The only direct account we have of the Goddess Nerthus is via the famous work of Tacitus, “On the Origin and Situation of the Germans” or as it is more commonly known “Germania”. Although her mention is brief, this Goddess has enchanted many a researcher of our distant past. I am no different in this regard and have much to say on this powerful Goddess. She is generally given an identification as a “Mother Earth Goddess”, this is a title given to many an ancient Goddess, for me this is a rather lazy description. To do Nerthus or any Goddess justice I feel it vital we delve much deeper into their meaning and intention. In this piece we will take a look at her through the name this most holy of Goddesses is given by Tacitus, Nerthus.
The word Nerthus is an interesting one, it is said to come from the Proto Germanic nerþuz, meaning “Vital Power”. The word nerþuz is though an enigma in itself as well as appearing to have no descendants past “Nerthus”, I have struggled to find the root of it too. For me, its most likely origin is via the Proto Celtic Nertom, the interesting thing about this word is all its descendants are found in Britain and Brittany. Words like the old Breton, welsh and Cornish nerth meaning “Strength, power, Force” the same meaning is given to words like the old Irish Nert and Manx Niart. So what is a Brythonic word doing in Northern Germany? That is a question for another time, for now we have a word to work from.
The Proto Celtic word Nertom is said to have its root in Proto Indo-European h2nḗr-to-, which is given the meaning, “Virile, strong”, which itself is a derivative of h2nḗr meaning, “male, power, force, Vital energy”. This male aspect is carried through in many of its descendants, yet appears to be lacking in the Proto Celtic. If we though take the old Irish suffix -us which would give a female possession over Nerth (power) we get “Her power” or “Her possession over these masculine forces”.
These two definitions give us two options to pick from. As Tacitus calls Nerthus a “Mother Goddess” The possession over these virile forces could be understood as her carrying the seed of man, that she is pregnant. When a female becomes pregnant she possesses both the feminine and masculine forces of life. In this context Nerthus becomes a life giver, she carries within her the unborn potential of a folk. The second option is via “Her power”, here we have simply dropped the masculine aspect and denoted a female force equal to that of a males. In this sense the Female energy alone takes on a more forceful nature.
There is though a third option that combines both of the above. During pregnancy a Woman’s brain physically changes, especially the amygadala and while Science is only beginning to understand these brain changes, their external manifestations are there for all to observe. A pregnant woman experiences waves of emotions from intense feelings of love to heightened concern and worry for her unborn child’s well being, which in turn makes her fiercely protective. These emotional changes all make perfect sense, the expectant mothers life is about to drastically change, so it is only fitting that she herself must change to meet these demands. Nature is imbuing her with the skills required to protect, nurture and provide for her unborn child, even in the harshest of the circumstances. A mothers willingness to sacrifice and put herself in harms way for her child is one of the most potent forces within human nature. Nerthus thus comes to represent the unborn potential of the folk, be it fertility or fate and protector of this potential. I am sure that the Tribes that venerated her also saw themselves as under her protection, given they were the realisation of the potential she carried in her holy womb.
There are of course still many secrets to uncover regarding this Goddess. Within her name and writings we have connections to Britain via the Goddesses Brigid and Brigantia and Norse myth via Freyja and Njörðr. We also have clues to her connections to water and via alternative breakdowns of her name the words Earth and Nurture. For now though, This simple analysis of her name already reveals the potency and importance of this Goddess of the vital life forces.