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Hertha, Ertha, Nerthus

Hertha, Ertha, Nerthus

Ertha, the Germanic Earth Goddess

Tacitus, edited by D. L. Ashliman

Nothing remarkable occurs in any of these tribes [of northern Germany], except that they unite in the worship of Ertha, or Mother Earth. They believe that she interposes in the affairs of men, and visits the different nations in her chariot. On an island of the ocean stands a sacred and unviolated grove, in which is a consecrated chariot, covered with a veil, which the priest alone is permitted to touch. He becomes conscious of the entrance of the goddess into this secret recess; and with profound veneration attends the vehicle, which is drawn by yoked cows.

At this season all is joy; and every place which the goddess deigns to visit is a scene of festivity. No wars are undertaken; arms are untouched; and every hostile weapon is shut up. At this time, only peace abroad and at home are known.

At length the same priest conducts the goddess, now weary of mortal intercourse, back to her temple. The chariot, with its curtain, and, if we may believe it, the goddess herself, then undergo ablution in a secret lake. This ritual is performed by slaves, whom the same lake instantly swallows up. Hence arises a mysterious horror and a pious ignorance of these events, which are beheld only by those who are about to perish.

Hertha Lake

J. D. H. Temme, translated by D. L. Ashliman

In the part of the Island of Rgen named Jasmund, not far from Stubbenkammer, one can still see remnants--especially the outer wall--of Hertha Castle, which has stood there for many centuries, ever since the days of heathenism. In this castle the heathens of Rgen worshipped an idol that they called Hertha, whom they perceived to be Mother Earth.

Not far from Hertha Castle there is a deep, black lake, surrounded by woods and hills. The goddess bathed there several times each year. She rode there in a carriage covered with a mysterious veil and drawn by two cows. Only her consecrated priest was allowed to accompany her. Slaves were also brought along to lead the draft animals, but they were drowned in the lake immediately upon completing their task, because any unconsecrated person who caught sight of the goddess would have to die. For this reason nothing more is known about the worship of this goddess.

There are all kinds of stories about uncanny happenings near this lake. Some believe that these are caused by the devil, who, in the form of the goddess Hertha, was worshipped by the heathens and who therefore still lays claim to the lake. Others believe that these happenings are caused by an ancient queen or princess who had been banished to this place.

Especially when the moon is shining brightly, a beautiful woman is often seen emerging from the woods adjacent to Hertha Castle. She proceeds to the lake, where she bathes herself. She is surrounded by many female servants, who accompany her into the water. Then they all disappear, but they can be heard splashing about. After a while they all appear again, and they can be seen returning to the woods dressed in long white veils.

It is very dangerous for a wanderer to observe this, for he will be drawn by force into the lake where the white woman is bathing, and as soon as he touches the water, he will be powerless; the water will swallow him up. They say that the woman has to lure one human into the water every year.

No one is allowed to use boats or nets on this lake. Some time ago some people dared to bring a boat to the lake. They left it afloat overnight, and when they returned the next morning, it had disappeared. After a long search, they found it atop a beech tree on the bank. It was spirits of the lake that had put it up there during the night, for when the people were getting it back down, they heard a spiteful voice calling to them from beneath the lake, saying: "My brother Nickel and I did it!"

Tacitus also tells us that the amber-gathering Germans on the eastern coast of the Baltic worshipped "the mother of the gods", whose emblem was the figure of the wild boar, which was worn by her folk. This boar "takes the place of arms and of human protection, and secures the follower of the goddess a mind at rest even among enemies" (ch. 45). This same belief appears in Beowulf, where the boar-crest on the helm wards the warrior who wears it. The boar is holy to Fro Ing and the Frowe; this reference suggests that it is also holy to Nerthus.

As the early earth- and bog-goddess, Nerthus must, like her daughter, have owned a mighty necklace or girdle. The word njargr, "girdle of strength", appears in Old Norse and may well be related to her name; though it is rr who is said to wear it in the skaldic poem "rsdrapa", it is likely that Nerthus has such a girdle of her own. It is pleasing to think of her necklace and girdle as being, like the Stone Age bog-gifts, great strands of raw amber.

While Nerthus is mostly a goddess of earth, Njrr himself seems to be a god of water, particularly the ocean. He is the god of ships, seamen and fishers. His home is called Natn - "enclosure of ships", or "harbour". In the tale of his unsuccessful marriage to Skai (see "Skai"), his home is by the waves and loud with the sound of seagulls. This tale also tells us of how Skai chose him by the beauty of his feet; interestingly, the bare footprint is one of the signs which often appears on the Bronze Age rock carvings, most of which were set up by the coast. It may well have been an emblem of the god from early times, perhaps as a sign of his fruitfulness, as the wedding-association suggests.