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Tyr was a god who tricked Fenric, breaking a vow to do so. He did this for a very practical reason. But something is lost with every gain, and sometimes what is practical is less than proper.
Fenrir, a monstrous wolf, was one of three terrible children of the Norse trickster god Loki and the giantess Angrboda. Their other children—Jormungand, a giant serpent, and Hel, the goddess of the dead—were thrown out of Asgard, the home of the gods, by Odin. But Odin felt that the gods should look after Fenrir.
In time, Fenrir grew incredibly large, and only Odin’s son Tyr was brave enough to approach and feed him. The gods finally decided to chain the beast, but Fenrir broke the two huge chains they made to restrain him. Asked by the gods to create something that would hold Fenrir, the dwarfs produced a silky ribbon called Gleipnir. To make it, they used the sound of a cat moving, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spit of a bird.
The gods took Fenrir to an isolated island and challenged him to prove that he was stronger than Gleipnir. Because the ribbon seemed so weak, Fenrir suspected it was magical. He allowed himself to be bound with it only after Tyr agreed to put his hand in Fenrir’s mouth. When Fenrir found that he could not break Gleipnir, he bit off Tyr’s hand. The gods put a sword in Fenrir’s open mouth to quiet him.
Fenric was considered a great threat to the gods; the fear was that he would overthrow the gods. But he was tricked into being bound with a chain, and because he was tricked this delayed the destruction of the gods and their world. So tricking him was practical and useful.
In the story is Tyr a hero, or is he a liar and a villain?
In the view of the gods, he sacrificed his hand but gained a great victory over Fenric. In utilitarian terms it was right and just and he should be hailed as a hero. And if anyone were to raise an objection to the manner in which Tyr acted, well he accomplished the goal and Fenric is an evil being and he is, after all, the offspring of Loki the trickster, so what better way to handle him than to trick him?
But what of the vision of Tyr from Fenric’s point of view? Tyr is someone who stooped to betrayal, an act of evil. It is interesting to recognize that if I am praised by some for being a hero, there may be others who see my betrayal.
Sometimes the practical choice and the moral choice are one and the same; but there are times when that is not the case.
For many of us, the practical outcome justifies the act: it worked; what more do you want? The end justifies the means.
However, in the story taking the practical choice “worked”, but something was lost.
And the metaphor here is an interesting one.
Tyr, the god who tricked Fenric, was the god of law and of justice; two different things, though one hopes that law intends justice.
The god of law and justice achieved his goal, but lost his right hand, the hand of strength and power. Law and justice lost their right hand; the gods lost the power of law and justice.
Georges Dumezil, an expert in Indo-European mythology, (in Eliade, vol 2, p 164, footnote 61), said this about Tyr’s action: “What the divine society thus gained in effectiveness it lost in moral and mystical power.”
Mircea Eliade points out that because of this action, the Norse gods and their kingdom could not serve as an ideal aspiration–and could not call human society or individual human beings to a higher kind of action or state of being–for the gods and their kingdom were now no better than any human kingdom.
Religion that has a moral element calls us to rise above the practical, to rise above the purely selfish, to do what is right and good and just even when it is impractical to do so, even when it harms us to do so. The Norse gods lost that moral element.
On the national level, there has been much renewed talk in recent years about “American Exceptionalism”. The modern meaning of the term has to do with whetherAmericais a better nation than others in the world and has greater moral standing than others in the world.
I am a dreamer and a believer in this nation; I am a believer in American Exceptionalism. But for me, what makes Americaa better nation than others is that we are founded in the Enlightenment philosophy of human rights. That philosophy and any actions of ours based in that philosophy, is what gives us moral and mystical power in the world. That philosophy should always guide who we are and what we do. To me the ideal America, the one we have not yet become, is exceptional and I hope that some day we live up to our own vision of what we can be. But we ought not pretend to be what we are not yet. Too often we as a nation have made practical decisions that cause us to lose our moral and mystical power because those decisions betray our philosophy and our principles.
In Guatemala just this past week, the government of that country apologized to the family of former elected President Arbenz Guzman who in 1954 was overthrown by a military coup planned by the American CIA. Our government thought he might be a communist and at a time when we were in the midst of anti-communist hysteria, we overthrew many governments that seemed left of center. For thirty years following the coup,Guatemala had military governments with a history of violating human rights and the people ofGuatemala knew that we had helped to impose those governments. We gained a short term practical end, but in doing so we lost some of our moral authority not only in Guatemala but in other parts of the Americas and in the world.
Because we opted for the short term practical approach rather than the principled approach, many of those who struggled for freedom around the globe saw as hypocrites and liars, and people who should have used our nation as a model, and who ought to have been able to count upon us for support, instead turned against us.
Today we are in danger of taking a similar approach to our problems in the world; we are in danger of allowing practical decisions to destroy who we really are or could be.
We give away some of our moral power every time we torture someone, every day that we keep someone locked in Guantanamo or in CIA black ops jails, every time we send a hit squad or a drone to murder someone. To be exceptional we must act in an exceptional manner.
When we use the excuse that we must behave as any other country does, we lose—really we throw away–our exceptional status. We become no more than the lowest common denominator; we become no more than the latest empire.
In our individual lives, too, a practical decision sometimes takes away from the moral and mystical power of our selves.
Some years ago I ran a program within a substance abuse treatment agency. There was a counselor there who I will call “Bill”. Bill was a salt of the earth kind of guy. He had worked hard all of his life, never in a high position. He had no academic background and probably would not have scored very high on SAT’s or GRE’s. Many would categorize him as a “working class” guy; he was not eloquent in speech and his ideas were not terribly elevated ideas, but though he might not connect well with the power elite in Fairfield County, Connecticut, he had a strong base of knowledge in alcoholism and had a way of connecting with working folk, regular Joe’s, so to speak.
A group of staff from the agency, including the executive director went on a trip to Moscow to study the then Soviet approach alcoholism. Bill went on that trip, I did not.
When the group returned to the US, the Executive Director called me into his office to say that Bill was an embarrassment, an ill-spoken somewhat slovenly character, who could jeopardize some of our funding sources. He then said that I was to fire Bill, but that I was not to tell Bill the real reason for the firing. I was to lie.
I felt that I had been put into an awkward position and I considered resigning of being ordered to lie about it. Every once in a while I wonder whether this was really an attempt to get rid of me.
I did not resign, fear kept me from doing so; fear and responsibilities. I had a young daughter at home; I had to take her well-being into account.
And so I lied to Bill. And my soul still bears the scar of that lie. I lost something in telling that lie. I lost moral power.
I knew that what I was doing was wrong, no matter how I justified or rationalized it. And periodically it comes back to haunt me. More than twenty years later, I am still diminished because of what I did; because I took the practical approach instead of doing what was right and just.
Each time I make such a choice, each time I take the practical option rather than do what is right, I lose something of myself. If nothing else, I lose my own moral authority with me.
The truth is that if I were in the same circumstances today, having a young child at home and being faced with that demand, I do not know what choice I would make. Each such choice is a test and we do not know in advance how we will fare in the test. That does not mean that the choice I made was right, it does not mean that it was just, it does not mean that it was moral; it does mean that I have to face my imperfections and the weakness of my moral character.
But I believe that today, in part because of that incident, I am more careful than I was then about what I do. I believe I have a clearer understanding of the cost of what appears to be the practical road. I believe I am more likely to choose to do what is right even if it costs me something to do so.
Our moral and mystical power is dear and finite. Whether speaking of a nation, a person or a group of people, we should be careful of how and when we give away or throw away our moral power.
In this season of the year, when people of many traditions remember those who have passed out of life into death, may we commit ourselves to living lives worthy of theirs.
One reason for religion and for religious community is to remind us of this fact, and to support us as we struggle with the temptations of life, including the temptation to settle for what works rather than for what is just, right and good.
May we support one another in this struggle.