Tyr Sticking His Hand into Celtic Myth? Germanic Myth Among the Belgae and Gauls

Written by Cunolugus Drugaisos. For more from Cunolugus, visit their site here https://cunolugus.wordpress.com/.

Much appreciation to Ṷailogenos Cato who brought to my attention the Tyr – Fenrir coin of the Suessiones through a post he made on the FB group Gaulish Polytheism Community. Trugiā!

In an article about Iron Age coins, Daphne Nash Briggs (2010) discusses the image of what she refers to as the Cosmic Wolf on Celtic coins. She mainly compares certain coins with the Germanic myth of the wolf chasing the sun and moon and devouring them, but she also briefly discusses the Tyr and Fenrir myth and its depiction on a coin found in the area of the Suessiones, a Belgic tribe. The first question that arises in our minds is which Gaulish or Belgic deity did the Suessiones attach to the Tyr – Fenrir story? Unfortunately, without the name of the deity being placed on the coin, we have no way of knowing. However, I would like to discuss the possible Gaulish and Belgic deities who could have been associated with Tyr and possibly could have assimilated the myth into their own mythology.

The coin from the Suessiones depicts a male figure sitting above a ten-spoked wheel. To the right, a wolf rests his hind legs on the wheel, and he is either preparing to or already has devoured the male figure’s left hand, which is in its mouth. To the right of the wolf, a series of small circles run close to the edge of the coin for the length of the wolf’s body. In discussing the coin, Briggs states:

“This monster [Fenrir]  had not always roamed free. The gods tried to tie him down, and one of their number, the Sky or Daylight, represented in Fig. 5 with all-seeing eyes, placed his hand in the monster’s mouth as a pledge of the god’s allegedly honorable intentions whilst they bound his feet with a powerful fetter. When he realized he had been tricked, the monster bit off the sky-god’s hand at either the wrist or the elbow. A primordial one-handed sky god is known under various names in Roman, Celtic, and Germanic mythology. Typically he presided over the most solemn of contracts, including that between soldiers and their leaders” (Briggs 2010, p. 3)

 The Belgic potin coin found in the Aisne-Paris-Seine-et-Marne area. It depicts a wolf biting the left hand of a figure thought to be an early representation of the Germanic Tyr – Fenrir myth.

Briggs states there is a primordial one-handed sky god known among the Celts but doesn’t name which god she is referring (or the Roman or Germanic one either). The Germanic god is, of course, Tyr. The etymology of Tyr’s name is simply “the god.” It comes from the Proto-Germanic *Tīwaz, which derives from the Proto-Indo-European *deywós, meaning “the shining one” and hence “god.” A derivation of the root is *dyēus, the name of the Indo-European Sky Father and seen in the Sanskrit Dyáus, Greek Zeus, and Roman Jove. Based on this, some scholars have stated that Tyr was originally a Proto-Germanic sky and war god. However, others believe the name to be a title of the god due to its meaning and that it replaced his original and unknown name.

A bracteate from the Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries CE) found in Trollhättan, Västergötland, Sweden. It may depict the Germanic god Tyr placing his hand in Fenrir’s mouth. Drawing by Gunnar Creutz.

Nevertheless, the god who had his hand bitten off by the wolf does not need to be a sky god. Briggs appears to identify him as a sky god in order to relate the incident to the myth of the wolf chasing and devouring the sun and moon. In Germanic mythology, Fenrir is not the wolf who chases the sun and moon, but it is two separate wolves instead:  Sköll and Hati, who are said to be his offspring. They will eventually devour the sun and moon at Ragnarök. Fenrir does not break his fetters until Ragnarök, when he will fight and devour Oðinn.

Since Briggs is conflating the three separate Germanic wolves into one wolf, we are not necessarily searching for a Gaulish or Belgic sky god. A god of contracts, as Briggs mentions, is more than likely the deity we are trying to identify, or perhaps even a deity who exhibits qualities associated with Tyr, such as “very daring and stout-hearted […] sways victory in war, wherefore warriors should call on him” (Gylfaginning Chapter 25).. This deity would be one syncretized to Mars and may or may not have solar or sky connections. The coin does have the image of a wheel below the god, which I will discuss below. But first, we need to identify possible deities.

Understanding the Suessiones and other Belgic tribes will help in the search for a possible deity who could be associated with Tyr. Caesar stated that the Bellovaci were “the most powerful among them [the Belgae] in valor, influence, and the number of men” (De Bello Gallico, 2.4). However, the Suessiones appear to be just as powerful, if not more. Caesar also relates that the former king of the Suessiones “Divitiacus, the most powerful man of all Gaul, had been king; who had held the government of a great part of these regions, as well as of Britain” (ibid). The Suessiones were also allied with the Remi. In De Bello Gallico 2.3, the Remi tell Caesar that the Suessiones are “their own brethren and kinsmen, who enjoy the same rights, and the same laws, and who have one government and one magistracy [in common] with themselves.”Despite their position of power, only one deity is known from the tribal area of the Suessiones:  Camuloriga. The goddess appears in one inscription on a stele found at Soissons in the area of the Suessiones:  Dea(e) / Cam/lorig(a)e vo/tum, “a vow to the goddess Camuloriga” (CIL 13, 03460). On the reverse side is an image of a figure wearing a short tunic and holding a purse in their right hand. It is difficult, however, to identify if it is a male or female figure and thus unclear if it is an image of the goddess. The etymology of the theonym is “Queen of Champions,” composed of camulo– “champion, servant” (Delamarre 2003, p. 101) and riga– “queen” (Delamarre 2003, p. 258). Due to the significance of her name, Fröhner (1865) identified Camuloriga with Bellona, the Roman goddess of war. It is also noted that “she may have been the one who presided over the hero-warriors in time of war, protecting, encouraging and leading them to victory” (Beck 2009).

The votive stele from Soissons (Aisne) with the dedicatory inscription to Camuloriga and the figure with the purse on the reverse side.

The name of the goddess Camuloriga is, of course, cognate with the god Camulus, “Champion” (Delamarre 2003, p. 101). Green lists the meaning of Camulus as “powerful” with no supportive etymology (1986, p. 111). Although no other theonyms appear in the territory of the Suessiones, Camulus does appear among the Treveri (CIL 13, 03980) and the Remi (AE 1935, 64 and CIL 13, 08701 are 2 examples), who were both neighboring tribes, and the name Camulorix appears among the Leuci (CIL 13, 04709), another neighboring tribe, but it is uncertain if it is a theonym although likely. Of interest is that Camulus was one of only two theonyms found in the territory of the Remi, the other being Ogmius. In the inscriptions, Camulus is syncretized with Mars through interpretatio Romana. The Germanic god Tyr was syncretized with Mars as well. In all probability, therefore, the Suessiones worshipped Camulus despite his name not appearing in any inscription in their territory.

Map of the Belgic tribes showing the proximity of the Remi, Treveri, and Leuci to the Suessiones.

Camulus was an important deity among the Belgic tribes and probably originated among them. He is also found in Roman Britain in both epigraphy and toponyms. Since he is syncretized with Mars, he was a Gaulish war god. However, the Celtic war gods were “tribal protectors who had a defensive (and offensive) war role but who presided over all aspects of the tribe’s welfare” (Green 1989, p. 111). Green goes on to state that “in Romano-Celtic contexts, Mars dropped his aggressive, offensive role, to become a guardian of all that peaceful worshippers wanted preserved and protected: health, fertility, and all that was good in earthly life” (p. 116).

Given the popularity of Camulus among the Remi especially since they were allied with the Suessiones, and given the protective nature of the Gaulish Mars, Camulus is a possible candidate for the deity depicted on the coin of the Suessiones having his hand bitten off. The Prose Edda relates how Tyr placed his hand in Fenrir’s mouth so that the gods could bind the wolf with the fetter called Gleipnir because of prophecies foretelling that Fenrir would cause them great harm. Fenrir did not trust the gods when they asked him to prove he could break the thin, silk-like fetter after showing Fenrir that none of them could do it, a trick by the gods to bind Fenrir with the magical, j breakable fetter. Fenrir finally told the gods, “let some one of you lay his hand in my mouth as a pledge that this is done without deceit” (Gylfaginning, Chapter 34). None of the gods would do it. Finally, Tyr stepped forward and placed his hand in Fenrir’s mouth. Thus, Tyr did it for the protection of his tribe, the gods, to maintain their safety. As Serith states, Tyr “the god of oaths, ironically swore a false oath to save the world, knowing that he would be punished by losing his hand.” This is, as we have seen, a quality of the Gaulish Mars and the Camulus was this type of deity. In this role, Camulus would also exhibit the qualities of Tyr discussed above:  “very daring and stout-hearted […] sways victory in war, wherefore warriors should call on him” (Gylfaginning Chapter 25).

However, if we are looking for a god associated with oaths, then that god would be Lugus. One of the proposed etymologies of the theonym Lugus is “God of Oaths,” from the root *lugh meaning “oath, vow” (Olmstead). Olmstead also relates how the Oenach Carmain, which was held on Lugnasad was a time to conduct legal affairs and also when a king could “proclaim cairdre ‘friendship’, a compact settling disputes with a neighboring tribe and proclaiming peaceful coexistence with them.” He further states that the oenach “is entirely comparable to the Scandinavian thing […] with Tyr as its patron.”In epigraphy, the actual theonym Lugus is mainly found among the Celtiberians. However, there is one inscription from Avenches (CIL 13, 05078) which appears in the plural form of the theonym, Lugoues. Avenches was in the territory of the Helvetii, who by the first century BCE were located to the south of the Belgic tribes and lived on the border of Gallia Cisalpina. However, Tacitus relates that previously “the region therefore between the Hercynian Forest and the rivers Moenus and Rhine, was occupied by the Helvetians” (Germania, 28.2), and they left this area about the second century BCE. The location of this original homeland for the Helvetii would have placed them close to the Belgic tribes, especially the Treveri and the Remi. Although only two theonyms are known from the area of the Remi, a common representation in their area is the tricephalic god. Lugus is often associated with the Gaulish Mercury by scholars, although the two didn’t appear together in any inscriptions. The Gaulish Mercury was associated with triplism, sometimes with three faces. For this reason, some have identified the tricephalic images found in the area of the Remi with Lugus.

Altar discovered in Reims, the Remi tribe’s capital, depicting a tricephalic god identified as Lugus.

Of interest, however, is that Dumézil (1940) postulated the existence of traits associated with the two gods of the first function, termed by Dumézil as the Varuna function (magical aspect of sovereignty) and the Mitra function (legal aspect of sovereignty). The names were taken from the Vedic gods associated with these functions. The traits Dumézil postulated were the Varuna function being one-eyed (le borgne) and the Mitra function being one-handed (le manchot), based on the Germanic Oðinn and Tyr as well as the Roman Cocles and Scaevola, pseudo-historical figures. He also cited as examples the Irish gods Lug and Nuada. Because of a lack of evidence on the Celtic side, especially since Nuada’s loss of his arm was unrelated to taking an oath, Dumézil later recanted this suggestion for Lug and Nuada (Dumézil 1974, p. 21). Nonetheless, the relevant point to this discussion is that Dumézil didn’t initially associate Lug and Tyr together despite their similar associations with oaths and pledges because they didn’t possess the same trait of being one-handed. This could be an argument against Lugus for possibly being the Belgic or Gaulish deity who could have been depicted on the coin of the Suessiones. Dumézil also describes Tyr as “the god of the political and juridical contentions in the thing and of the nonviolent contentions in war (1974, p. 18). The latter part is similar to how the Gaulish Mars was described above by Green.

We have seen that there are two deities who are the most likely possibilities for being identified as the god on the coin from the Suessiones:  Camulus and Lugus. Etymologically, both theonyms are possibilities. Camulus, “the Champion,” is comparable to Tyr’s role as a powerful god who is the patron of warriors and heroes. Lugus, “the God of Oaths,” which is comparable to Tyr putting his hand in Fenrir’s mouth as a pledge of good faith. Both gods are attested among the Belgic tribes, which means theSuessiones probably worshipped them as well. However, Camulus is syncretized with Mars as Tyr also was, whereas Lugus is syncretized with Mercury (by modern scholars), with whom Oðinn was also associated with in the interpretatio Romana.

For this final reason, as well as the differences between Lug and Tyr in relation to being one-eyed vs. one-handed, I would suggest that Camulus could be the deity depicted on the coin of the Suessiones. Given the importance of the myth to the Suessiones to depict it on a coin, it is probable that they assimilated the myth to one of their own deities. it is also likely that one of the most popular Belgic deities is the one depicted. Camulus was certainly important to the Remi, the neighboring and allied tribe of the Suessiones, and it stands to reason that he was important to them as well despite not being present in any inscriptions in their tribal area. However, there is a lack of epigraphic evidence for any deity in their area except for Camuloriga, whose name is basically a feminine form of Camulus. This lack of inscriptions in their area may be the result of the Suessiones being “put under the patronage of the Remi” after the Gallic Wars (De Bello Gallico, VIII.6). As such, they were oppressed and may not have conformed to the growing Gallo-Roman culture as well as other tribes and refused to commit the names of their deities to inscriptions as well as syncretizing their deities with Roman ones (note the absence of interpretatio Romana in the inscription to Camuloriga). Nevertheless, Camulus appears to be an important deity to them and the most likely candidate to assimilate the myth of Tyr and Fenrir.

There remains a discussion of the wheel present on the coin. The motif of the wheel was symbolic of the sun, representing “two aspects of the solar deity:  like a wheel, the sun moved across the sky [and] like the spokes of the wheel, the sun provided warmth and light and life” (Wenzel). The number of the wheel spokes is also important because it “in essence forms its own symbol and draws more complicated interpretations of sun as deity” (ibid). The wheel was also the symbol of Taranis, the Gaulish god of thunder and storms. He is usually portrayed with four-, eight-, or twelve-spoked wheels. The rumbling sound of the wheel is thought to have represented the sound of thunder, but it also had symbolic meanings as well. He even used it as a shield in some depictions. The wheel on the coin of the Suessiones, however, is a ten-spoked wheel, which leads me to believe it doesn’t represent the sun or Taranis in this instance. Also, the ten-spoke wheel is not a common one used on coins:  four- and eight-spoked wheels appear to be the norm. We may be dealing with a unique symbolic meaning related to the Tyr – Fenrir myth. The Tyr figure appears over the wheel while the wolf’s hind legs rest upon it, either holding it or seizing it. Could the wheel in this instance be a symbolic representation of Oaths and Pledges? Can it be interpreted as the deity possibly placed over the wheel because he gave his oath and the wolf grasping it because he demanded an oath? Unfortunately, we will never know for sure what symbolism (if any) lay behind the ten-spoked wheel on this coin. Neither the wheel nor a chariot appears in the myth of Tyr and Fenrir. Although we have a written source for this myth, there is still a lack of written evidence for the Belgae and Gaulish, which generally hinders our understanding of any symbolic meanings associated with Gaulish and Belgic images on coins.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the relationship and origins of the Belgae to both the Celtic and Germanic tribes (see Wightman 1985, pp. 10-14 for a discussion of the issue), the fact that Germanic influences are present in Belgic myth is evident in the Tyr – Fenrir coin of the Suessiones, as well as Celtic influences in Belgic theonyms. What exactly the myth entailed for the Suessiones is uncertain. As already stated, it was important enough to portray it on a coin. Duval (1989) stated the importance of studying Gaulish coinage in order to gain an understanding of the pre-Roman conquest mythology of the Continental Celts (p. 389). This coin of the Suessiones proves his point. By the late second to the early first century BCE when the coin was estimated to have been made, the Suessiones were familiar with the myth of Tyr and Fenrir almost 1,500 years before it would be written down, and we know this because of an image on their coin.

It will, unfortunately, never be known if the Tyr – Fenrir myth was Belgic in origin or if the myth was borrowed from some Germanic tribe(s). Nor can it be known, at least until the discovery of more similar coins, if the myth was confined to the Suessiones or present among more Belgic tribes or even known by the Gauls as well. That it was present among the Remi, an ally of the Suessiones, is a strong possibility. It is also a strong possibility that it was more widespread among the Belgic tribes since the coin would have been made when Divitiacus was not only king of the Suessiones but a large portion of the Belgic tribes as well as a part of Britain. However, Fischer (2013) is of the opinion that, due to the presence of the Tyr – Fenrir myth on the coin of the Suessiones, that the story is “une vieille légende celtique” (‘an old Celtic legend,’ p. 116). This is a possibility since the Suessiones lived on the western fringe of Belgica, close to the Gaulish Parisii and Senones.

It should also be stressed that there is no proof Camulus was associated with the Tyr figure on the coin. He is just the one that could have been the most likely candidate if a deity of the Suessiones had ever been associated with Tyr. The depiction on the coin nevertheless does give us a myth we can add with confidence to our own practices. 


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