Earth Mother of the Alemanni
As Rome fell, Germanic tribes descended upon the Roman territories of the North. The tribes known as the Burgundi and the Alemanni came and settled in Switzerland. This move was the final “nail in the coffin” for the remaining Celtic identity in Helvetia. The Alemanni in particular brought with them the Goddess Nerthus. Nerthus is a proto-Germanic deity mentioned by Tacitus in his accounts on the Germanic tribes. Unlike the Helvetian Dêwoi I’ve covered thus far, Nerthus has a lot more to work with in reconstruction but because She was so widespread and not all tribes would have seen Her exactly the same, we’re going to attempt to stay within the Alemanni/Suebi perspective. We’ll cover various theories and historical accounts of practices to help gain insight on this Earth Goddess of Germanic Switzerland.
Nerthus is a mysterious Goddess in ancient Germanic cults and religions. According to the historian Tacitus, Her worship was widespread all over Germania, the Czech Republic, and as far north as the Jutland peninsula and Sweden. In the Elbe River region of Germany is where the large Suebi tribes came from. These tribes (which includes the Marcomanni, Quadi, Hermunduri, Semnones, and Lombards) were ever present during and after the Gallic Wars (by that time they were known as the Alamanni and Bavarians but were still considered Suebian).
The Alamanni settling in Switzerland ended the Celtic identity that the Swiss people had left after Roman influence and Helvetia would be Germanic from then on. With the Alamanni, came Nerthus. Tacitus names Nerthus as the Suebian Earth Goddess but Her name is latinized and it’s possible that the Proto-Germanic version would have been Nerþuz (Classical pronunciation ˈner.tʰus, [ˈnɛr.t̪ʰʊs̠], Ecclesiastical pronunciation ˈner.tus/, [ˈnɛr.t̪us]). Nerthus’s worship was taken very seriously and had dire consequences should anyone violate rituals. The one account given to us by Tacitus states that a statue of Nerthus would be taken by cart from a sacred grove with an undisclosed location, to the tribes that followed Her. The cart was driven by two white cows (specifically heifers) and escorted by slaves. The statue was covered in a veil and only a “priest” was able to touch.
During this time, tribes would be forbidden from going to war. All iron weapons are locked away and until Nerthus returns to Her grove, it is a time of celebration, hospitality, and peace. When back in Her sanctuary, which is claimed to be an island off the coast but it’s never disclosed where, Nerthus is taken to a hidden lake and washed by the slaves who are then drowned immediately after this is done. All the Suebian tribes would be visited by this precession. Tacitus lists these tribes as the Semnones, Langobardi, Reudigni, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suarines, and Nuitones. The latter seven are said, by Tacitus, to be more remote and hardly noteworthy aside their veneration of Nerthus.
The Semnones are said to be the most renown and ancient of the tribes. This tribe also seems to be the religious head of the Suebians and possibly the leading faction. In the 3rd century, the Semnones traveled south and joined the Alemanni and most likely carried their traditions and religion with them. It is unknown if the precession of Nerthus made its way to Germania Superior (Switzerland, southern Germany, and parts of Austria) or if there was even any form of rites for Nerthus since these groves that the Semnones are known for were kept in secret locations. Not to mention the lack of any form of inscriptions that mention Nerthus. However, this doesn’t completely dismiss any notion of Nerthus being worshipped in Switzerland. These sacred groves could have been anywhere in the vast wilderness and mountains of Switzerland and there is no shortage of lakes for the ritual to have taken place.
The roots of Nerthus’s name is complicated to say the least. Her name in proto-Germanic is a reconstructed name so it is not attested historically but it’s a start. There is a possibility that Nerthus/Nerþuz comes from the proto-indo-european word *h₂nḗr meaning “power, vitality, force”. This does make sense within the earth goddess aspect. With deities like Gaia, Earth Gods and Goddesses typically represent primordial power. Ancient and, most of the time, one of the first beings in various pantheons. Being a Goddess of Earth, Nerthus is a dominant aspect of the unrelenting force and strength of nature which can be seen in this name root.
The complexity of Nerthus’s etymology has spurred debates among scholars over the years. Because Continental Germanic Polytheism and Norse Heathenry are very similar with some very distinct differences, it’s hard to place Nerþuz in either pantheon. The linguistic similarities have led many to believe that Nerþuz is linked to Njörðr the Norse Sea God. Njörðr is the father of Freyr and Freyja by His unnamed sister/wife and the name of this Goddess is still contested. It is thought that this Goddess is Njörun who was arrested by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. Because of this, there are some that see Nerthus and Njörun are the same Goddess. Hertha (later Herthum, Hertham, and Ertham), was one such name given to Nerthus as an attempt to mirror the Old Norse Goddess Jörð which means “earth” and is known as the mother of Thor. “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” was the quote by Raymond Wilson Chambers on this controversy.
In my personal opinion, Hertha and all the later names are a great attempt to reconstruct Nerthus but seemingly strayed from finding Her place in the Eddas and the Norse Pantheon and instead created a new figure. Who knows where Nerþuz fits in the pre christianized Norse world. What we do know is that Her role among the Suebi is far greater than it is north of Zealand.
Nerþuz of the Vanir
However, what these different theories and possible etymologies do give us is that Nerþuz was very likely one of the Vanir. The Vanir were the old rivals of the Aesir Gods of Norse Mythology. Not much is known of the Aesir-Vanir War aside from the Aesir being victorious and uniting the two tribes. The Aesir, in my opinion, represented law, order, and civilization while the Vanir represented nature, magic, and the wild. Nerthus most definitely falls into the Vanir category. Another major link to the Vanir is the wagon for which Nerthus is said to ride in.
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.
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. The fact that the Semnones had a Grove or Groves for Nerthus also could link Her to the Vanir but that’s reaching a bit as other non-Vanir Gods had Groves and outdoor rituals as well but still the connection of the Vanir to nature can’t be overlooked.
Almost every culture has a Goddess of the Earth with only a handful of exceptions. As we covered, some scholars tried to mirror Nerþus to the figure known as Jörð. Jörð literally means “land, earth” and it serves as both a common noun and as a theonym for “Earth Goddess”. This could suggest that Jörð may be a title rather than a name. More evidence to support this is that Jörð is named as the mother of Thor but in the Eddas, Fjörgyn is named as the mother of Thor. These mentions use the name Fjörgyn as a poetic synonym for “land, the earth”. Also in the Eddas, specifically the Völuspá, Hlóðyn is also named as Thor’s mother and often believed to be another name for
Jörð. Digging even deeper, some think that the etymological roots of Hlóðyn could be linked to Hludana, a Goddess with inscriptions found in the lower Rhine who’s possibly connected to rough seas and violent north-eastern winds.
To be clear, we’re not establishing Nerþus as the mother of Thor nor are we saying that She is another synonym for Jörð. It might be fair to equate Jörð to Nerþus respectfully and acknowledge one as a Norse figure and the other as a Germanic/Continental. As Chambers pointed out with his commentary, Nerthus was almost forced out of history while trying to fit Her into the Norse pantheon. With that said, it is fair to list Her as a Vanir because of the similarities between Germanic and Norse Heathenry it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Vanir or an equivalent group within the Germanic cosmos. The concept of deities being divided into smaller groups isn’t at all uncommon. Rivals of the main pantheons may not be considered “Gods” to some (though arguments can be made to say they are) and oftentimes, myths portray them as, antagonistic or “evil” such as the Titans, Jötnar, Famorians, Fir Bolg, etc.
Earth and Sea
While Tacitus was an outsider reporting on the Germanic tribes, his works seem to be unbiased and detailed with facts, or at least an honest attempt to be, his perspective was that Nerthus is a Earth Goddess with no connection to the ocean. Some of those who see Nerthus as the sister/wife of Njörð, (likely named Njöran) have associated Her with the sea but, even then, looking at the etymology the word/name Jörð is present and that tells us that She would have also been a Earth Goddess. But this raises some confusion since the Sea God Njörðr also has this etymology. However, there is a possible link to earth and sea in other cultures. Specially with the Greek God Poseidon who, in some accounts, is known as the “Earthbreaker” and is the reason for earthquakes.
This connection of earth and ocean is not as common but it is an interesting parallel when it does appear. As we’ve seen in Scandanavian and Germania, Gods and Goddesses of land and sea are more numerous than at first glance. Even Njörðr’s son, Freyr, is a fertility God who’s also known as an agricultural figure. Sea sires land in a way. On a similar note, Jörð is the mother of Thor and some historical accounts say that sailors would make offerings to Njörðr before sailing, other tales say that offerings would be made to This for safe passage. Thor is also said to be an accomplished sailor and fisherman in myth. Earth gives birth to a sea protector in this view. Another case that can be made is the infamous World Serpent, Jörmungandr. Not to get too sidetracked, Jörmungandr is a Jötnar (one of the afore mentioned rival groups of figures that are opposed to the primary pantheon) and He ultimately represents both earth and sea but, more so, the untamed, wild, and chaotic aspects. He is a sea serpent that, when He joins the events of Ragnarok, will help bring about the destruction of the Earth.
One final case on this topic, looking at the ritual that Tacitus documented, this event with Nerthus starts, supposedly, in a Grove on an island off the coast (either in the sea or in a large lake) and ends in a lake where it is washed. The presence of earth and sea are very prominent in this ritual.
Another thing that needs attention is the similarities between Nerthus and the Helvetii Mountain Goddess Alpes. While we have no way of knowing exactly how Alpes was seen back in the Iron Age, in my reconstruction of Her I had speculated that Alpes takes on two different appearances, a Summer/Spring form and a Fall/Winter guise. The harsh winter aspect was named Paliâcâ which means “veiled or hidden one”. When working on Alpes, I had never even heard of Nerthus at the time so the fact that my reconstruction was so similar to Nerthus was too much to ignore. If my work is accurate in any way, we could see the result of two cultures influencing the other or “cultural bleeding” as I’ve called it. We know that the Helvetii had a long history as friends and enemies of Germanic tribes; it wouldn’t be hard to find a link there. Nerthus worship was spread as far as the Jutland peninsula which was the homeland of the Cimbri and Teutones tribes. When they, and other German tribes, headed south and took part in the Cimbrian War against Rome, they were joined by the Helvetii. We don’t know how long this alliance lasted but it would make sense for ideas to be shared between the Continental Celts and Germans.
This by no means, says that Nerthus and Alpes are the same. Stepping back, Alpes is a ainimistic representation of the Swiss Alps. Fertile, protective, bountiful during the spring and summer as Alpes Alpuanâ but cruel and unforgiving during fall and winter as Alpes Paliâcâ. Nerthus, on the other hand, is the cycle of life and death in one aspect. She brings life and bounty in Her precession but Her journey ends in the death of slaves. Nerthus is also a Goddess of the Earth and possibly has some associations with the sea whereas Alpes is mostly a mountain Goddess. Both Goddesses have similarities for sure, but similar doesn’t mean same.
The veiled aspect of both these figures is intriguing. It seems to be an iconography of death or something sacred with consequences if looked upon. With Alpes, the veiled Paliâcâ, has a very “grim reaper” connotation as one should not look upon the face of death. Nerthus and Her precession has similar themes but there may be more to Her veiled parade. We know from Tacitus that only the priest was allowed to touch the idol of Nerthus but we do not know if they were able to look upon the figure. We can assume so but cannot be certain. It’s possible that She was treated in a way the Isrealites treated the Arch of the Covenant. Only a select few could look upon the contents so maybe this applies to the statue under the veil. Another thing to look at (no pun intended) is a possible link to the Wild Hunt. This phenomenon is known across both the Germanic and Celtic world with various differences here and there.
One common trait is that to look upon the Hunt is not a good thing. In many examples of folklore, it can be fatal to witness the Wild Hunt. The precession of Nerthus shares some of this in a way. None are able to look upon nor touch Nerthus. All must pay respect to this event which includes no war or raiding. Obviously, the Wild Hunt and the precession of Nerthus are not the same but those elements can’t be ignored either.
To help better understand Nerthus, I used my method of divination which is a combination of Wild Wood Tarot (WWT), Elder Futhark Runes (EF), and Lepontic Rûnâs (LP). The spread I use for deity identification is five parts: Who is the Deity, First Aspect of the Deity, Second Aspect of the Deity, What the Deity has Dominion Over, and What Represents the Deity. In some cases I will draw more for additional information but not in this case. My findings are my interpretation of the cards and runes and they are pure speculation and gnosis but the information is still valid on a personal level.
Who is Nerthas?
WWT: Ace of Arrows: The Breath of Life (inverted)
EF Rune: Sowulo
LP Rûnâ: Mî
Meaning: The inverted breath of life signifies death but in connection to the renewal of life. The arrow which was once aimed to the sky is aimed to the Earth which our bodies eventually turn to after death. This is not a negative feature. Life and death are in sync and are bound to one another. A body that decays fertilizes the ground and makes way for new life. Death conquers life and life conquers death. We cannot defeat death nor can life be stopped. Death is never easy but it does bring positive change.
1st Aspect of Nerthus/Nerþuz
WWT: Three of Bows: Fulfillment
EF Rune: Eihwaz
LP Rûnâ: Orbion
Meaning: The flow and transference of energy from one stage to another. From life to death to rebirth. The cycle gives the earth strength and power. This power gives us inner strength and gives us a strong foundation beneath our feet. The earth is our home and it’s strength is our strength.
2nd Aspect of Nerthus/Nerþuz
WWT: The Wanderer
EF Rune: Raido (inverted)
LP Rûnâ: Windobitus
Meaning: Moving on and not getting stuck amidst transition. The cycles in life cannot be halted or paused. The next chapter cannot begin until the old one finished. Staying on course even when the road is rough. Trying to make things easy will only make the path more difficult. Stay the course even when we cannot see through the darkness. Nature and the environment around us goes through these cycles. Should we find harmony and go through these changes ourselves, a person can be at one with our environment and find inner strength and peace.
What does Nerthus/Nerþuz reign over?
WWT: Knight of Arrows: Hawk
EF Rune: Thurisas
LP Rûnâ: Sound of Thunder
Meaning: Nerthas reigns over protection. She defends the weak and gives courage to those to face their fate. Death comes to all but there’s no sense in “thinning the herd”. Even the weak have a role within the tribe. The earth always embraces the dead but the brave and bold find greater reward in the next life.
What Represents Nerthus/Nerþuz?
WWT: Eight of Arrows: Struggle
EF Rune: Mannaz
LP Rûnâ: Druith
Meaning: Trials, challenges, death, loss, are unavoidable but necessary in life. Hope guides us through these times. Nerthas teaches us to accept the inevitable and face our destiny. Experiences, both good and bad, strengthens us to achieve our potential. The seasons will change. The earth’s cycles are always in motion. Nerthas is the earth and she greets the dead and holds their wisdom and secrets.
*Nearly every tarot card was an air card. Perhaps this is to mean that Nerthas is the wind/air in our lungs and therefore giver of life who eventually takes it back and/or maybe this is a connection to the God Njörd as has been theorized by some scholars?
After looking at all the research and my divination readings, I see Nerthus as a liminal Goddess of the Earth. Someone who embodies the balance of life, death, and renewal. She keeps the cycle going, clearing away the old to make way for the new. Death feeds the soil so life can grow and flourish. Where She stands within the Norse pantheon and the Germanic pantheon, I cannot say. Something to keep in mind is that the Continental Celts had literal hundreds of Gods and Goddesses between all the tribes. Nerthus could be of similar circumstance. Regardless, history shows that Nerthus was a pivotal figure to the Continental Germanic people, particularly the Suebian/Alamanni tribes. The Semnones seemed to be the religious head of these allied tribes and it is likely that they took these practices into the Alps when the Alamanni came into Switzerland. Nerthus may be a Germanic reflection of Alpes or vice versa but, as always, each deity must be respected as individuals. It’s safe to say that the sacred animal to Nerthus is the white cow.
Cows have long been a symbol of wealth and fertility but cattle can be dangerous. In this instance, cattle can be a symbol of life and death. A vital resource that can kill if not respected. Like Alpes and like life in the Alps, the fertile lush beauty of life also holds many dangers. Nerthus is an Earth Goddess and, after everything we’ve seen, a Goddess of Death. But the Veiled Goddess of the Suebi shouldn’t be vilified or feared. She gives as much as she takes away. Being liminal and a Earth Goddess, Nerthus keeps that balance of life and death. Nature can be cruel but it’s only what is necessary for the benefit of the Earth and of the tribe. Hail and Honor to Nerthus.
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