The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 13

Chapter 13: Goddesses

(Page 1)

In treating of gods, the course of our inquiry could aim at separating the several personalities; the goddesses (1) it seems advisable to take by themselves and all at one view, because there is a common idea underlying them, which will come out more clearly by that method. They are thought of chiefly as divine mothers who travel round and visit houses, from whom the human race learns the occupations and arts of housekeeping and husbandry: spinning, weaving, tending the hearth, sowing and reaping. These labours bring with them peace and quiet in the land, and the memory of them abides in charming traditions even more lastingly than that of wars and battles, from which most goddesses as well as women hold themselves aloof.

But as some goddesses also take kindly to war, so do gods on the other hand favour peace and agriculture; and there arises an interchange of names or offices between the sexes.


In almost all languages the Earth is regarded as female, and (in contrast to the father sky encircling her) as the breeding, teeming fruit-bearing mother: Goth. aírþa, OHG. ërda, AS. eorðe, ON. iörð [[jörð - earth, also the name of the goddess Jörð, mother of Thorr]], Gr. era (inferred from eraze); Lat. terra, tellus, humus = Slav. zeme, ziemia, zemlia, Lith. zieme, Gr. camh (? whence camaze), aia, gaia, gh: the 'mother' subjoined in Dhmhthr, Zema mate, indicates the goddess. The form aírþa, ërda (also herda) is itself a derivative; the simpler OHG. ero (in the Wessobr. prayer: ero noh ûfhimil, earth nor heaven) and hero (in a gloss, for solum, Graff 4, 999) might be masc. (like herd = solum, Graff 4, 1026) or fem. still. (2) The Goth. mulda, OHG, molta, AS. molde, ON. mold [[earth, the ground]], contain only the material sense of soil, dust; equally impersonal is the OS. folda, AS. folde, ON. fold [[earth]], conf, feld, field, Finn. peldo (campus), Hung, föld (terra). But the ON. Iörð [[Jörð]] appears in the flesh, at once wife and daughter of Oðinn, and mother of Thôrr (Sn. 11. 39. 123), who is often called Iarðar burr. Distinct from her was Rindr, another wife of Oðinn, and mother of Vali (Sæm. 91ª 95ª 97b), called Rinda in Saxo, and more coarsely painted; her name is the OHG. rinta, AS. rind = cortex, hence crusta soli vel terrae, and to crusta the AS. hruse (terra) is closely related. As this literal sense is not found in the North, neither is the mythical meaning in Germany (see Suppl.).

But neither in Iörð nor in Rindr has the Edda brought out in clear relief her specially maternal character; nowhere is this more purely and simply expressed than in the very oldest account we possess of the goddess. It is not to all the Germani that Tacitus imputes the worship of Nerthus, only to the Langobardi (?), Reudigni, Aviones, Angli, Varini, Eudoses, Suardones and Vuithones (Germ. 40): Nec quicquam notabile in singulis, nisi quod in commune Nerthum, (3) id est Terram matrem colunt, eamque intervenire rebus hominum, invehi populis, arbitrantur. Est in insula oceani castum nemus, dicatumque in eo vehiculum, veste contectum, attingere uni sacerdoti concessum. Is adesse penetrali deam intelligit, vectamque bubus feminis multa cum veneratione prosequitur. Laeti tunc dies, festa loca, quaecunque adventu hospitioque dignatur. Non bella ineunt, non arma sumunt; clausum omne ferrum: pax et quies tunc tantum nota, tunc tantum amata: donec idem sacerdos satiatam conversatione mortalium deam templo reddat. Mox vehiculum et vestes, et, si credere velis, numen ipsum secreto lacu abluitur. Servi ministrant, quos statim idem lacus haurit. (4) Arcanus hinc terror sanctaque ignoratia, quid sit illud, quod tantum perituri vident (see Suppl.). (5)

This beautiful description agrees with what we find in other notices of the worship of a godhead to whom peace and fruitfulness were attributed. In Sweden it was Freyr, son of Niörðr, whose curtained car went round the country in spring, with the people all praying and holding feasts (p. 213); but Freyr is altogether like his father, and he again like his namesake the goddess Nerthus. The spring-truces, harvest-truces, plough-truces, fixed for certain seasons and implements of husbandry, have struck deep roots in our German law and land-usages. Wuotan and Donar also make their appearance in their wains, and are invoked for increase to the crops and kindly rain; on p. 107, anent the car of a Gothic god whose name Sozomen withholds, I have hinted at Nerthus.

The interchange of male and female deities is, luckily for us here, set in a clear light, by the prayers and rhymes to Wuotan as god of harvest, which we have quoted above (p. 155 seq.), being in other Low German districts handed over straight to a goddess. When the cottagers, we are told, are mowing rye, they let some of the stalks stand, tie flowers among them, and when they have finished work, assemble round the clump left standing, take hold of the ears of rye, and shout three times over:

Fru Gaue, haltet ju fauer, ------------Lady Gaue, keep you some fodder,

düt jar up den wagen, ----------------This year on the waggon,

dat ander jar up der kare! (6)--------Next year on the wheelbarrow

Whereas Wode had better fodder promised him for the next year, Dame Gaue seems to receive notice of a falling off in the quantity of the gift presented. In both cases I see the shyness of the christians at retaining a heathen sacrifice: as far as words go, the old gods are to think no great things of themselves in the future.

In the district about Hameln, it was the custom, when a reaper in binding sheaves passed one over, or left anything standing in the field, to jeer at him by calling out: 'scholl düt gaue frue (or de fru Gauen) hebben (is that for dame G.)?' (7)

In the Prignitz they say fru Gode, and call the bunch of ears left standing in each field vergodendeelsstrûss, i.e., dame Gode's portion bunch. (8) Ver is a common contraction for frau [as in junger]; but a dialect which says fauer instead of foer, foder, will equally have Gaue for Gode, Guode. This Guode can be no other than Gwode, Wode; and, explaining fru by the older fro, fro Woden or fro Gaue (conf. Gaunsdag for Wonsdag, p. 125) will denote a lord and god, not a goddess, so that the form of prayer completely coincides with those addressed to Wuotan, and the fruh Wod subjoined in the note on p. 156 (see Suppl). If one prefer the notion of a female divinity, which, later at all events, was undoubtedly attached to the term fru, we might perhaps bring in the ON. Gôi (Sn. 358. Fornald. sög. 2, 17), a mythic maiden, after whom February was named. The Greek Gaia or Gh is, I consider, out of the question here.

In an AS. formulary for restoring fertility to fields that have been bewitched, there occur two remarkable addresses; the first is 'erce, erce, erce, eorþan môdor!' by which not the earth herself, but her mother seems to be meant; however, the expression is still enigmatical. Can there lie disguised in erce a proper name Erce gen. Ercan, connected with the OHG. adj. ërchan, simplex, genuinus, germanus? it would surely be more correct to write Eorce? ought it to suggest the lady Erche, Herkja, Herche, Helche renowned in our heroic legend? The distinct traces in Low Saxon districts of a divine dame, Herke or Harke by name, are significant. In Jessen, a little town on the Elster, not far from Wittenberg, they relate of frau Herke what in other places, as will be shown, holds good of Freke, Berhta and Holda. In the Mark she is called frau Harke, and is said to fly through the country between Christmas and Twelfth-day, dispensing earthly goods in abundance; by Epiphany the maids have to finish spinning their flax, else frau Harke gives them a good scratching or soils their distaff (see Suppl.). (9) In earlier times a simpler form of the name was current; we find in Gobelinus Persona (Meibom 1, 235) the following account, which therefore reaches back beyond 1418: Quod autem Hera colebatur a Saxonibus, videtur ex eo quod quidam vulgares recitant se audivisse ab antiquis, prout et ego audivi, quod inter festum nativitatis Christi ad festum epiphaniae Domini domina Hera volat per aëra, quoniam apud gentiles Junoni aër deputabatur. Et quod Juno quandoque Hera appellabatur et depingebatur cum tintinnabulis et alis, dicebant vulgares praedicto tempore: vrowe Hera seu corrupto nomine vro Here de vlughet, et credebant illam sibi conferre rerum temporalium abundantiam. Have we here still extant the old Ero, Era, Hero meaning earth? and does Hra belong to it? If the AS. Erce also contains the same, then even the diminutive form Herke must be of high antiquity.


1. OHG. in Notker has only the strong form gutin gen. gutinno, MHG gotinne, Trist. 4807. 15812. Barl. 246-7. seldomer gütinne, MS. 2, 65b; AS. gyden pl. gydena, but also weak gydene pl. gydenan, Mones gl. 4185 Proserpinam = to gidenan (l. tôgydenan, additional goddess); ON. gyðja [[priestess]] (which might be dea or sacerdos fem.), better âsynja (see Suppl.). Back

2. The two forms ero and hero remind one of the name Eor, Cheru, attributed to Mars (supra, pp. 203-4). Back

3. The MSS. collated have this reading, one has nehertum (Massmann in Aufsess and Mones anzeiger, 1834, p. 216); I should prefer Nertus to Nerthus, because no other German words in Tacitus have TH, except Gothini and Vuithones. As for the conjectural Herthus, though the aspirate in herda might seem to plead for it, the termination -us is against it, the Gothic having aírþa, not aírþus. Besides, Aventin already (Frankf. 1580, p. 19ª) spells Nerth. Back

4. The lake swallows the slaves who had assisted at the secret bathing. More than once this incident turns up, of putting to death the servants employed in any secret work; as those who dug the river out of its bed for Alaric's funeral (Jornand. cap. 29), or those who have hidden a treasure, Landn. 5, 12 (see Suppl.). Back

5. Speaking of Nerthus, we ought to notice Ptolemy's Nertereans, though he places them in a very different locality from that occupied by the races who revere Nerthus in Tacitus. Back

6. Braunschw. anz. 1751, p. 900. Hannov. gel. anz. 1751, p. 662 [is not 'haltet' a mistake for 'hal' and something else?] In the Altenburg country they call this harvest-custom building a barn. Arch. des henneb. vereins 2, 91. Back

7. Hannov. gel. anz. 1751, p. 726. More pleasing to the ear is the short prayer of the heathen Lithuanians, to their earth-goddess, when in drinking they spilt some of the ale on the ground: Zemenyle ziedekle, pakylek musu ranku darbus! blooming Earth, bless the work of our hands. Back

8. Adalb. Kuhns märkische sagen, pp. 337. 372, pref. p. vii. Conf. in ch. XXII the cry of the dwarfs: 'de gaue fru is nu dot (dead)'. Back

9. Adalb. Kuhn in the Märkische forschungen 1, 123-4, and Märk. sagen pp. 371-2; conf. Singularia magdeburg. 1740. 12, 768. Back

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