Written by Dyami Millarson
The earliest known reference to the Angliī (sing. Anglus), who are an ancestral tribe of the Anglo-Saxons, is chapter XL  (see the text here or here) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus’ treatise on the origin and location of the Germanic peoples (Dē orīgine et sītū Germānōrum) dated to 98 AD:
The tribal denomination Anglus (pl. Angliī) may or may not be related to Shire Frisian [id est Clay Frisian and Wood Frisian] ing narrow and Dutch eng narrow, which may, in turn, have something to do with Tacitus’ description of this and similar tribes “being protected by rivers or forests” (fluminibus aut silvis muniuntur). It is true that rivers usually have an elongated, narrow shape whilst forests usually take take up a huge area in square metres in any direction; logically, the Shire Frisian ing and Dutch eng are, therefore, more likely to apply to the former than the latter as the adjectives usually describe something that has an elongated shape, such as in Shire Frisian: in inge wei a narrow road or in inge stripe lân a narrow strip of land. However, even if an etymological connection with Shire Frisian ing narrow and Dutch eng narrow is tempting given Tacitus’ own description of the situs location of the Angliī, we ought to be fair and consider other possibilities; an etymological connection with Shire Frisian angel a type of fishhook is another candidate, and this makes perfect sense as those belonging to the ancient tribe of the Angliī dwelled near the Wadden Sea, which is the cradle of Germanic civilisation, and fishing would, therefore, have been a means of sustenance of theirs. Furthermore, it is not strange for West Germanic tribes in the proximity of the Angliī to name themselves after frequently used tools, such as the Francī (sg. Francus) and the Saxōnēs (sg. Saxō) who are named after a type of javelin and knife respectively, and thus technological names for designating tribes may be considered a Germanic tradition, which is a cultural argument in favour of the etymological interpretation of Angliī as a technological name, and additionally, interpreting Angliī as a technological name makes historical sense as the Angliī were a nautical people which traversed the British Channel and thus became the ancestors of the later Anglo-Saxons, whence the Modern English and Scottish languages come. At the same time, if we consider that the Angliī lived near the Wadden Sea, we must also not overlook the fact that the beach along the coast of the Wadden Sea is a narrow strip of land, which, if the Angliī were connected with fishing, might also match well with the Shire Frisian adjective ing, which we discussed as an etymological candidate previously. Yet, the Latin name of the Germanic tribe contains an -l-, which has to be accounted for, and if we interpret this -l- as a Germanic diminutive suffix (cognate with the Latin suffix -(u)l- which may occur in nouns and adjectives), it might make the most sense if we interpret the root word of the tribal denomination as a noun describing a tool rather than an adjective describing the shape of something, although the latter interpretation is not wholly unthinkable. Given the suffix, I have a tendency to favour the Angliī–angel connection over the Angliī–ing interpretation; however, I would not go so far as to suggest the latter is thereby completely ruled out, because ing + diminutive suffix could potentially denote a relatively small narrow object, such as an island (think of the narrowly-shaped North Frisian islands, such as the Halligen Islands, near the coast of Continental Europe) or an estuary.
Having delved into the etymology of the tribal name, we must now return to what Tacitus has to say about the Germanic traditional religion of the Angliī: it was customary among the Angliī and West Germanic tribes related to them “that they worship Nerthus, that is Mother Earth” (quod […] Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt). Moreover, the Angliī and others are witnesses of Mother Earth’s deeds in the human world: “they witness she intervenes in human affairs, [as she] is carried to the peoples” (eam[…] intervenire rebus hominum, invehī populīs arbitrantur). Whilst Tacitus as ancient Roman is a fellow polytheist, he can give a decent account of the worldview of the Angliī, helping us empathise with how they perceive things; it is evident that the Angliī believed themselves to be the witnesses of Mother Earth, and knowing this perception of Mother Earth as well as the perception of themselves (self-perception) as witnesses fully opens our window into the religious world of the Angliī, which can make as feel that we are much closer to the Angliī than our current year suggests, and this is the right time to realise that Tacitus’ lively description of the folk ways of the Angliī is, in the current year, almost two thousand years old.
Why is the religion of the Angliī so important for the topic of this article? As suggested by the title, the goal of this article is to make sense of an Anglo-Saxon Goddess named Erce, which may appear elusive as she has, unfortunately, been mentioned only once in an Anglo-Saxon charm, which means we do not have much to work with and we therefore had to take a look at the wider ethnoreligious context before we can begin to grasp the nature of Erce as a Germanic Goddess.
While there is only one Anglo-Saxon charm in which Erce is mentioned, there is great merit to reading the entire charm (I edited the Anglo-Saxon text):
her ys seo bot, hu ðu meaht
þine æceras betan gif hi nellaþ
wel wexan oþþe þær hwilc unge
defe þing on gedon bið on dry
oððe on lyblace genim þonne
on niht, ær hyt dagige, feower
tyrf on feower healfa þæs lan
des & gemearca hu hy ær stod
on . Nim þonne ele hunig beor
man ælces feos meolc þe on þæm
lande sy ælces treocynnes
dæl þe on þæm lande sy gewexen
butan heardan beaman ælcre
nam cuþre wyrte dæl butan
glappan anon do þonne haligwæt
er ðær on & drype þon þriwa on
þone staðol þara turfa & cwe
þe ðonne ðas word . Crescite . wexe .
et multiplicamini . & gemænig
fealda . et replete . & gefylle .
terre . þas eorðan . In nomine
patris . et filii . et spiritus
sancti sit bene
dicti . & pater noster swa oft swa
þæt oðer & bere siþþan ða turf to circean
& mæssepreost asinge feower mæssan
ofer þan turfon . & wende man þæt grene
to ðan weofode & siþþan gebringe
man þa turf þær hi ær
wæron ær sunnan setl gange . & hæbbe hi
gæworht of cwicbeame feower cris
tes mælo & awrite on ælcon ende .
Matheus . & marcus, LucaS . & Iohes
lege þæt cristes mæl on þone pyt
neoþeweardne cweðe ðonne . Crux
matheus . Crux . marc . Crux . Lucas
Crux . Sct. Iohannes. Nim ðonne
þa turf & sete ðær ufon on & cweþe
ðonne nigon siþon þas word . Crescite .
& swa oft . pater noster & wende þe þon
eastweard & onlut nigon siðon
eadmod lice . & cweð þonne þas word
eastweard ic stande, arena ic me
bidde bidde ic þone mæran . d[omi]ne
bidde ðone miclan drihten
bidde ic ðone haligan heofonrices
weard . eorðan ic bidde & upheofon
& ða soþan s[an]c[t]a marian . & heofones
meaht . & heahreced þt ic mote
þis gealdor mid gife drihtnes
toðu ontynan þurh trumne ge
þanc aweccan þas wæstmas us
to woruld nytte gefyllan þas
foldan mid fæste geleafan wlitigi
gan þas wancg turf swa se witega
cwæð . þæt se hæfde are on eorþ
rice se þe ælmyssan dælde dom
lice drihtnes þances . wende þe
þon . III . sunganges astrece þon
on andlang & arim þær letanias
& cweð þonne: s[an]c[tu]s,scs. scs. oþende.
Sing þon benedicite aþenedon
earmon . manificat . & pat[er]
noster . III . & bebeod hit xpe
& sca marian . & þære halgan
rode tolofe . & to weorþinga
& þa are þe þæt landage & eallon
þam þe him under ðeodde synt ðonne
þ[æ]t eall sie gedon þon nime man uncuþ
sæd æt ælmes mannu & selle him
twa swylc swylce man æt hi nime
& gegaderie ealle his sulh geteogo
togædere borige þon on þa beame
stor . & finol . & gehalgode sapan
& gehalgod sealt nim þonne þt sæd sete
on þæs sules bodig . cweð þon Erce .
Erce . Erce . eorþan modor geunne
þe se alwalda ece drihten æcera
wexendra & wridendra eacnien
dra & elniendra sceafta henre
scirra wæstma . & þæra bradan
bere wæstma . & þæra hwitan
hwæte wæstma . & ealra eorþan
wæstma . geunne hi ece drihten
& his halige þeon heofonum synt
þæt hys yrþ si gefriþod wið ealra
feonda gehwæne & heo si gebor
gen wið ealra bealwa ge hwylc
þara lyblaca geond land sawen
Nu ic bidde ðone walden se ðe ðas
woruld gesceop þæt ne synan to þæs cwi
dol wif ne to þæs cræftig man þæt
awendan ne mæge worud þus gecwedene
þon man þa sulh forð drife .
& þa forman furh onsceote . cweð
þon hal wes þu folde fira modor
beo þu growende ongodes fæþme
fodre gefylled firum to nytte .
Nim þon ælces cynnes melo & abacæ
man Innewerdre handa bradnæ
hlaf & gecned hine mid meolce &
mid halig wætere & lecge under þa forman
furh cweþe þonne ful æcer fodres fira
cinne beorht blowende þu gebletsod
weorþ þæs haligan noman þe ðas
heofon gesceop & ðas eorþan þe we
onlifiaþ se god se þas grundas ge
worhte geunne us growende gife
þæt us corna gehwylc cume to nytte .
cweð þonne . III . Crescite . In nomine patris .
sit benedicti . Amen & pat ns . þriwa .
Modern English: field blessing
Here is the remedy, how you may
your fields better if they do not
grow well, or if any unhealthy
thing has been done to them
by sorcery or by poison
at night, before it is dawn, [take] four
sods from the four parts of your land
& mark where they stood
before . Then take oil & honey & yeast
& milk from each cow that is on the
land & of each kind of tree
a bit that on the land you grow
except hornbeam & of each
named herb take a piece except only
buckbean & add then holy water
& drip thereon three times on
the bottom of the sods &
say then these words. Crescite .grow.
& multiply . & become many-
fold . and replete . & fill .
terre . the earth. In the name
of the father . and son . and spirit
be blessed . & the pater noster as often as the
other & afterwards bear the sods to church
& priest sings four masses
over the sods . & turn the green
side to the altar & afterwards bring
the sods to where they were previously, before
sunset go. & have one
make of mountain ash four crosses
[use] meal & write on each end .
Matthew . & mark, Luke . & John
lay the meal-marked crosses in the holes
below then say . Cross
matthew . Cross . mark . Cross . Luke .
Cross St. John . Take then
the sods & set them down there & say
then nine times this word . Crescite [grow] .
& as often . the pater noster & turn them then
eastward & bow nine times afterwards
humbly . & say then these words
eastward I stand, mercy I for me
bid bid I the mighty . lord
bid then the great ruler
bid I the holy heaven’s
ward . earth I bid & heaven
& the true st. mary . & heaven’s
might . & high place that I might
with this spell with the gift of the ruler
to us untie through firm
thought awaken this bounty for us
to world knit fullness these
fields with stout leafy beauty
go with the cut turf as the wise
one said . he who has earthly
riches gives alms dealing as
as his lordly ruler intends . Turn you
then . 3 . times sunwise stretch then
lengthwise & count there litanies
& say then . holy . holy . holy . to the end.
Sing then benedicite, extending
arms . magnificat . & pater
noster . 3 . [times] & commend it to christ
& st. mary . & the holy
rood for love . & for worthiness
& for the land owner & all
those who are his people when that
all is done then take unfamiliar
seed from an almsman & give him
twice as much as you took from him
& gather all his plough gear
together bore then into the beam
frankincense . & fennel . & blessed soap
& blessed salt take then the seed
set it on the plow’s body . say then Erce .
Erce . Erce . earth’s mother give
us all-wielder ever-ruler acres
fruitful & flourishing
fertile & strong high shafts
bright abundance . & there broad
barley crops . & there white
wheat crops . & all earth’s
abundance . give all ruler
& those holy ones who are in heaven
that this earth is strong against all
fiends every one & armored
against all evils whatsoever
every poison throughout the land sown
Now I bid that these fields themselves this
world that nothing created by the spell-
binding wife nor of by the crafty man
may unravel words thus spoken
then one drives the plow forward .
& opens the first furrow, saying
then health to you, field, the folk’s mother
be thou growing in the embrace of good
food-filled for the people to enjoy .
Then take each kind of meal & bake
as a man’s Inner hand broad
a loaf & knead that with milk &
with holy water & lay it under the first
furrow say then fill fields with food for human
kind bright blooming your blessed
worth this sacred place this that
heaven shaped & this earth that we
live on that the god this ground
wrought giving us growing gifts
that to us grain comes to benefit.
Say then 3 times . Grow in the name of the father,
be blessed. Amen & the pater noster thrice .
Now we should note that the charm is not a purely Germanic folk religious charm, but it is a syncretic charm which incorporates both Germanic and non-Germanic elements – a fact which makes it historically interesting, as Germanic polytheism survived Christianity, which posed an existential threat, by adapting (see more here, here and here), and syncretism thus became a core tenet of the way in which that evolutionary adaptation for survival manifested itself; by carefully studying pagan survivals in modern Germanic languages and cultures as well as the continuity between Germanic paganism and the folklore of later ages, it eventually dawned upon me that, from an evolutionary perspective, Germanic polytheism works like a living organism which adapts for the sake of its self-preservation. As a result of the evolutionary adaptation, paganism was never truly dead & gone, although gravely wounded and in dire need of medical attention if it were to make a full recovery.
I have printed Erce, Erce, Erce, eorþan modor (Erce, Erce, Erce, earth’s mother) in bold as it is the pagan element of the charm that we are interested in. We ought to immediately notice that the name – we are now assuming that it is actually a proper name although other readings are possible – is said three times, and this is no mere coincidence as Germanic pagans believed 3 to denote holiness (also see my previous article where I discuss how deities are worshipped in specific numbers).
The mention of a Germanic Goddess in an Anglo-Saxon charm which exhibits non-Germanic aesthetics is not that strange. The Norwegian Halldor Olson Opedal has collected evidence that Norwegian fishermen used to thank Njörun – who is to be equated with Njorth (also compare Nerthus which is mention in the work of Tacitus) – for bounty whenever they caught fish. This tradition of Norwegian fishermen may be seen in the same light as the Anglo-Saxon charm which fits in an agricultural context; both fishermen and farmers are conservative social groups which tend to preserve ancient traditions, as I have noticed with the Terschelling Frisians, Schiermonnikoog Frisians, and Hindeloopen Frisians in 2018.
Methinks it is time now to move on the etymology of the Anglo-Saxon divine name Erce so we may get a better grasp of what the Goddess originally stands for.
Let me dispel a spurious etymological connection first: any etymological connection between Latin Cerēs and Anglo-Saxon Erce is fanciful. Namely, it is exceedingly unlikely that Erce stands for *Cere as Germanic consonants do not just wander about Germanic words that much and if they wander about at all, they stay very close to their original position; an imagined metathesis such as *Ecre is within the realm of the possible in the Germanic language family, but an original form *Cere, which requires an evolution entirely alien to the regular sound developments in the Germanic language family, is simply a bridge too far. So to put it very clearly, an etymological connection with Cerēs is undoubtedly a figment of the imagination.
Erce, if it is a proper name, may mean ‘holy one’ as it appears to be connected with Old English eorcnan true, precious, Old High German erc(h)an true, genuine (equated with Lat. vērō truly), and Gothic unaírkns unholy and aírkns holy, which is a synonym of Gothic háilags holy (in the sense of ‘whole, sound’) and weihs holy (in the sense of ‘chosen, dedicated, sacred’). It is also connected with the first element of the Swedish compound jär-tecken omen and the Icelandic compound jar-teikn omen, which are derived from Old Norse jar-tegn (gen. sg. -tein, nom. pl. -teikn) token, miracle. The meanings of these compounds already demonstrate that the element jar- is closely associated with (pagan) religion. Another interesting compound, in which the same element occurs, is Old Norse jarkna-steinn (gen. sg. -steins, nom. pl. -steinar) glittering gem and Anglo-Saxon eorcnanstān (gen. sg. -stānes, nom. pl. -stānas) precious stone. This compound originally means ‘holy stone’ and it can be inferred that a stone thus called would have possessed special religious significance to the Germ. polytheists, who indeed had an inherited custom of venerating both trees and stones. In any case, it ought to be clear that all of the aforementioned compounds with this element belong to a semantic web that has its pristine origins in Germanic paganism. In Old High German, there is the compound erchanpruoder full brother, which gives a decent idea of the meaning of erchan in Old High German: it means something along the lines of Latin vērus true, genuine and as these two words are semantically comparable, we have a decent idea of what erchan actually means, which in turn helps us understand the meaning of this word in Gothic better as well: Gothic unaírkns, which I translated as impure, may be understood as untrue and while I translated Gothic aírkns as holy, it may also be understood as true, which underscores the relationship between truth and holiness. Therefore, Erce may mean ‘Holy One’ in the sense of ‘True One’; if this is another epithet of Mother Earth, it means she is a manifestation of holy truth (Seith) as opposed to a manifestation of being ‘whole’ (háilags) or ‘sacred’ (weihs), and the fact that the name Erce is mentioned thrice, emphasises her holiness. When Erce is mentioned thrice, this has magical power and the purpose of this is to create a favourable truth or jartegn omen; this is apparently how Seith works. She does not have a healing function (háilags) nor a sacrificial function (weihs), but a fertility or growing function (as seen in the charm), hence she is “genuine” (aírkns). So the aforementioned three-way distinction between háilags, weihs and aírkns, if correct, may help us understand Erce and what her exact function is; she is a Fertility Goddess, and this is also expected from the fact she is equated with Mother Earth. Erce, at least with this specific epithet, is originally called upon for fertility magic rather than sacrificial or healing magic, although that cannot be entirely ruled out whilst Germanic peoples (like in the Anglo-Saxon charm) did not make such clear distinctions and simply did whatever they deemed proper for their situation and in reality, as the Germanic peoples also accepted, things are inevitably not clear-cut but blurred, which means that, for instance as in the case of the Anglo-Saxon charm, when one requires fertility magic, one may require healing magic at the same time. Gothic aírkns may further be compared with Ancient Greek ἀργός bright, white, ἀργής bright, white, ἄργυρος silver (a shining, white metal), Sanskrit अर्जुन bright, white; made of silver, रजत silver-like, whitish, ऋज्र fast, red, Latin argentum silver, arguere to clarify (possibly originally ‘to brighten’), Old Armenian արծաթ silver, Tocharian A ārki white and Tocharian B ārkwi white. The semantic web, which is observed in all of the aforementioned Indogermanic terms, may be connected with the notion that the Germanic Gods were originally perceived as “white, bright, silver-like,” and this quality, if indeed so relevant, may perhaps also be closely associated with “white magic” (i.e., good magic, positive supernatural influence). Finally, there is the Bavarian Erchtag which means Tuesday. I am not entirely sure what to make of this, but Germanic Gods are usually featured in the days of the week, and it may perhaps be assumed that Erch– is apparently a deity; interestingly, the element in the compound has lost the n just like the Anglo-Saxon erce, and this may either be a coincidence, or it may point to a common origin.
We have already discussed this en passant, but I would once again like to raise the reader’s attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxon charm equated Erce with eorþan modor Mother Earth. Why is this so relevant? As a matter of fact, Tacitus said of the Angliī, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, in the passage quoted at the onset of this article “that they worship Nerthus, that is Mother Earth” (quod […] Nerthum, id est Terram matrem, colunt). This checks out with the apparent Anglo-Saxon worship of Mother Earth in later times. If it is true that Erce = eorþan modor and if it is true that Nerthum = Terra mater, then it may be true that Erce = Nerthus (i.e., Erce is an epithet of Nerthus) or in case we wish to be more cautious, at the very least very closely related, which, either way, profoundly enhances our comprehension of Erce. In case we assume that Erce is simply closely related to Nerthus, we may surmise that both Goddesses are similar in character and consequently may be expected to be worshipped in similar fashion. The Old Norse also knew Mother Earth, whom they called Jorth, and this was the mother of Thor, whom she begat with Othin. So, we already know that Erce, equated with Mother Earth, must at the very least have been a Jorth-like and Nerthus-like being. Since Erce is not mentioned in further sources and although dubious, the Bavarian Erchtag Tuesday seems to confirm that a Goddess by the name of Erch- existed, it is, perhaps, not likely that she was an unfamiliar deity, but rather that Erce is an epithet of the familiar Nerthus.
Finally, a word of caution: we should briefly consider the possibility that Erce may actually not be a proper name and that we might read the passage differently. In fact, we might read erce, erce, erce as a threefold repetition of holy, and I have indeed seen such a threefold repetition of sanctus in Latin hymns. Therefore, one might interpret Erchtag Tuesday as simply meaning ‘holy day’ but that would strike me as somewhat odd, as the days of the week are usually named after deities in Germanic and Roman tradition. It is definitely reasonable to read erce and Erch- not as a proper name. The fact remains that Tacitus clearly stated that the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons venerated Mother Earth and the Anglo-Saxon charm clearly mentions Mother Earth, and this fact is not negated if we do not read erce as a proper name. So, the connection with Nerthus has no bearing on how to read erce and the argument for the connection between the Anglo-Saxon Mother Earth and the Mother Earth of the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons remains intact. However, reading Erce as a proper name does also certainty make sense and all the etymological evidence does certainly not argue against it; in fact, it would make perfect sense for a Fertility Goddess to have a name meaning ‘holy one.’ So, on the one hand, we cannot rule out a genuine pagan origin, yet on the other hand, we cannot rule out that three times repetition of erce is of non-pagan origin. Given the syncretic nature of the text, it is not possible to discern the truth with any absolute degree of certainly and if no new evidence arises to shed more light on which of the two possibilities is the correct one, one may believe whatever one wishes to believe; however one interprets this does not really alter matters. However, I am personally inclined to believe that it is an imitation of sanctus, sanctus, sanctus as found in other Latin hymns, while I cannot really recall having seen such a threefold repetition of a name before in Germanic poems (although my memory may fail me). Of course, as I have already mentioned, the Germanic peoples did in fact have a tradition of worshipping deities in groupings, and so it would not be entirely surprising within the Germanic tradition if the same name were repeated thrice, yet I find the position of erce before Mother Earth somewhat strange, which inclines me to think that erce is, in fact, not a proper name but something else. Nevertheless, who knows? Human beings are creative and they may create strange combinations, so my suspicion of the placement of erce does not entirely rule out a reading of erce as a proper name for a Goddess also known as Mother Earth. No matter how unsatisfying this may be from an etymological point of view, this matter remains – if we wish to know with much more certainty how to read erce – unresolved for now. Regardless, I am currently thinking of how the matter may perhaps be resolved: a solution might be a thorough meta-analysis of all the available Germanic pagan materials to see whether (1) repetitions of the same proper name occur or not all and whether (2) such repetitions, if they do occur at all, may occur before (or after) another proper name that is used in an attributive manner. Such a meta-analysis could perhaps provide more clarity from a linguistic point of view. Barring the ability to do so within a short timeframe, I can still do a quick literature check as I have access to a wide variety of linguistic sources.