Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Pagan myhology – Nerthus

Posted by Fredsvenn on March 29, 2015

In Norse Paganism, Njörðr, the sea god of the Norse peoples, is a god among the Vanir. Njörðr, father of the deities Freyr and Freyja by his unnamed Vanir sister, was in an ill-fated marriage with the goddess Skaði, lives in Nóatún and is associated with sea, seafaring, wind, fishing, wealth, and crop fertility.

In Greek mythology, Nereus was the eldest son of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth), who with Doris fathered the Nereids or Dorides, as they were also called, sea nymphs (female spirits of sea waters), and Nerites, a minor sea deity, son of Nereus and Doris (apparently their only male offspring), with whom Nereus lived in the Aegean Sea.

The Nereids numbered, according to one account, fifty; to another, a hundred. They dwelt in a splendid cave at the bottom of the sea, and rode on dolphins or other creatures of the deep. Like all nymphs, the Nereides were playful, given to splashing about in the water, swimming, or sitting on rocks at the sea’s edge, drying their wonderful tresses.

Nereus and Proteus (the “first”) seem to be two manifestations of the god of the sea who was supplanted by Poseidon, called the “God of the Sea”, when Zeus overthrew Cronus.

Nereus was the ancient sea god, who ruled before Poseidon. Represented as an old man with a look of dignity, Nereus lost his dominion over the sea when the Earth was divided among Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the latter was alotted the kingdom of the deep, but Nereus obtained a position under Poseidon, and also the power of prophecy.

Given Poseidon’s connection with horses as well as the sea, and the landlocked situation of the likely Indo-European homeland, Nobuo Komita has proposed that Poseidon was originally an aristocratic Indo-European horse-god who was then assimilated to Near Eastern aquatic deities when the basis of the Greek livelihood shifted from the land to the sea, or a god of fresh waters who was assigned a secondary role as god of the sea, where he overwhelmed the original Aegean sea deities such as Proteus and Nereus.

Conversely, Walter Burkert suggests that the Hellene cult worship of Poseidon as a horse god may be connected to the introduction of the horse and war-chariot from Anatolia to Greece around 1600 BC. In any case, the early importance of Poseidon can still be glimpsed in Homer’s Odyssey, where Poseidon rather than Zeus is the major mover of events.

Nereus was father to Thetis, one of the Nereids and known as the goddess of water, who in turn was mother to the great Greek hero Achilles, and Amphitrite, who married Poseidon.

Zeus was strongly attracted to Thetis, but on learning that the marriage would bring forth a son who would surpass his father in might, Zeus relinquished his wish, and gave Thetis in marriage to Peleus, to whom she bore Achilles, and thereafter returned to her sisters of the sea.

Poseidon was said to have had many lovers of both sexes. His consort was Amphitrite, a nymph and ancient sea-goddess, daughter of Nereus and Doris, an Oceanid, a sea nymph in Greek mythology, whose name represented the bounty of the sea.

Njord was particularly associated with wealth, fertility, the sea, and seafaring in historical Germanic religion. A saying among the Norse peoples held especially wealthy people to be “as rich as Njord.”

The tale in which Njord features most prominently is The Marriage of Njord and Skadi. Skadi, a giantess, had come to the Aesir seeking restitution for the slaying of her father. As part of the settlement, they agreed that she could have any of the gods she desired as her husband. She chose Njord by mistake, thinking him to be Baldur.

Their marriage was short and unpleasant. Half of their time was spent in Skadi’s home in the snowy mountains, which Njord couldn’t tolerate; the other half was spent in Njord’s home, Nóatún (“The Place of Ships”), which was located on the beach. Skadi couldn’t tolerate Njord’s home, either, so the two parted ways.

In Norse mythology, the sister-wife of Njörðr is the unnamed wife and sister of the god Njörðr, with whom he is described as having had the (likewise incestuous) twin children Freyr and Freyja.

This shadowy goddess is attested in the Poetic Edda poem Lokasenna, recorded in the 13th century by an unknown source, and the Heimskringla book Ynglinga saga, a euhemerized account of the Norse gods composed by Snorri Sturluson also in the 13th century but based on earlier traditional material. The figure receives no further mention in Old Norse texts.

The situation is further complicated in that narratives describing the birth of Freyr and Freyja contradictorily cite the birth of the siblings occurring either after or before Njörðr left Vanaheimr to live among the Æsir.

In addition, the goddess Skaði is referred to as the mother of Freyr and Freyja in the Poetic Edda poem Skírnismál whereas otherwise she is a described as having been in an ill-fated relationship with Njörðr without direct association with the Freyr and Freyja.

Much earlier, in his 1 CE work Germania, Tacitus describes rituals surrounding a deity by the name of Nerthus, a theonym that is etymologically ancestral to Old Norse Njörðr. However, the figure described by Tacitus is female.

Based on this scholars have suggested a Proto-Germanic hermaphroditic deity or a gender aspectual pair (similar to Freyja and Freyr), identified the obscure Old Norse goddess name Njörun as a potential name for the otherwise unnamed goddess, and in some cases identified a potential reflex of a narrative about Njörðr and his sister-wife in Saxo Grammaticus’s 12th-century work Gesta Danorum.

In Norse mythology, Nóatún (Old Norse “ship-enclosure”) is the abode of the god Njörðr, described in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning as located “in heaven”.

Njörðr has been the subject of an amount of scholarly discourse and theory, often connecting him with the figure of the much earlier attested Germanic goddess Nerthus.

The name Njörðr corresponds to that of the older Germanic fertility goddess Nerthus, and both derive from the Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz. The original meaning of the name is contested, but it may be related to the Irish word nert which means “force” and “power”.

It has been suggested that the change of sex from the female Nerthus to the male Njörðr is due to the fact that feminine nouns with u-stems disappeared early in Germanic language while the masculine nouns with u-stems prevailed.

However, other scholars hold the change to be based not on grammatical gender but on the evolution of religious beliefs; that *Nerþuz and Njörðr appear as different genders because they are to be considered separate beings. The name Njörðr may be related to the name of the Norse goddess Njörun.

In Norse mythology, Njörun (Old Norse Njǫrun, sometimes modernly anglicized as Niorun) is a goddess attested in the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and various kennings (including once in the Poetic Edda).

Scholarly theories concerning her name and function in the pantheon include etymological connections to the Norse god Njörðr and the Roman goddess Nerio, and suggestions that she may represent the earth and/or be the unnamed sister-wife of Njörðr.

Njörun is a “mysterious … figure” of whom nothing else is known; Andy Orchard suggests that she may be fictitious. Several scholars have suggested that the stem syllable in her name, Njǫr-, may represent the element *ner- as in Tacitus’ earth-goddess Nerthus (*Ner-þuz), whose name is etymologically identical with that of the Norse god Njǫrðr, and that Njörun may therefore be a name for the earth. Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon additionally suggests a connection with the Roman goddess Nerio.

The possible etymological connection with Njǫrðr and Nerthus suggests that Njörun may be a preserved name for the sister-wife of Njörðr, who is highly unusual in the Old Norse context in being unnamed.

As was noted by Albert Morey Sturtevant, Njǫrun and Gefjon are the only female names recorded in Old Norse texts that have the suffix -un. Two other god-goddess pairs distinguished by suffix are preserved in the Old Norse corpus, Ullr and Ullin and Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn, and there is a possible third example in Old High German Phol and Volla.

In Germanic paganism, Nerthus is a goddess associated with fertility. Nerthus is attested by Tacitus, the first century AD Roman historian, in his ethnographic work Germania.

In Germania, Tacitus records that the remote Suebi tribes were united by their veneration of the goddess at his time of writing and maintained a sacred grove on an (unspecified) island and that a holy cart rests there draped with cloth, which only a priest may touch.

The priests feel her presence by the cart, and, with deep reverence, attend her cart, which is drawn by heifers. Everywhere the goddess then deigns to visit, she is met with celebration, hospitality, and peace.

All iron objects are locked away, and no one will leave for war. When the goddess has had her fill she is returned to her temple by the priests. Tacitus adds that the goddess, the cart, and the cloth are then washed by slaves in a secluded lake. The slaves are then drowned.

The name Nerthus is generally held to be a Latinized form of Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz, which is the Proto-Germanic precursor to the Old Norse deity name Njörðr, who is a male deity in works recorded in the 13th century.

Various scholarly theories exist regarding the goddess and her potential later traces amongst the Germanic peoples, including that the figure may be identical to the unnamed sister-wife of Njörðr mentioned in two Old Norse sources.

Nerthus is often identified with the van Njörðr who is attested in various 13th century Old Norse works and in numerous Scandinavian place names. The connection between the two is due to the linguistic relationship between Njörðr and the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz, Nerthus being the feminine, Latinized form of what Njörðr would have looked like around the first century.

This has led to theories about the relation of the two, including that Njörðr may have once been a hermaphroditic deity or that the name may indicate the otherwise forgotten sister-wife in a divine brother-sister pair like the Vanir deities Freyja and Freyr.

While developments in historical linguistics ultimately allowed for the identification of Nerthus with Njörðr, various other readings of the name were in currency prior to the acceptance of this identification, most commonly the form Hertha. This form was proposed as an attempt to mirror the Old Norse goddess name Jörð ‘earth’.

Writing on this topic in 1912, Raymond Wilson Chambers says “strange has been the history of this goddess Nerthus in modern times. Sixteenth century scholars found irresistible the temptation to emend the name of ‘Mother Earth’ into Herthum, which nineteenth century scholars further improved into Hertham, Ertham.

For many years this false goddess drove out the rightful deity from the fortieth chapter of the Germania”. Up until its superseding, the name Hertha had some influence. For example, Hertha and Herthasee play major roles in German novelist Theodor Fontane’s 1896 novel Effi Briest.

Njörðr is often identified with the goddess Nerthus, whose reverence by various Germanic tribes is described by Roman historian Tacitus in his 1st CE century work Germania. The connection between the two is due to the linguistic relationship between Njörðr and the reconstructed *Nerþuz, “Nerthus” being the feminine, Latinized form of what Njörðr would have looked like around 1 CE.

This has led to theories about the relation of the two, including that Njörðr may have once been a hermaphroditic god or, generally considered more likely, that the name may indicate an otherwise unattested divine brother and sister pair such as Freyr and Freyja.

Consequently, Nerthus has been identified with Njörðr’s unnamed sister with whom he had Freyja and Freyr, which is mentioned in Lokasenna.

Nerthus’s name also suggests a connection with the Vanir deities. The Old Norse name of the god Njord is exactly what the Proto-Germanic name Nerthus would look like if it were rendered in Old Norse.

As philologist Rudolf Simek summarizes, “Remains of cult carts and models of the same are known from finds from the Iron Age and rock carvings confirm the tradition of cult processions as early as the Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia.”

These traits – the cart that ritually processes from village to village and the laying down of arms during this time – are traits that were powerfully associated with the Vanir gods and goddesses, deities who presided over “peace and plenty,” during the Viking Age. Nerthus can comfortably be grouped with the Vanir, or can at least be considered to be something of a “proto-Vana” goddess.

Given Tacitus’s identification of Nerthus with Terra Mater (“Mother Earth”), it’s also tempting to identify Nerthus with Jord (Old Norse “Earth”), the obscure mother of Thor.

In Norse mythology, Skaði (sometimes anglicized as Skadi, Skade, or Skathi) is a jötunn and goddess associated with bowhunting, skiing, winter, and mountains. Scholars have theorized a potential connection between Skaði and the god Ullr (who is also associated with skiing and appears most frequently in place names in Sweden).

Skaði is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; the Prose Edda and in Heimskringla, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and in the works of skalds.

Skaði is alternately referred to as Öndurguð (Old Norse “ski god”) and Öndurdís (Old Norse “ski dís”, often translated as “lady”). A dís (“lady”, plural dísir) is a ghost, spirit or deity associated with fate who can be both benevolent and antagonistic towards mortal people. The dísir, like the valkyries, norns, and vættir, are almost always referred to collectively.

Dísir may act as protective spirits of Norse clans. Their original function was possibly that of fertility goddesses who were the object of both private and official worship called dísablót, and their veneration may derive from the worship of the spirits of the dead.

In all sources, Skaði is the daughter of the deceased giant Þjazi (Tjasse), and Skaði married the god Njörðr as part of the compensation provided by the gods for killing her father Þjazi.

In Heimskringla, Skaði is described as having split up with Njörðr and as later having married the god Odin, and that the two produced many children together.

Skaði have a particular relationship with the jötunn Loki. In both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, Skaði is responsible for placing the serpent that drips venom onto the bound Loki.

The etymology of the name Skaði is uncertain, but may be connected with the original form of Scandinavia. Some place names in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden, refer to Skaði.

Scandinavia may be related to the name Skaði (potentially meaning “Skaði’s island”) or the name may be connected to an Old Norse noun meaning “harm”. Skaði has inspired various works of art.

The Old Norse name Skaði, along with Sca(n)dinavia and Skáney, may be related to Gothic skadus, Old English sceadu, Old Saxon scado, and Old High German scato (meaning “shadow”).

Scholar John McKinnell comments that this etymology suggests Skaði may have once been a personification of the geographical region of Scandinavia or associated with the underworld.

Georges Dumézil disagrees with the notion of Scadin-avia as etymologically “the island of the goddess Skaði.” Dumézil comments that the first element Scadin must have had—or once had—a connection to “darkness” “or something else we cannot be sure of”.

Dumézil says that, rather, the name Skaði derives from the name of the geographical region, which was at the time no longer completely understood. In connection, Dumézil points to a parallel in Ériu, a goddess personifying Ireland that appears in some Irish texts, whose name he says comes from Ireland rather than the other way around.

Alternatively, Skaði may be connected with the Old Norse noun skaði (“harm”), source of the Icelandic and Faroese skaði (“harm, damage”) and cognate with obsolete English scathe, which survives in unscathed and scathing.

Nerthus

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