Mother of Vanaheim

Who is Nerthus?

by Galina Krasskova

NerthusThorskeggaI will preface this, of course, by stating up front that Nerthus is not a Goddess with Whom I have had much contact. I respect Her immensely and will absolutely honor Her when the opportunity arises, but She is not a Deity with Whom I feel any close affinity. I’m sure there are those “Vanatru” (those who honor the Vanir primarily) who could write about Her with much more authority than I. Still, I shall do my best here.

We first learn about Nerthus from the Roman historian Tacitus, who was writing in the first century C.E. He called Her ‘Terra Mater’ (earth Mother) and noted that She was worshipped by several Germanic tribes. He describes a ritual setting in which an image of Nerthus stands concealed in a cart within a sacred grove. Only Her clergy were permitted to touch or approach the sacred image. All others were put to death. Tacitus writes that this cart would be driven in a holy procession, after which the statue and its accoutrements would be tended to and cleansed in a special lake (and the slaves who assisted with this would be drowned in that lake). (Simek, p. 230). Simek considers Nerthus to have been a Baltic and/or Danish Goddess, since the tribes Tacitus specifically refers to settled east of the Elbe River. He also associates the ritual washing of the statue and its gear with the sacred marriage, or hieros gamos. (ibid).

I have always associated Nerthus with sacrifice, particularly blood sacrifice for obvious reasons. Doesn’t it seem, regardless of religion, that the earth Goddesses are the fiercest of all? It seems fitting that Nerthus would be associated with that which is poured out upon the earth and which, in turn, nourishes it. I once read (and sadly I cannot recall the source, though it may have been “Dying for the Gods,”) speculation that many of the bog bodies found in Northern Europe were slain in sacrifice to Her. Ironically, despite the sacrifice so associated with Her in Tacitus, the other prevailing focus of Her worship, seems to be on inviolate peace and iron weapons were forbidden in Her rituals and at the time of Her procession. (Green, p. 115). I would interpret this to imply that purification, frith (right order), and ritual protocol are very important to this Goddess in some way. She marks the boundary zone between that which is sacred and that which is profane and it is Her power, and Her protocols which prevent negative, unbalanced, and unhealthy contamination of the two. (ibid).

firtree2In this, I think She is about “miasma,” or spiritual taint. This is not just a matter of experiencing or touching or interacting with something spiritually unclean, but of balance disrupted when someone unprepared encounters the sacred. There are consequences. In some arcane way, I almost think that She regulates such interactions. She guards the boundary and the doorway to a holy power so immense that those unprepared face obliteration. Even the way in which sacrifices were made to Her: drowning in a bog, is, to my mind, significant: a bog is a place that is equally of earth and of water. It is liminal by its very nature and to many ancient cultures, water and other reflective surfaces were quite magical, in that they could serve as gateways to the other worlds. Both earth and water cleanse: water by its very nature, and earth by receiving and transmuting the bodies of the dead. At its most simplistic, both elements are also intimately necessary for life, both of the body and of the land itself. Many of the Vanir are specifically associated with water and earth.

In most branches of contemporary Heathenry, Nerthus is viewed as one of the Vanir (by some the Queen or Mother of the Vanir, if you will). She is the wife of the sea God Njord and the Mother of Frey and Freya, two of the most popular Deities in Heathenry. (Some Heathens ascribe to Her a second consort as well, the God Wuldorfaðer, about Whom almost nothing else is known). As a group, the Vanir Deities tend to be associated with fertility and fecundity of the earth, sexuality and eroticism, abundance, wealth, creativity, and passion (not just sexual passion but the exuberance and vitality in the land, in one’s work, in one’s life). Amongst scholars there is some ambiguity regarding Nerthus and Njord because grammatically, Nerthus is “the same form of the name which would correspond to the Old Norse God Njord.” (ibid). This has led to all sorts of scholarly speculation but within the modern community both Deities are usually (and rightly, in my opinion) worshipped as separate entities.

Because Tacitus, in good Roman fashion, compares (or syncretizes) Nerthus with the Roman Terra Mater, examining how the Romans viewed their own Earth Mother may provide valuable clues into the nature of Nerthus. (Krasskova, p. 88). The Romans had no sentimental illusions about Terra Mater. She was a nurturing and gift giving Goddess of the earth, but She was also the terrible Goddess of earthquakes, famine, flood, storm, and destruction. There was bounty, but also tremendous danger  and outright terror all contained at once in the holy presence of this Goddess. (ibid). Tacitus specifically talks about the mysteries of Nerthus as begetting “terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be which is only seen by men doomed to die.” (Tacitus, chapter 40). In this, it would seem, Nerthus contains within Herself the embodiment of holy power and perhnerthusleaves1aps holy terror as well.

In surviving Anglo-Saxon writings, there is a ritual (Æcerbot or ‘field remedy’) for blessing the fields prior to ploughing and planting. Despite its rather late provenance (11th century) in this ritual “Eorðan Moðor,” or Earth Mother is invoked. Contemporary Heathens, particularly those with an Anglo-Saxon focus, look to this rite for one of the Holy Tides: Charming of the Plough, which usually occurs in late February. While few of us today are bound to the earth in the way that our largely agrarian ancestors were, we can still honor its cycles and honor the gift of our own creativity too in such rites.

In fact, that is a very good way to honor Nerthus: pay attention to how you honor the earth. Consider buying local and supporting your local farmers. If you can afford it, buy organic. If you can’t, be as mindful of possible of the journey your food has taken, and consider sacrificing an hour or so a month in cleaning up a local park, or beach, or strip of roadside. Time is a tremendously valuable gift in the currency of devotion.  Over the next month, we will discuss various ways to honor  Nerthus in the modern world and I welcome suggestions from those who already do so.

Useful Sources:

“Dying for the Gods” by M. Green

“Looking for the Lost Gods of England,” by Kathleen Herbert

“Boar, Birch and Bog” by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild

“Exploring the Northern Tradition” by Galina Krasskova

“Dictionary of Northern Mythology” by Rudolf Simek


Artwork by Thorskegga Thorn.