The Goddess Nerthus is my patron deity. I have honored Her and done Her work for years. Recently though I had someone contact me for more information about Her, and realized I had very little to point them to. I’ve written a few rituals, but I haven’t described much of my personal work with Her. It’s time to change that.
Nerthus has a reputation as a very dark deity, and it’s not unearned. The only historical reference to Her name comes from Tacitus, an ancient Roman historian. He writes that no one was allowed to look on Her image. She paraded around the countryside in a covered wagon pulled by cows. When She returned to Her temple, Her image was washed by slaves who were then drowned in the water surrounding Her grove. Her hidden nature and the human sacrifice surrounding Her mythology have given Her this dark reputation.
But that’s not all that She is. Tacitus also writes that She takes great interest in humanity and its concerns. Where She goes, huge parties are thrown. Festivals go on for days. Weapons are locked away, and peace comes over the land. J. B. Rives’ translation of Tacitus says She returns to Her temple “when She has had Her fill of human company.” To me, this implies that She occasionally feels the desire to engage with people, to attend a big party and enjoy the spectacle.
Much of Nerthus’s modern worship in Heathen circles revolves around the darker aspects of Her story, and Her membership in the Vanic tribe. In the wider Pagan community, when She is recognized, it’s usually as a peaceful and motherly Earth Goddess. To me, these various sides of Her are much more integrated. I view Nerthus as an Earth Goddess, but not one that’s always warm and fuzzy. Nature can be very scary. And like nature, Nerthus gives us many gifts; but She’s also huge and awe-inspiring and can demand a great deal of us.
As climate change and human activity continues to destroy the environment and the world around us, I also sense that Nerthus can be a very angry and destructive deity. In my experience, She closely associates with local land and water spirits of wild places; and is very protective of these beings. But we shouldn’t forget that, fundamentally, She likes us and our company.