Nerthus and Njorun: a Norse Mystery

(This post is adapted from material in my forthcoming book on Njord and Skadi.)

One of the great puzzles of Norse mythology is the problem of Nerthus and Njord. The Germanic goddess Nerthus, whose cult is described by the Roman historian Tacitus, in the first century AD, is not attested in any other source, but her name is linguistically the same as that of the Scandinavian sea-god Njord, who appears in sources roughly 1 000 years later.

Since Snorri tells us in the Ynglinga saga that Njord had a sister who was his wife, the mystery seemed solved: Nerthus was his sister, just as Freyja was Freyr’s.

However, there have always been dissenting voices, including that of Richard North, who suggested that Tacitus had got it wrong, and Nerthus was a male god. Others have suggested that Nerthus and Njord were the same deity, with a sex-change along the way (Turville-Petre), or different sexes in different places (Dumézil) or one, bisexual, deity (Simek).

All of which leaves us with a question. Whether or not we accept that Nerthus was a deity independent of Njord, who was his sister? And why doesn’t she have a name?

Njorun

In the December 2012 issue of RMN Newsletter, Joseph S. Hopkins puts Njorun forward for the job. He points out that she’s somewhat underemployed, as she only appears a few times in the sources, mainly in kennings.

In Skaldskaparmal she appears in a list of goddesses:

Now shall all the Asyniur be named. Frigg and Freyja, Full and Snotra, Sigyn and Vor. Gerd and Gefiun, Gna, Lofn, Skadi, Iord and Idunn, Ilm, Bil, Niorun.
(trans. Faulkes)

and in Alvissmal, in a kenning for night:

‘Night it’s called among men, and darkness by the gods,
the masker by the mighty Powers,
unlight by the giants, joy-of-sleep by the elves,
the dwarves call it dream-goddess.’ [Draum-Njörun]
(Larrington’s translation)

Njorun is used as in kennings for “woman” in poetry by Kormákr Ögmundarson, Hrafn Önundarson and Rögnvaldr Kali, and also in verses in Íslendinga saga, Njáls saga and Harðar saga. Also, eid-Njorun or fire- Njorun as a kenning for “woman” appears in verses by Gísli Súrsson and Björn Breiðvíkingakappi, and hól-Njorun in a stanza by Björn hítdælakappi.

In Gislis saga Súrssonar he relates a dream where a woman appeared to him, for whom he uses many kennings, including eid-Njorun:

I thought in my sleep that the Sjofn of the silverband [woman, good dreamwoman] stood weeping over me, this Gerdr of the robe [woman, good dreamwoman] had wet eyelashes, and the noble Njorun of the wave-fire [woman, good dreamwoman] bound my wounds very quickly. What do you think was in that for me?
(ch. 38: Olsen’s translation)

In light of this, some have seen Njorun as a goddess of dream and night. One website states that she is a goddess of dream, especially honoured by the dark-elves in Svartalfheim, and that her hall is a good place for prophetic dreamwork.[ Of course, this is UPG, but it could connect up to the general feeling in Norse and Germanic cultures about the prophetic and intuitive abilities of women.

The name Njorun sounds a lot like Njord, and there have been attempts to link them before. Jan de Vries thought Njorun might be the Scandinavian version of Nerthus. Finnur Johnsson thought it might be a name for the earth-goddess, and Alfred Morey Sturtevant posited “a possible link among Njorun, *Nerþuz, and Njorðr by way of *ner-.” (Sturtevant: 167.)

The Linguistic Evidence

The connection Njorun – Nerthus is an easy one to make, because they “sound alike” and it woudld solve a lot of problems. Some have made the jump already; in Boar, Birch and Bog by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild presents Njorun as one of the faces of Nerthus, perhaps even her real name. A lot of his information is UPG, although he does make some interesting points (quoted from p. 16) on linguistic grounds:

  • The common Njör- stem fits the naming conventions seen elsewhere among the Vanir (Frey/Freyja, Ullr/Ullin, Njörð/Jörð).
  • The -un (-n) ending is common among the names of the Asynjur – c.f. Gefn/Gefjun (also Gefjon), Lofn, Sjöfn, Iðunn (with a doubling of the final consonant), Sigyn and Syn.
  • There is a possible connection with the Etruscan/Latin goddess Nerio, who was the personification of valor. If so, it would line up with the other references to the Vanir being able warriors (though non-aggressive).

The first point is the weakest, and to be fair, Hrafnhild doesn’t insist on it, but admits that *Ullin is a reconstructed form and Njord/Jord not generally accepted.

The other points are more interesting, especially the connection with Nerio, an equally obscure Roman goddess of battle. She was a personification of valour who was partnered with Mars, and occasionally equated to Bellona or Minerva. She sometimes received offerings of war booty. (Adkins and Adkins: 163.)

I find it hard to imagine any Roman war-goddess being non-aggressive (the cult of Nerthus involved a general truce during her festivals), but it’s the name not the manner we’re comparing here, and we already know that the name Nerthus might come from the same root as the Celtic -nert, “force, strength”. (Although French (83-4) derives it from a root meaning “narrow”, and connects it to the Nervii tribe.)

As Hopkins says, in Norse myth all beings and objects have names. It would be good to finally put a name to Njord’s sister.


Links:

Wikipedia on Njorun
Njorun as Goddess of Dreams
Image of Njorun
Some personal experience of Njorun

References:

The Poetic Edda, Carolyne Larrington (trans.) Oxford UP, 1996.
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
Tacitus (trans. H. Mattingly and revised by H. S. Handford) 1970: The Agricola and the Germania, Penguin Classics.

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins 2000: Dictionary of Roman Religion, OUP.
Dumézil, Georges, 1955: “Njordr, Nerthus et le folklore scandinave des génies de la mer”, Revue de l’histoire des religions, 147: 210-26.
French, Kevin 2014: “We need to talk about Gefjun: Toward a new etymology of an Old Icelandic theonym.”, diss. (pdf available here)
Hopkins Joseph S. 2002: “Goddesses Unknown I: Njorun and the Siter-Wife of Njord”, RMN Newsletter Dec. 2012, no. 5: 39-43. (academica.edu)
Hrafnhild, Nicanthiel 2009: Boar, Birch and Bog: Prayers to Nerthus, Lulu Books.
North, Richard 1997: Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, CUP.
Olsen, Karin “Woman-Kennings in the GÍsla saga“, in Studies in English Language and Literature: Doubt Wisely, eds. M. J. Toswell, E. M. Tyler, Routledge: 267-85. (sample available on Google Books)
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge (entry on Nerthus).
Sturtevant, Albert Morey 1952: “Regarding the old Norse Name Gefjon”, Scandinavian Studies 24: 4 (Nov. 1952): pp. 166-167. (JSTOR)
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. 1975: Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, Praeger.

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