Nerthus

The Trundholm Sun Chariot - a possible representation of Nerthus? The Sun is personified as the feminine Sól in Scandinavian legend.

The Trundholm Sun Chariot – a possible representation of Nerthus? The Sun is personified as the feminine Sól in Scandinavian legend.

Publius Gaius Cornelius Tacitus (Roman Historian and Propagandist of the 1stC CE) – Germania (Translated by J.B. Rives)

Chapter 40

The Langobardi, by contrast, are distinguished by the fewness of their numbers. Ringed round as they are by many mighty peoples, they find safety not in obsequiousness but in battle and its perils. After them come the Reudingi, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini and Nuitones, behind their ramparts of rivers and woods. There is nothing noteworthy about these peoples individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed in clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see…

The account is obviously second or third-hand and apart from its broad observations, the details should be treated with caution. The description of a peregrination through the provinces, and the sanctuary associated with water and the sea all fit with the descriptions of the later Norse god Njörðr, yet modern scholars have remained confused by the masculine aspect of Njörðr, perhaps misunderstanding the ‘otherworld inversion principle’. Tacitus’ picture is actually one combining the opposing twin principles Njörðr and Jörð – sea and earth.

So what about the drwoned slaves? We shall turn West again to a legend from a land in which a syncretism between Norse and Celtic culture produced the following legend…

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