The sister-wife of Njörðr
Posted by Fredsvenn on June 21, 2016
In Norse mythology, Njörðr is a god among the Vanir. Njörðr, the father of the deities Freyr and Freyja by his unnamed 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. Veneration of Njörðr survived into 18th or 19th century Norwegian folk practice, where the god is recorded as Njor and thanked for a bountiful catch of fish.
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 hero Hadingus, and theorizing on his formerly more prominent place in Norse paganism due to the appearance of his name in numerous place names. Additionally, in Old Icelandic translations of Classical mythology the Roman god Saturn’s name is glossed as “Njörðr.”
Njörðr is often identified with the older Germanic fertility goddess Nerthus, whose reverence by various Germanic tribes is described by Roman historian Tacitus in his 1st CE century work Germania goddess Nerthus. The original meaning of the name is contested, but it may be related to the Irish word nert which means “force” and “power”.
Nerthus is a goddess associated with fertility attested by Tacitus, the first century AD Roman historian, in his ethnographic work 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.
A number of theories have been proposed regarding the figure of Nerthus and her potential later traces amongst the Germanic peoples, including the location of the events described, relations to other known deities and her role amongst the Germanic tribes. Various scholarly theories exist regarding that the figure may be identical to the unnamed sister-wife of Njörðr with whom he had 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”.
The name Nerthus is generally held to be a Latinized form of Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz, a direct precursor to the Old Norse deity name Njörðr. While scholars have noted numerous parallels between the descriptions of the two figures, Njörðr is attested as a male deity.
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, and both derive from the Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz.
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.
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.
The name Njörðr may be related to the name of the Norse goddess Njörun (Old Norse Njǫrun, sometimes modernly anglicized as Niorun). 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.
In ancient Roman religion and myth, Nerio was an ancient war goddess and the personification of valor. She was the partner of Mars in ancient cult practices, and was sometimes identified with the goddess Bellona, and occasionally with the goddess Minerva. Spoils taken from enemies were sometimes dedicated to Nerio by the Romans. Nerio was later supplanted by mythologized deities appropriated and adapted from other religions.
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.
Gefjon or Gefjun (with the alternate spelling Gefion) is a goddess associated with ploughing, the Danish island of Zealand, the legendary Swedish king Gylfi, the legendary Danish king Skjöldr, foreknowledge, and virginity. Gefjon is attested in different sources, and appears as a gloss for various Greco-Roman goddesses in some Old Norse translations of Latin works.
Regarding the plough and Gefjon, Davidson concludes that “the idea behind the taking of the plough round the countryside seems to be that it brought good fortune and prosperity, gifts of a benevolent goddess. Gefjon and her plough thus fit into a large framework of the cult of a goddess associated with fertility of both land and water.”
Scholars have proposed theories about the etymology the name of the goddess, connections to fertility and ploughing practices, the implications of the references made to her as a virgin, five potential mentions of the goddess in the Old English poem Beowulf, and potential connections between Gefjon and Grendel’s Mother and/or the goddesses Freyja and Frigg. Due to perceived similarities it has been proposed a connection between Gefjun and the goddesses Frigg and Freyja.
The etymology of the name Gefjon has been a matter of dispute. In modern scholarship, the element Gef- in Gef-jon is generally theorized as related to the element Gef- in the name Gef-n. The name Gefn is one of the numerous names for the goddess Freyja, and likely means “she who gives (prosperity or happiness).” The connection between the two names has resulted in etymological results of Gefjun meaning “the giving one.”
Albert Murey Sturtevant notes that “the only other feminine personal name which contains the suffix -un is Njǫr-un. Whatever the stem syllable Njǫr- represents (perhaps *ner- as in *Ner-þuz>Njǫrðr), the addition of the n- and un-suffixes seems to furnish an exact parallel to Gef-n : Gefj-un (cf. Njǫr-n : Njǫr-un).” A Finnish word for “bride’s outfit, trousseau” may derive from Gefjon’s name.
Skaði (sometimes anglicized as Skadi, Skade, or Skathi) is a jötunn and goddess associated with bowhunting, skiing, winter, and mountains. In all sources she is the daughter of the deceased Þjazi, 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. In both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, Skaði is responsible for placing the serpent that drips venom onto the bound Loki. Skaði is alternately referred to as Öndurguð (Old Norse “ski god”) and Öndurdís (Old Norse “ski dís”, often translated as “lady”).
Sister-wife of Njörðr
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.
The situation is 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, Freyr is referred to as the “son” of Njörðr and the goddess Skaði in the Poetic Edda poem Skírnismál.
In a euhemerized account of the gods in Ynglinga saga chapter 4, Snorri Sturluson characterizes Freyr and Freyja as the offspring of Njörðr by his unnamed sister, to whom he was married by Vanic custom. However, in the Eddic poem Lokasenna, Loki also states that Njörðr had Freyr by his sister.
In contrast, in the Gylfaginning section of his Prose Edda, after telling the story of Njörðr’s unhappy marriage to Skaði that occurred after he came to live among the Æsir, Snorri states that Freyr and Freyja were born after that; Freyr is also presented as the son of Njörðr and Skaði in the Eddic poem Skírnismál.
However, in Ynglinga saga Freyr, and presumably Freyja, accompanies Njörðr when he comes to live with the Æsir as a hostage after the Æsir–Vanir War; and Lokasennaalludes to Freyja having been “surprised” in Vanic incest with her brother.
Scholars since Jacob Grimm have regarded the chronology in Ynglinga saga as more likely to be original and taken Freyr and Freyja as having been therefore born to Njörðr by an unmentioned Vanic wife.
Jan de Vries suggested a remnant of ancient Indo-European custom. Since Nerthus in Tacitus’ late-1st century Germania is an earth goddess, terra mater (mother earth), but her name is etymologically identical to his, the suggestion is that there was originally a hermaphroditic deity, or more likely that they were a married twin pair, parallel to Freyr and Freyja.
Georges Dumézil pointed out that in Saxo Grammaticus ‘Gesta Danorum, the hero Hadingus’ life closely parallels Njörðr’s, including a relationship with his foster-sister Harthgrepa followed by marriage to a princess who chooses him by his feet, as Skaði does in Gylfaginning.
Grimm suggested that Freyja was thought of as the daughter of the female Nerthus and Freyr as the son of the male Njörðr. It is possible that the goddess’ name survives in the uncharacterized Njörun; other divine pairs with similarly differentiated names in the Old Norse corpus are Ullr and Ullin and Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn, and the Old High German Phol and Volla may also be a pair.