In the Wiccan tradition I practice (Blue Star Wicca), there is a practice of taking vows, either at the new moons, lasting until the next new moon; or at Beltane or Samhain, lasting for six months. They’re taken in the presence of one’s community, and the community helps to support its members in sticking to their vows. It’s not uncommon for folks to vow to work to break a bad habit, or to establish a new good one, or to complete some project or goal during the time period allotted. I’ll likely be talking about how vows in Blue Star work, in greater detail in a later post. In the mean time, I want to document the experience with my current Hinge Vow (those are the ones that you take at Samhain, and last through Beltane, or vice-versa.)
At Samhain, I had a pretty involved and taxing role in the ritual goings-on, so I didn’t end up devoting much time to thinking about my vow ahead of time. (Whoops.) Lack of planning or no, I felt strongly that I should take one – they’re voluntary, you see, so it’s not like I had to – and when my time came, I blurted out the following (paraphrased):
“From now until Beltane, I will, through mindfulness and prayer, or through actual libation when circumstances permit, share a little bit of each of my meals with Nerthus, because She clearly is trying to get my attention.”
She is? Um, okay, mouth. Good to know. Thanks for the memo.
So Who is Nerthus, anyway?
Nerthus is… complicated, and before I go any further, I should mention that what follows contains a pretty substantial quantity of my UPG and SPG I’ve found in common with other folks who serve Her or some of the deities associated with Her.
The Norse peoples had a small collection of pantheons of gods, spirits, whatever you want to call them. The Aesir, which includes such pop-culture favorites as Odin and Thor, are not the only show in town. There are also the Jotnar (singular: “Jotun”), who are untamed spirits of the natural world, with an emphasis on ice and fire; and the Vanir (singular: “Van”, or “Vanr”, depending on how you feel about the nominative r in the singular), who are strongly associated with agriculture and growing food and that good stuff. (That’s a gross simplification of the many domains in which the Vanir have a hand, but it’s the relevant bit for the subject at hand.) The Vanir include Freyr and Freyja (siblings), and their father, Njord. Freyr and Freyja’s mother is never explicitly named in the Lore; we just know that she’s Njord sister. (The Vanir are remarkably okay with incest, and some of their worshipers put a lot of emphasis on the twins/spouses dynamic between Freyr and Freyja, and posit a similar mated-siblings dynamic for Njord and his sister.)
Some linguistic fiddling related to the evolution of Njord’s name, as well as an attestation of the cult of the goddess Nerthus (by Tacitus) on the German mainland, have led some who worship the Vanir to point to Nerthus as a likely candidate for Njord’s sister, and worship Her as such.
Her cult in Germania is described as one focused on growing and harvest, and Her idol would be driven through the countryside in a cart during times of poor harvest, so that She could bless the land to return it to fertility. She wasn’t, precisely, a “milk and cookies” sort of mother earth goddess, though… A devotee of Hers with whom I am acquainted describes their understanding of Her as more along the lines of the, “I brought you into this world, and so help Me, I can take you out of it!” sort of mother. To whit: Her statue was enshrined on a small island in the middle of a lake, and was always veiled or masked when it went around the villages; when it was returned to its island, the idol, the cart, and the veil which covered it were all washed… and then the men who had done the washing, and thereby seen the idol’s face and touched it with their hands, were drowned in the lake.
Nerthus is one of the handful of Norse/Germanic gods about Whom we have concrete attestations of human sacrifice as regular practice. Some folks who are close with Her, and also interact with Freyr in the context of Sacred / Sacrificial Kingship, regard Nerthus as the receiver of the royal sacrifice that makes the machine of sovereignty and society work.
In short, She’s not to be trifled with.
How’s that Hinge Vow going?
The letter of the vow: middling. I’d say I’m probably hitting a 50-65% success rate in remembering to do it. I’m definitely most forgetful first thing in the morning, not in small part because breakfast often looks like gulped tea or food eaten in a hurry or in the car. I’m working on ways to improve that success rate, though I haven’t quite nailed down a perfect solution. I’ll keep y’all posted.
I have noticed that I’m much more likely to remember if the meal is being consumed with some sort of alcoholic beverage, likely because I’m more likely to think of a beverage (especially a fermented wheat or fruit beverage) as a thing to be libated, and the meal rides the drink’s coattails.
What I didn’t consider at the time of the vow – unsurprisingly, as it wasn’t a planned one – is how this would impact the way I look at food. As I find myself explaining it to my friends: Nerthus Is Watching Me Eat. And honestly? I’m pretty damn embarrassed to share my peanut butter M&Ms, either physically or energetically, with a chthonic goddess Who is really, really not okay with a lot of the terrible things we do to the planet (and, well, Her) in the midst of growing, engineering, packaging, transporting, and wasting our food. (And Who has very sharp teeth.) And the sad fact is, I eat a lot of really crappy food made through those unnatural and detrimental processes. I don’t have the most ideal kitchen set-up right now, and I’ve been learning on a lot of processed food of late. (Also, WaWa is my culinary nemesis and I am losing the fight.) It hadn’t bothered me, too much, until I found myself vowed to make a conscious effort to stop and consider what Nerthus would think of my 25-ingredient-with-lots-of-weird-acronyms ice cream.
So I’ve been reconsidering a lot of my food choices, and while I’d be a liar if I told you that I’ve eliminated anything that isn’t all-natural, organic, wholesome, I am making my decisions a little more mindfully. And since I’m stuck with this vow for another five months or so, it’s likely that the mindfulness, if not radical diet changes, will stick. (Habit forming, in the good verb way, rather than the not-always-good adjective way.) I feel like I have some pretty excellent motivation, after all: Nerthus Is Watching.
In the meantime, no peanut butter M&Ms. That much, I’m quite clear on.