Njord: the Norse God of Ships and Bounty

Similar to Greek mythology, which had the Olympians and the Titans, the Norse had not one pantheon, but two. But while the two groups of Norse gods, the Vanir and Aesir, did go to war against each other once like the Titans and Olympians, they had a mostly peaceful – if sometimes strained – relationship.

The Vanir were mostly deities connected with fertility, commerce, and the earth, while the Aesir were more celestially connected warrior gods who were regarded as superior (or at least, of higher rank). Based on their associated traits, there is some speculation that the Vanir represent the religion of earlier indigenous people in the region, while the Aesir were introduced later by the Proto-European invaders who would dominate the region.

But these two groups were not wholly separate. A relative handful of gods moved between them and earned the right to be counted among both groups, and among these was the sea god, Njord.

Norse God of the Sea

Njord (also anglicized as Njorth) was the god of ships and seafaring, as well as the god of wealth and prosperity (both things the sea can provide in abundance). He was also, unsurprisingly for a god of seafaring, seen as having dominion over the winds and the coastal waters. And his association with ships – especially for a people like the Vikings – naturally connected him to trade and commerce.

But while his primary associations were connected to the waters, he wasn’t restricted entirely to the sea. Njord was also associated with the fertility of the land and of crops, and with the wealth to be derived from those pursuits as well.

Njord was, in fact, a god of wealth in general. He himself was said to hold vast wealth, and men frequently prayed to him when they had material requests such as land or equipment.

Njord was worshipped by sailors, fisherman, and anyone else that had reason to travel over the waves. This worship was so firmly rooted that the god would continue to be invoked by seafarers around the North Sea well after the Viking Age had passed and Christianity had come to dominate the region.

Njord was said to dwell in a great hall in Noatun, a vaguely defined realm described only as “in the heavens,” but generally connected to Asgard. The name means “ship-enclosure” or “harbor,” and in popular imagination it was above the sea which Njord calmed and directed as he saw fit.

References to Njord show up in both the Prose Edda and the collection of narrative poems known as the Poetic Edda. Both date from Iceland in the 13th Century, though some of the individual poems in the Poetic Edda may go back as far as the 10th Century.

Not the Only Norse Sea God

Njord wasn’t the only god seen as having dominion over the sea in this area of northern Europe, however, and his jurisdiction wasn’t as broad as might be expected. There were other gods and near-gods who wielded power over their own watery fiefdoms.

Nehalennia, a Germanic goddess worshipped as early as the 2nd Century B.C.E., was the goddess of the North Sea, and of trade and ships – very much in the vein of Njord. They do not seem to have been contemporaries, however – Nehalennia’s worship seems to have peaked around the 2nd or 3rd Century C.E., and she doesn’t seem to have survived (directly, at least) into the era when Njord was revered. However, the goddess shares interesting associations with the goddess Nerthus and with Njord’s children, which may hint at some bit of Nehalennia’s worship surviving in a new form.

Aegir and Ran

Two gods that would have been contemporaries of Njord were Aegir and Ran – though “gods” in this context isn’t quite correct. Ran was indeed a goddess, but Aegir was a jötunn, or supernatural being normally regarded as separate from gods, such as elves.

In practice, however, Aegir was sufficiently powerful that it’s a distinction without a difference. For all intents and purposes, he was the god of the sea itself – Njord was the god of ships and the human enterprises that involved them, while Aegir’s domain was the sea beds over which they traveled.

Ran, meanwhile, was the goddess of the drowned dead and of storms. She entertained herself by snaring mortals and dragging them down to the hall she shared with Aegir, keeping them until she tired of them and sent them on to Hel. 

Obviously, Njord was presented as more favorable to mortals than Aegir and Ran, who were seen as personifying the dangers of the sea. Njord, on the other hand, was mankind’s protector, an ally on the lonely sea.

But while they were contemporaries, Aegir and Ran couldn’t be said to be rivals of Njord’s. Norse mythology doesn’t record any contention or power struggle between them, and it seems that everyone stayed in their lane when it came to the sea and human activities concerning it.

Njord the Vanir

While the Aesir are more familiar to the average person today – names like Odin and Thor are widely recognized, in no small part thanks to popular culture – the Vanir are far more mysterious. This second tier of Norse gods were more inclined to stealth and magic than open combat, and the lack of information about them makes it difficult to know even their number with any certainty.

The Vanir dwelt in Vanaheim, one of the nine realms of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree. Aside from Njord, his son Freyr, and his daughter Freya, we can be certain only of a mysterious goddess called Gullveig, a mysterious goddess who may have simply been another form of Freya, and Nerthus, a goddess with an ambiguous connection to Njord (more on that later).

Certain more familiar gods like Heimdall and Ullr are suspected of being Vanir, since they exhibit traits that are more connected with the Vanir than the Aesir and both lack references to a father in their lore. Njord’s own sister – and mother of his children – is also a Vanir, but nothing else is known about her.

Likewise, it is said in the poem Sólarljóð, or Songs of the Sun, that Njord had nine daughters in all, who would obviously also be counted among the Vanir. However, this 12th Century poem – though it mirrors Norse style – seems to fall more into the category of Christian visionary literature, so its specific claims about details concerning the Norse gods may be questionable, and the nine daughters seems more a reference to Aegir than Njord.

Njord the King

However, many Vanir there were, they constituted a tribe of gods in Vanaheim. And sitting as the chieftain of that tribe – and counterpart to Odin of the Aesir – was Njord.

As god of the wind and sea, Njord would naturally be seen as an important and powerful god – especially to a culture that was so invest in fishing and in sailing for trade or, shall we say, the somewhat less voluntary and more one-sided “trade” for which Vikings were known. It makes sense, therefore, that any recounting of tales about the Vanir would elevate him to a leadership position.

When Aesir-Vanir war broke out – either because the Aesir were jealous of the Vanir’s greater popularity with mortals (they were gods of fertility and prosperity, after all), or because of bad blood caused by the Vanir goddess Gullveig offering her magic for hire (and, in the eyes of the Aesir, corrupting their values) – it was Njord that led the Vanir into battle. And it was Njord who helped seal the lasting peace that ended the conflict on behalf of the Vanir.

The war dragged on into a stalemate, until both sides agreed to negotiate. Njord, as part of this negotiation agreed to become a hostage – he and his children would live among the Aesir, while two Aesir gods, Hoenir and Mimir, would live among the Vanir.

Njord the Aesir

Njord and his children weren’t hostages in the modern sense – he wasn’t a captive of the Aesir. Far from it – Njord actually held a prominent place among the gods of Asgard.

In Chapter 4 of the Heimskringla (a collection of kings’ sagas from the 13th Century written by Snorri Sturluson), Odin sets Njord in charge of sacrifices in the temple – a position of no small renown. As a benefit of this office, Njord is given Noatun as his residence.

His status among the Aesir isn’t surprising, for Njord was certainly popular among mortals. As a god already burdened with immense wealth, and who held dominion over the seas, ships, and the success of crops – all keys to creating still more wealth – it’s only natural that Njord would be a prominent god and that shrines and temples dedicated to him were found all over Norse territories.

A Troubled Marriage

Beyond this status, we don’t know much about Njord’s time among the Aesir. One detail we do have, however, is about his ill-fated marriage to Skadi.

Skadi was a jötunn (some accounts refer to her as a giantess) who, in the same manner as Aegir, was also considered the Norse goddess of mountains, bowhunting, and skiing.

In the Skáldskaparmál of the Prose Edda, the Aesir kill Thiazi, Skadi’s father. In revenge, the goddess girds herself for war and journeys to Asgard.

To defuse the situation, the Aesir offer to make restitution to Skadi, including allowing her to marry one of the gods in Asgard – on the provision that she could only choose her husband by looking at the gods’ feet.

Skadi agreed, and since the most handsome god was said to be Baldr, she chose the god with the most beautiful feet. Unfortunately, they didn’t belong to Baldr, but to Njord – and this case of mistaken identity led to an ill-fated union.

The two were literally from different worlds – Skadi loved her mountain abode, Thrymheim, while Njord obviously wanted to stay by the sea. The two made a compromise for a time by staying in each other’s abode for part of the year, but the charm of this arrangement wore off quickly, as neither could stand the other’s home. Njord hated the cold and the howling wolves of Skadi’s home, while Skadi hated the noise of the harbor and the churning of the sea.

No surprise, then, that the union didn’t last. Eventually Skadi broke off the marriage and returned to her mountains alone, while Njord remained in Noatun.

Also not surprisingly, the marriage never produced children, and Njord’s only children seem to have been Freya and Freyr, born to his unnamed Vanir sister/wife.

Njord and Nerthus

Any discussion of Njord has to include mention of the goddess Nerthus. A Germanic goddess with an apparently broad cult (the Roman historian Tacitus says she was worshipped by seven tribes, including the Angles that would go on to populate the British Isles as the Anglo-Saxons), Nerthus has linguistic and cultural traits that promise a connection with Njord – though what that connection is, precisely, is debatable.

Nerthus is depicted as a god of both fertility and prosperity, aspects that mirror Njord’s connections to wealth and fertility (at least in the sense of crops). Nerthus seems to have more connection with the land (Tacitus alternately refers to her as Ertha or Mother Earth), while Njord was more a god of the sea – or more precisely, the riches the sea had to offer through fishing and trade.

Despite that difference, the two seem very much cut from the same cloth. Their names even appear to come from the same source – the Proto-Germanic word Nerthuz, meaning something close to “vigorous” or “strong.”

In chapter 40 of his Germania,  Tacitus describes the ritual procession of a chariot containing the presence of Nerthus which visits multiple communities until the priest feels the goddess is tired of human company and the chariot returns to the unspecified island which contained her sacred grove. Tacitus wrote this account in the 1st Century, yet these processions of ritual carts were continuing well into the Viking Age, and Njord and his children were all associated with them (Njord was even called the “god of wagons” in some translations of the Skáldskaparmál), providing yet another link between the two gods.

The Long-Lost Sister

One of the simplest explanations for the connections between Nerthus and Njord is that they are siblings. Njord was said to have a sister whom he married among the Vanir, though no direct reference to her seems to exist.

The similarity of names would play into the idea of the two being siblings, as it mirrors the naming convention of the couple’s children, Freya and Freyr. And a sibling relationship would explain Nerthus’ presence as a sort of female counterpart to Njord.

But while Njord was said to have a sister, the early accounts of Nerthus like those of Tacitus make no mention of a brother. Furthermore, there is another goddess – Njorun – mentioned in the Prose Edda whose name is also quite similar to Njord’s, and who could also be a candidate for his mysterious sister.

Nothing is known about this goddess but her name. No details of her nature or her relationship to other gods is mentioned in any surviving source, so her name and its similarity to Njord’s is the only basis for this inference. But the name also has the same link to Nerthus as Njord’s does, which has led to some speculation that Njorun is in fact Nerthus – an alternate, later version of the much older goddess.

Or One and the Same

The other possibility is that Nerthus isn’t Njord’s sister, but is actually an earlier, female version of the god. This would neatly explain both the similarity of the names and the shared aspects and rituals of the two.

Remember that Tacitus documented the cult of Nerthus all the way back in the 1st Century. Njord, meanwhile, was a product of the Viking Age centuries later – plenty of time for the evolution of a god from a land-based earth goddess to a more masculine version of a sea-faring people who associated the notion of prosperity and wealth with the bounties of the ocean.

It also explains why Tacitus doesn’t record any mention of a brother for Nerthus – there wasn’t one. References to Njord’s sister in Norse mythology, meanwhile, simply become a likely way for priests and poets to preserve and explain the feminine aspects of the goddess which survived into Njord’s era.

A Possible Funerary God

As a god of ships and seafaring, there’s an obvious possible connection for Njord that should be discussed – that of a funerary god. After all, just about everyone is familiar with the idea of a “Viking funeral” – if Vikings sent their dead out to sea on burning boats, surely the god of ships and seafaring played a role, right?

Well, perhaps, but we need to clarify that the historical record on Viking funerals is more complex than the popular perception. The archaeological record gives us a range of burial practices in Scandinavia, from cremation to burial mounds.

Boats did feature heavily in these rites, however. Burial ships (unburned) have been found in burial mounds across ancient Scandinavia, loaded with gifts for the deceased to take to the afterlife. And even when boats themselves were absent, they frequently showed up in the imagery of Viking funerals.

That said, there is a record of a burning boat in a funeral rite among Vikings. The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan traveled to the Volga River in 921 C.E. and observed such a funeral among the Varangians – Vikings who had traveled to modern-day Russia from Scandinavia in the 9th Century.

This funeral still didn’t involve putting the boat to sea, however. It was loaded with goods for the dead chieftain to take into the afterlife, then set ablaze. The ashes were later covered with a burial mound built by his family.

Whether this was a common practice back in Scandinavia is unknown, though the Varangians had left Scandinavia less than a century earlier, so it makes sense that their funerary rites were still somewhat consistent with those back home. It’s also noteworthy that the god Baldr was interred in a burning boat in Norse mythology, hinting that it was at least a familiar idea.

So, was Njord a guide to the afterlife? Given how heavily boats featured in the funerary practices of the Norse, it seems all too likely. His position as a guide that helped ships travel safely for trade and fishing make it all too easy to at least assume – even though we can’t prove – that he was seen as a guide for souls sailing on their final voyage as well.

Njord the Survivor?

One last note of interest about Njord hinges on a common misconception concerning Ragnarok. In this “apocalypse” of Norse mythology, the great wolf Fenrir escapes his bonds and the fire giant Sutr destroys Asgard – and, in common understanding, all the gods fall in battle along with the brave human souls that reached Valhalla and the world ends.

In truth, the various snippets of surviving prose about Ragnarok give some conflicting perspectives. One thing that is established, however, is that all the gods don’t die. A few, such as Thor’s sons Módi and Magni and the resurrected Baldr, survive in a remade world.

The Vanir are little mentioned in accounts of Ragnarok, as the Aesir take center stage. There is one tantalizing tidbit, however – while fellow Vanir Freyr falls against Sutr, it is said that Njord returns to Vanaheim, the home of the Vanir. Whether Vanaheim itself survives Ragnarok is not specified, but this at least suggests that Njord and his kinsmen might ride out the apocalyptic storm.

Conclusion

Njord’s importance in Norse society almost can’t be overstated. He was the god of the ships they relied on for trade, fishing, and warfare, of the crops they depended on, and of wealth and prosperity in itself.

Not much survives of his lore – we know little about how he was invoked, or what specific rites went along with beseeching him for aid. We know that sailors often carried a gold coin to curry favor with Ran if they fell into the sea – and sometimes threw them overboard to buy her indulgence preemptively – but we have no similar tidbits for Njord.

But much can be inferred from what we have. Njord was the main god of the central economic aspects of Norse life, and therefore one whose favor would have been sought regularly in everyday life. He was justifiably a popular god, and one that was rewarded with a prominent place in not one, but two pantheons in Norse myth.

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