Updated: May 31, 2018
I first heard about Nerthus at a recent talk I attended. She intrigued me, so when I got home I started to do a bit of research into her. Little is known about this early Germanic Earth Mother goddess whose cult was described by the Roman historian Tacitus in his work ' Germania'.
Tacitus writes about the Suebian tribes of Germania and states' that beside the populous Semnones and warlike Langobardi there are seven remoter Suebian tribes; the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines and Nuitones. The seven tribes are surrounded by rivers and forests, there is nothing particularly worthy of comment about them as individuals, yet they are particularly distinguished in that they all worship the goddess Nerthus, that is Mother Earth.
There is a sacred grove on an island in the ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot draped with a cloth. Where a priest alone can touch with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing and the countryside celebrates her festival. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away; only then do they experience peace and quiet. When the goddess has had her fill of human society, the priest takes her back to the temple. Afterwards her chariot, the cloth and if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately swallowed up in the same lake.'
Tacitus's account has been corroborated by archaeological finds in the area, including the remains of cult carts and models from the Iron age and rock carvings of cult processions from as early as the Bronze age. He compares Nerthus with the Roman earth mother 'Terra Mater' so looking at how the Romans viewed their own earth mother may provide more clues into the nature of Nerthus. The Romans honoured and respected Terra Mater, in all her aspects. She was seen as fertile and nurturing but could also bring famine and earthquakes.
I wondered about the slaves being 'swallowed up in the lake', or more obviously drowned. Were they ritual sacrifices to Nerthus, or were they not allowed to live after seeing the face of the Goddess? The sources that I have read seem to mainly point to one or the other of these theories, and one of them suggests that the bog bodies found in Northern Europe may have been sacrificed to Nerthus. It seems ironic to me for a goddess who brought peace to the land, but Earth goddesses have always been understood to bring creation and destruction. Maybe one day we will know the truth.
In most branches of modern heathenry, Nerthus is seen as one of the Vanir deities, who are associated with fertility, abundance, nature, sexuality and the bounty of the earth. Her name is linked to that of the sea god Njord. The old Norse name for Njord is exactly what the Proto-Germanic name Nerthus would look like in Old Norse. Two theories have been put forward to account for this from scholars. In the first Nethus and Njord form a divine pair like Freyr and Freya, the second theory argues that Nerthus/Njord was a hermaphroditic deity. In the modern pagan community though, they are usually worshipped as two separate entities.
Njord is seen as the Father of Freyr and Freya, and all we know of their Mother is that she was Njord's unnamed sister, some believe she is Nerthus. There are some similarities between her and Freyr, who also travels in a chariot drawn by boars. We know from medieval Icelandic sources that priests and priestesses of Freyr travelled throughout the country on a chariot which contained a statue of the god, which sounds very much like Tacitus' account of the procession of Nerthus. Freya also travelled in a chariot, pulled by two cats.
Nerthus brought blessings of fertility, peace and abundance to the land and as such would have been an important goddess to the local tribes, honoured and respected for her creative and destructive attributes, she is the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, the Universal Mother of all life.
Ways to honour Nerthus:
Colours: Greens and Browns Symbols: Bog, cattle, cart, plough, fields Altar suggestions: Grains, in-season produce, cow-horns, crab apples, dock plant, raspberry leaves, fir branches, the rune Jera (which is associated with harvests), a veiled statue of an earth mother goddess. Food and Drink: Cooked or soaked grain or oats, root vegetables, fresh bread, wild gathered herbs, beer.
Service offerings: Plant trees especially fruit trees, weed someone’s garden if you haven't got one of your own, support a farmer’s market or shop, recycle, grow some of your own food even if it’s a pot of herbs on your kitchen window sill. Go litter picking at your local park, beach, woods etc.
Hail Nerthus,Hail the dirt teeming with life.Hail the bog, life’s ancient terminus.Hail the pig, the fowl, the cowand all animals and growing thingsthat feel the gift of Your blessing.May we be inspired, Great Goddess.May we be inspired in our devotion to You,today and every day.Hail, Nerthus.