Meaning of the name: The best explanation of the name associates it with the Greek nerteros meaning ‘downward, to the underworld’ which agrees with the Goddess’s practice of drowning and the association with death. Nerþuz is described by Tacitus in his “Germania” work of 98AD as being Terra or Tellus Mater, meaning “Mother Earth” however she has strong links to spring, fertility, liminality and the underworld. The Old English Æcerbot Charm also deals with this goddess under the name Erce with the same meaning “eorþan modor” or Earth Mother, and She is known as Folde also.
Pronunciation: “Nurth-uz” with the first syllable pronounced as in modern “Earth” and the second syllable as “uz”.
Function: Nerþuz was attested to the Anglii (Angles) by Tacitus in 98 AD when he compiled his “Germania” and is not specifically referred to as a Goddess in Her own right within the known Anglo-Saxon pantheon for which most reconstructionalists adhere, however She is attested to be a form of Mother Earth that some consider to be an aspect of Frīg in her aspect as fertility Goddess. There are some that consider Nerþuz to be a hermaphrodite, representative of both the male and female aspects of fertility, perhaps even an aspect of Ingui or inherently related or mated to Him at various stages in the cycle of the seasons. The Æcerbot Charm refers to Her as Erce and is a charm to appease the Goddess, with a distinctly Christianized slant, with a view to improving the yield for the season ahead in the relevant fields by giving them Her blessing.
The association with “Mother” as well as the Underworld is indicative, at least to me, of the life-death-rebirth cycle and therefore I associate Her with both death and life, hence the strong connection with liminality and the welcome embrace of the newly dead within Her earthy fold. Death to the Heathen was merely an expected part of the life cycle, hence life itself was lived to its fullest extent. I personally consider that when we die, we are returned to the embrace of either Nerþuz or Wada, at least temporarily which is dependent upon a burial or death on land or at sea. For me, that makes perfect sense as each God or Goddess provides a physical receptacle for the remains of the deceased and that Wōden, in his aspect as psychopomp, may claim them for his own purposes, moving the dead to another realm of existence, as is his wont.
Therefore, Nerþuz may act as a womb for new life, giving birth every spring and preceded by the release of Ēostre from the darkness of sleep, and also as a tomb – the place to which all that has lived will again return once life has left it in the form of the grave mound or other form of burial. Liminality is widely attested in relation to water, but also refers to other physical thresholds and as such entry below ground can be seen as stepping through a threshold and into another realm of existence also.
The Angles (Latin Anglii) were recorded first by Tacitus, in his “Germania” (98 AD) as being worshippers of Nerthus (Terra Mater) along with some other tribes of the North. He recounts:
“In an island of the ocean there is a sacred grove, and within it a consecrated chariot, covered over with a garment. Only one priest is permitted to touch it. He can perceive the presence of the goddess in this sacred recess, and walks by her side with the utmost reverence as she is drawn along by heifers.
It is a season of rejoicing, and festivity reigns wherever she deigns to go and be received. They do not go to battle or wear arms; every weapon is under lock; peace and quiet are known and welcomed only at these times, till the goddess, weary of human intercourse, is at length restored by the same priest to her temple. Afterwards the car, the vestments, and, if you like to believe it, the divinity herself, are purified in a secret lake. Slaves perform the rite, who are instantly swallowed up by its waters. Hence arises a mysterious terror and a pious ignorance concerning the nature of that which is seen only by men doomed to die. This branch indeed of the Suevi stretches into the remoter regions of Germany.”
This further cements the connection with liminality and the association with Nerþuz and Wada, who hold sway over land and sea respectively, where it is possible that both may act together or indeed separately in liminal fashion to take us from one realm of existence to another, being the underworld of a watery grave or the deep, dark earth of the Hēah Modor (Great Mother).
With my leaning towards a more “Anglian” approach to Fyrnsidu, Nerþuz is a Goddess to which I pay personal attention and I usually finish my offerings to my ancestors and also to the Gods and Goddesses with the line “And hail to Nerþuz, that gives to all men”. She is the one deity that I refer to daily.
Iconography: The Smiss Stone of Gotland which shows a seated figure holding snakes with a triskele above her ending in the heads of a dog/wolf, bird and boar. Snakes are beings associated with earth and the underworld. A female suckling such could be said to be both giving life and nurturing death at once. The Smiss Stone is referred to by some as being related to Nerþuz.