In Norse mythology, Njord or Njordr (Old Norse Njörðr) is one of the Vanir (the gods of prosperity and fertility), and is seen as the god of wind, of arable land along the seacoast, and also of various nautical roles (including seamanship, sailing and fishing). He is the husband of Skadi and father of Yngvi-Freyr and Freyja.
The mother of these two gods was, according to the Heimskringla (a mythico-historical text detailing the history of Norwegian kingship), Njord's own sister and lover, as the Vanir apparently had a custom of consanguineous marriage. Intriguingly, his sister's name may also have been Njord, according to the reconstruction of the name of a Teutonic goddess that Tacitus transliterated into Latin as "Nerthus" (= Njörðr).
As a Norse deity, Njord belonged to a complex religious, mythological and cosmological belief system shared by the Scandinavian and Germanic peoples. This mythological tradition, of which the Scandinavian (and particularly Icelandic) sub-groups are best preserved, developed in the period from the first manifestations of religious and material culture in approximately 1000 B.C.E. until the Christianization of the area, a process that occurred primarily from 900-1200 C.E. The tales recorded within this mythological corpus tend to exemplify a unified cultural focus on physical prowess and military might.
Within this framework, Norse cosmology postulates three separate "clans" of deities: the Aesir, the Vanir, and the Jotun. The distinction between Aesir and Vanir is relative, for the two are said to have made peace, exchanged hostages, intermarried and reigned together after a prolonged war. In fact, the most major divergence between the two groups is in their respective areas of influence, with the Aesir representing war and conquest, and the Vanir representing exploration, fertility and wealth. The Jotun, on the other hand, are seen as a generally malefic (though wise) race of giants who represented the primary adversaries of the Aesir and Vanir.
Njord, as one of the Vanir, was concerned with the optimal fulfillment of embodied life, and, to that end, represented the bounty of the sea (and, to a lesser extent, the field). He derived additional importance from his role as the father of Freyr and Freyja, two of the most popular deities of the Norse pantheon. Further, though he is not a common figure in the surviving mythic corpus (playing, at best, a "very passive role"), Njord was relatively important to the overall religious/cultic system of the time (as attested by toponyms, archeological findings, and surviving accounts).
Njord was primarily a maritime god, whose associations with fertility, wealth and pleasure are evidenced in the sea-faring nature of Norse culture. In his primer for aspiring skaldic poets, the twelfth-century Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson states that one can periphrase the god by "calling him God of the Vanir, or Kinsman of the Vanir, or Wane, Father of Freyr and Freya, God of Wealth-Bestowal."
Though he is not a member of the Aesir proper, he is still (for all intents and purposes) numbered among them – likely due to the recognized importance of gods concerned with material life (unlike the predominantly war-like Aesir):
In addition to his familial connections and his association with prosperity, another intriguing element of Njord's character is his well-described passivity (or even effeminacy). The god's effeminacy is attested to in the tale of his marriage to Skadi, where Njord takes an entirely passive role—to the extent that the goddess is the one who chooses her prospective mate. This sexual ambiguity can even be seen in the linguistic character of their names, for, as Turville-Petre notes, "the form of Skadi's name is typically masculine," which suggests that "it may be that Skadi was originally a god, while her consort, Njord, was a goddess, whose sex changed because the name appeared to be masculine."
One explanation for these feminine characteristic is a postulated identity between Njord and Nerthus, a fertility goddess whose worship was well-attested in the writings of the historian Tacitus (56-117 C.E.). As Dumézil notes, "this old goddess of the northern Germans already has the principle traits of the Scandinavian Njord." Indeed, the "etymological equivalence" between Nerthus and Njord has led many to postulate "either that some time during the first millennium the sex of the deity changed, that the deity was hermaphroditic, or, perhaps most likely, that there was once a male-female pair, like Frey and Freya, with identical or nearly-identical names."
This last possibility accords well with another of Loki's insults (in the Lokasenna), where he claims that Freyr and Freyja were children of incest: "With thy sister hadst thou | so fair a son." Indeed, such a claim seems highly compatible with the general fact that the Vanir were understood to practice endogamous marriage.
One of Njord's most important mythic roles is as a willing hostage to the Aesir, which was necessitated by the long and drawn-out war of attrition that had been fought between the Aesir and the Vanir. To negotiate an end to the bloodshed, both sides agreed to exchange hostages, to insure the safe retreat of both parties and to maintain a lasting peace thereafter. It is for this reason that Vafthruthnir (a giant known for his wisdom), acknowledges that:
This, and other accounts, are summarized by Snorri Sturluson, who notes that "Njord is not of the race of the Aesir: he was reared in the land of the Vanir, and took for hostage in exchange him that men call Hoenir; he became an atonement between the gods and the Vanir.
These myths, not coincidentally, also provide the etiological function of explaining the co-presence of the predominantly peaceful Vanir in the pantheon of the more war-like Aesir.
The tale of Njord's marriage to Skadi is one of the definitive tales concerning the god and one of the odder tales in the corpus of Norse mythology. The tale reverses traditional gender roles by describing Skadi, following the death of her father at the hands of the Aesir, arming herself with weapons and sailing out to Asgard to seek revenge. However, instead of agreeing to battle, the gods demurred, offering her "reconciliation and atonement" for her loss, and suggesting that she could "choose for herself a husband from among the Aesir and choose by the feet only, seeing no more of him." Walking down the line of eligible gods, the giantess selected the most graceful pair of feet—assuming that they belonged to the beautiful Balder. To her surprise, they belonged to the much older Njord.
Though the two attempted to make the best of their union, their differences made this difficult. Skadi's mountain homeland was too bleak and desolate for the sea-god, and Njord's seaside abode was too damp for his giant bride. As a compromise, they decided to alternate, first spending nine days in Nóatún, followed by nine in Thyrmheim (Skadi's father's erstwhile abode). Snorri's Gylfaginning describes the response of the two to this arrangement:
In some sources, it is suggested that the couple ultimately separated and that Skadi returned to Thrymheim.
As was also the case with Freyr, Njord is euhemeristically described in some sources (particularly the Ynglinga saga) as one of Sweden's earliest kings. In this apologetic text, the original cultic beliefs of the Scandinavians are described as intelligible responses to the excellent rulership of these early monarchs:
Even in this account, Njord's role in religious celebration is clear as he is the one who continues (or performs) the sacrifices. This function is even more clearly stated earlier in the text, when a euhemerized "Odin placed Njord and Frey as priests of the sacrifices, and they became Diar of the Asaland people."
Though his importance as a mythic figure is certainly secondary to deities such as Odin, Thor and even Freyr (his son), historical and textual evidence suggests that Njord was once a highly influential object of cultic devotion. For example, the Vafthruthnismol (in the Poetic Edda) describes the god as "Rich in temples | and shrines he rules." Likewise, etymological research into toponyms in Sweden and Norway also attest to the deity's vaunted status. Specifically, a number of these names "go back to an original Njarđarvé ("Njord's temple"), found chiefly in Östergötland and eastern Sweden, show that Njord was publicly worshipped at an early period. The same may be said of those of the type Njarđarlundr (Njord's grove), found in similar regions." Analogous varieties of names can be found throughout Norway as well.
The prevalence of the cult of Njord is also attested in accounts of its denunciation, as in the confession of an eleventh-century Christian convert, who avers that he "forsook the folly of Njord" in favor of commitment to Christ. That Christianity and the cult of Njord are mentioned in the same context, even with such an evaluatively-negative slant, is quite notable.
As mentioned above, modern scholarship has positively identified Njord with Nerthus, a fertility goddess described in the writings of Gaius Tacitus (56-117 C.E.). Describing a group of Germanic tribes, the Roman historian noted:
Following the goddess's circumambulation of the communities of the faith, her statue is returned to the shrine. After this point, "the cart, the cloth, and, if you wish to believe it, the deity herself, are washed in a secret lake. Slaves serve her, whom the same lake swallows. Hence there is a secret terror and a holy ignorance about what hat may be, which they only see to die." Though no accounts remain of such a practice in explicit conjunction with Njord, the identification between the two deities (especially the execution of the slaves by drowning) provides compelling, though circumstantial, evidence.
The comparative mythologist Georges Dumézil developed the idea (originally pioneered by Jacob Grimm) that the hero Hadingus in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum, Book I, might be a euhemerized version of Njord. Dumézil also notes strong parallels of form and function between Njord, the Roman Quirinus, and the Indo-Iranian Nasatyas, where all three are gods of fertility and prosperity:
This argument furthers Dumézil's general contention that all Indo-European mythic pantheons contain a tripartite division between ruler gods, warrior gods, and merchant/fertility gods—a division that he postulates conforms to actualities of social organization in these societies.
Several places in Norway seem to be named after the god Njord. The most notable ones are the parish and municipality of Nærøy in the county of Nord-Trøndelag (Norse Njarðøy, “Njords island”), the parish of Nærøy in the county of Sogn og Fjordane, and the parish (and former municipality) of Norderhov in the county of Buskerud (Norse Njarðarhof, “Njords temple”). Others are as follows:
All links retrieved January 20, 2015.
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