It goes without saying that Nerthus is a mysterious Goddess, both in the ancient sense of a Mystery cultus and of the more modern colloquial term of the word. What we know of Her are scant references in Tacitus’s Germania, where he emphasized that the one remarkable thing that united the ancient Germanic tribes of what is now northern Germany and Denmark was their worship of a great Goddess he called Nerthus. Her original Germanic name may not ever be known, as “Nerthus” is a Latinization, but I once read it may have been pronounced Nerþuz or Nerðuz (I honestly don’t remember the source, so bear with me-if I find it, I will reference it!). The -uz ending seems incredibly plausible, as that was a common noun marker in proto-Germanic, just as the -us ending was for Latin and the -os ending in ancient Celtic languages. Of course, there is the ongoing debate in scholarship and the non-academic heathen community of whether or not She is Njord, because her proto-Germanic name as given by Tacitus would be Njord in ancient Norse, the God of seafaring. This has led to many folks suggesting that She is the female form of Njord, perhaps referencing that he is a gender bending God or that He is married to His sacred twin, common among the Vanir and in Indo-European cosmologies. There are those more knowledgeable in this debate that have already written about their opinions on this matter, so I won’t go into it more for fear that I’d give out wrong information. But I digress.
The most striking aspect of Nerthus is how, when every year in these ancient Germanic communities she’d be paraded around in Her ox-drawn cart and everyone would put away their weapons and not wage war, is how the slaves who bathed and dressed her statue had to be put to death. Terrifying as it may seem to many modern people, it makes sense. Tacitus said she was the Germanic Terra Mater, Mother Earth. And just as how Mother Earth gives and nurtures life, She also takes it away. Life and death are both the same to earthly life processes, as everything living feasts off the dead-with gusto! Nerthus was always to remain veiled, and those slaves who had to lift it to clean Her holy form could not go back to the land of the living. Once faced (literally) with the terrifying mysteries of Life and Death, becoming Death, there was no way one could bring that back to a human community. The power is too great. I have heard those who are initiated in Her mysterious, mostly likely Vanic priests, may see her face and not need to be put to death, but I would imagine that initiation would involve seeing Her Face and facing the mystery of Life and Death, the ultimate cycle. That would be holy terror in the greatest word.
So, here we have a Goddess whose rein over death is what nourishes life. I have seen Her so much lately, or rather, felt Her. I have not seen Her face. What I do see and sense is Her presence, which is life force that sparks growth and the dead things that feed it. I feel Her in the soil, the thing that enables all the green things to grow and feed those who feed off of them. She is the fecundity of the Earth. She is the black soil so full of life and nutrients. I believe that without her, land lies barren and infertile, unable to grow living things. Winter here in Southern California, contrasting with most places in the world, gets most of its rainfall in winter and not summer. In wintertime, green things pop up EVERYWHERE. Many of the things that grow are invasive weeds, however. Long ago brought by European invaders, these invasive plants carpet and blanket the hillsides and any patch of bare earth they can get to, and grow thickly and deeply green with the rainfall. So everywhere I go I see things such as oat grass, barley grass, clover, dandelions, plantain… things that are generally considered to be mowed and killed. I see Her as having domain over these grasses that give life-bearing grain, so important to many of our ancestors. I see Her as having domain over the plants that crawl over the earth, low-lying ones that are often overlooked. I even see Her having domain over herbs and shrubs, whatever hangs above the earth and derives its spiritual power from having such close contact with the mysteries of the soil and creeping crawling life. In Her presence I have seen and smelled damp fertile earth, the tang of it touching my nostrils even when I am nowhere physically near dirt. Or are you? She asks. You are never away from Me, little one.
Her association with bogs is also an important one to consider. We know that ancient heathens regarding them as sacred, as a liminal space between land and water. Since they were in between realms, they were thought to also be a way of in between Midgard and the Otherworlds. I think they still are! I live away from the ocean now, but when I used to, I used to gaze at the vernal pools, where sedges and rushes grew in abundance, and I contemplated the sacredness of such spots. Nerthus has not taken me to bogs or wetlands yet, but what I do see are associations with underwater rivers and groundwater. Below our surface, there is always water flowing, whether it be mighty currents or scarce dampness distributed thinly underground in a desert. Sometimes it is frozen. However, I see Her domain as flowing melted water primarily, the water that feeds the soil and animals in the warmer seasons that precipitate bursts of life. I see Her in the roots of grass, under what we can immediately see, and isn’t that one of Her primary Mysteries? That we cannot see her easily? We humans often cannot see underneath the soil without digging it up first, we can’t see underground water until it flows into a wetland (or accessing it by digging wells or drilling and blasting into the ground to suck it away as moderns often disrespectfully do). Our eyes cannot see all the nutrients in the soil or waters without microscopes, and we often can’t see the bacteria and fungi that make it possible for such nutrients to enter plants and larger animals. Even with worms and the insects we can see we tend to not want to think about, as they disgust many of us. But we all know that without worms, there can’t be life because they aerate the soil. Now we also know that mycorrhizal fungi are necessary for plants to take up nutrients. They live symbiotically on a plant’s roots, and they often adapt to the native soil. Without these, no plants can grow, and sometimes without the native kinds of mycorrhizae, certain indigenous plants cannot grow. It’s a delicate balance. And of course, all nutrients in soil come from death-whether it may be from the original source of a dying star to the death of billions of tiny microscopic bacteria.
There is a sad dearth in modern writings and Work with Nerthus when She has so many gifts. It’s tragic. Part of the reason is because the scant historical resources concerning Her, and I also think it may be because of her inherent Mystery. I see her as simultaneously being very accessible, as all of us living folk live and depend on the fertile Earth, but also not accessible, as the Veiled One. Her mysteries are so profound, however, that this Queen of Vanaheim ought to be honored by all heathens. Hail Nerthus! May your Powers continue to give us life, and let us learn to appreciate the full gravity of Life!