Nerthus (1905) by Emil Doepler.
Nerthus (1905) by Emil Doepler.

In Germanic paganism, Nerthus is a goddess associated with fertility. Nerthus is attested by first century AD Roman historian Tacitus in his ethnographic work Germania.

In Germania, Tacitus records that the Anglii were distinguished by their veneration of the goddess at his time of writing and maintained a sacred grove on an (unspecified) island and that a holy cart rests there draped with cloth, which only a priest may touch. The priests feel her presence by the cart, and, with deep reverence, attend her cart, which is drawn by heifers. Everywhere the goddess then deigns to visit, she is met with celebration, hospitality, and peace. All iron objects are locked away, and no one will leave for war. When the goddess has had her fill she is returned to her temple by the priests. Tacitus adds that the goddess, the cart, and the cloth are then washed by slaves in a secluded lake. The slaves are then drowned.

The name Nerthus is generally held to be a Latinized form of Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz, a direct precursor to the Old Norse deity name Njörðr. While scholars have noted numerous parallels between the descriptions of the two figures, Njörðr is attested as a male deity. Various scholarly theories exist regarding the goddess and her potential later traces amongst the Germanic peoples, including that the figure may be identical to the unnamed sister-wife of Njörðr mentioned in two Old Norse sources.


Scholars commonly identify the goddess Nerthus with the Njörðr, a deity who is attested in Old Norse texts and in numerous Scandinavian place names. Scholars identify the Romano-Germanic Nerthus as the linguistic precursor to the Old Norse deity name Njörðr and have reconstructed the form as Proto-Germanic *Nerþuz.[1] The meaning of the theonym is unclear, but seems to be cognate with Old Irish nert, meaning 'strength', perhaps meaning 'the powerful one'. The name may be related to Old English geneorð, meaning 'contented', and the Old English place name Neorxnawang, used to gloss the word 'paradise' in Old English texts, or the word north.[2]


In chapter 40 of his Germania, Roman historian Tacitus, discussing the Suebian tribes of Germania, writes that beside the populous Semnones and warlike Langobardi there are seven more remote Suebian tribes; the Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Nuitones. The seven tribes are surrounded by rivers and forests and, according to Tacitus, there is nothing particularly worthy of comment about them as individuals, yet they are particularly distinguished in that they all worship the goddess Nerthus, and provides an account of veneration of the goddess among the groups. The chapter reads as follows:


Contra Langobardos paucitas nobilitat: plurimis ac valentissimis nationibus cincti non per obsequium, sed proeliis ac periclitando tuti sunt. Reudigni deinde et Aviones et Anglii et Varini et Eudoses et Suardones et Nuithones fluminibus aut silvis muniuntur. Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis arbitrantur. Est in insula Oceani castum nemus, dicatumque in eo vehiculum, veste contectum; attingere uni sacerdoti concessum. Is adesse penetrali deam intellegit vectamque bubus feminis multa cum veneratione prosequitur. Laeti tunc dies, festa loca, quaecumque adventu hospitioque dignatur. Non bella ineunt, non arma sumunt; clausum omne ferrum; pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc tantum amata, donec idem sacerdos satiatam conversatione mortalium deam templo reddat. Mox vehiculum et vestes et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur. Servi ministrant, quos statim idem lacus haurit. Arcanus hinc terror sanctaque ignorantia, quid sit illud, quod tantum perituri vident.[3]

A. R. Birley translation:

By contrast, 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 Ruedigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Huitones, protected by river 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 believes that she intervenes in human affairs and rides through their peoples. There is a sacred grove on an island in the Ocean, in which there is a consecrated chariot, draped with cloth, where the priest alone may touch. He perceives the presence of the goddess in the innermost shrine and with great reverence escorts her in her chariot, which is drawn by female cattle. There are days of rejoicing then and the countryside celebrates the festival, wherever she designs to visit and to accept hospitality. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms, all objects of iron are locked away, then and only then do they experience peace and quiet, only then do they prize them, until the goddess has had her fill of human society and the priest brings her back to her temple. Afterwards the chariot, the cloth, and, if one may believe it, the deity herself are washed in a hidden lake. The slaves who perform this office are immediately swallowed up in the same lake. Hence arises dread of the mysterious, and piety, which keeps them ignorant of what only those about to perish may see.[4]

J. B. Rives translation:

The Langobardi, by contrast, are distinguished by the fewness of their numbers. Ringed round as they are by many mighty peoples, they find safety not in obsequiousness but in battle and its perils. After them come the Reudingi, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarini and Nuitones, behind their ramparts of rivers and woods. There is nothing noteworthy about these peoples individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or Mother Earth. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she designs to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and pious reluctance to ask what the sight can be that only those doomed to die may see.[5]


Name and manuscript variations

All surviving manuscripts of Tacitus's Germania date from around the fifteenth century and these display significant variation in the name of the goddess: All attested forms are in accusative case and include Nertum (yielding the nominate form Nerthus), Herthum (implying a nominative form of Hertha) and several others (including Nechtum, Neithum, Neherthum, and Verthum).[6]

Of the various forms found in the extant Germania manuscript tradition, two have yielded significant discussion among scholars since at least the 19th century, Nerthus and Hertha. Hertha was popular in some of the earliest layers of Germania scholarship, such as the edition of Beatus Rhenanus. These scholars linked the name with a common German word for Earth (compare modern German Erde). This reading has subsequently been rejected by most scholars. Since pioneering 19th century philologist Jacob Grimm's identification of the form Nerthus as the etymological precursor to the Old Norse deity name Njǫrðr, the reading Nerthus has been widely accepted as correct in scholarship.[7]

In 1902, the Codex Aesinas (often abbreviated as E) was discovered, and it was also found to contain the form Nertum, yielding the reading Nerthus. The Codex Aesinas is a 15th century composite manuscript that is considered a direct copy of the Codex Hersfeldensis, the oldest identifiable manuscript of the text. All other manuscripts of Tacitus's Germania are thought by scholars to stem from the Codex Aesinas.[8]

Some scholars have continued suggesting alternate readings to Nerthus. For example, in 1992, Lotte Motz proposes that the linguistic correspondence is a coincidence and that "The variant nertum was chosen by Grimm because it corresponds to Njǫrðr".[9] Instead, Motz propose that various female entities from the continental Germanic folklore record, particularly those in central Germany and the Alps, stem from a single source, who she identifies as Nerthus, and that migrating Germanic peoples brought the goddess to those regions from coastal Scandinavia.[10] After her death, Motz's proposal received support from Rudolf Simek. John Lindow rejects Motz's proposal and Simek's support. He highlights the presence of the form in the Codex Aesinas (discovered in 1902, while Grimm died in 1863), and asks, "would it not be an extraordinary coincidence that a deity who fits the pattern of the later fertility gods should have a name that is etymologically identical with one of them?"[11]


Scholars have proposed a variety of locations for Tacitus's account of Nerthus. For example, Anders Andrén says:

In the accounts of specific Germanic tribes, Tacitus also writes about the divine twins, the Alcis, among the Naharvali, and about the goddess Nerthus among a group of tribes, probably located in the southern part of present-day Denmark.[12]

A number of scholars have proposed a potential location of Tacitus's account of Nerthus as on the island of Zealand in Denmark. The reasoning behind this identification is the link between the Nerthus with the medieval place name Niartharum (modern Nærum) located on Zealand. Further justification is given in that Lejre, the seat of the ancient kings of Denmark, is also located on Zealand. Nerthus is then commonly compared to the goddess Gefjon, who is said to have plowed the island of Zealand from Sweden in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning and in Lejre wed the legendary Danish king Skjöldr.[13]

Chambers notes that the mistaken name Hertha (see Interpretations of name above) led to the hydronym Herthasee, a lake on the German island of Rügen, which antiquarians proposed as a potential location of the Nerthus site described in Tacitus. However, along with the rejection of the reading Hertha, the location is no longer considered to be a potential site.[14]

Wagon processions and the Vanir

Nerthus typically is identified as a Vanir goddess. Her wagon tour has been likened to several archeological wagon finds and legends of deities parading in wagons. Terry Gunnell and many others have noted various archaeological finds of ritual wagons in Denmark dating from 200 AD and the Bronze Age. Such a ceremonial wagon, incapable of making turns, was discovered in the Oseberg ship find. Two of the most famous literary examples occur in the Icelandic family sagas. The Vanir god Freyr is said to ride in a wagon annually through the country accompanied by a priestess to bless the fields, according to a late story titled Hauks þáttr hábrókar in the 14th century Flateyjarbók manuscript. In the same source, King Eric of Sweden is said to consult a god named Lýtir, whose wagon was brought to his hall in order to perform a divination ceremony.[15]

Hilda Davidson draws a parallel between these incidents and Tacitus's account of Nerthus, suggesting that in addition a neck-ring-wearing female figure "kneeling as if to drive a chariot" also dates from the Bronze Age. Davidson says that the evidence suggests that similar customs as detailed in Tacitus's account continued to exist during the close of the pagan period through worship of the Vanir.[16]

Modern influence

The minor planet 601 Nerthus is named after Nerthus. The form "Hertha" was adopted by several German football clubs.

Up until its superseding as the dominant reading, Hertha had some influence in German popular culture. For example, Hertha and Herthasee (see "location" section above) play major roles in German novelist Theodor Fontane's 1896 novel Effi Briest.[17]

See also


  1. ^ As outlined by philologist John McKinnell, "Nerthus > *Njarðuz (breaking) > *Njǫrðuz > Njǫrðr" (McKinnell 2005: 50).
  2. ^ For example, according to philologist Jaan Puhvel, "*Nerthuz is etymologically ambivalent, cognate not only with Old Irish nert 'strength' and Greek andro- but with Vedic sū-nrt́ā 'good vigor, vitality' (used especially for Uṣás, thus gender ambivalent)" (Puhvel 1989: 205) or according to McKinnell, "The meaning of the name has usually been connected with Old Irish nert ‘strength’ (so ‘the powerful one’), but it might be related to Old English geneorð ‘contented’ and neorxnawang ‘paradise’ (literally ‘field of contentment’), or to the word ‘north’ (i.e. ‘deity of the northern people’, cf. Greek νέρτερος ‘belonging to the underworld’)." (McKinnell 2005: 51)
  3. ^ Stuart (1916:20).
  4. ^ Birley (1999:58).
  5. ^ Rives (2010). Pages unnumbered; chapter 40.
  6. ^ For discussion on these forms, see for example Lindow 2020b: 1331 and McKinnell 2005: 50-52.
  7. ^ "…since Jacob Grimm, the form Nerthum has been preferred due to its relation to the Old Norse name Njǫrðr" (Janson 2018: 10-11); "Nerthus has long been seen as the etymon of Njǫrðr." (North 1997: 20); "Since the name Nerthus corresponds phonetically to that of Njǫrðr scholars have accepted her as his female counterpart." (Motz 1992: 3); "strange has been the history of this goddess Nerthus in modern times. Sixteenth century scholars found irresistible the temptation to emend the name of 'Mother Earth' into Herthum, which nineteenth century scholars further improved into Hertham, Ertham. For many years this false goddess drove out the rightful deity from the fortieth chapter of the Germania" (Chambers 2001 [1912]: 70).
  8. ^ As summarized by M. J. Towsell, "The modern textual history of the Germania begins … with the fifteenth-century humanist manuscript known as the Codex Aesinas, which appears to be the source of all the other Germania manuscripts (and very many copies were made in the Renaissance, all of which appear to be direct or indirect copies of this single manuscript)." (Toswell 2010: 30) Regarding Nerthus and the Codex Aesinas, see discussion in Lindow (2020b: 1331).
  9. ^ Motz, however, states that she does not propose the reading Hertha: "I do not wish to advocate the name Hertha for the goddess; I merely wish to state that the phonetic coincidence of the variant with the name of an Eddic god does not suffice to support an identify of the two numina." (Motz 1992: 3-4).
  10. ^ Motz 1992: 12-16.
  11. ^ Lindow (2020a: 108): "Rudolf Simek takes seriously the suggestion of Lotte Motz (1992) that other name forms in the humanist editions of Germania are as valid as Nerthus and that the deity in ch. 40 has nothing to do with Njǫrðr but rather should be associated with Frau Percht or Frau Holle in recent folklore (Simek 2003: 56–57). But as Simek admits, Nerthus has manuscript witness. Furthermore, Motz’s argument for conceptual similarities seems forced." & Lindow (2020b: 1331).
  12. ^ Andrén 2020: 212.
  13. ^ Chadwick (1907:267—268, 289) and Davidson (1964:113).
  14. ^ Chambers (2001: 69-71).
  15. ^ Davidson (1964:92—95).
  16. ^ Davidson (1964:96).
  17. ^ Hardy (2001:125).


  • Andrén, Anders. 2020. "The Spatial and Temporal Frame" in Jens Peter Schjødt, John Lindow, and Anders Andrén, ed. The Pre-Christian Religions of the North. History and Structures, Volume I: Basic Premises and Consideration of Sources, pp. 135-160. Brepols.
  • Birley, A. R. Trans. 1999. Agricola and Germany. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-283300-6
  • Chambers, Raymond Wilson. 2001 [1912]. Widsith: A Study in Old English Heroic Legend. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781108015271
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro. 1907. The Origin of the English Nation. ISBN 0-941694-09-7
  • Davidson, Hilda Ellis. 1990. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013627-4.
  • Hardy, Barbara. 2010. "Tellers and Listeners in Effi Briest" in Theodor Fontane and the European Context: Literature, Culture and Society in Prussia and Europe: Proceedings of the Interdisciplinary Symposium at the Institute of Germanic Studies, University of London in March 1999. Rodopi. ISBN 9789042012363
  • Lindow, John. 2020a. "Written Sources" in Jens Peter Schjødt, John Lindow, and Anders Andrén, ed. The Pre-Christian Religions of the North. History and Structures, Volume I: Basic Premises and Consideration of Sources, pp. 63-101. Brepols.
  • Lindow, John. 2020b. "Njǫrðr" in Jens Peter Schjødt, John Lindow, and Anders Andrén, ed. The Pre-Christian Religions of the North. History and Structures, Volume III: Social, Geographical, and Historic Contexts, and Communication between Worlds, pp. 1331-1344. Brepols.
  • Lindow, John. 2001. Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515382-0
  • Motz, Lotte. 1992. "The Goddess Nerthus: A New Approach". Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 36:1-19.
  • North, Richard. 1997. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521551830
  • Janson, Henrik. 2018. "Pictured by the Other: Classical and Early Medieval Perspectives on Religions in the North" in John McKinnell, John Lindow, and Margaret Clunies Ross, ed. The Pre-Christian Religions of the North, pp. 7-40. Brepols.
  • McKinnell, John. 2005. Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend. D. S. Brewer. ISBN 9781843840428
  • Puhvel, Jaan. 1989. Comparative Mythology. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 9780801839382
  • Rives, J. B. Trans. 2010. Agricola and Germania. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-045540-3
  • Simek, Rudolf. 2007. translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer ISBN 0-85991-513-1
  • Stuart, Duane Reed. 1916. Tacitus - Germania. The Macmillan Company.
  • Toswell, M. J. 2010. "Quid Tacitus...? The Germania and the Study of Anglo-Saxon England". Florilegium 27 (2010): 27-62.

Further reading