Norse Mythology

by Jodie Forrest
Copyright 2000. This article first appeared in The Mountain Astrologer magazine. Reprinted with permission.

Mars god of warWouldn't it be grand to be able to use our Mars function as easily as we can learn to understand it? At first glance, Mars, the warrior planet, seems to rule some pretty basic, organic and instinctual material. Fight or flight. Assertion and aggression. Boundaries and self-defense. Courage. Initiative. Drive. The ability to act. Knowing what we want, and doing what we have to do to get it.

My seventh grade biology class was just about to start on a glorious spring afternoon in Virginia. Dogwoods and lilacs in flower, magic purple and white carpets of violets strewn underfoot, tree frogs and cicadas and whippoorwills singing mightily away, all manner of sap running high. The day's topic: hormones. Although our own and those of Mother Nature were in full bloom, we didn't know enough about them yet even to smirk at the prospect of discussing them for an hour.

The bell rang. We'd scarcely taken our seats when our favorite teacher, his eyes glittering with intent, burst into the room and, without saying a word, banged his fist down on an unsuspecting student's desk so hard that his spiral notebook jumped half a foot into the air. So did every kid in the class.

"Adrenalin!" said our teacher. (If we'd been in ninth century Norway, he might have said "Tyr...") He grabbed the notebook as it descended—along with the transfixed attention of its owner and twenty-five other twelve-year-olds. "Startled you, huh? Your adrenalin's pumping? Good. That's the 'flight' reaction." He dashed to the blackboard.

"Hey!" said his victim. "Gimme my notebook back!"

"'Flight or fight,'" said our teacher, grinning. "Good for you." He tossed the notebook to its owner.

Wouldn't it be grand to be able to use our Mars function as easily as we can learn to understand it? At first glance, Mars, the warrior planet, seems to rule some pretty basic, organic and instinctual material. Fight or flight. Assertion and aggression. Boundaries and self-defense. Courage. Initiative. Drive. The ability to act. Knowing what we want, and doing what we have to do to get it.

This article grew in part from my interest in astrology and gender issues, particularly in how women respond to astrological Mars. The last thing I want to write is a sexist article, regardless of the target of the sexism. The remainder of this article focuses more on women and Mars than on men and Mars, not because men's issues around Mars are any less important. Rather because it seems to me, both as an astrologer with seventeen years of experience with clients, and as a human being, that women as a group have more difficulty than men in accessing Mars at all, whether they use it well or poorly.

Of course there are individual women who are exceptions to this observation. Beyond a doubt, men can have trouble integrating their Mars function too, perhaps with more tendencies than women to access Mars in less than optimal ways (violence, "toughing it out" rather than seeking help, etc.). Again, there are individual exceptions to that generalization, too.

How many people find it difficult to express the planet Mars in a positive, confident and healthy way, whether natally, by transit or by progression? Consider what can arise when Mars functions are suppressed: passive aggression, manipulation, depression, poor boundaries, learned helplessness, low libido, psychosomatic illnesses, underachieving, increased likelihood to be victimized or underpaid, a general inability to take care of oneself and allow oneself to thrive, etc. Which gender is more prone to those conditions? Women, probably.

On the other hand, when one party in a dyadic system underfunctions, the other party tends to overfunction. In other words, if you're terribly timid and passive—your Mars is underfunctioning—then your partner's Mars might overfunction, and he or she may become extremely aggressive and overbearing. If women aren't using their Mars enough, are men perhaps using theirs too much? Which gender is more likely to die younger, often of diseases that are induced or aggravated by stress? Which gender is less likely to seek help, no matter how pressing the illness or problem? Which gender is more likely to experience social or emotional isolation? Men, probably.

Whether it's by "nature or nurture," biology or social conditioning, the Mars function has been so discouraged in women that for some of them—and certainly for some men—Mars may operate rather in isolation from the rest of the chart, almost like an unaspected planet. Probably no one can say with any authority whether nature or nurture is the primary reason for a depleted Mars function. Certainly no blame should be assigned to either gender. I'm not sufficiently educated in the right ways to be able to theorize about all the complex and controversial factors involved in each gender's expression of Mars. But I'm sure that for the good of the entire species and for the good of the Earth itself, women need to integrate their Mars function just as much as men need to integrate their Venus function.

The psychologist Carl Jung believed that the archetypes of your own ethnic or cultural background lurked closer to the surface of your waking psyche than the archetypes of another background. Most mythology with which modern Western astrologers have worked has been Greek and Roman, yet other mythologies from other cultures can shed some interesting and valuable light on the planetary archetypes. Rather than or in addition to any Mediterranean blood, many of us in the Western astrological world, practitioners, students and clients alike, have some northern or western European blood. For people of such extraction, Norse, Germanic or Celtic mythology can provide some fascinating insights into Mars. (For astrologers, students and clients of, for example, Japanese or African extraction, we might urge a close study of Japanese or African mythology for additional insights into the planetary archetypes in their psyches, but our topic for this article is Norse mythology.) Norse warrior god energy seems divided among Odin, Thor and Tyr, but for this article we'll concentrate on Tyr.

Norse God TyrLet's examine Tyr's mythology. Tacitus and other Roman writers equated him with Mars, and Tyr gave his name to the day Tuesday in the English-speaking world. (Tuesday is mardi in French and martes in Spanish; can you hear Mars's name in those words?) Tyr's Germanic name is Teiwaz. Freya Aswynn points out¹ that the suffix -az means god, while Tei, or Ziu, derives from djevs, which is linguistically related to "Zeus," and means "sky" or "light." A sky god, Tyr or Teiwaz was the Germanic war god, possibly a forerunner of Odin, the chief Norse god, who replaced him as the Allfather or Skyfather. (It should be noted here that while the possibility of Tyr as a forerunner of Odin is supported by some current thought, it is not found in the Eddas themselves, the Norse myths as recorded by the thirteenth-century poet Snorri Sturluson and other Icelanders.)

Contrast Tyr's lineage with the Greco-Roman Mars, who was the child of Zeus's wife, Hera, and never held a position as the Skyfather or Allfather. Tyr has other connections to the sky: one of the Vikings' names for the North Star in their day was "Tir," according to Nigel Pennick². The star Tir was thought to be at the top of the world axis, which "keeps the cosmic forces in polarized order," according to Ralph Metzner³. Norse dragonships and merchanters steered by the stars at night, so the god Tyr was very likely associated with the ability to guide, and with the qualities immortalized in Shakespeare's phrase, "fixed and constant as the Northern star"—not necessarily a trait of Graeco-Roman Mars, who was more volatile.

Norse mythology tells us that Tyr was very wise, so much so that an extremely knowledgeable man was called 'Tyr-wise.' Ares/Mars has no reputation for wisdom. A war god with power over victory in battle, Tyr was the boldest and most courageous of the Norse pantheon, so much so that a brave man who surpassed others and did not waver was called 'Tyr-valiant.'" Warriors invoked Tyr and carved his name onto their swords. His Rune, Teiwaz, resembles a sword or an arrow. Tyr is also a god of law and order, unlike the classical Mars. Tyr was the dispenser of justice—perhaps by battle if all else failed? According to Metzner (4), Tyr was associated with the Things--tribal councils where Germanic warriors debated decisions, and voted their assent by waving their spears and clanging their swords on their shields. The most famous is the Althing of Iceland. Tyr is connected to oaths, and the means by which we maintain justice and uphold the social contract. It was said that he always spoke the truth.

Yet Tyr's best known myth involves what amounts to some silent deceit in the binding of the great wolf Fenris. Fenris is a monstrous child of Loki the Trickster, who in turn is the son of two frost giants. Loki's foretold Fate is to help betray and topple the Norse pantheon.

Built into Norse cosmology is the conflict between the gods and the giants, trolls and other forces of chaos. It is a stoical mythology, born of a people who endured harsh winters. Sooner or later the gods will fall and the world will be destroyed at the battle of Ragnarok, after which a new heaven and a new earth will form. There will be no victors at this battle, and very few survivors. Nor is there any way to avoid this doom: all humanity and the gods themselves are subject to the three Norse Fates, the Nornir.

The gods had been warned by prophecy that Fenris would be the death of Odin. The wolf had done no harm, but he was growing so huge and strong and fierce that only Tyr dared to feed him. At last the gods decided that Fenris should be fettered. They tried twice, as if to test Fenris's strength merely in sport, but the wolf shattered both chains. Then Odin hired the dwarves to make a magical rope that Fenris couldn't break. Fenris was suspicious, but the gods promised that once they saw whether the rope could indeed bind him, they would set him free. Still wary, the wolf asked that one of them put a hand between his jaws as a token of good faith. No one spoke or moved, until Tyr slowly put his right hand in Fenris's mouth. The dwarves' rope held, but Tyr lost his right hand at the wrist—the wrist was called the "wolf joint" in Old Norse.

Here is a protective and self-sacrificial side of the Mars function. Tyr, the god of oaths and justice, had broken faith, though not in words. The gods, including the altruistic Tyr himself, had sacrificed the sword hand of their great protector and defender to contain their greatest foe, who nonetheless would break free at Ragnarok and destroy Odin. Tyr and Garm, the hound of Hel, goddess of the underworld, will slay one another at that final battle.

What does the Fenris wolf represent? In this myth, the overwhelming and possibly violent and dangerous forces of chaos, entropy and the natural world which, again, does not treat gently with human life in the far North. Such forces threaten both the cosmic and the social order, both divine and human law. Archetypally, the monstrous wolf and other such creatures represent the ravening beasts in the human psyche, forces that threaten us with crime, oppression, social disruption—and whose sheer selfishness and rapacity have led to global warming and its attendant dangers.

It is interesting that the classical Mars is also connected to wolves: he fathered the twins Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf and founded the city of Rome. In alchemy, Mars is often shown as a wolf. The wolf represents the atavistic and primitive instinctual impulses that on the one hand are necessary for us to thrive, that nurture our body-life, but that on the other hand must be restrained, contained and alchemized for human civilization to be at its best. Hands are what we use to reach and grasp what we want—a function of astrological Mars. Hands hold swords and shields, and so does the planetary archetype of Mars: it goes after what we want and it protects us.

Here is a paradox, or a mystery if you prefer: primordial, instinctual and raging Mars, the ravening selfish beast in the psyche, must be controlled in order for us to live together in relative harmony. Controlled, not suppressed or repressed or eradicated! Despite the wishes of people who tend to blame what they interpret as male energy run amok for all the ills of the world, we can't get rid of the Mars archetype any more than we can collectively make our adrenal glands disappear. There is absolutely nothing shameful in Mars energy in and of itself, and blaming anyone, male or female, for an abundance of it is like blaming someone for the color of his or her eyes. It is how this energy is expressedthat may or may not be blameworthy.

Mars energy should be guided and controlled, not repressed, shamed or denied, because consciously directed and integrated Mars/Tyr must be used to help us live our lives to the fullest, to set goals and attain them, and to protect ourselves and others. In other words, if you repress the beast, if you attempt to deny or suppress that instinctual Mars energy, then you lose your sword arm. But if you don't control the beast—if you don't understand and relate to that Mars/Tyr energy in a healthy way—it can cause untold damage either from your own untrammeled aggression, or from that of someone else against whom you can't or won't defend yourself.

In this sense perhaps Mars, as much as Mercury, is both "the subject and the object of the work," as the alchemists said of Mercury. Perhaps the alchemy of consciousness transforms the bestial components of Mars to the realistic and protective qualities of Tyr.

Tyr is a warrior god who doesn't win all the time. Tyr is not an adolescent's fantasy of the hero. At its best, the Tyr archetype is a rational, clear-eyed adult, a warrior god with specific goals, who understands about calculated losses, the inevitability of failure, death, and the compromises and sacrifices made to uphold social contracts, law and order. At its highest level of functioning, Tyr sacrifices in order to protect and foster life, not merely to suffer. In astrological terms, we can interpret that part of Tyr's lore as Mars/Tyr's protection and defense of the Sun, the ego/identity function. Sometimes, since life is often difficult, this protection and defense can include calculated loss and sacrifice, but such concessions should not be so great that they give away the Sun's power.

Of course the Tyr archetype has a lower level of functioning, too. The less conscious and individuated any planetary function is, the more it can tend to behave according to archetypal patterns and scripts, like a computer program set to run through all its routines automatically unless the user consciously and purposefully intervenes.

The god Tyr may be a very powerful, albeit hidden, force in the Western psyche especially, perhaps, that of many Western women, who seem to have more than their share of trouble accessing the healthy functioning of the red planet. Have women sacrificed to uphold the social order in the face of real or perceived threats? Have women "unarmed" themselves, "given up their sword hand" and its ability both to defend themselves and to grasp what they want in the world? How many women suffer through a relationship with a tyrannical mate "for the sake of the kids", or spend too much time rescuing others at great cost to themselves? (Certainly these things are true of many men, too!) Consider how many women put their careers on hold or relinquish them entirely in order to bear and rear children. Consider, too, what would happen to society and the human future if all women refused to do so...

Part of women's—and men's—reclaiming the full use of their Mars/Tyr function may involve waking up to how they may have allowed their hands to be cut off, so to speak, and for what reasons. Some of these reasons may have been good and preserving of human society as a whole, yet the archetypal Tyr pattern of personal sacrifice and containment of the instincts in order to uphold the greater good can interact with both individual fears and social conditioning, with tragic results for both genders. Suppressing this Mars/Tyr archetype—beyond the degree necessary for us to live at peace with one another—will both cripple and depress the suppressor, and rob her or him of the ability to use this archetype constructively, either for one's own good or for that of society. Whether you're male or female, if you're depressed, overworked, underpaid, browbeaten by your mate and have made a conscious or unconscious decision to suffer in silence, how much energy will you have left at the end of the day to protest your local nuclear plant's faulty safety precautions, or to write your Senator about clean air legislation?

Resolving to do something about nuclear safety or clean air may seem more Uranian or Plutonian than Martial. Yet Mars is the energy we need to act upon and follow through with our resolutions. We can see an injustice or a danger and complain about it all day, but without a healthy Mars, we're highly unlikely to do anything about the situation. We can suffer in an abusive marriage and have total Plutonian insight about how we wound up there, full lunar awareness of how awful we feel, and total Solar conviction that we deserve better—but without a healthy Mars, we never walk out that door and slam it behind us.

A reawakening archetype can sometimes grab the steering wheel of the psyche just as fiercely as the archetype was previously suppressed. A re-emerging Mars can be both very angry, and unbelievably awkward about how to use all that adrenalin. Imagine a right-handed and suddenly enraged fencer trying to thrust and parry with her clumsy left hand... Women and men would be wise—and Tyr was said to be very wise—to reclaim their Mars without falling into the less than healthy manifestations of that planet.

How can we build the Mars function? How can we not only recover our sword hand, but use it well? I'd like to offer a few rudimentary and preliminary suggestions in answer to those questions. For some of the following points, I was inspired in part by the book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette (5). San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, pp. 75-95).

What Classical Mars Never Told You:

1. Have clear and specific goals. Knowing exactly what you want helps you decide what strategies and tactics will help you obtain it, and also helps you eliminate unnecessary effort. Decisions about your strategies and tactics should be based on whether they help you attain those goals. For example, if you're eighteen years old and have no earthly idea what you want to do for a living, you'd be wise not to go to college just yet (no matter what your parents say!). While you're figuring out what you want to do, work at the most interesting job you can find, because work that interests you is more likely to clarify career goals than work that doesn't. Not only that, you can earn some money to use when you do enroll in school. If you want your mate to quit running late all the time, when discussing this issue, focus only on that behavior and why and how you want it changed. Don't say, "You don't respect me or my schedule at all!", which is not specific and doesn't say what you want changed. Don't bring in the way your mate betrayed you three years ago if it's irrelevant to the problem of tardiness. If you want a career writing non-fiction feature articles, then write them and nothing else. Don't get distracted by writing short stories, unless it's the weekend and you're writing that short story just for fun.

2. Strive to be realistic. Still don't know what you want to do for a living? If you're twenty-eight years old, not eighteen as in Suggestion One above, then it might be wise to enroll in college and take general courses, even if you have to attend them at night. Why? Because once you do decide on a career path, you'll be finished with school at a more hireable age. If you want your mate to be punctual, recognize that three minutes or so off the mark is not worth picking a fight—because you could win a battle and lose the war by discrediting yourself for pettiness. If you want to be a Thoroughbred racing jockey but you're six and a half feet tall and weigh 250 pounds, accept that you just don't have the build of a jockey and there's nothing you can do about that. (You might investigate becoming a trainer instead...)

3. Act, don't just sit there. If you've followed suggestions one and two above, then get moving. Take steps! Ask questions! Apply to that school. Have that talk with your mate. Sit down at that word processor. Talk to all the racehorse trainers you can find. Suppose you make a mistake? Suppose you make several? No problem: interpret your mistakes as information that will help you refine your goals and become still more realistic.

4. Warriors use self discipline. Warriors use both swords and shields, and self discipline can be both. It might mean learning to say "no" to others and to yourself, or studying the night before a test rather than going to to a movie. Self discipline might mean not losing your temper at your tardy mate when blowing up won't help you achieve your long term goal of his or her punctuality, even though it might feel good to yell and scream in the short term. If you made a deal with yourself to write three pages today, write them.

5. Warriors get the right training and acquire the right tools. If editors are telling you that you need some writing classes, take them; that's the right training. If you need a word processor to do so, buy one; that's the right tool. If you need an answering machine to protect your writing time, make sure you have one: in this case, that's your shield.

6. Think through your loyalties to persons or causes greater than yourself. Learn to balance them carefully and consciously with your human loyalties. Want that nuclear power plant stopped? That's a transpersonal goal. Want to humiliate its manager because he or she is sleeping with your mate? That additional personal factor muddies the water, and you'll have to think very carefully about what and whom you want to stop, and why. The high Mars/Tyr energy fights, takes risks and makes sacrifices in order for something better to happen, not just for revenge or destruction for their own sakes.

7. Think deeply about what you might want to sacrifice, and why, in order to obtain your goals. What sacrifices are worth making? Going back to school will eat into your free time and money. Are those worthwhile sacrifices? Possibly or possibly not, once you review your goals realistically. What if staying in this marriage would mean sacrificing your self-respect? Usually that is too great a sacrifice, even if children are involved because, apart from the damage you're doing to yourself, you would be modeling to those children that it's right to stay in situations that rob them of their self-respect. That last example is a blunt reality: the specialty of Mars/Tyr.

In summary, the mythology of the Norse god Tyr can be illuminating for modern Westerners' possible difficulties in integrating their astrological Mars. Whether you're a man or a woman, wherever Mars lies in your birthchart, and wherever it's active by transit, progression or arc, you are called upon consciously to contain, not repress, the blindly aggressive and instinctual side of Mars. You are also called upon to use those Martial energies as the Norse god Tyr would: for one's own goals and well-being and for those of others—while making sure that any sacrifice involved is not so great that it compromises either your ability to defend yourself or your integrity.

References and Notes:

¹ Freya Aswynn, Leaves of Yggdrasil, St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990, p. 212.

² Nigel Pennick, Runic Astrology, Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1990, p. 18.

³ Ralph Metzner, The Well of Remembrance, Boston, MA: Shambala, 1994, pp. 124-125.

4 Metzner, The Well of Remembrance, pp. 124-125.

5 Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, San Francisco CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, pp. 75-95.

The Northern PathLearn more about ancient Nordic cosmology in the article "Ancient Nordic Spirituality" by Norse storyteller and scholar Dag Rossman. Also see his book The Northern Path: Norse Myths and Legends Retold...And What They Reveal , and his The Nine Worlds: A Dictionary of Norse Mythology , illustrated by Sharon Rossman, and Theft of the Sun, and Other New Norse Myths. The Rossmans' book Valhalla in America: Norse Myths in Wood at Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin is another great resource.


Check out these other resources on our site:

Jodie Forrest's Nordic-Celtic historical fantasy trilogy --The Rhymer and the Ravens: The Book of Fate; The Elves' Prophecy: The Book of Being (out of print); and The Bridge: The Book of Necessity. The novels unfold in Nordic-Celtic ninth century Europe during the Viking Age, and in the mythic realms that parallel it: Elfland and Asgard. For more information about the philosophical framework of the world of these novels, see Dag Rossman's article, Ancient Nordic Spirituality, and our site's page about The Norse Runes.

Also see Jodie's articles on Odin As Mercury, and Astrological Mars and the Norse God Tyr; and download Jodie's recorded lectures Freya As Venus and Odin As Mercury.

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