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"Nerthus" (1905) by Emil Doepler.
In Germanic paganism, Nerthus is a goddess associated with fertility. Nerthus is attested by Tacitus, a first century AD Roman historian, in his work entitled Germania. Various theories exist regarding the goddess and her potential later traces amongst the Germanic tribes. The minor planet 601 Nerthus is named after Nerthus.

Etymology

Nerthus often is identified with the Vanir god Njörðr who is attested in various thirteenth 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 100 CE.Lindow (2001:237-238) This has led to theories about the relation of the two, including that Njörðr may have once been a hermaphroditic deity or, generally considered more likely, that the name may indicate an otherwise unattested divine brother and sister pair such as the Vanir deities Freyja and Freyr. Connections have been proposed between the unnamed mother of Freyja and Freyr and the sister of Njörðr mentioned in Lokasenna and Nerthus.Orchard (1997:117-118).

Germania

In Tacitus's first century work Germania, he records a processional ritual devoted to this goddess enacted by the northern Germanic tribes:

After the Langobardi come the Reudigni, Auiones, Angli, Varni, Eudoses, Suarines and Nuithones, all well guarded by rivers and forests. There is nothing remarkable about any of these tribes unless it be the common worship of Nerthus, that is Earth Mother. They believe she is interested in men's affairs and drives among them.
On an island in the ocean sea there is a sacred grove wherein waits a holy wagon covered by a drape. One priest only is allowed to touch it. He can feel the presence of the goddess when she is there in her sanctuary and accompanies her with great reverence as she is pulled along by kine.
It is a time of festive holiday making in whatever place she decides to honour with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, in fact every weapon is put away, only at that time are peace and quiet known and prized until the goddess, having had enough of peoples company, is at last restored by the same priest to her temple. After which the wagon and the drape, and if you like to believe me, the deity herself is bathed in a mysterious pool.
The rite is performed by slaves who, as soon as it is done, are drowned in the lake. In this way mystery begets dread and a pious ignorance concerning what that sight may be which only those who are about to die are allowed to see. --Germania, ch. 40.

General Theories

A number of theories have been proposed regarding the figure of Nerthus, including the location of the events described, relations to other known deities and her role amongst the Germanic tribes. Edgar Polomé argued that Njörðr and Nerthus come from different roots, adding that "Nerthus and Njörðr are two separate divine entities, whatever similarity their names show."Polomé, (1999:143-154). Lotte Motz proposed that the Germanic goddess described by Tacitus may not have been called Nerthus at all, stating her opinion that Grimm selected the name Nerthus from among the manuscript readings precisely because it bore an etymological resemblance to Njörðr.Motz, Lotte (1992:1-18). John Grigsby (2005) theorizes that the overthrowing of the Vanir religion by that of the Æsir is remembered in the Old English poem Beowulf, that Grendel's mother is derived from the lake-dwelling Nerthus, and that Beowulf's victory over her is symbolic of the ending of the Vanir cult in Denmark by the Odin-worshiping Danes.

Later traces

It has been theorized that evidence of the veneration of a mother goddess, representing the earth, survived among the Angles (Tacitus' Anglii) into Christian times as evidenced in the partially-Christianized pagan Anglo-Saxon Æcerbot ritual. The earliest history of the Longobardi states that this tribe revered Odin's wife, Frea, suggesting her role as an earth mother.

Location

A number of scholars have proposed a potential location of Tacitus' account of Nerthus as on the island of Zealandmarker in Denmarkmarker.Chadwick (1907:267-268). Reasoning behind this notion is the linking the name Nerthus with the medieval place name Niartharum (now called Naerum) located on Zealand. Further justification is given that Lejremarker, the seat of the ancient kings of Denmark, also is located on Zealand. Nerthus is then commonly compared to Gefjun who is said to have plowed the island of Zealand from Sweden in Gylfaginning.

Identity

Jacob Grimm (1835) first identified Nerthus as the Germanic earth-mother who appeared under such names as Erda, Erce, Fru Gaue, Fjörgyn, Frau Holda and Hluodana. Viktor Rydberg (1886) identified Nerthus with the Old Norse goddess Jörð, whom he saw as the unnamed sister of Njörð and the mother of Freyja and Frey. He further identified her as Odin's wife Frigg, basing their identity on Tacitus' inclusion of the Longobardi among the tribes who worship Nerthus and the testimony of the earliest histories of the Longobards, which state that, before becoming Christians, the Longobardi especially venerated Odin's wife Frea (Frigg).

Nerthus typically is identified as a Vanir goddess. Her wagon tour has been likened to several archeological wagon finds and legends of deities parading in wagons. Terry Gunnell and many others have noted various archaeological finds of ritual wagons in Denmark dating from 200 AD and the Bronze Age. Such a ceremonial wagon, incapable of making turns, was discovered in the Oseberg ship find. Two of the most famous literary examples occur in the Icelandic family sagas. The Vanir god Freyr is said to ride in a wagon annually through the country accompanied by a priestess to bless the fields, according to a late story titled Hauks þáttr hábrókar in the fourteenth century Flateyjarbók manuscript. In the same source, King Eric of Sweden is said to consult a god named Lytir, whose wagon was brought to his hall in order to perform a divination ceremony. H.R. Davidson draws a parallel between these incidents and the Tacitus' account of Nerthus, suggesting that in addition a neck-ring wearing female figure "kneeling as if to drive a chariot" also dates from the Bronze Age. She posits that the evidence suggests that similar customs as detailed in Tacitus' account continued to exist during the close of the pagan period through worship of the Vanir.

Notes

  1. Simek (2007:234)
  2. Simek (2007:234)
  3. According to Grimm, Tacitus wrote: "Rendingi, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Nuithones"
  4. Reudigni deinde et Aviones et Anglii et Varini et Eudoses et Suardones et Nuithones fluminibus aut silvis muniuntur. Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis arbitrantur. (Tacitus, Germania, 1.40).
  5. Tacitus, Germania, translation from The Lost Gods of England, by Brian Branston (Thames and Hudson, London, 1957).
  6. Grigsby(2005).
  7. Davidson (1998).
  8. Anonymous Origo Gentis Longobardorum and Paulus Diaconus, Historia Langobardorum, ch. 7.; Both works appear in English as History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907.
  9. Davidson (1964).
  10. Chadwick (1907:289).
  11. Deutsche Mythologie, Vol. I, ch. 13; translated as Teutonic Mythology, by James Steven Stalleybrass, 1883, pp. 251-253.
  12. Lokasenna 36; Heimskringla, Ynglingasaga, ch. 4
  13. Undersökningar i Germanisk Mythologi, första delen, p. 119.


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