by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiðson
Copyright © William Reaves
The identity of the goddess Nerthus, called Terra Mater, Mother Earth by Tacitus in Germania, has been a topic of much scholarly debate. Thus I feel it would be of use to investigate the identify of the Earth Mother in the Germanic literature, and see if we can find any correlation between her and Tacitus' goddess Nerthus.
Throughout the poems of the Elder Edda, the use of various names for a single character often meets the reader. For example, the poem Rigsthula calls Heimdall, Righ. From Grimnismal, we know that Odin has at least forty-nine names. The Younger Edda too tells us that the gods may be polynymous and informs us that Freyja can be called Mardoll, Vanadis, Horn, and Syr. This poetic usage, referred to as polynomy, is a characteristic feature of the skaldic art. By comparing the epithets of known characters, we often can glean much more information about the character than was previously known. Such was the technique of the late Swedish scholar Viktor Rydberg in his two volume work, Undersökingar i Germanisk Mythologi, 1886, 1889. (Volume one of which was translated into English as Teutonic Mythology, 1889.)
From the poems pertaining to Thor in the Elder Edda, we know that he too has a number of epithets. The skalds call him Hlorridi, Veor, and Odin's son, as well as frequently referring to him as Jord's Son. Jord literally means Earth and thus for obvious reasons, she is conceived of as Mother Earth (Terrae Mater). Besides that, we know little about this important goddess. A comparison of the sources however, reveals a wealth of information about her.
We can assume that Jord like other characters spoken of in the myths is polynomous, and this assumption is immediately confirmed in Harbardsljod 56 where Thor is called Fjörgyn's son, and Voluspa 55 which calls Thor Hlodyn's son. Thus the goddess Jord is also named Fjörgyn and Hlodyn; the name Hlodyn is a feminine epithet meaning "Hearth," and may relate to Frau Holde of the German tradition. Of Jord's family relations, Snorri Sturrelsson in the Younger Edda informs us:
(Arthur Brodeur translation) "Nörfi or Narfi is the name of a giant that dwelt in Jötunheim: he had a daughter named Night; she was swarthy and dark, as befitted her race. She was given to a man named Naglfari; their son was Audr. Afterward she was wedded to him that was called Annarr; Jörd (Earth) was their daughter; Last of all Dayspring (Delling) had her, and he was of the race of the Aesir; their son was Day."
As Jord is the granddaughter of a giant named Narvi, she is usually thought of as a giantess, but we must remember that even many of the highest gods have giant blood coursing through their veins. Of Night's children, two are well-known, Jord and Day. Audr, also called Unnr (Udr), however is not, and therefore we must look under this epithet for a personality better known to us. Surely the brother of so famous personages as Earth and Day cannot have been unknown. The name Audr means "rich," and its alternate form Unnr means "wave." Thus Audr-Unnr would seem to be a god of commerce and the seas. To the name Audr, we should compare the descriptive phrase "audigr sem Njordr," as rich as Njord. Njord rules over the commerce of the seas and coastal harbors, as opposed to Aegir and Ran who are the representatives of the rougher waters of great western ocean. This comparison is not conclusive and nothing definitive should be based upon it. I merely suggest the possibility that by Audr, Njord may be meant.
Tacitus writing in the Germania has also heard of an earth goddess among the Teutons. In chapter 2, Tacitus speaks of Tuisto, "an earth-born god," who the Germans celebrate "in the traditional songs that form their only record of the past." Chapter 27 confirms that this was a general belief among the Germanic tribes informing us that the foregoing chapters held "a general account" of the "origin and customs of the Germans as a whole." Thus the belief in the earth-born god Tuisto, celebrated in the traditional songs was widespread among all Germanic heathens. The name itself offers us no clue as to the god's identity; It is derived from the root "Tiu," and simply means "god." However the description of Tuisto corresponds exactly to the description of the most popular Germanic god, the earth-born Thor, who is indeed celebrated in a number of Eddic lays, the songs which form the heathen record of the past. Voluspa calls him "Hlodyn's celebrated son," a description which corresponds exactly to Tacitus' statements regarding him. The "earth-born" god Thor is said to be the most celebrated in songs throughout the Germanic territory. As we know, the phrase "Jord's son" immediately identifies the subject as Thor, and in the Teutonic myth cycle the stories and poems devoted to the adventures of Thor are by far the most popular one. What Tacitus further relates about Tiusto is best left examined elsewhere for brevity's sake, but also aptly describes the best of the Aesir.
In chapter 40 of the Germania, Tactitus vividly details the cult of the goddess Nerthus, whom he identifies as Terra Mater, Mother Earth. Grimm and Vigfusson both connect the name Nerthus to a feminine form of Njord, Nirdu. The duel-gender form is not uncommon in skaldic poetry in which we find such forms as Frey and Freya, Fjörgynr and Fjörgyn, Audr and Auda. Thus in Nerthus, we find a feminine form of the masculine name Njord, the god of commerce on the seas. According to Tactitus, the Longobardi tribe in particular, as well as their neighbors by the sea "share a common worship of Nerthus" and "believe that she takes part in human affairs."
As we know, the Teutonic Earth Mother bears her son Thor to Odin. Some loose strophes preserved in Skaldskaparsmal 24 speak of their union. The following strophes describe both Odin and Jord, but also mention a third party with interest in their affairs:
"Far off the dart-slow sluggard stood, when the sword inciter, in ancient days, took to him the unripe Co-wife of Rindr" (Brodeur Translation)
Here Thjødølf informs us that a peaceful being stood far off when Odin took his wife. Obviously, this "dart-slow sluggard" had some interest in their union, or else he would not be mentioned. The term unripe as well as the topic of the entire section lets us know that the wife of Odin being spoken of here is Jord. Odin is well known as the instigator of war and thus may aptly be called a "sword-inciter."
In the same section of Skaldskaparsmal, Hallfredr sings:
1. In council it was declared that the Friend of Kings (Odin), eloquent in counsel, should possess Annar's only daughter (Jord), greenly wooded. 2. The Ruler of the Raven-Home (Odin) lured Barleyg's broad-faced bride (Jord) unto him, summoned with steel-strong pleas. 3. I think the famous Lord of the Spear (Odin) with great reluctance would fly from Jord; Aud's sister (Jord) under the Treasure-Spender.
Hallfredr informs us that Jord, Aud's sister, was "under" the Treasure-Spender which has obvious connotations. She was subordinate to a being of great wealth. The very name Treasure-spender suggests the epithet Aud, who is actually named in the same line. He also informs us that she is the bride of Baleyg, which is assumed to be a name of Odin himself from the list in Grimnismal. But as the name Baleyg means "fiery-eyed" and implies anger, it is not impossible that this refers to Jord's first husband, and the mention of her brother Aud in the next line makes this more likely. Further Hallfredr informs us that Odin lured her to himself with "steel-strong pleas," suggesting that she was persuaded by force to wed him; and adds that only "with great reluctance" would Odin leave Jord, Annar's only daughter, indicating a strong marriage, rather than a one-time affair. We know Frigg to be his faithful and loving wife.
Of Njord, Ynglingasaga 4 informs us that when he lived among the Vans, Njord had his sister for his wife, as that was their custom, but among the Aesir, it was forbidden to wed so close akin. Lokasenna 36 confirms this view, there Loki accuses Njord of begetting Frey by his own sister. This sister is seemingly unknown, but based on etymology as well as the description of her in Snorri's Edda, Nerthus-Jord is a likely candidate.
Nor have we exhausted the sources in regard to Jord. An odd parallel found in Paul the Deacon's History of the Lombards and Tacitus' account of the goddess Nerthus provides more clues as to the identity of the Earth goddess, Jord.
In a much-quoted passage, Paulus Deaconus relates a "silly story told by old men" in which Frigg the patron of the Vinnili tribe, gained for them a victory, by fooling her husband. Previously, the enemies of the Vinilli had prayed to Odin for favor. He answered that he would give the victory to those he first saw on the horizon at dawn. With this knowledge, Frigg told the Vinnili to rise before dawn and follow behind their womenfolk, who were to comb their long hair over their faces in the shape of beards. Then, by turning Odin's bed around as he slept, Frigg caused himto rise and, upon seeing the Vinnili vanguard, ask "Who are these Longbeards?" Thereafter they were called the Longobardians, The Lombards. Tactitus knows Nerthus to be patron of the Longobardians, Paulus Deconus calls that goddess Frigg (Frea). Thus in one place Nerthus is the patron of the Lombards, and in another Frigg. Both are said to take part in human affairs. The obvious conclusion here is that Frigg, Jord, and Nerthus are identical.
This conclusion would make Frigg, Njord's sister, and by extension a Vana-goddess. By Njord she bore the children Frey and Freyja, and by Odin the sons Thor, Balder, and Hodr. Thus she truly is the Mother of the Gods. Tacitus confirms both of these statements. In Chapter 45 of Germania, he says (H. Mattingly Translation) "The Aestii, who have the same customs and fashions as the Suebi, but a language more like the British" ...."worship the mother of the gods, and wear, as an emblem of this cult, the device of a wild boar." The boar is intimately connected with the Van gods Frey and Freya (owners of the boar Gullinbursti). The boar particularly is a creature of the earth, as it roots about in the soil for food. Here, the boar is an emblem of the cult of "the mother of the gods." Archeological evidence supports the fact that such a cult existed.
Furthermore, our sources attribute a peculiar trait to Frigg, as well as the Vanir. Lokasenna 29 lets Freya say "Frigg knows Urd's law concerning all living things, though she speak not of it." In Lokasenna 25, Frigg herself speaks of "Urd's law." Odin does not possess the power of foresight, nor does Frigg confide in him. In Vegtamskvida, Odin does not learn details of Balder's death beforehand from his wife, but from a Vala in Hel (Vegtamskvida). In Thrymskvida 16, Heimdall is said to "foresee as do all the Vanir," and before the Ragnarok, Voluspa says that Njord will return to "wise Vans" (Vafthrudnirsmal 39). It should be added that the Vans also conquered the Asas through "vigspa" (Voluspa) during the Van-As conflict. The power of prediction is characteristic to the Vanir. Frigg possesses this knowledge. If she were Jord, the probable sister of the Vanir god Njord, this would make perfect sense.
The evidence is not conclusive. However within the framework of Viktor Rydberg's reconstruction of the Teutonic mythic epic, Frigg's role as the Earth Mother becomes apparent. This identification adds much to the symbolic interpretation of the myths, which was always at the forefront of the skald's mind; When Harbard tells Thor that his "mother must be dead," Thor's response is that Harbard now says something that to "every man" is the worst thought. The obvious interpretation is here that everyone would be loathe to hear that their mother died, but when we remember the fact that Thor's mother is Jord, the Earth. The idea that Earth is dead is indeed the worst thought that could be realized by "every man," all of mankind. Interestingly, Harbard adds that Thor "sees the past clearly," most probably this is a witty reference to Frigg's knowledge of "Urd's law" and Thor's lack of said ability.
In Harbardsljod 56, Thor is called Fjrgyn's son, thus the feminine name Fjörgyn is a byname of Jord, Thor's mother. In Lokasenna 26, Frigg is called a daughter of Fjrgynnr, a masculine name. Here we have a masculine and a feminine name based on the same root, like Freyr and Freyja, and Njord and Nerthus. This seems to be common among the Vanir. [Note that Rydberg, who identifies Jord and Frigg, makes a distinction between the feminine form, Fjörgyn, found as the name of Thor's mother in Harbardsljod 56, and the masculine form, Fjörgynn, found as the name of Frigg's father in Lokasenna 26. The Neckel-Kuhn text also distinguishes between these name forms in the name index of his work at the back of the Eddic poems, and Jakob Grimm made the same distinction.]
Thus in the Nordic mythology, Fjörgynnr is the father-in-law to the storm- and wind-god Odin, and grandfather to the thundering Thor. This shows a high degree of probability, that among the Germans, he also stood in the nearest connection with the natural phenomena of storms and thunder. His name is also related to the Slavic Perkun, the thunder god. The goddess Jord bears his name in feminine form, Fjörgyn. Whereas Frigg now represents, not the land and the earth as such, but the "oak-green" (eikigroenu), harvest-bearing, life-sustaining earth, Mother Earth (Terra Mater, Tacitus) and then, as she in this character is a conception of the rain-giver and receives her power from him, so these kinship relationships increase the probability that Fjrgynn like the Indian Paraganya was the master of the rainstorm. Thereby light is spread over an insinuation occurring in Lokasenna 26. Loki, who burdens the gods and goddesses with insults, says there: "Shut up Frigg! Thou art Fjörgynn's daughter" and adds that she has always been wanton. It is apparent that the words "Thou art Fjörgynn's daughter," cannot in this association be a mere genealogical notice, but rather, must imply an insult, and also an allusion to a relationship that is intended to disparage her.
Nor should this be surprising. In the poem Lokasenna, Frigg, Freya, and Njord appear as a group amid charges of incest. Freyja is said to have slept with all of the Aesir and Elves present including her own brother Freyr, and Njord is said to have begot his son Freyr on his own sister. Lokasenna 36 lets Loki say regarding Frey "Stop there Njord, keep within measure, I can hold the secret no longer! With thy sister thou begat that son!" Frigg is also accused of sleeping with her husband Odin' brothers Vili and Ve, which was considered incest in ancient times. Among the Vanir, this kind of relationship was acceptable, among the Aesir it was not. Notice too how in the poem Lokasenna, Frigg, Freyja, and Njord respond to Loki as a group defending one another, Loki even includes Frey by mentioning him. This strengthens the sense of a family unit between them. The poets are subtle, but they let us know of this connection between Frigg and Njord.
This identification even works well as Nature symbolism, which is one level of the symbolic meaning of the myths. We know Njord is a Van (Vafthrudnirsmal 39). He is sibling to the Earth and the Day. Thus Earth and Sea are sister and brother. We know Njord to be the father of Frey and Freya (Gylf. 24). Thus Njord and Jord, the rich Sea and the Earth, produced Frey and Freya, Fertility. Snorri also lends some support for this. When Hermod visits the dead Balder in the underworld, he returns with gifts. Balder's wife Nanna sends a her a veil to Frigg as a gift. Balder gives him the ring Draupnir, which produces more rings on a regular basis. The ring is a symbol of fertility, as may be the veil. A veil is meant to cover the goddess, even as greenery covers the ground.After the death of her "sun," Frigg too begins to whither & die, but Nanna symbolically sends back a veil (of flowers and vegetation) from the lower world to again beautify her. The lower world contains the seeds that beautify the Earth each spring. It is a fitting gift for the Earth Mother.
Voluspa lends more support to the conclusion that the heathen skalds knew of this identity between Frigg and Jord. In Voluspa 52, which recounts the deaths of Odin and Frey during Ragnarok, the strophe concludes with the words "Frigg's beloved shall fall" (in closest proximity to the death of Frey "Beli's bright slayer"). If Frigg indeed is Jord, and the mother of Frey, this would add more weight to Voluspa, strophe 52, which describes the struggles of Frey with Surt and Odin with the Fenris Wolf. We assume her beloved is Odin, however we know she had great love for her children, as given in the example of Balder's death. Thus by "Frigg's beloved" the poet meant both Freyr and Odin. It is another example of the clever and economical use of language common in Old Norse poetry. Note too that before his death in Voluspa 55, Thor's mother is invoked twice. She is called Hlodyn and Jord, in the same breath. Immediately thereafter, the earth is said to sink into the sea. If Frigg is the fertile Earth, the mother of the gods, Thor, Balder, Hodr, Frey, and Freya, then the Voluspa poet has named her five times in the verses preceding verses as Odin's wife, Freyr's mother, and Thor's mother before "earth sinks into the sea."
And finally strophe 77 of Solarljod seems to clinch the matter. It reads:
77. Odin's wife rows in earth's ship, eager after pleasures, her sails are reefed late, which on the ropes of desire are hung.
Odin's wife or "Oðin's kvín," must refer to Frigg, as "kvín" designates ones legal wife, and the word also suggests "queen." We might think of Jord, Thor's mother, but the designation best designates Frigg. And while Loki called her wanton, and spoke openly of her infidelity, this verse seems to indicate she was a bit "frisky" as well.
Not surprisingly, "Odin's wife" is again associated with Njord, Freyr, and Freyja. In 78, we have a reference to a "hart's horn" which reminds me at once of the comment that "Frey slew Beli with a hart's horn" which I think is in the Younger Edda. Vigdvalin is unknown, but Dvalin is one of four dwarves who create Brisingsamen for Freyja. In 79, we are told of 9 daughters of Njord.
78. Son (Heir)! I thy father and Solkatla's sons alone have obtained for thee that horn of hart, which from the grave-mound bore the wise Vigdvalin. 79. Here are runes which Njord's nine daughters have engraven; Radvor the eldest, and Kreppor the youngest, and their seven sisters.
While the Eddas nowhere positively identify Frigg with the goddess Jord, the above evidence suggests a strong possibility that the ancient Germanic tribes knew of this relationship and spoke of a single goddess named Frigg, Jord, Frea, Fjörgyn, Hlodyn, Hlin, and Nerthus. The identity of these epithets of Frigg was first pointed out to me by Viktor Rydberg, through the use of Tactitus and the Longobardian saga, (thereby showing that Rydberg did not adhere blindly to the poems of the Elder Edda, but always incorporated the statements of related documents to help support and develop his conclusions). Although the initial identification was Rydberg's, I want to express that through my own research I was able to confirm this identity, as seen in the argument above.
In conclusion, I would like to state that if Frigg is the earth goddess, that would make her the matriarch of the gods. She would then be the mother of the highest gods. Kind of an "all-mother" if you will. Just think:
Frigg and Njord and their children Frey and Freyja Frigg and Odin and their children Thor, Balder, and Hodr.
It would also mean that both of her husbands, Njord and Odin, are present in Asgard and would explain both the prominence of the earth mother image in the archeological record, as well as the high status afforded to women in the Germanic culture.
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