Njord


Njord, as depicted on a Norwegian stamp from April of 2004. His wife, Skadi, is depicted in the mountain background. See the homepage of the Norwegian Postal Service for more details.

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.

Contents

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.[1] 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).[2]

Njord in a Norse Context

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.[3] 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.[4] 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"),[5] Njord was relatively important to the overall religious/cultic system of the time (as attested by toponyms, archeological findings, and surviving accounts).

Attributes

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."[6]

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):

The third among the Aesir is he that is called Njordr: he dwells in heaven, in the abode called Nóatún ["Boat Haven"]. He rules the course of the wind, and stills sea and fire; on him shall men call for voyages and for hunting. He is so prosperous and abounding in wealth, that he may give them great plenty of lands or of gear; and him shall men invoke for such things.[7]

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."[8]

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."[9] 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."[10]

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."[11] Indeed, such a claim seems highly compatible with the general fact that the Vanir were understood to practice endogamous marriage.[12]

Mythic Accounts

Njord as Hostage

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.[13] To negotiate an end to the bloodshed, both sides agreed to exchange hostages,[14] 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:

In the home of the Wanes [Vanir] | did the wise ones create him,
And gave him as pledge to the gods;
At the fall of the world | shall he fare once more
Home to the Wanes so wise."[15]

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.[16]

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.

Njord's Marriage

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."[17] 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:

But when Njordr came down from the mountain back to Nóatún, he sang this lay:
  Loath were the hills to me, I was not long in them,
    Nights only nine;
  To me the wailing of wolves seemed ill,
    After the song of swans.
Then Skadi sang this:
  Sleep could I never on the sea-beds,
    For the wailing of waterfowl;
  He wakens me, who comes from the deep
    The sea-mew every morn.[18]

In some sources, it is suggested that the couple ultimately separated and that Skadi returned to Thrymheim.

Euhemeristic Views of Njord

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:

Njord of Noatun was then the sole sovereign of the Swedes; and he continued the sacrifices, and was called the drot or sovereign by the Swedes, and he received scatt [taxes] and gifts from them. In his days were peace and plenty, and such good years, in all respects, that the Swedes believed Njord ruled over the growth of seasons and the prosperity of the people. In his time all the diar or gods died, and blood-sacrifices were made for them. Njord died on a bed of sickness, and before he died made himself be marked for Odin with the spear-point. The Swedes burned him, and all wept over his grave-mound.[19]

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."[20]

Cult of Njord

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."[21] 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."[22] 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.[23] That Christianity and the cult of Njord are mentioned in the same context, even with such an evaluatively-negative slant, is quite notable.

Cult of Nerthus

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:

There is nothing noteworthy about them individually, except that in common they worship Nerthus, that is, Mother Earth, and they believe her to intervene in the affairs of humans and to ride among people. There is on an island of the ocean a sacred grove, and in it a consecrated cart, covered with cloth. A single priest is allowed to touch it. He perceives the entry of the goddess into the shrine and follows with veneration as she is led away drawn by cows. Then a period of rejoicing, places of festival, as many are honored to receive and entertain her.[24]

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."[25] 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.

Inter-religious Parallels

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.[26] 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:

If we note that the third level [the "merchant gods"] in Scandinavia is sometimes occupied not only by Frey but also by the pair Njord and Frey, who, not being twins but father and son, are no less closely associated than the two Nasatya, if we recall too that on this same third level the goddess Freya is often honored beside the gods Njord and Frey, just as a goddess is usually associated with the Indo-Iranian Nasatya, then we begin to discern not only the parallelism of the entire structure but also important correspondences of individual terms which simply could not have been accumulated by chance."[27]

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.

Toponyms (and Other Linguistic Traces) of Njord

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:

  • Njarð(ar)heimr (“Njords homestead”), the name of seven farms in the parishes of Nærbø, Rygge, Suldal (2), Tanum, Tresfjord and Ølen.
  • Njarð(ar)land (“Njords land”), the name of four farms in the parishes of Hesby, Masfjorden, Nærbø and Vistdalen.
  • Njarð(ar)vík (“Njords inlet”), the name of four farms in the parishes of Bru, Edøy, Orkdal and Ølen.
  • Njarð(ar)øy (“Njords island”), the name of three farms in the parishes of Hemne, Herøy and Øksnes.
  • Njarðarhof (“Njords temple”), the name of a farm in the parish of Løten.
  • Njarðarhóll (“Njords hill”), the name of a farm in the parish of Lade.
  • Njarðarlog (“Njords district”), the former name of the island of Tysnes.
  • Njarðarvin (“Njords meadow/pasture”), the name of a farm in the parish of Fet.

Notes

  1. The Ynglinga saga (a section of the Heimskringla that is quoted below) provides some intriguing information on the relationships between factions of Norse deities, albeit through a strongly euhemeristic lens. For example, it explicitly describes the maritime god's incestuous marriage: "While Njord was with the Vanaland people [the Vanir] he had taken his own sister in marriage, for that was allowed by their law; and their children were Frey and Freya." See Ynglinga Saga (4): Laing's translation (1844). Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  2. See, for example, Georges Dumézil, who argues that "the Scandinavian Njord (O.N. Njǫrđr; Nerþu [Latinate: Nerthu]), one of the principal Vanir, must be the one described by Tacitus under the name Nerthus, with feminine sex and clear characteristics of the third function (fecundity, peace, etc.) in northern Germany" (18).
  3. Lindow, 6-8. Though some scholars have argued against the homogenizing effect of grouping these various traditions together under the rubric of “Norse Mythology,” the profoundly exploratory/nomadic nature of Viking society tends to overrule such objections. As Thomas DuBois cogently argues, “[w]hatever else we may say about the various peoples of the North during the Viking Age, then, we cannot claim that they were isolated from or ignorant of their neighbors…. As religion expresses the concerns and experiences of its human adherents, so it changes continually in response to cultural, economic, and environmental factors. Ideas and ideals passed between communities with frequency and regularity, leading to and interdependent and intercultural region with broad commonalities of religion and worldview” (27-28).
  4. More specifically, Georges Dumézil, one of the foremost authorities on the Norse tradition and a noted comparitivist, argues quite persuasively that the Aesir/Vanir distinction is a component of a larger triadic division (between ruler gods, warrior gods, and gods of agriculture and commerce) that is echoed among the Indo-European cosmologies (from Vedic India, through Rome and into the Germanic North). Further, he notes that this distinction conforms to patterns of social organization found in all of these societies. See Georges Dumézil's Gods of the Ancient Northmen (especially pgs. xi-xiii, 3-25) for more details.
  5. Lindow, 241.
  6. Snorri Sturluson, Skáldskaparmál VI, Brodeur 111.
  7. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning XXIII, Brodeur 36-37. Emphasis added.
  8. Turville-Petre, 165.
  9. Dumézil, 75.
  10. Lindow, 242-243. Further, the general argument concerning the god's effeminacy is an elaboration of the case made in Lindow, 242.
  11. "Lokasenna" in Poetic Edda, translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936). Accessed online at sacred-texts.com. 163. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  12. Orchard, 262.
  13. Described in sources including, but not limited to, the Gylfaginning and the Ynglinga saga.
  14. It is important to note the ubiquity of this practice in Viking times, where "persons [were often] exchanged as surety for various kinds of agreements and were ordinarily not mistreated" (Lindow, 243).
  15. "Vafthruthnismol" (39) in Poetic Edda, translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936). Accessed online at sacred-texts.com. 79. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  16. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning XXIII, Brodeur 37.
  17. Snorri Sturluson, Skáldskaparmál I, Brodeur 91-92.
  18. Snorri Sturluson, Gylfaginning XXIII, Brodeur 37.
  19. Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga Saga (11), English translation by Samuel Laing (London, 1844). Accessed online at Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  20. Ynglinga Saga (4). Laing's translation. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  21. "Vafthruthnismol" (39) in Poetic Edda, translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1936). Accessed online at sacred-texts.com. 79.
  22. Turville-Petre, 163.
  23. Dumézil, 6. It should be noted that the author's repudiation of his erstwhile faith also mentions Freyr, Freyja, Odin, and Thor.
  24. Tactitus, Agricola, quoted in Lindow, 237.
  25. Tactitus, Agricola, quoted in Lindow, 237.
  26. See Dumézil, xxviii, which summarizes the findings of his book-length study: Le saga de Hadingus.
  27. Dumézil, 17-18.

Bibliography

  • Björnsson, Eysteinn (ed.). Snorra-Edda: Formáli & Gylfaginning : Textar fjögurra meginhandrita. 2005. Online. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  • DuBois, Thomas A. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. ISBN 0812217144
  • Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen; Introduction by C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 0520020448
  • Grammaticus, Saxo. The Danish History (Volumes I-IX). Translated by Oliver Elton (Norroena Society, New York, 1905). Accessed online at The Online Medieval & Classical Library. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  • Lindow, John. Handbook of Norse mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2001. ISBN 1576072177
  • Munch, P. A. Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. In the revision of Magnus Olsen; translated from the Norwegian by Sigurd Bernhard Hustvedt. New York: The American-Scandinavian foundation; London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1926.
  • Orchard, Andy. Cassell's Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. London: Cassell; New York: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 2002. ISBN 0304363855
  • Sturlson, Snorri. The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology. Introduced by Sigurdur Nordal; Selected and translated by Jean I. Young. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1954. ISBN 0520012313
  • Snorri Sturluson. The Prose Edda. Translated from the Icelandic and with an introduction by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American-Scandinavian foundation, 1916. Available online. Retrieved May 24, 2007.
  • Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.
  • "Völuspá" in The Poetic Edda. Translated and with notes by Henry Adams Bellows. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. Accessed online at sacred-texts.com. Retrieved May 24, 2007.

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