Nerthus is attested to in Germania by Tacitus, a Roman writer who encountered the Ingeavones tribe. He writes of how they worshipped Terra Mater (Gaia, Mother Earth), whose temple was in a sacred grove on an island. His record states that her idol would ride out, in a wagon, covered or veiled. Her priest would determine if her presence had filled her temple, and based on this, the idol would ride out accompanied by cows. Her riding out led to a holiday celebration, with entertainment and a cease-combat decree for the holiday period.
The holiday was described as orgiastic – a time to make love, not war. When the holiday was over, the priest would return the idol to her sacred temple, and her image was washed in a sacred lake nearby. Two slaves would be sacrificed in her honour.
A similar wagon procession of Freyr, the son of Nerthus is described in Flateyjarbok, suggesting a common feature in cultic practices of the Vanir fertility deities. Historians have likewise described ritual ship processions among the old tribes, and Tacitus writes of how the Suebi tribe worshipped the goddess Isis, who is well known for her association with rites conducted on board ships, and ritual ships built on wheels and processed through the land. The Dejbjerg wagon found in Denmark, dated to the Iron Age, and the Oseberg ship-wagon burial in Norway are thought to be associated with Nerthus.
Throughout the Iron and Bronze Age of Northern Europe, offerings were commonly made to lakes, rivers, bogs and other bodies of water. Our ancestors tossed all sorts of things into bodies of water – it’s one of the reasons we have so many ancient artifacts! Some archeologists believe a site for Nerthus’ temple may have been on the eastern part of isle of Jutland, where a wagon, cattle, sacrificial victims, and various offerings have been found within a bog. Within the finds was a prominent statuette of a voluptuous female figure.
Nerthus is also attested to by various islands and groves in ancient Sweden and Denmark that were named after her. In the Poetic Edda, a goddess named Njorun is mentioned, who is thought to be Njord’s sister-wife. Loki makes mention in Lokasenna that the Vanir gods married their sister goddesses. Etymologically, both ‘Njorun’ and ‘Nerthus’ are feminizations of ‘Njorð,’ rather like ‘Michelle’ is to ‘Michael,’ or ‘Stephanie’ to ‘Stephen.’
Thoughts on Nerthus
Although modern Northern Paganism looks largely to the Viking Age for its lore, much of the material is much older than this. The Vanir family of gods for example, may refer back to Bronze Age practices, and the Jötnar by extension, to the Stone Age. Germanic culture – both then and now – is a fusion of cultural influences. The ancient Germanic tribes traded not only goods, but ideas. This included cultic practices. Nowhere do we see this more clearly than we do with Nerthus.
She is clearly associated with the Hellenic Terra, and also Isis. Both Isis and Terra were wed by incest to Osiris and Ouranos respectively – both unlucky husbands who lost their genitals! Due to several confluences, modern pagans equate Nerthus with Jörð. As described by Tacitus, Nerthus is called Mother Earth, who Snorri tells us elsewhere is called Jörð.
Jörð is also referred to as the singular parent of Frigg, as both Fjorgynn/Fjorgyn – both a mother and a father of the goddess. Nerthus is likewise a consort deity of Njörðr, Nerthus being simply the feminine cognate of Njord. This ties back to Gaia, who through parthenogenesis gave birth to her own divine children. To add to this confusing mix, many scholars and modern heathens believe that Freya and Frigg were at one point the same goddess, both the daughters of Mother Earth, distinguished by their function names only.
Cultural names do matter. It would be rude to insist that a francophone man named Michel be referred to as Michael. At the same time, a rose by any other name is still a rose, and different cultures clearly knew the same divine presence by a slew of local culture-specific names.
The Arthurian legends of the Middle Ages are a fusion of several cultures, including Norse. The Lady of the Lake, a fusion of earlier Celtic and Germanic goddesses who is a goddess of the land itself, is clearly a throwback to this (and other) goddess of the lake and land to whom swords were laid down when no longer needed, and to whom offerings were made by throwing them into thrown into lakes. Nerthus thus shares commonalities with Celtic Dana.
Signs and Symbols
The Earth, islands, lakes, and wetlands. Wagons, cattle, fertile fields, and ships. Images of the Lady of the Lake receiving Excalibur, and by extension, wishing wells. The rune Peorð.
Njorð, Jörð, Niaerther, Narlunda, Niaerdhavi, Nalsta Terra Mater, Gaia (Greco-Roman), Isis (Greco-Egyptian); Lady of the Lake (Arthurian).