Njord, Norse Mythological God of Wealth, Seas and Winds

Njord is a Norse god who sits with the Æsir, though he was not an Æsir himself, for he was born and raised in the land of the Vanir and given by them as a hostage to the Æsir as a way of maintaining the peace.

Njord, the Norse God of the seas, commerce and wealth
Njord, the Norse God of the seas, commerce and wealth

This is based on numerous passages among both the Prose and Poetic Eddas, the two main source of Norse mythology and religion.

In one of these Odin says:

'Tell me...
Whence Njord came among the Æsir's sons
O'er fanes and shrines he rules by hundreds,
Yet was not among thc Æsir born.'

To this, the wise giant Vafthrudnir answers:

'In Vanaheim wise powers created him,
And to the gods a hostage gave
At the Doom ot the gods he will return
To the wise Vanir.'

In other texts, Loki addresses Njord and tells him that he was sent eastward and given to the gods as a hostage to maintain peace.

Thus, Njord is a “god of the Vanir”, “kinsman of the Vanir”, or simply “the Van”.

These Vanir, according to the Norse Poetic Edda, were different from Æsir; as the Æsir dwelt in Asgard, while the Vanir resided in Vanaheim, just as how the Alfar (Elves) were in Alfheim, the Jötnar (ice giants) in Jötunheim etc.

The Vanir were regarded as intelligent and wise, and entered into intimate fellowship with the Æsir, while the Alfs and Iötuns always remained opposed to them.

The Norse mythological texts mention little other differences between the Æsir and Vanir.

Njord’s role in Norse mythology

Njord’s dwelling is in Noatun, meaning “Ship-place” or “Haven”.

'There Njord built himself the high hall,
Where the faultless ruler of men
Sits in his high-timbered fane.'

Njord’s wife is Skadi, daughter of the giant Thjazi, but apparently before he came among the Æsir, he had two children, Frey and Freyja, with Njord’s unnamed sister.

With this Loki taunted him at Ægir’s banquet:

I will no longer keep secret what I heard,
With thy sister thou hadst a son
Hardly worse than thyself.

However, in different versions of Njord, his two children Frey and Freyja were born out of his marriage with Skadi.

Njord rules the course of the wind and stills the sea, storm, and fire.  Men call on him in sea-faring and hunting.

So rich and abundant in goods is he, that he can give plenty of lands or gear; hence men invoke him for such things.

Thus he is god of wealth-bestowal, and, according to the giant Vafthrudnismal he is rich in altars and shrines.

Njord has thus two distinct divine attributes:

He is both a Sea-god and a god of wealth and prosperity, a “sea-god of riches”.

This historical interpretation of Njord in the poem Ynglinga-saga confirm the Eddic account of him as a god of prosperity.

The cult of Njord was often associated with that of Frey, for the two deities are mentioned together both in taking oaths and in drinking toasts at feasts.

First came Odin’s toast for victory and power, second Njord’s for wealth, and third Frey’s for good seasons, harvests and peace.

A farmer, Egil, speaks of Njord and Frey as wealth-givers, and prays that both gods may be angry with king Eirik.Little light, however, is thrown upon the personality of this god as a figure of popular worship and esteem, beyond the reference to his many shrines in the poem Vafthrudnismal.

Name of Njord

His sister-wife was perhaps the goddess Nerthus of whom Tacitus speaks as worshipped by seven tribes in North-East Germany, and whose name exactly corresponds to that of Njord, from nerthuz”.

In Old Germanic languages, the word “nertu” meant “good will”.

It was initially used as a word to describe a character trait, but was eventually extended to name persons.

Thus, Nerthuz means the beneficent, friendly divinity, and may thus be used to describe either a god or a goddess.

The Roman historian Tacitus says of Nerthus:

The Reudingi, Aviones, Anglii, Varini, Eudoses, Suardones, Nuithones (Germanic tribes) unite in worshipping Nerthus, that is Mother Earth, and think that she mingles in the affairs of men and visits the nations

There is a sacred grove on an island in the ocean (probably Seeland), and in it stands a wagon covered with a cloth.

The priest alone may touch it. He becomes aware of the presence of the goddess in the innermost place, and follows her with the greatest reverence as she is drawn about by cows.

Then are there joyful days, places of festivity, wheresoever the goddess comes as a guest. They do not engage in wars nor take up arms. Weapons are closed. Peace and quiet alone are then named and loved, until the same priest restores to her temple the goddess, satisfied by the worship of mortals.

Thereupon the vehicle and its covering and, if it be credible, the goddess, are washed in secret lake.

Slaves do this  service, and the lake immediately swallows them up.

Tacitus

All this suggests rites of fertility and a festival which would most naturally occur in spring.

Nerthus is akin to Njord in functions, though different in gender.

In spite of Tacitus’ assertion many historians think that Nerthus was a male divinity; while others claim that Njord, a male god, had taken the place of a female god.

But it is quite possible that a pair of deities, regarded as brother and sister, and bearing similar names, were worshipped together, along with a third, their son Frey, part of whose ritual, resembled that of Nerthus.

Another theory is that originally Njord was a goddess (Nerthus), not a god, and that Skadi, regarded as a female in Norse mythology, was a god.

From Seeland, where it was indigenous, this cult of Njord passed to Sweden and Norway, and there many places bear the name of Njord, showing that his cult was widespread.

Thus, the cult of Njord passed to Iceland. In literary sources, Njord and Frey are constantly mentioned together:

“So help me Frey and Njord and Thor”

Together they dispensc riches. Hence an old Icelandic phrase, “as rich as Njord”.

Njord and his marriage to Skadi

In an interesting myth, the Prose Edda claims Skadi is the wife of Njord.

The giant Thjazi had been slain by the Æsir, and as a result,  Thjazi’s daughter Skadi went to Asgard to avenge him.

The Æsir found her beauty striking and were unwilling to harm her. At the same time however, they knew they had brought her father’s death and so were willing to atone for his killing.

As atonement, the Æsir offered Skadi a permanent abode in Asgard, and allowed her to choose a husband from their number, but to choose him by the feet only, for she would see no more than these in making her selection.

Her favorites were Balder and Njord, but she preferred Balder the most.

When the time came to choose, she was spun twice, but mistakenly chose the feet of Njord, whom she thought were the feet of Balder.

This identification ritual is a form of a folk-tale formula, but the naked foot incident of Norse mythology has been connected with marriage rites in which only the foot of the future spouse is seen, and with fertility rites in which bare feet play a part.

Some historians think that Nerthus-Njord is to be explained as dancer” (according to the ancient Sanskrit word “nart”, “to dance”), and that the priest and priestess who represented this pair of fertility deities carried out the ritual with bare feet.

Separation of Njord and Skadi

After a time, Njord said he must go back to Noatun, because he had the care of all the ships on the sea, and the sailors needed his protection.

Skadi went with him; but the cry of thesea gulls, and the beating of the waves upon the beach, wearied her; and she longed for the forests of Thrymheim, “Home of noise”.

Njord went with her to her old home; but the howling wolves and the growling bears kept him awake at night:

Njord:
'I love not the mountains, I dwelt not long in them,
Nine nights only;
Sweeter is to me the song of the swan
Than the wild wolf's howl.'

To this Skadi replied:

'My sleep was troubled on the shore of the sea
By the screaming of sea-birds.
Every morning the sea-mew wakens me
Returning from the deep.'

So they agreed to spend nine days together in Thrymheim, and three days together in Noatun; and in that way the two continued to live.

The explanation given by some scholars of the nine nights’ stay in Thrymheim and three at Noatun, is that “nights” signifies months, and that the sea in the extreme North is open only for three months for ship-faring. For the other nine it is sealed by ice and winter-storms.

Different version of Skadi and Njord’s marriage

The tale Heimskringla, following the story of Ynglinga-tal, gives a different version of the wedding of Skadi and Njord.

Njord wedded a woman, Skadi but she would have nothing of him, and hence was wedded to Odin, and had to him many sons, one of whom was Sæming.

Another poem supports this, which says that Sæming was begotten by Odin with a giant-maiden (Skadi was a giantess) when they dwelt in Mannheim.

To Sæming, Norway traced her line of kings, or more strictly speaking the rulers of Halogaland.

The theory of alternating twin gods sharing one mate has been applied here, but Skadi is regarded as the god and Njord the goddess, shared by Odin and Skadi.

Skadi has been held to be a representative of the Finns and Lapps who peopled the north of Norway. She may have been one of their goddesses, regarded as a giant’s daughter, because the inhospitable Northern region was akin to or identical with Jötunheim.

How she came to be associated with Njord and Odin is far from clear. But a cult war may have been considered mythically as a war of Scandinavian and Finnish deities, ending in a pact and marriage.

Some historians see in the disputed residence incident of Skadi and Njord an ikonic myth, meaning a myth based on the history of an image of Skadi which had been carried off to Noatun, and, after a war, shared a residence with Norsemen and Finns.


Resources:

  • The Mythology of All Races – Eddic by John Arnott MacCulloch, Louis Herbert Gray
  • The Norsemen Myths and Legends by Guerber Helene Adeline
  • Asgard and the Norse heroes by Katharine Boult
  • Old Norse stories by Sarah Powers Bradish
  • Teutonic Mythology by Viktor Rydberg & Anders Rasmus Bjorn
  • Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm
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