus may have influenced both authors however as I stated it would seem that both Garmr and Fenrir share a whole lot in common. That is not to say that Garmr does not exist, the real question is does the hound actually rival Fenrir or are these elements of lost stories which involved another wolf or hound.

    And for clarification I am not suggested any sort of monotheism; I am simply pointing out that I believe there is a misinterpretation resulting in the death of one of our Gods that may not have happen.

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