Original title :CIRCLING THE WAGONS:
The Vanir Gods Njord and Nerthus

Although some scholars have pointed out possible foreign models for Tacitus’ account of the Nerthus cult, it is more probable that he based his account on native Scandinavian tradition. A divinity in a wagon is well-known in Germanic lore, thus there is little need to speculate that Tacitus borrowed the idea from Roman sources. According to Snorri’s Edda, Thor drives a wagon drawn by goats, Freyr arrives at Baldur’s funeral in a cart led by a boar, and Freyja rides in a car pulled by cats. Njörd too is known as “god of the wagon” in a skaldic strophe cited in the primary manuscript of Snorri’s Edda; where other manuscripts have Vana guð (‘god of the Vanir’), Codex Regius has vagna guð. The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) was commonly known as the Wain or wagon. In skaldic poetry, Odin is known as runni vagna, "mover of wagons"; vinr vagna, "friend of wagons"; vári vagna "protector of wagons"; and valdr vagnbrautar, "ruler of the wagon-road.” The sky itself, home of the gods, is known as “the land of wagons (land vagna),” indicating that the constellations were imagined as the gods circling the heavens in their cars.

Nerthus is most often identified as one of the Vanir. It has long been recognized that the name Nerthus is an etymon of Njörðr, the most senior of the named Vanir gods, and father of Freyr and Freyja. Grimm himself noted that the name Nerthus was identical to the later Old Norse name Njörðr, an “identity as obvious as that of Freyr to Freyja.” According to John McKinnell (2005), the development would be “Nerthus > *Njarðuz (breaking) > *Njörðuz (u-mutation) > Njörðr (synscope).” Much has been made of this apparent gender gap. Over the years, scholars have suggested that the deity described by Tacitus was actually male or had changed gender over time, reflecting the reduction in the status of women between the times of Tacitus and Saxo. The competing theory that Nerthus was a hermaphrodite received some attention when it was first proposed, but is now generally rejected. Such interpretations, however, are unwarranted since a number of wooden idols recovered from the peat mosses of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein demonstrate that the deity could be of either sex. As we shall see, those from Foerlev Nymølle and Rebild skovhuse are female, while those from Broddenbjerg, Spangeholm and Rude Eskildstrup are male. The site at Aurkemper Mose, Braak, Holstein produced one of each gender, suggesting a cult in which a god and goddess were worshiped as siblings and marital partners. The difference of sex between Njörd and Nerthus is less of a problem than some imagine, for among the gods most commonly associated with such processions, we find other gender-reflexive names such as Freyr and Freyja, who are siblings; as well as Fjörgynr and Fjörgynn, which designate the earth-goddess and the father of Odin’s wife respectively. Thus, it is not inconceivable that Njörd and Nerthus represent siblings or a couple. This is all the more likely since in Lokasenna 36, Njörd is said to have fathered Freyr with his own sister, who remains unnamed in the fragmentary accounts left for study. Nerthus’ temple in insula Oceani (on an island in the Ocean) also may point in this direction, since Njörd is a sea-god and Oceanus is a proper name derived from Greek mythology. Therefore, it may be significant that Tacitus chose the word Oceanus rather than Latin mare to describe her island home. Despite the great age separating these sources, Richard North observes:

“The formal relationship between two divine names, between Nerthus of the Anglii and Njörðr of the Norsemen, is evidence of a cultural continuity in this period sufficient to permit further comparison between Tacitus’ Germania and pagan poems in the Old Norse-Icelandic vernacular. In these ways, Icelandic literature may be read uniquely, or in combination with Tacitus and later Latinate and even Hellenistic sources to interpret the literary traces of heathen gods in Old English literature.”

Besides associating the Earth-Mother with the Ocean in his text, Tacitus describes Nerthus’ mode of transportation ambiguously, calling it a vehiculum, leaving room for speculation regarding its form. Some have suggested the wagon was outfitted as a ship. In support of this, the late eddic poem Solarljóð contains a curious passage which states that “Odin's wife”, a common kenning for the earth, “rows in earth's ship,” Óðins kván rær á jarðar skipi (st. 77), adding that she is “eager after pleasures” and “her sails are hung on the ropes of desire.” Thus, another possible parallel may be found in the description of a protracted ship procession that traveled by land and water from Aachen, the westernmost city in Germany, to the Belgian town of St. Trond (Sint-Truiden), in the year 1133, according to Gestorum Abbatum Trudonensium written by Rodulf, the Abbot of St. Trond (c. 1070–1138). Hilda Ellis Davidson (1998) summarizes his account:

“It tells how a man from near Aachen got permission to build a ship, which he had put on wheels and had drawn by weavers. They took it to Aachen, Maesdricht (where it was given a mast and sail), Tongres, Borgloon, and finally to Trond. Here the abbot warned the townspeople against it, and the weavers had to guard it day and night, but nonetheless it was welcomed with riotous delight by the townspeople; in the evening half-naked women are said to have rushed to the ship and danced around it. At midnight the dance ended and a great shouting took place, but sadly no words were recorded. This went on for twelve nights, and when more sober citizens wanted to burn the ship, there was such an outcry that it departed unharmed to Louvain, although the gates of the town were closed against it.”

Jacob Grimm, who provided an excerpt of the text in Latin, notes that despite the earnest objections of the Christian clergy, the secular authorities sanctioned the procession and protected it, that it rested within the authority of several townships whether to grant admission to or refuse the approaching vessel, and that the popular sentiment seemed to be that it would have been considered uncouth not to welcome it and forward it on its way. The ceremony has a decidedly heathen tone. A large procession of people of both sexes (utriusque sexus processione) accompanied the ship along its route. When a reception was demanded for it and refused, a heated argument broke out which could only be settled by open conflict. For this reason, Rodulf calls the ship a Trojan Horse (Troiani equum). It was built in the forest of Inda in Ripuaria, a region in western Germany whose chief city was Cologne, by weavers, “which the common folk hold to be wanton and proud above all other handiworkers.” They drew the ship along by ropes tied to their shoulders and prevented the great throng of revelers from coming too close to it, taking oaths and tributes from those who did, suggesting the ship was considered sacred.

The abbot’s primary objection to the procession was that the vessel, in his opinion, was “the abode of evil spirits” (malignorum spirituum domicilium), so that it could justly be called “a ship of Bacchus, Venus, Neptune or Mars.” Rodulf remarks that it was “strange to me that I was not compelled to offer up a sacrifice to Neptune in front of the boat (ante navim Neptuno hostias immolare) as they were accustomed.” He describes droves of scantily clad women with their hair loose, shamelessly dancing around the earth-ship (terrae navis). Wherever it stopped, the country folk (pauper rusticus) gave joyful shouts, sang songs of triumph, and danced around the vessel. Between moonrise and sunrise crowds of women "leapt from their beds with hair yet disheveled, some half-naked and others clad only in a cloak, and burst impudently in to mingle with those who were dancing around the ship." Men and women alike, a thousand at any time, celebrated in this manner long into the night —behavior immediately reminiscent of the joyous ship-scenes featured in the Bronze Age petroglyphs. Remarkably, one petroglyph from Norrköping, Östergötland shows such a ship being dragged by four-footed beasts, possibly horses.

Grimm wrote that although heathen worship had been “checked and circumscribed” in the region for centuries that some memory of ancient heathen rites must have survived in the memory of the common people there, which is not unlikely since at the time this happened Sweden was not yet fully converted to Christianity; Adam of Bremen had described the heathen temple at Uppsala in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (1073-1076) less than sixty years before; Saxo Grammaticus had not yet penned his Histories in Denmark (c. 1185), and Snorri Sturluson had not yet written the Prose Edda in Iceland (c. 1220), which clearly demonstrates that heathen lore was still circulating orally in the North at the time. In this context, a guild of weavers constructed a wheeled-ship, which they pulled from town to town in Western Germany and Belgium, causing the rural people to revel. Frey. He accompanies her as she travels among her people giving arbót (“help with the crops”).

In this procession, Freyr and his bride, represented by a wooden idol accompanied by a priestess, ride in a horse-drawn wagon through the countryside, just as the goddess Nerthus rode in a covered wagon drawn by cattle attended by a male priest nine hundred years earlier. The time of the procession is marked by peace and feasting. Gunnar bravely leads the horse through a blizzard, but when he requires rest and enters the wagon, Freyr attacks him. As they wrestle, Gunnar vows to return to King Ólaf and the Christian faith should he survive. At once, “the devil” exits the wooden idol and takes flight allowing Gunnar to smash the statue to pieces. Impersonating Frey, Gunnar impregnates the priestess before returning to Norway and Christianity. When the pregnancy of the priestess is revealed, the Swedes take Freyr to be the father, saying: uar ok uedratta blid ok allir hlutir suo aruœnir at вешай madr munde sligt, “the weather looked balmy and everything gave such hope of a good season that no man could have done such a thing.” Here too, good harvests are attributed to the god.

Intended to make light of the pagan past, this story instead confirms many of the details of the Nerthus cult as described by Tacitus: an idol is drawn through the countryside in a wagon attended by a priest of the opposite sex; only the priest can sense the presence of the god and touch the idol; during the procession, peace reigns. The Latin and Norse narratives describing the ritual processions of Nerthus and Freyr show no direct signs of literary borrowing from one another, and the authors could not have known the Dejbjerg wagon from Jylland, Denmark (1st century BC) or the Oseberg wagon (834 AD), both of which are believed to have served a ritual purpose. Whether the story in Gunnars þáttr helmings was factually true or not is unimportant. What matters most here, according to Terry Gunnell, is that people believed it to have some foundation in reality. Thus, it appears “to have firm roots in oral tradition, just like the numerous local legends recorded in Sweden and Denmark (including Dejbjerg) telling of golden wagons hidden in lakes that the Swedish folklorist Bengt af Klintberg (1998) has compiled.” At the very least, this tale provides evidence that people in the early fourteenth century accepted the idea that religious processions conveying effigies of heathen gods through the countryside were still taking place during the reign of Ólaf Tryggvasson.

from Odin's Wife: Mother Earth in Germanic Mythology

By William P Reaves