The Northern Way

The Voluspá, The Sibyl’s Lay in the Edda of Sæmund

The Cult of Nerthus

by Dr. Gudmund Schütte

Page 1


No religion has such a venerable place within old Northcrn myth-lore as the cult of Nerthus. It is verified through older tests than any other cult within that group of nations which was in Old Norse called Got-thiod, in Old English "eÞel Gotena," (Widsith) - we here prefer to say : the Gottonic group. (1)

The following little sketch does not pretend to be a special study on myth-lore or folk-lore. It simply collects those facts which quite involuntarily present themselves to any student who happens to read the evidences in question. For particulars of the discustion, see the works of the specialists, such as the German : Müllenhoff; the Dane : Axel Olrik; the Swede: Axel Kock; the Englishman: H. M. Chadwick.

The base of our notions about the Nerthus cult is a series of linguistical and mythological identifications. Nerthus, main goddess of the Angles, is identified with Niærth or Niorðr, main god of some Scandinavian tribes. The first name is the exact older linguistical stage of the latter.

Niorðr is married to his own sister; they have a son Freyr and a daughter Freyja, who in later times inherits the place of the parents. This secondary pair of deities as an '' emanation '' of the first.

Freyr, also called Fricco, is the spender of the sacred peace, O. Norse fróða-friðr. He reappears as a dethroned god in the Swedish king Frø, and as the Danish king Frið-Fróði or Frode Fredegod, the spender of the fróða-friðr.

Freyr is called Yngvi-Freyr or Ingun-ár-freyr, i.e., the "lord of Inguions," "the fertility-spending lord of Inguions.'' The Inguions are an ethnical group, embracing especially Angles, Jutes, Danes, and (later?) Swedes. The most direct continuation of the group seems to be the state of Denmark. A whole series of characteristical features accompany the cult more or less generally.

The deity is a symbol of fertility : Nerthus, Niorðr, Freyr, king Fróde, Frede-god. . The deity is a symbol of peace Nerthus, Niorðr, Freyr, Fr6de, Frede-god. During the feast of the deity all weapons are ritually locked up: Nerthus; Swedish custom, generalised by Tacirus. During the feast, the deity visits the districts of the country, driving- in a chariot : Nerthus, goddess of Hleiðrar (hleiðrar = tents) , Freyr, Frode Fredegod. The deity is concealed behind the veils of a tester : Nerthus, the gddess of Hleiðrar (hleiðrar = tents). The sanctuary is on an island, peninsula, or connected with sea- trade; Nerthus on an island in the Ocean, Nærbjerg on the isolated peninsular “Holy-ness” in N. Jutland, 2 Nærth-owæ (“Nerthus-hills”) on the island of Funen; residence of a goddess in Hleiðrar on the isle of Sea-land, Niartherum on the isle of Sealand, islet Niærdholm near the coast of Skane, mythical residence of Niorðr in Noa-tun, “Naval town.”

A ritual differentiation is observed, according to the sex of the deity : the female Nerthus as a priest, the male Nerthus (Freyr) as a priestess. Cf. Tacitus on the cult of the dioscures (“tveir lladdingjar”) among the Vandales: the priests have female dress.

A death motive appears : the actual death or disappearance of the deity is hidden to the common people, whereas the priests go on receiving the sacrifices: Freyr (two different traditions), Frode Fredegod. Most likely it is a mere fortunity that the same feature does’t appear in the tradition about the female Nerthus.

The naval element is emphasised more in the tradition about Niorðr than in the traditions about the female Nerthus and about Freyr.

The element of fertility is, in the cult of Freyr, combined with phallic rites. This special feature does not appear in the tradition about the female Nerthus, but it quite natural that it was eliminated here, as it did not agree with Tacitus's tendency of idealizing the Gottons.

Most of the above statements are generally accepted by the specialists.

There is some dissension about the extension of the group of Inguions. Most Germans arbitrarily identify the group with the Anglo-Frisians, excluding the Scandinavians. Other Germans, such as Rieger, Kosinna, have shown the futility of this assumption. We here follow Chadwick, who places the centre of the Inguions exactly on Danish ground.

We shall now relate the different main evidences. II.EVIDENCES ON THE CULT.-2. TACITUS ON THE CULT OF NFRTHUS.-In his " Germania," C. 40, Tacitus speaks of a religious community behind the Semnons and Langobards, already belonging partly to the “less known parts of the Gottonic country" (secretiora Germanicæ”). Members of the community Rendings (Reudigni), Avions, Angles, Varines, Eudoses, “'Suarines”' or “Suardones,” and “Nuithones”; the latter two names are no doubt corrupt - we may correct them into Charudes and Euthones, i.e., “Hardboer,” and Jutes. (See under III.)

There is nothing particular to be said about these tribes, except that they jointly worship Nerthus, i.e., the 'Mother Earth.' On an island in the ocean there a chaste grove, and therein a sacred chariot, covered by a tester. Nobody is allowed to touch it except the priest; he notices when the goddess is present in the sanctuary; then he puts the female oxen to the chariot and follows it with great veneration. Then they have glad days, and there is feasting in all places, which the goddess honours by her presence. They do not begin wars, and touch no weapons; all iron is locked up. Peace and good time is the only thing they know of and aspire. And so it goes on, till at last the goddess gets tired of the intercourse with the mortal beings and retires to her temple. Then immediately the chariot and the garments, and, if people may believe it, the goddess is washed in a secret lake. Slaves make service at the washing, and immediately after it they are swallowed by the lake. Hence is the origin of the mysterious terror and the sacred ignorance about what that may be which nobody is allowed to see unless he is sure to die."

3.TACITUS ON THE CUSTOMS OF THE SWEDES. After describing how the republicanism of the southern Gottons is replaced by royalism among the Goths in Prussia, Tacitus goes on, making the Swedes represent royal absolutism. The Sitons (= Kvænes), north of the Swedes, form the top of the climax, being reigned by a queen. About the Swedes he says: “They pay much respect to wealth, and therefore a single man rules them, with no exceptions. The weapons are not granted to anybody indiscriminately, as among the other Gottons, but locked up under the custody of a slave. For the ocean prohibits sudden inroads of foes, and armed men's hands often strike out ('lasciviunt'), when they are idle.” The whole description is obviously due to an exaggerated report about the ritual peace during the sacrifices.

4.SNORRI ON FREYR.-In his Ynglinga Saga, C. 4, et seq., Snorri, in his euhemeristic way, describes the religious development of ancient Sweden. The first vernacular gods were the Vanes. These must afterwards make terms with a southern set of gods, called Ases, who were headed by Woden. " The most prominent among the Vanes were Niorðr and his son. . . . . Niorðr had had his sister as wife~this was allowed among the Vanes. Their children were Freyr and Freyja. But among the Ases it was forbidden to marry such near relations. Freyja was a priestess who presided at the sacrifices (blót-gyðja); she was the first to teach the Ases witchcraft (seið), which was used among Vanes. . . . Niorðr of Noatunir (" Naval towns") took over the rule among the Swedes, after Woden's death, and kept up the sacrifices. The Swedes called him their lord (dróttinn), and he took tributary gifts of them. In his days there was good peace and abundance of fertility, so that the Swedes believed that Niorðr determined the crops and the riches of men. Niorðr died of sickness; he made himself marked to Oðinn before his death. The Swedes burned him, and wept at at his grave."

Freyr took over the rule after Niorðr. He was called lord of the Swedes, and took tributary gifts of them; he was kind, and the spender of good years, like his her. Freyr built a large temple near Upsala, and took his residence there, endowing it with all his incomes and possessions. This was the origin of the Upsala crownland, which has since been preserved. In his days the " Frode-peace " began, with fertility in lands. The Swedes attributed it to Freyr, and therefore he was worshipped more than all other gods, insomuch as the people grew richer. His wife was Gerð, daughter of Gymir; their son was Fiolnir. Freyr was also called Yngvi This name was long used as an honorary title within his family and his men were called Ynglings. Freyr finally got sick. When his death was approaching his men allowed only few people to see him, while they themselves built a large hill with a door and t hree small windows. When Freyr was dead they carried him secretly into the hill, saying to the Swedes that he was still alive. They guarded him there for three years, but all the tribute they poured down into the hill, the gold through one hole, the Silver through another, and the copper through the third. Then fertility and peace persisted.”

“Freyja continued the sacrifices. She was now left as the only still living of the gods. . . . When the Swedes noticed that Freyr was dead, and that never the less peace and fertility lasted, they believed that it would remain so, as long as Freyr was in Sweden; therefore they would not burn him, but called him "god of the world," and brought him sacrifices for the sake of fertility and peace henceforth.''


1. Commonly used names of the group are - Goths, Teutons, Germanen." As all of these names are misleading, " Germanen" has some 8 or 9 significations-we have chosen the classical form “Guttones, Gothones” which is nowadays never used, and can therefore conveniently be privileged to signify the same as Old Norse, Got-thiod "the whole of our group of nations." Cf. our discussion with Karl Blind in previous volumes of the " Saga Book." Also our treatise “Gottonic Names," The Journal of Engl. and Germ. Philol., 1912. Back

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