Saturday, November 19, 2011


Nerthus was an ancient Germanic earth goddess. She was known since the time of the Roman Empire. Tacitus, the Roman historian in 1st-2nd century AD, identified Nerthus with the Roman goddess Terra Mater. Nerthus was a popular goddess since she was worshipped by seven Germanic tribes – Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii (Angles), Varini, Eudoses, Suarines and the Huitones.

Tacitus recorded that each year there was festival where the goddess would supposedly travelled in a chariot pulled by two white heifers, escorted by the priest. No one was allowed to take up war or bear arms during the festivities. Even iron tools were locked up during the goddess' journey. It was good luck for those settlements she visited in her journey.

At the end of the festival, the priest would guide the chariot to a sacred lake, where Nerthus would bathe. Her chariot would be covered with a cloth. After the selected slaves bathed the goddess in the lake, the slaves were then drowned, as sacrifices to Nerthus.

Nerthus' attributes also resembled that of the ancient Celtic counterpart, Matres or Matrone, the group of mother goddesses that was popular around the Rhine River.

Though the worshipped of Nerthus seemed to ended in the 5th or 6th century, the later tradition says that she had been identified with Norse god, Njörd (Njord), the Vanir god of the wind and sea. Njörd was the male form of Nerthus. How had Nerthus undergone a change of sex, still baffled modern scholars.

Nerthus may well have been the unnamed sister and wife of Njörd, in the Norse myths, who became the mother of Freyr and Freyja. Though none of the Norse authors ever gave a name to Njörd's sister. Or she may well be the ancient form of Freyja herself. Since the Norse writers believed that the Vanir deities were older than the Aesir, then that Teutonic Nerthus became the Norse Freyja is more than likely true.

From: here
Scholars are not in agreement about the origin of the name Nerthus. It may stem from the Proto-Indo-European root *ner-, 'virility'. While it may seem strange that a goddess would be associated with a male trait, this origin might explain some of the confusion over Nerthus' gender. The Proto-Germanic name Nerthus corresponds phonologically to the Old Norse name Njörð. The popular explanations of the diety's apparent sex change over a few centuries are: 1) The name Nerthus was originally associated with a male/female (possibly brother/sister) pair of dieties. 2) Nerthus was originally a hermaphrodite. According to Germanic language professor Rudolf Simek, "The usage of the plural form of the god's name Njörð, which occurs in several skaldic poems points to the first solution. The fact that the masculine and feminine of the grammatical u-stem fall together means that a formal differentiation according to gender becomes impossible."

From: here
In almost all tongues earth is female in gender and, in contrast to the father sky surrounding her, regarded as the mother who gives birth, who brings forth fruits. Nowhere is her maternal quality expressed purer and simpler than in the oldest information which we possess in the Germania of Tacitus about the goddess Nerthus. Writes Tacitus: "The German peoples as a whole honor Nerthus, who is Mother Earth, and believe that she mixes in human affairs and comes journeying in a wagon among her people. On an island in the sea lies an inviolate wood sacred to her; her wagon stands there, veiled with a cloth, and only a single priest may approach it. The latter knows when the goddess appears in the wagon. Two she-oxen pull it away and the priest devoutly follows. Wherever she condescends to come and accept hospitality, there are days of rejoicing and weddings, no war is fought, no weapon reached for, every iron object is locked away. Only peace and calm are then known and desired. This lasts until the goddess has sojourned long enough among humans and the priest leads her back again into her sanctuary. Cover and goddess are washed in a remote lake. But the servants who perform are afterwards swallowed by the lake. A secret terror and sacred uncertainty are therefore always spread over this, which only those who die immediately afterwards witness." [Image: Earth Mother Nerthus on her chariot/wagon.]

This beautiful tale of Mother Earth agrees with what is contained in reports about the cult of a deity to whom peace and fertility were attributed. In Sweden it was Freyr, son of Njord, whose curtained car passed through the land in Spring, with the people all praying and holding feasts.

The alternation of male and female deities sheds a welcome light here on why spells and rhymes used with Wodan as harvest god are actually transferred in other Lower German districts to a goddess. When the cottagers, we are told, are mowing rye, they leave a few stalks standing, tie flowers among them, and when they have finished work, assemble around the clump left standing, grasp the ears of rye, and shout three times over:

Lady Gaue, keep your fodder
on the wagon this year,
on the wheelbarrow next year!

Whereas Wodan had better fodder promised him for the next year, here Lady Gaue seems to be told of a future reduction in the gifts brought. In both cases I see the reserve of Christians about retaining the pagan offering. The old gods must, at least according to the words, now stand in low and ill repute.

In the district about Hameln, the custom prevailed that if a reaper during binding passed over a sheaf or otherwise left something standing in the field, the others mockingly called out to him: "Shall Lady Gaue have that?"

The widespread worship of the productive, nourishing earth also occasioned a variety of names among our forefathers, in the same way as the divine service of Gaia and her daughter Rhea mingled with that of Ceres and Cybele. The similarity between the cult of Nerthus and that of the Phrygian mother of the gods, Cybele, seems to me worth noting. Lucretius describes the peregrination of the magna deûm mater [great mother of the gods] in her lion-drawn car through the lands of the earth:

Adorned with a turreted crown, the image of the divine mother is carried through wide lands with awe-inspiring effect ... When first borne in procession through great cities she silently enriches mortals with a wordless blessing; they strew all her path with brass and silver presenting her with bounteous alms, and scatter over her a snow-shower of roses, overshadowing the Mother and her retinue of attendants. (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, 597-641)

Ammianus Marcellinus, XXIII, 3: "There [at Callinicum in Mesopotamia], on the twenty-seventh of March, the day on which at Rome the annual procession in honor of the Mother of the Gods takes place, and the carriage in which her image is carried is washed, as it is said, in the waters of the Almo, he [Emperor Julian] celebrated the usual rites in the ancient fashion."

Nerthus is likewise, after she has been driven around the land, bathed in the sacred lake on her wagon, and I find it recorded that the Indian Bhavani, Shiva's wife, is also driven around on her festival day and bathed by the Brahmans in a secret lake.

Rügen or Fehmarn have been held to be the islands of the sea mentioned by Tacitus. In the middle of Rügen [an island in the Baltic sea] there is still a lake called the Black Lake or Burgsee (Herthasee) about which a legend circulates. In olden times the Devil was worshipped there, keeping a maiden in his service who, when he had grown tired of her, was drowned in the Black Lake. However bad the distortion, this will have sprung from the ritual reported by Tacitus, who says that when the goddess had finished her dealings with humans, she vanished in the lake together with her servants.

From: The Principal Germanic Gods, Jacob Grimm
Nerthus was an ancient Germanic mother earth goddess referenced by Tacitus (AD 9, worshipped in Denmark. She was a goddess of fruitfulness, prosperity, and of peace and harmony. Her cult center was in a sacred grove on island where a chief priest served her.

Each spring her priests escorted her image on her sacred, covered wagon drawn by two cows. During her perambulations throughout the country she blessed the land. No war was allowed during her visits, as all weapons were stored. Upon returning to her shrine, her image, wagon, covering, and cows were washed in a lake by slaves, who were themselves then afterwards 'swallowed by the lake' (ritually drowned?).

Her name seems related to the later Norse sea-god Niord, though the connection is largely conjectural. She may have been the original version of Niord's first wife (possibly also his sister), an obscure Vanir goddess. In Norse myth, Niord left his unnamed wife after the Vanir-Aesir war when he went as a hostage to live in Asgard. She might also have been a prototype for a later cosmic- or earth- goddess such as Freya/ Frigga or Huldra. .

Her Norse name may have been Ingun, with her son known as Ingvi-Frey. He was a legendary king of Sweden who succeeded Niord and Odin. His descendants were called the Inglings. In Denmark Ingvi-Frey (or his father?) was known as the legendary King Fridleef, the husband of Frey-gerda ('Lady Earth'; i.e. Nerthus?). Their son was Frodi (Frey?), who succeeded his father as king in a golden age of peace and prosperity. and daughter. Ingun-Nerthus or Ingvi-Frey cold have been the eponymous goddess or god of the historic Angels tribe.

From: here

Also see:

The Cult of Nerthus
Modern hymns/poems to her

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