Despite His centrality to our mythology, the Indo-European Sky Father is probably one of the most misunderstood Gods of our pantheon(s). You will semi-regularly hear people make all manner of outlandish claims about Him. The most common of which tend to be either that the Sky Father ‘withered away’ and was superceded by another God or Gods; or, going the other way, that some God of different mythic and etymological derivation than He is the ‘true’, ‘authentic’ Sky Father. Occasionally, you even see some bizarre attempts at conflationism or simple misidentification – proclaiming Thor to be the Sky Father, for instance, as a recent book did.
He Deserves Better. And so, we’re going to be taking a look at some of these mythconceptions about the Sky Father – with a view to explaining what’s actually going on, and hopefully setting them to rest. So that we may more properly understand Him – and the rest of the Indo-European religion accordingly.
So, with that in mind, here’s a brief look at two parallel chains of linguistic derivation – the Indo-European terms for the Sky Father (the ‘Sky’ that is the Heavens, ‘Bright Sky’), and for ‘God’ (as in ‘Shining One’ – there are an array of other ways to speak of the concept of Gods, which we’ll take a look at in ‘dieu’ time). These DO have a common ultimate etymological root – Proto-Indo-European ‘Dyew’ [‘Bright/Shining Sky/Heaven’ – ‘The Radiant Daylit Sky’]; however the relevant derivations – PIE ‘Dyews’ (the Sky God and His Sphere) and PIE ‘Deywos’ (‘God’ in a more general sense – ‘Shining One’) distinguished themselves early on. A distinction maintained across subsequent Indo-European languages and religion.
Which makes sense, after all – there may be many Gods (‘Deva’, ‘Deus’ / ‘Dei’, ‘Tyr’ / ‘Tivar’), but there is only one Sky Father. [Subject, of course, to the fact that the Sky Father has a bit of a habit of appearing as many Aspects, Forms, Faces in any given Indo-European pantheon – hence part of the occasional opacity around His Persistency.]
But why is this relevant for our purpose of clearing up ‘mythconceptions’ as to the Sky Father deific? Well, one of the major ones which we seem to keep running into from time to time .. is a peculiarly persistent postulation that Tyr is somehow the ‘original’ Sky Father of the Nordic/Germanic mythology – with Odin a comparatively late interloper that has allegedly displaced and supplanted Him. We’ll take a look at how the comparative Indo-European mythology further disproves this position in a future article; but for now, we’ll just focus on the linguistic side of things. Not least because it is the confusion around the linguistics that appears to have ‘opened the door’ to the whole thing in the first place.
People have erroneously presumed that ‘Tyr’ is phonetically, functionally, linguistically and mythically coterminate with ‘Zeus’ or ‘Dyaus’. As we can see from the chart – that is not the case. Instead of referring to the ‘Sky (Father)’, it simply means ‘God’. As in, ‘God’ in a general sense – ‘one of the Gods’, or ‘the God of -‘ when utilized as a suffix. In this it is basically the same as Sanskrit ‘Deva’,and to a slightly lesser extent, the Latin ‘Deus’ (I say ‘slightly lesser extent’, largely because Latin doesn’t tend to make use of ‘Deus’ as an appended part of a theonym as frequently as occurs with ‘-deva’ or ‘-tyr’ in Sanskrit and Old Norse respectively; whilst Roman religion also preferred utilizing direct theonyms rather than more generalized ‘to (the) God’ in invocations).
Which is exactly what we should expect given its derivation from PIE ‘Deywos’ … and which further shows that it has little to do with PIE ‘Dyews’.
Examples of ‘Tyr’ in broader use than to refer to the specific god Tyr, include the frequent utilization of ‘-tyr’ in Odinic theonymry [e.g. ‘Sigtyr’ – God of Victory; ‘Hangatyr’ – God of the Hanged or ‘Valtyr’, God of the Slain;,and, of course, Geirtyr, the Spear-God. Amidst many, many more], its turning up in terms and kennings for Thor [e.g. ‘Reidhartyr’, the Chariot-God; or the complex kenning in Thorsdrapa built around ‘Tivi’], and its plural formulation – ‘Tivar’ – to refer to ‘The Gods’.
This mirrors how we use ‘Deva’ in Sanskrit – as seen, for example, in terms like ‘Mahadeva’ [‘Great God’], ‘Vayudeva’ [‘Wind God’], ‘Agnideva’ [‘(Living) Fire God’]; the use of ‘Deva’ in the singular to mean ‘the God’ (and occasionally Lord Indra in particular); as well as as a designation, particularly in the plural, for the class of beings ‘The Gods’.
Now, on the linguistic side of things, I’ve deliberately kept matters overly simple. So the chart below does not include a few intermediate forms between words (e.g. Old Latin – ‘Deivos’ – preceding ‘Deus’ and deriving from Proto-Italic ‘Deiwos’); and I have also slightly aggregated some definitional fields (e.g. Proto-Helennic ‘Dzeus’ doesn’t tend to have the generalized ‘Heaven’ sense that is retained in Proto-Italic ‘Djous’ or Proto-Indo-Aryan ‘Dyaws’) or omitted some entirely (such as the interesting broadening out of Sanskrit ‘Deva’ to the point wherein it can now also be utilized for a mortal lord of seriously great quality upon occasion, for example, in a manner perhaps not dissimilar to some of the PIE ‘Diwyos’ (‘Heavenly’) derivatives … and which also has some resonancy with the other Nordic uses of ‘Tyr’ to refer to a man bearing the exemplary qualities associated with the Deity Himself; as well as the intricacies of Sanskrit ‘Dyu’ that more strongly emphasize the ‘radiant’ qualities of the Heavens). For reasons of both space and clarity, I have also chosen to focus on only a pretty limited spread of languages and cognate terms.
In summation, ‘Tyr’ is not an equivalent term to ‘Dyaus’, ‘Zeus’, ‘Ju(piter)’, etc. It is used differently, and a lot more broadly in potential scope – precisely because it is differently derived from the specific terms for the ‘Sky (Father’). The fact that its more proximate Proto-Indo-European root – ‘Deywos’ – bears some resemblance (and a shared ultimate point of origin) to PIE ‘Dyews’ does not render these terms equivalent. In fact, the opposite is true; as they differentiated in PIE precisely because they were intended to refer to different (but somewhat related) concepts. Meanwhile, the actual usage-pattern for ‘Tyr’ and ‘-tyr’ in Germanic/Nordic mythology matches up closely with ‘Deva’ and ‘Deus’, all of which are identically derived from Proto-Indo-European ‘Deywos’ (‘God’).
The idea that ‘Tyr’ or ‘Tiwaz’ could somehow mean ‘Sky (Father)’ would be a rather radical departure from the clearly prominent pattern attested not only in these other Indo-European languages and religions – but would also fly flat in the face of how ‘Tyr’ is used with great prominence and frequency elsewhere in Nordic/Germanic mythology and languages.
Despite the occasional assertions to the contrary, the linguistics do not support Tyr as ‘Sky Father’ – ‘original’, or otherwise.
In the next installment of the series, I’ll be taking a brief look at how the relevant comparative Indo-European mythology further demonstrates that Odin has not somehow ‘displaced’ Tyr to ‘become’ the Sky Father.