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Warrior Archetypes V: Tyr - The Yoke Of Honor

The Warrior is always an ambivalent creature. His boundless energy can erupt onto the wrong people; his protective nature can be set to protecting only his own interests; he can wreak more destruction than good. At his worst, he can eat the world. This is what happened to Fenris, the great wolf who creates the defining moment of the story of Tyr.

Tyr is one of the Norse warrior gods. Unlike Thor, who is hail-fellow-well-met and enjoys a good horn of mead and a long story, Tyr is stern and unyielding. Also unlike Thor, who was beloved by farmers and the lower ranks of the warriors, Tyr is an aristocrats’ god. As a deity of the upper classes, the officers, he understands what it is to have responsibility for the fates of many others, and this seems to weigh on him heavily. He is a strategist, the one who moves the pieces around on the chessboard rather than the man on the front lines with the sword. His nature is characterized by dour reticence, yet no one doubts his bravery.

Fenris was one of the sons of Loki, the trickster god who was first welcomed and then betrayed by Odin the Aesir. Odin has Fenris’s mother, Angrboda, killed out of fear of the powerful children she was bearing, of whom Fenris the Great Wolf is one. Loki strikes back in covert trickster ways, but not so Fenris. He rises up in wrath and starts tearing a strip of destruction across the countryside, eating everything and everyone in his path. He is so strong in his wrath that no one can stop him - the epitome of the Mars-force gone wrong, an angry force of rage and vengeance and holy fury.

This is the dark, unevolved side of the Tyr/Fenris warrior archetype (the two are really each other’s dark side in many ways), who often feels so out of control and powerless that he will often attack first instead of waiting to defend himself. “Get the bastards before they get you” may be his motto. He trusts no one easily and possibly no one at all. He may assume that everyone is out to get him, and thus his overreactive jump-and-strike approach to any perceived threat. The Fenris side of this archetype is no strategist, as he cannot see far enough beyond himself and his anger to think ahead. His only recourse is blind lashing out in the dark, and he rarely understands what kind of pain he causes.

The Great Wolf lives within every warrior. Sometimes he may overcompensate, becoming passive and overly timid, but this is just his desperate way to restrain the Wolf that he fears. He gives up all power, because he has given all his power to the Wolf and left none for himself. Inevitably, the chains fail and the Wolf leaps out. Fenris was so strong that no chain could hold him, so the Aesir forged a special chain made of six impossible things - the roots of a mountain, the beard of a woman, the sensitivity of a bear, the spittle of a bird, the footfall of a cat, and the breath of a fish.

Besides being merely a cunning list of absurdities, these items all have subtle meanings. Fishes’ breath is water, the quality of soft yielding emotion that Fenris has lost touch with. The footfall of a cat can be heard, if you listen closely in silence; it is the quality of stillness and paying attention to what most overlook. Birds don’t drool, but they do drink; the “spittle of a bird” suggests that which replenishes a throat thirsty for song and music. The sensitivity, or “nerves” in the original, of a bear recalls the berserkers, men who went into battle wearing the skins of bears, in such a terrible rage that they could feel no pain. This reflects the experiences of Fenris, and suggests that the “bear” needs to feel his pain and therefore that of others, developing empathy. The beard of a woman connotes androgyny, the balancing of male and female natures. The roots of a mountain alludes to the deep parts of the earth, the dark places underneath everything else where sullen things rot and fester, driving the enraged Wolf out into the open air - dark places that need to be exposed to light. Taken metaphorically, the elements of the magical “chain” become a recipe for stopping the Wolf with a series of little, inconsequential, gentle things.

However, the chain still has to get onto the Wolf. Fenris was justly suspicious of the gods who surrounded him and asked, as if in fun, as to whether he could break this chain that they had made. He smelled a trick and demanded that one of the gods place their hand in his mouth while the chain was fastened around him, just in case. It is here that Tyr steps up and offers to do the deed. Surely he must have known that the worst would happen, that he would lose his hand, but it is worth it to him to stop Fenris’s destruction. This is the kind of courage that the Tyr warrior needs to tap into, and it is borne from that evolved quality referred to as honor.

Honor is a word that has been used to mean many ambivalent things, such as ego or pride, but in its purest sense it means that you walk your talk, that there is no contradiction between what you practice and what you preach. It means that you are not afraid to give your word, and that you keep it even when that may mean sacrifice, discomfort, and even pain. When you live with honor, your word has more weight and more power. Tyr alone had the courage to make this terrible sacrifice, and thus it was that Fenris believed him. The Great wolf was bound, and indeed he did bite off Tyr’s hand. Yet from then on men invoked Tyr when they made bargains or gave their word; his name had become a word of power that created honor out of nothing.

The final step in restraining the Wolf within is always a painful one. Tyr loses a hand, which limits his ability to do, and this warrior often has to turn to an arduous and self-limiting discipline in order to redeem himself and his anger. Sometimes limits are not a bad thing, even when they feel like chains or a handicap. Sometimes they are the boundary between unfettered destruction and everyone else’s life. Honor is a handicap. By voluntarily giving up your option to break your word and skate off when times get tough, you doom yourself to a lifetime of striving to keep that word, a lifetime of limits and chains. You also become a more powerful being, whose name is synonymous with fairness and honesty. Is it worth it? For Tyr, there is no such question. It is the only way out of hell.

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