Nerthus Basics

Nerthus is the indirectly named sister and wife goddess of Njörðr before his absorption into the Æsir pantheon. Her name is the feminine version of her brother’s name, though we can’t be sure this was how she was addressed. In the Poetic Edda, a goddess named Njorun is mentioned, who could be her. Loki makes mention in Lokasenna that the Vanir gods married their sisters, making a case for a counterpart for Njorðr. Etymologically, both ‘Njorun’ and ‘Nerthus’ are feminizations of ‘Njorðr,’ rather like ‘Michelle’ is to ‘Michael,’ or ‘Stephanie’ to ‘Stephen’ and this was very common god-goddess pairs. Freyr and Freya, Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn, and Ullr and Ullin being just a few examples of this. Freyr and Freya are her children by Njorðr.

Nerthus is attested to in Germania by Tacitus, a Roman writer who encountered the Ingeavones tribe. He records how they worshipped Terra Mater (Gaia, Mother Earth), whose temple was in a sacred grove on an island. He states that her idol would be ridden out in a wagon, covered or veiled and accompanied by cows. Her procession kicked off a holiday celebration, with entertainment and a cease-combat decree for the observance period. The holiday was described as orgiastic – a time to make love, not war. When it 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 is described in Flateyjarbok, suggesting a common feature in cultic practices concerning the Vanir fertility deities. 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 the 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.

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 by the name Jörð.

Jörð is also referred to as the singular parent of Frigg, as both Fjörgynn and Fjörgyn – both a mother and a father of the goddess. Nerthus is likewise a consort deity of Njörðr, Nerthus being simply the feminine cognate of Njörðr. 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 also  shares commonalities with Celtic Danu.

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.

Associated Names

Njorð, Jörð, Niaerther, Narlunda, Niaerdhavi, Nalsta Terra Mater, Gaia (Greco-Roman), Isis (Greco-Egyptian); Lady of the Lake (Arthurian).