- After the Langobardi come the Reudigni, Auiones, Angli, Varni, Eudoses, Suarines and Nuithones all well guarded by rivers and forests. There is nothing remarkable about any of these tribes unless it be the common worship of Nerthus, that is Earth Mother. They believe she is interested in men's affairs and drives among them. On an island in the ocean sea there is a sacred grove wherein waits a holy wagon covered by a drape. One priest only is allowed to touch it. He can feel the presence of the goddess when she is there in her sanctuary and accompanies her with great reverence as she is pulled along by kine. It is a time of festive holidaymaking in whatever place she decides to honour with her advent and stay. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, in fact every weapon is put away, only at that time are peace and quiet known and prized until the goddess, having had enough of peoples company, is at last restored by the same priest to her temple. After which the wagon and the drape, and if you like to believe me, the deity herself is bathed in a mysterious pool. The rite is performed by slaves who, as soon as it is done, are drowned in the lake. In this way mystery begets dread and a pious ignorance concerning what that sight may be which only those who are about to die are allowed to see. (Germania, ch. 40)
The accual Germanic name of the goddess in Tacitus's times might have been *Nerþuz. It is closely related to that of Njord (Njörðr), one of the Vanir and a god of the sea in Norse mythology. The name of Nerthus appears in some old Scandinavian place names, dating from young Nordic Bronze Age or old Iron Age but seldom (never?) from young Iron Age (Viking Age). The same is true for the male god Ull (the name means glory or radiance), who likely was a Van like Njord, and for giantess Skadi, the consort of Njord. Rather the opposite is true for names of the Aesir. The place names containing of these deities commonly has an ending indicating place of worship, such as -lund (grove, e.g. Närlunda), -tun (enclosed place, e.g. Närtuna) or -vi (harrow, e.g. Ullevi).
It has been suggested by Hilda R. Ellis Davidson in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (1964) that there was possibly originally a male and female pair of deities, Njord and Nerthus, with Freya later replacing Nerthus. She also makes the point that there were other male/female pairings of Norse gods of whom little is known but their names, e.g. Ullr and Ullin.
If so, Nerthus may have been the sister of Njord and the mother of his children, Freyr and Freya, who also had a sexual relationship according Loki in Lokasenna. This may be the reason why Snorri Sturluson wrote in the Ynglinga saga that brother-sister marriages were common and accepted among the Vanir, but not among the Aesir.
She was then a logical counterpart of her brother Njord, in a society of fishermen and farmers, where she would have been associated with the harvest of the land, and her brother with the harvest of the sea.
It should be pointed out that worship of Frey and Freya (the names mean the lord and the lady respectively) as the great deities of fertility was highly common in Viking Age Scandinavia, even more so than the Eddas might suggest. It is not unlikely then that Frey and Freya are the mythological descendants to Nerthus and her male counterpart, while the root in the name Nerthus was shifted to their father. Freya was e.g. described as the great goddess of the Nordic nations, she also had a famed carriage, albeit drawn by cats and not cows.
The fact that Njord, Frey and Freya are Vanir has by some been suggested as indication along with the facts of place names mentioned above that the Vanir, with Nerthus and her postulated consort as main goddess and god, represent the pantheon of an older religion in Scandinavia, possibly of Nordic Bronze Age origin, later overshadowed by the introduction of a new religion with the Aesir as pantheon. If so, Ull could have been a name Nerthus's counterpart, or another important deity of this religion, later fading greatly out worship.
The Aesir were described as having fought with the Vanir in the War of the gods, which could be seen as a mythological description of a shift of religion. This war resulted in Njord, Frey and Freya becoming war hostages among the Aesir.
The difference in religious worship between Scandinavian Bronze Age and Iron Age (based on the archaeological material) is not controversial. As an example, the sun wheel symbol is abundant in the archeological material from Bronze Age Scandinavia, but was later much more scarcely used. The transition between these two practices has not been satisfactory explained, however. Older theories focusing on the invasion and conquest by a warrior culture are today seen as unlikely.
It should be clearly pointed out that accepting the view described above of the development of Nerthus and her counterpart into Freya and Frey along with their diminished importance does not implicate accepting the shift of religion hypothesis. Followers of the trifunctional hypothesis of Georges Dumézil see the Vanir as the gods of common Norsemen, whereas the Aesir were the gods of the warrior and clerical castes (represented primarily by Thor and Odin respectively). The fading of the Vanir's importance would then suggest a social rather than religious development.
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