Vanir of the Sea and Earth

Written by Dyami Millarson

I will refer to the Sea and Earth with a capital letter in this article not only in order to convey respect, but also to stress that Sea with a capital letter is conceived of as one whole and so is Earth with a capital letter. The Sea and Earth are originally masculine and feminine in the Germanic-speaking world. The Sea is femine in 19th-century Dutch and Old English, but it is masculine in Gothic and Old Norse, where the original gender is preserved.

The original Germanic perception of the Sea and Earth is that the Sea is masculine and consequently primarily associated with male holiness, while the Earth is feminine and consequently primarily associated with female holiness. This explains why the Sea is primarily associated with Ægir and Njörth, divine males, while the Earth is primarily associated with Jörth, Fjörgyn and Nerthus, divine females.

In the wider European polytheist tradition, Twin Deities may bear similar-sounding or the same names. Rōmulus and Rēmus and Freyr and Freyja are examples of Divinities with similar-sounding names. The brothers Alcis are examples of Divinities with the same name. The Njörth twins or Nerthus twins fall into the latter category of homonymous names; there is a male Njörth and a female Njörthr, or said in another way, a male Nerthus and a female Nerthus.

I have seen the far-fetched notion floating around that Nerthus/Njörth is a hemaphrodite; this is nothing but fanciful or wishful thinking of the modern age. The evidence for twin pairs and the like is really plentiful — might I say ubiquitous — in the wider European polytheist tradition, and hence the simplest explanation for Nerthus being described by Tacitus as a female and Njörth being described in the Poetic Edda as a male is analysing Nerthus/Njörth as originally a group of Deities, namely a twin pair. The Twin Deity explanation fits the paleopagan zeitgeist; we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the paleopagans to make sense of the sex discrepancy between Nerthus and Njörth in the source materials we currently have at our disposal. For the sake of making proper judgements or decisions regarding the Old Norse lore, we ought to giving thinking in a paleopagan way a chance; to interpret the lore, we need to open our minds properly to the paleopagan worldview as well as devote and limit ourselves to the psyche of the Germanic pagan ancestors.

Conceiving of Nerthus/Njörth as Divine Twins, we may ask the following: Where is the male twin when Tacitus mentions Nerthus? And where is the female twin when Njörth is bought up in the Poetic Edda? After all, one might assume that since They are closely associated with each other as twins, the Germanic ancestors will feel compelled to mention the other twin in the same breath whenever one of the twins is brought up. Yet, this is not so in the sources. An explanation for this paradox may be sought in the lore: Njörth himself states that he did not want to stay with Skaði in the mountains, but instead longed to stay by the sea. His inability to tolerate the land provides us with valuable information.

So, this is how I interpret the information from the Njörth-Skaði dispute in the light of the Njörth/Nerthus twins: while there was a primordial union between the male Njörth/Nerthus and the female Njörth/Nerthus, this union was subsequently broken since neither could compromise and both wished to stay in their respective comfort zones; there could be no long-lasting marriage between Sea and Earth since the Sea-God is Sea-bound and the Earth-Goddess is Earth-bound. A better match for the Earth, as it turned out, is the Heaven or Sky; this union appears to have produced Thor, who is called Earth’s son in Norse lore. A parallel to this whole story is the union between Pontos (Sea) and Gaia (Earth) in Greek religion; the aforementioned union did not last, but did produce Nereus. A better match for Gaia (Earth) happened to be Ouranos (Sky). It is not an uncommon occurrence for Earth and Sky to be married in folk religions, and so more parallels may be found in the traditions of different polytheist groups worldwide. For instance, the Māori Thor, whom the Māori call Tāwhirimātea or Tāwhiri, is the son of the Māori Sky-Týr (Himintýr) and Earth-Njörth (Jarðarnjörðr), whom they call Ranginui and Papatūānuku respectively in their language; the Māori Thor, the son of the Himintýr and Jarðarnjörðr, drove Tangaroa, the Sea-Njörth (Sænjörðr) of the Māori, into the Sea. The Māori story, just like the Greek story, roughly matches the Germanic story; they are all accounts of the natural or primordial relationship between Sky, Earth and Sea.

We know from Old Norse lore that the descendants of the Sænjörðr are the twins Freyr and Freyja, who are classified as Vanir. Since aforementioned father, daughter and son are Vanir, the sister of the father, the Jarðarnjörðr, must also be a Vana-Goddess. Therefore, Sea and Earth are Vanir. What is the Sky then? The Sky must originally be the realm of the Tívar, whom we know more popularly as the Æsir. The Æsir and Vanir became merged, and so Tívar — as well as Æsir — came to include both groupings. Thus, when the Germanic polytheists refer to the Æsir or Tívar, they are also referring to Njörth, Freyr and Freyja. Yet the primordial Vana origins of all these Deities is remembered; for descendance is important in Germanic culture. One has to know where one comes from. This principle is fundamentally Germanic: when interacting with a stranger or kinsman, roots matter, and this certainly extends to interactions between humans and Gods involving blood sacrifice. Even in Frisian cultures today it is important to know one’s roots, and when you wish to interact with people, they will wonder: “From whom are you descended?” Or as they say in Shire Frisian: “Fan wa bisto der ien?”

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