Make your own free website on
"The Problem of Nehalennia "
by Jeff Burke
Excerpted from "Dictionary of Northern Mythology" by Rudolf Simek: "The goddess Nehalennia... is depicted on these votive altars and her attributes are mostly baskets of fruit, like those we know from the monuments of the matron cult, often a dog; in several she is resting against the bow of a ship... and an attempt to etymologize Nehalennia has related it to Latin nex, necare 'to kill'). All of the attributes mentioned are also those belonging to Isis. With the adoption of Roman forms of inscriptions and altars iconographic detail such as the attributes of the goddess were also adopted. Tacitus' reference (Germania 9) to the fact that the Germanic Suebi made sacrifices to the goddess Isis whose symbol was a ship is even more important in these circumstances. This Germanic Isis in Tacitus has been associated in various ways with the cult of Nerthus."
Nehalennia is one of hundreds of goddess names inscribed on stones throughout 'Germania'- none of which even remotely resemble the Asynjur that we have come to know. Scholars have chosen to concentrate on this one name, because they have several examples of altars, and unlike the other stones, some of the Nehalennia stones contain iconography. Unfortunately for our purposes, the iconography is Roman influenced, and cannot with any authority be authenticated as Germanic in origin.

The problem with Simek (I take exception to his statements that 'dogs and fruit are attributes of Isis') is that he is a compiler of commentators and material from different sources separated widely in space and time. One of the most prominent Germanic scholars and linguists of the century, the late Edgar Polomé, attributes the etymology of Nerthus to 'neart'- a Celtic word (ditto the famous seer of Tacitus, Veleda- from 'gweled' = 'to see' in Welsh). Many of the supposed Germanic tribes of Tacitus are in fact Celtic peoples; the Roman designation of Germanic peoples was simply an arbitrary dividing line- the Rhine river. In actuality there were Germanic and Celtic tribes on the either side of the river. If the Suebian 'Isis' was the same deity as Nerthus, then Tacitus would have said so- he didn't, nor did he connect the 2 in any way. There are many deities found on the continent that are not found in Norse mythology. At the early time of Tacitus' material there were in many areas tribes that worshiped local deities. To attempt to equate all continental local deities to the 'Viking Age Norse pantheon' is an interesting diversion, but in no way can we expect to fit every 'square peg into the round holes'. We can hardly consider the Latin derivation of the name unless we stipulate that it is a Latin name for a Germanic goddess, or we assume Nehalennia and her cult were introduced by the Romans (which IS the most probable scenario)- but that is not the case with the 'Suebian Isis'.

Tacitus also mentions a Germanic tribe the Naharvali (or Nahanarvali)- this prefix is the closest thing you will find to the word Nehalennia. If we are to attempt to establish Nehalennia as a native Germanic deity we should be looking for words along those lines, as this Germanic tribe calls itself by a word that has the same prefix Neha/Neha.

nahan, (verb)- to suffice, to be enough (from Meso-Gothic)
hella, (verb) to pour out, spill (from Old Norse)

If I was disposed to speculate, I would propose Nahan-Hlin (the Asynjur Hlin protects men, therefore translate as 'sufficient protection'). Even though this looks good- and fits, Hlin is not associated with ships, or dogs. Now the ship connection can be very well documented as these festivals of spring are associated with ships even up until the beginning of the Medieval period (see below)! H.R.E. Davidson, in "Gods and Myths of Northern Europe", connects Nehalennia with the ship-funerals of myth and archaeology. This would be a 'death connection' and extremely hard to reconcile with either the Suebian 'Isis', the Egyptian Isis, or the medieval ship processions!

Let's see what Grimm has to say (from Jakob Grimm's "Teutonic Mythology" Vol I): "About the year 1133, in a forest near Inda (in Ripuaria), a ship was built, set upon wheels, and drawn about the country by men who were yoked to it... everywhere with crowds of people assembling and escorting it. Wherever it halted, there were joyful shouts, songs of triumph, dancing round the ship was kept up until far into the night. The approach of the ship was notified to the towns, which opened the gates and went out to meet it."

He notes that refusal of entry of the ship was cause for war among the natives! Grimm also notes that the guild of weavers in the Netherlands were compelled to draw a ship by ropes tied to their shoulders and that similar ship processions were found in other parts of Germany (including Swabia/Seubia) and there was an edict in 1530 in Ulm prohibiting the procession of a ship- or similar processions of the plough. Grimm questions the Holda/Nehalennia connection without conclusion, offering instead that the Germanic Frau Holda is linguistically closer to the Huldr of the Völuspá. The plough procession of Swabia was by far more common, and in "the Visigoths in the Time of Ulfila" by Edward A. Thompson, there is mention of a wagon being sent around with a pillar on it to represent a fertility-type blessing for the fields and flocks. Both pillar and plow are masculine symbols.

Grimm begins his chapter on Nehalennia with the title heading 'Tanfana. Nehalennia': "Another goddess stands wrapt in thicker darkness, whom Tacitus calls Tanfana, and a stone inscription Tamfana (Tamfana Sacrum, p. 80)"...". Apparently Grimm believes the germanic name Tanfana to be another name for Nehalennia. This Tanfana was worshiped by the Marsi who are located near the Bohemian forest in southern Germany (not far from the Seubians!).

So we see that the Seubi, who are completely isolated from the sea, associated their goddess with ships. In some of the areas where the procession was common people must have lived there whole generations without seeing the sea. It is common to have a woman's figure on the prow of a ship, the practice is ancient and found in many cultures, and continued into eras where the original significance was forgotten. Isis searched for her drowned husband and revived him. Conversely, the Scandinavian Ran caught and kept sailors in her net. Two completely different functions. As far as similarities between Isis and Freyja, both are mistresses of magic, both search for their missing husbands, but the similarities end there. Freyja's husband is not dead, nor does she revive him, nor does Freyja have a heroic son like Isis.

Some important points brought up by Wolfgang Golther in his "Handbuch der Germanischen Mythologie": Often Roman traders would take a native divinity and give it a 'makeover', this is called 'interpretatio romana'. The altar monuments and stones were executed by Roman masons with Latin inscriptions and iconography. The Roman festival of shipping is connected to Isis with a ship procession celebrating reopening of sea travel (March 5- this coincides with approximate date of the medieval festival described by Grimm above). The ship going around on wheels occurs also with the Greeks in connection with Dionysos, the Roman Bacchus cults, and the Egyptian Sun God paraded through the streets on his solar barge (still enacted today here in the Americas with the 'Mardi Gras' of New Orleans and the Carnaval of Rio de Janeiro!). His attempts to connect the name Nehalennia to a proposed Germanic root 'nawe' (nevolos, nealas, neweo)- basically our words navy, navigation, and naval- are doomed to failure since these words are Latin derived! His conclusion: "Nehalennia is then however no actual name, rather a surname of a goddess, who has a relationship to navigation."

So still we are left with Latin bases for the name: 'nex', 'necare', and navis (which covers the boat connection), or my meso-gothic 'nahan' and Old Norse 'hella' (which both cover the prosperity function). We have seen that the German scholar concludes that the iconography (ie., the dog, the apples, the horn) are Roman in origin, so there is no doubt that the Romans saw this goddess as a Matron. Though Isis was connected to Nehalennia because of the ship image, and Isis is also connected to motherhood, no mention of the that aspect was made by the Roman writer Tacitus in his account, nor were there any mention of motherhood in the various accounts of the ship festivals of medieval times in Europe! Nor is there any evidence that any of the Asynjur of the Norse Religion were viewed or revered especially for their motherhood. Nor will you find a Norse mention of a 'goddess of mothers', or a temple to the mothers, or a mother's day! The traditional 'Isis and the baby Horus' was borrowed into christianity as the 'Madonna and Child', and is in fact pre-christian! No corresponding Germanic or Norse image has ever been found, or even described in the material that makes up the basis for the religion of Asatru. Nehalennia especially is not connected with these things in the Germanic material, except in the Roman view- in other words the ship processions were not connected to motherhood per se, nor were there any motherly iconography associated with them. If there were- the church would have transformed them into 'Virgin Mary' festivals, but instead they passed edicts banning the procession! Therefore, Nehalennia was not seen as a Matron by either the Germanic peoples, or the medieval christians. Nor is there any other Germanic or Norse goddess that was transformed into a christian Madonna, or even a Saint.

The Roman 'Cult of the Matronae' is a special cult with rites and practices, days of observances, etc. (they also had a separate cult of the Vestal Virgins). Neither cult, or their equivalent, can be found in Viking Age Scandinavia. Many of the Asynjur were mothers and virgins, but that is not the same as a 'cult of the mothers- or virgins' in the Roman fashion. The closest equivalent in the Norse religion is the Disir, and they are depicted as carrying swords and riding on horseback (far cry from mother and child)- not seated holding apples! Though they are depicted as female, they represent both male and female relations from the past and future (for a period explanation see the Icelandic thattr 'Thidrandi Whom the Disir Slew'), and this makes them more closely approximate the Roman 'Cult of the Lares', rather than the Matronae. The apples would seem to point to Idunna, whose name can be connected to eddying in english, a function of the tides.

It would be presumptuous to associate the Suebian 'Isis' with Nehalennia, or dogs, fruit and motherhood, without further evidence. It would be more than presumptuous to attempt to link Nehalennia with Nerthus, Freyja (a ship and a wagon are 2 completely different icons!), Frau Holle, Hel (slight resemblance of names is not near enough evidence!), or any other deity without an exact matchup of the elements known to us from the iconography- ship, fruit, horn, and dog. So far, no candidates have been found. Therefore, it is logical to assume that Nehelennia stands alone, on her own two feet, and in her own right, as a Romano/Germanic phenonmenon, and should be given the individual respect she deserves- not feebly and forcibly equated with another goddess, from another place and time period!

Jeff Burke