NJO̹RÐR (Njord) is the most outstanding of the group of Germanic gods known as the Vanir. Their war with the Æsir (the primary group of gods) and the move of Njo̹rðr, his son Freyr, and his daughter Freyja to the Æsir's citadel, Ásgarðr, as hostages has been seen as a reflection of an actual religious war or the replacement of one cult with another, but it has also been taken as a symbolic explanation of the existence of different aspects of divinity. According to Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), Njo̹rðr is extremely wealthy and prosperous and can grant land and movables to those who call on him. The protector of seafarers and fishermen, he sends favorable winds and calm seas. His dwelling in Ásgarðr is called Nóatún (Harbor), a name that points to his association with sailing. But Njo̹rðr does not stay with the Æsir forever; according to the eddic poem Vafþrúðnismál (st. 39), after their last battle against the giants and monsters at Ragnaro̹k, Njo̹rðr will return to the land of the Vanir.
The mythology about Njo̹rðr is dominated by his move to Ásgarðr. The incestuous relations allowed among the Vanir were alien to the Æsir, and in the eddic poem Lokasenna (st. 36), Loki reproaches Njo̹rðr with having begotten his children with his own sister. Njo̹rðr enters into a marriage that serves the Æsir but turns out to be a disaster of temperamental incompatibility for both spouses. The legitimacy of Freyr and Freyja was evidently a problem for Snorri, who implies they were the offspring of Njo̹rðr and his new wife. The story of this marriage is an intertwining of Märchenmotive (folktale motifs) and fertility rites. Through Loki's deceit, the giant Þjazi was killed by the Æsir, and when his daughter Skaði came to Ásgarðr to claim compensation, she was offered her choice of a husband from among the Æsir, provided that she look only at their feet. She expected her choice to be the handsome Baldr, but she had picked Njo̹rðr, whose feet were evidently washed clean by his watery domain. Skaði had accepted this arrangement only on condition that the gods would make her laugh; Loki was able to do so by tying one end of a string to his scrotum and the other to a goat's beard; when both pulled, there was a lot of shouting and howling until Loki fell on his knees in front of Skaði, who burst out laughing. Unfortunately, Skaði and Njo̹rðr turned out to be incompatible; they alternated living at Nóatún and at Þrymheimr, but she hated living by the sea, and he hated living in the mountains. Snorri mentions that she left her husband, so there was probably a myth recounting her return to her father's estate.
Despite the scanty information about Njo̹rðr in Old Norse literature, his cult was important in Germanic antiquity. This is confirmed by the considerable number of cult place-names, which occur particularly in eastern Sweden and western Norway, but in Denmark and Iceland as well. Whereas the Norwegian and Icelandic place-names are always found near the coast, as would be expected for a seafaring god, the Swedish place-names are always found in inland agricultural areas, suggesting that Njo̹rðr was worshiped as a fertility god in those areas. A number of the Swedish place-names go back to an original Njarðarvé (Njo̹rðr's temple) and show that he was publically worshiped at an early period. Worship at a later period is implied by the place-names in southeastern Norway going back to Njarðarhof, where hof is a newer word that also means temple. Another indication of his importance in the pagan religion is found in the extant remnant of the pagan law code of Iceland, where it is laid down that a person performing legal business should swear an oath on the holy ring, saying "so help me Freyr and Njo̹rðr and the all-powerful god."
A major problem in discussing Njo̹rðr is his relation to the mother goddess of the Inguaeonic tribes, Nerthus, whom the first-century ce Tacitus (Germania, ch. 40) says was worshiped on an island in the Baltic; he equates her with Terra mater (Mother Earth). Njo̹rðr and the Latino-Germanic Nerthus reflect the proto-Germanic *nerþuz, but why is the earlier deity a goddess and the later one a god? The change has been ascribed to the "masculinization" of agriculture that occurred between Roman times and the Viking Age, for according to Tacitus, the early Germanic tribes left the cultivation of the land to women, the elderly, and the weaker members of the extended family (Germania, ch. 14), whereas farming in the Viking period was carried out by men. According to Jan de Vries in Altgermanische Religiongeschichte (1967), such an explanation is not wholly convincing, as it does not account for the shift of the deity's main domain from fertility to the sea and navigation. Modern research tends to emphasize the fact that Njo̹rðr has always been a "man of the sea," and the change of sex is explained by postulating a hermaphroditic deity or supposing that Njo̹rðr and Nerthus were brother and sister.
The significance of Njo̹rðr is also reflected in his role in medieval euhemeristic tales describing the legendary early history of Scandinavia, in which he is said to have assumed the throne of Sweden after "King Óðinn" passed away. Such peace and plenteous harvests followed that the Swedes believed he controlled the crops and the well-being of humankind.
Clunies Ross, Margaret. Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society, vol. 1, The Myths. Odense, Denmark, 1994.
Dumézil, Georges. From Myth to Fiction: The Saga of Hadingus. Translated by Derek Coltman. Chicago, 1973.
Lindow, John. Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1988.
Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. London, 1964.
Vries, Jan de. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, vol. 2. 2d rev. ed. Berlin, 1967.
Edgar C. PolomÉ (1987)
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)