Nerthus and Njörðr
Nerthus and Njörðr are, so far as we know, the first and eldest of the Wans. The meaning of their name is uncertain; de Vries suggests that it might be related to "strength", "the underworld/the North", or possibly a verb meaning "to dance", hinting at holy/ecstatic dancing as part of the Wanic cult (Wörterbuch, p. 411). They are the same deity; the difference in their names is only that of the linguistic shift from Proto-Germanic *Nerthuz to Old Norse Njörðr. However, when Tacitus wrote of Nerthus in 98 C.E., he called her "Mother Earth", while all our Old Norse sources tell us that Njörðr is a manly god. Their first being may well have been as an hermaphrodite, or else as a deity that could be either manly or womanly at will. However, it is likely that, if this were so, they soon became a male-female pair of twins. The wooden male and female gods of bridges and marshy places from the Celtic and Roman Iron Ages have already been spoken of in that historical chapter. Such pairs have often been likened to Fro Ing and the Frowe, but their watery and boggy steads suggest, rather, that they may have been images of Njörðr and Nerthus.
This earthy/watery character is the very root of the Wanic might. As shall be spoken of, Fro Ing and the Frowe have, respectively, much of air and of fire in their beings as well; as we see in the tales left to us, they are more active than their parents. To Nerthus and Njörðr belong the hidden realms below the earth and the waves - the darkness from which seeds and fish spring up, and into which the dead sink. The Wans are very often called the "wise Wans" in Eddic poetry, and said to have fore-sight. One reason for this may be that their realm is that of the gravemound's earth - the silent hall in which the ur-old seeresses dwell, in which all that is and is becoming is kept and may be known. The same realm is also the waters deep in the Well of Wyrd: the Well and the howe, the water and the earth, are two forms of the same might which hides and feeds the roots of the World-Tree in darkness. That which sinks into this realm is, in the turning of time, brought forth ever stronger; gifts which sink into the waters of the lake or mud of the bog are known to have been taken by the god/esses, so that they will bless the giver. This is how it was done at the great hof of Old Uppsala: sacrifices were put into the well that stood before the hof's great evergreen, and those that sank were known to have been accepted and showed that the prayers given with them would be answered.
In the Viking Age, only Njörðr was known by name; but the ever-informative Loki tells us that he had gotten Freyr and Freyja on his own sister (Lokasenna 36). Snorri also mentions in Ynglinga saga that brother-sister marriages were common among the Wans, but not allowed among the Ases. Whether he knew more about this belief, or was simply extrapolating from the references in Lokasenna to the mating of not only Njörðr and his sister, but Freyr and Freyja, we cannot know. Njörðr's sister is never named in any of the sources, and there are no other references to her. The reason for that may be that only one name was known for the two of them, and the changes in speech which transformed *Nerthuz into Njörðr may also have rendered the name more distinctively manly, so that the goddess was forgotten and the god remembered.
About Nerthus, Tacitus tells us that she was worshipped by the tribes of Northern Germany and Southern Jutland, whom in an earlier chapter of Germania he identifies as the "Ingvaeones". His description of her cult is very close to that of the Gunnars þáttr helmings description of the cult of Freyr (written at least 1200 years later). "In an island of the ocean there is a sacred grove and in it a carriage dedicated (to the goddess), covered with a vestment; only one priest is allowed to touch it. He feels the goddess' presence in her shrine, and follows with great veneration as she rides forth drawn by cows. Then come festive times for those whom she dignifies with her hospitality. They do not make war, they do not take up arms; all iron is put away; then, and only then, peace and quiet are known and loved, until she is satiated with the company of humans and the same priest returns the goddess to her sacred precinct. After this, the carriage and the vestment and, if you wish to believe it, the goddess herself, are washed in a secret lake. Slaves do this ministry and are then swallowed by the same lake: hence a mysterious terror and an ignorance full of reverence as to what that may be which men see only to die" (Germania, ch. 40). The tall wooden goddess from Forlæv Nymølle (discussed in "Celtic and Roman Iron Ages"), laid in a cairn of stones with pots around her, may have been just such an image of Nerthus, resting in her hidden dwelling place as she waited for her next procession.
As well as the holy wain, the ship-procession may also have been part of the Wanic cult. Tacitus claims that the Suebi had somehow managed to adopt the foreign cult of Isis, of which the emblem was a ship; but it seems more likely that he was imposing what he knew from his own culture onto a native Germanic religious practise. Grimm cites a German account from the year 1133 of how "a ship was built, set upon wheels, and drawn about the country by men who were yoked to it, first to Aachen, then to Masetricht, where mast and sail were added, and up the river to Tongres, Looz, and so on, everywhere with crowds of people assembling and escorting it. Where-ever it halted, there were joyful shouts, songs of triumph and dancing round the ship kept up till far into the night. The approach of the ship was notified to the towns, which opened their gates and went out to meet it" (Teutonic Mythology I, pp. 258-59). The clerical author also comments on "malignant spirits" travelling within it and the generally heathen and sinful character of the event. Grimm connects this with the procession of Nerthus, adding that one of the most significant elements of the account is "that (the ship-procession) was so utterly repugnant to the clergy, and that they tried in every way to suppress it...On the other hand, the secular power had authorized the procession, and was protecting it; it rested with the several townships, whether to grant admission to the approaching ship, and the popular feeling seems to have ruled that it would be shabby not to forward it on its way" (I, p. 262). The Oseberg ship, highly decorated as it was, and unsuitable by construction for any waters but the relatively shallow and calm bays and fjords, may also have been a ritual ship designed to make the procession by water, as the wain did on land. It is possible that memories of such a procession could also have been kept alive in Snorri's description of how Freyr's ship Skíðblaðnir could travel over both land and water; Simek comments that "The name Skíðblaðnir, which means 'assembled from pieces of thin wood', would fit well for a cult ship which was only built for the duration of festivities" (Dictionary of Northern Mythology, p. 289).
Tacitus also tells us that the amber-gathering Germans on the eastern coast of the Baltic worshipped "the mother of the gods", whose emblem was the figure of the wild boar, which was worn by her folk. This boar "takes the place of arms and of human protection, and secures the follower of the goddess a mind at rest even among enemies" (ch. 45). This same belief appears in Beowulf, where the boar-crest on the helm wards the warrior who wears it. The boar is holy to Fro Ing and the Frowe; this reference suggests that it is also holy to Nerthus.
As the early earth- and bog-goddess, Nerthus must, like her daughter, have owned a mighty necklace or girdle. The word njarðgörð, "girdle of strength", appears in Old Norse and may well be related to her name; though it is Þórr who is said to wear it in the skaldic poem "Þórsdrapa", it is likely that Nerthus has such a girdle of her own. It is pleasing to think of her necklace and girdle as being, like the Stone Age bog-gifts, great strands of raw amber.
While Nerthus is mostly a goddess of earth, Njörðr himself seems to be a god of water, particularly the ocean. He is the god of ships, seamen and fishers. His home is called Nóatún - "enclosure of ships", or "harbour". In the tale of his unsuccessful marriage to Skaði (see "Skaði"), his home is by the waves and loud with the sound of seagulls. This tale also tells us of how Skaði chose him by the beauty of his feet; interestingly, the bare footprint is one of the signs which often appears on the Bronze Age rock carvings, most of which were set up by the coast. It may well have been an emblem of the god from early times, perhaps as a sign of his fruitfulness, as the wedding-association suggests.
Today, Njörðr is also the god of water-sports. Frolicking at beaches, rivers, lakes, or swimming pools, going out on surfboards or water-skis, and so forth, are wholly fitting ways to celebrate this deity on holy days.
Like his son Freyr, and often together with him, Njörðr held a very high place as a god of ritual and holiness. In Ynglinga saga, Snorri says that the two of them were set as blótgoðar (blessing-godmen) among the gods, and that they were díar among the Ases. The exact meaning of díar is not sure, but Turville-Petre suggests that, as Snorri uses it, it "probably implies priests of a particularly exalted kind" ( Myth and Religion, p. 163). The Icelandic oath-taking formula recorded in Landnámabók (Hauksbók ch. 270) was "so help me Freyr and Njörðr and the all-mighty Ase (probably either Óðinn or Þórr, though Ullr has also been suggested - KHG)"; at holy feasts, according to Snorri (Hákons saga ins goða, Heimskringla) a special toast was drunk to Freyr and Njörðr (see "Symbel". Turville-Petre also cites Egill Skalla-Grímsson's curse against Eiríkr Blood-Axe, where the runester called on Freyr and Njörðr together, and Egill's later statement that Freyr and Njörðr had blessed Arinbjörn with riches (Myth and Religion, p. 162).
In Vafþrúðnismál 38, Óðinn mentions that Njörðr has countless hofs and harrows, though he was not born among the Ases; and in Grímnismál it is told that Njörðr rules a high-timbered harrow in Nóatún". Place-name evidence supports this as well; there are quite a few of the "Njörðr's vé" type; also "Njörðr's grove", "Njörðr's hof", "Njörðr's bay", and "Njörðr's island" ( Myth and Religion, p. 163).
Unlike Freyr, Njörðr does not fight in the last battle; Vafþrúðnismál 39 tells us that at Ragnarök, Njörðr "shall come home among the wise Wans again".
Colours associated with Nerthus and Njörðr in modern times are brown (Nerthus), deep blue (Njörðr), black (both), and deep green (both).
Njörðr's holy bird, and perhaps Nerthus' as well, is likely to be the seagull. Nerthus' holy beasts are the boar (as mentioned above) and cattle; Tacitus mentions that her chariot is drawn by oxen. As the most nurturing of beasts, the cow is clearly fitting to her. It is also possible that there might be some tie between the Wanic god/desses and the ur-cow Audhumbla, whose doings after Ymir's death are never spoken of.
There are no animals associated with Njörðr in traditional sources. However, it may be thought that those mammals which can live both in sea and on land, such as seals and walruses, are the most fitting to him.
Jet is the stone which is thought of as Nerthus' gem, green malachite is Njörðr's. Amber, the gift of both sea and earth, goes well with both of them.
As spoken of above, the bare footprint is Njörðr's sign. There is no traditional sign of Nerthus, though the girdle or twisted circle of rope might be thought fitting to her.