Erce, Erce, Erce! : A Low German Earth Mother
The Mother of the Gods and Men
Tacitus begins his account by telling of the Langobardi (Lombards), a tribe distinguished by their boldness in battle, who despite their small number, retained their independence in the midst of mighty neighbors made up of seven tribes, including the Anglii, the ancestors of the English Angles. Tacitus writes:
“The Langobardi are distinguished by being few in number. Surrounded by many mighty peoples they have protected themselves not by submissiveness, but by battle and boldness. Next to them come the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines and Huitones protected by rivers and forests. There is nothing especially noteworthy about these states individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and believe she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples."
Among the Germanic tribes that worship Nerthus, “that is Mother Earth,” in the first century, Tacitus identifies the Longobardi (Lombards) and the Anglii (Angles, ancestors of the English). Therefore, it should come as no surprise when we find evidence of just such a procession in the earliest Old English records demonstrating that this practice survived among them into Christian times. The Anglo-Saxon Æcerbót, an elaborate eleventh century ritual intended to remedy unproductive land, is a mixture of prose directives and alliterative verse, probably intended for community performance. The text includes four metrical prayers. After Tacitus’ report on Nerthus, these superficially Christian but substantially pagan prayers are one of the clearest traces of Mother Earth in a Germanic source. The character of the ritual indicates a pagan communal procession honoring the earth goddess, and is supported by both literary and archaeological evidence across the Germanic regions.
As recorded, the Æcerbót begins before sunrise with the removal of four pieces of sod, one from each side of a field. Oil, honey, and yeast are gathered, along with milk from every kind of animal, wood from every kind of tree except hardwood, and a piece of every herb, except burr, found on the land. These are sprinkled with holy water, which is allowed to drip on the clods, with the words: “Grow and multiply and fill the earth. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit be blessed.” They are then brought into a church, placed greenside toward the altar, and four masses are sung over them. Before sunset of the same day, the clods are then carried back to the field; four small wooden crosses each bearing the names of the four evangelists are laid into the holes left by the removal of the sod. The saints’ names are invoked and the turf is replaced, accompanied by additional prayers repeated nine times.
After bowing humbly nine times toward the east, the farmer utters an additional prayer to “earth and sky, and to the true Saint Mary.” Further prayers and gestures follow; then the farmer blesses seed obtained from an almsman given twice as much in return, and ritually prepares the plowing equipment by boring a hole in the beam of the plow, and filling it with incense, fennel, hallowed soap and hallowed salt. He then sets the seed on the plow and intones a prayer, clearly conscious of the heiros gamos, which begins:
Erce, Erce, Erce, eorþan modor,
Geunne þe se alwalda ece drighten,
Æcera wexendra and wridendra
Eaciniendra and elniendra, etc
"Ecre, Ecre, Ecre, Mother of Earth,
May the Almighty, eternal Lord grant you
fields growing and flourishing,
increasing and strengthening, etc.
The plowman then cuts the first furrow, reciting another prayer which began with these words, Hal wes þu, folde, fira modor: “May you be well, Earth, Mother of men! May you be growing in the Embrace of God, filled with food for the benefit of men.” He then takes a loaf made from ælces cynnes melo, “every kind of grain” grown on the land, kneaded with milk and holy water, and places it in the first furrow continuing to pray. The ritual ends with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer three times, with an appeal to God that every seed sown may sprout.
Based on the evidence, one may reasonably conclude that the veneration of this Earth-Mother is equally ancient. The formula Erce, Erce, Erce may contain her name, although some have questioned whether Erce is a name at all. If so, it may mean “bright” or “pure” from OHG erchan, Gothic airkns, and is probably related to the name of a legendary figure found chiefly in Low Saxon districts, a divine dame known as Frau Herke or Harke who flies through the country between Christmas and Twelfth-Day dispensing prosperity. In the traditions of the Altmark, she either scratches the maids who have not spun off all their flax or befouls their spindles. Stories concerning her must have once been more numerous. More commonly called Frau Holle, her byname Harke or Herke, can be traced with some certainty to around 1406, when the German historian Gobelin Person of Paderborn, located in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, wrote in his Cosmidromius (ch. 38) that, from antiquity, the common folk there had revered the goddess Hera, also called Juno and Ceres, who flew through the air bestowing earthly abundance between the feasts of the Nativity and the Epiphany (Dec 25th to January 6th). The locals called her Frau Here (vrowe here), a name he equates with Hera, the wife of Zeus. Her name and annual activity, however, clearly connect her to Odin’s wife, the native Frau Holle or Herka, who was still called Frau Har(r)e until relatively recent times around Halle.
As early as 1851, Benjamin Thorpe observed that, since Gobelin’s account points to a Low Saxon Earth goddess, “there seems to be no doubt” that the Erce, invoked as eorþan modor in an Anglo-Saxon spell for the fertilizing of the land, is identical to her. With less certainty, the Æcerbót’s eorþan modor can be related to an obscure goddess named by the tenth century Anglo-Saxon historian, Venerable Bede. In his De Temporum Ratione, Bede wrote that the month of March was called Rhedamonath by his people, after “Rheda to whom they sacrificed.” The name may be compared to Hertha, a variant of Nerthus, because Dutch, German and English all show evidence of metathesis, a phenomenon in which consonants reverse positions within words without changing their meaning, thus rendering Herthum as Rhedum, or Hertha as Rheda. So despite lingering doubts regarding the significance of the word Erce in the Old English Æcerbót, the charm itself unquestionably refers to a pre-Christian earth-goddess, conceptually connected to parallel figures within the Germanic realm.
-William P Reaves
An Excerpt from the book
Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology (2018)