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Tysnes, Norway- Njord, Nerthus, Tyr

10 Jul

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Tysnes is a collection of islands within the Hardanger Fjord in western Norway. Its name and its former name reveal roots in a pagan past, partly shrouded in mystery. Here can be found an old stone altar in Todneset, as well as the Vevatn which is thought to be home to a location used to worship Njord and possibly Nerthus during the pre-Christian heathen times. The small piece of the island “nes”, in Norwegian, named for Tyr was originally just referred to as Tysnes (Tyr’s nes), while the rest was called Njardarlaug.

The name change came about around 1530, at the time of the reformation of the Christian religion. The name Njardarlaug was seen as “too heathen” and so the name was changed to (ironically enough) another heathen name, Tysnes. This could cause one to conclude that Njarthar and Njord played an especially strong role in the pre-christian life on the island to prompt this name change. Christianity was known to erase what was not fitting its worldview. If the role of Tyr was lesser known, then the name was somehow more “innocent” than the previous name. It also makes one wonder just how important the island was to the pre-christian heathens of the time. Did it serve a role for people beyond those who lived on the island? Did other Scandinavians and other foreigners pay a visit to this island? Was the memory of rituals and worship of pagan gods so strong in connection to the name “Njardarlaug” that it had to be erased, even while taking another (yet less prominent and recognizable) pagan name? One could conclude those in charge of the name change were either stupid, or looking for a more subtle, lesser known and less notorious name. If the cult of Tyr was less important in the people’s memory than that of Njord and Nerthus, then this could very well have been the reason for the island being re-named “Tysnes”.

As Tysnes was just a small piece of the island, the entire island itself was called Njardarlaug which is most striking in its apparent tribute to the Nordic god Njord or the goddess Njarthar/Nerthus. Another explanation for its name came from Eivind Vågslid who said that it referred to a “tronge farvatn”, a tightly compressed waterway or small, narrow waterway which separates the island from the mainland. The waterway is indeed small enough to easily accommodate a bridge of 316 meters, but were our forebears so boring as to only think in terms of naming their island after a span of water? And is 316 meters wide of water really such a tight fit for boats in the previous ages?  It seems unlikely considering the abundance of other locations in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia which feature Nordic gods in their names, such as Tysnes (Tyr’s nes) right here in the area, Torheim (Thor’s home), Baldrheim, (Balder’s home), Odense (in Denmark, Oden’s lake). Lauga (log) is a reference to water.” Njardarlaug “ would in turn refer to Njord/Njarthar’s water. “Njord sitt kultiske bad”. With the presence of the standing stone in Todneset, as well as the altar (and the fact that the later Christian church used by the community was built on the location of Todneset- Christian churches were often built on powerful formerly pagan places of worship) the island was of some significance going deeper than mere geography: spiritual and pagan thought and deed were clearly at home here in pre-christian times which has survived in the form of names and stone relics.

Tysnes was formerly called Njardarlaug which etymologically relates to Njord, but some speculate that this is a more direct reference to the goddess Njarthar, or Nerthus. Njord is the Nordic god of the sea, father to Frey and Freyja. Njarthar is most commonly referred to as Nerthus, and is a goddess of the earth with connections to Njord. In the Heimskringla, it is mentioned that Frey and Freyja were the offspring of Njord and his sister. It follows to speculate that this could be Njarthar. In this way, Njarthar is a goddess of the land with connections to the sea. The island of Njardarlaug (Tysnes) also features the two elements of land, and sea within itself.

In particular, the lake of Vevatn is thought to be a place where offerings were made to Njarthar or Njord or both. As the shores of this lake also represent the union between land and sea, we could again make the connection between an earth goddess and a sea, or watery god. In heathen times, such elemental connections would not be lost on a people whose existence is dependent upon nature and the bounty of sea and land.

Also the children of Njord and possibly Njarthar are fertility gods, the twins Frey and Freyja. Water and earth are essential for the growing of crops and as such it would follow to reason that a water god and earth goddess produce divine offspring which symbolize and incorporate fertility.

One of the most distinct remnants of this pagan past is found in just this small section of the island that can rightfully be called Tyr’s nes. This is known as Todneset. This is the site of a standing stone, not far from which a relatively small dug-out area with an altar is located. The location is just 25 meters from the sea. The mound of land (røysa) on which all of this rests has a view of the bay of the island Våge to the west, and a view of the Bjørnafjord in the northwest. The altar was dug up in 1915 and what could possibly be seen as the remnants of offerings were found. These items included knives, nails, iron tools, the bones and skulls of animals. The altar was probably part of a more complex building, according to the findings the researchers in 1915 unearthed. The area is also interesting from the perspective that every year, on the winter solstice, the sun disappears behind the mountains in the distance  to return for a brief period to shine on top of the standing stone once more. This is the only time of year this phenomena occurs. As this is a naturally unusual area, special in this respect, it is easy to see why the heathen ancestors thought this was a special place fitting for worship.

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On Tysnes, there exists a place called the Lunde (grove) not far from Vevatn. Vevatn is speculated to have been used for spiritual purposes, and if we take the following quote by Tacitus (Germania)  we can infer that, perhaps he was referring to Tysnes : “None of these tribes have any noteworthy feature, except their common worship of Ertha, or mother-Earth, and their belief that she interposes in human affairs, and visits the nations in her car. In an island of the ocean there is a sacred grove, and within it a consecrated chariot, covered over with a garment. Only one priest is permitted to touch it. He can perceive the presence of the goddess in this sacred recess, and walks by her side with the utmost reverence as she is drawn along by heifers. It is a season of rejoicing, and festivity reigns wherever she deigns to go and be received. They do not go to battle or wear arms; every weapon is under lock; peace and quiet are known and welcomed only at these times, till the goddess, weary of human intercourse, is at length restored by the same priest to her temple. Afterwards the car, the vestments, and, if you like to believe it, the divinity herself, are purified in a secret lake. Slaves perform the rite, who are instantly swallowed up by its waters.” Tysnes (Njardarlaug) is an “island of the ocean”, which contains a grove (Lunde), and nearby there is a lake. The lake was said to be used for the purposes mentioned by Tactitus, in pagan times, so the elements are present to infer that Tacitus was in fact referring to the island and her inhabitants at the time. Freya could possibly have been the “earth goddess” mentioned, as her worship was widespread throughout the Germanic lands.

Since much of our pagan past is buried in misinformation and poor documentation, we can but speculate and let our imaginations run free in regards to just what went on there on the mystical island of Njardalaug. How did the heathens there worship exactly? How did they feel toward their gods? How was the returning of the sun on the solstice of importance to them? What did they think and feel ? Surely it was more deeply rooted in a cosmic sense than our own limited, materialistic thoughts today. We can let our minds run free, and visiting the site tune into the atmosphere of the place which is indeed distinct from the surrounding areas.

A sacred grove. The sun rising on the winter solstice over Todneset. Rituals and offerings to Tyr at the location of that mound. Watery offerings, invocations and prayers to the water Njord and Njerthus at Vevatn, to the honoring of their fertility offspring Frey and Freyja in times of harvest and planting . The connection between earth, sea and sky in the daily thoughts of those who inhabited the region. What we know from the names and the findings on the island today called Tysnes, we see the remnants of a rich world that is nearly forgotten which connected the material, outer world, with the spiritual, energetic and inner world. There is much to learn with logic, and much to consider and feel with the intuition. The past and the future can combine with the present as we take such mystical places and ponder them and try to see with the eyes of our ancestors.

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