Sacred White Stones: Echoes of an Ancient Scandinavian Fertility Cult

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The sacred white stones ("hellige hvite steiner"), as they are often referred to in Norwegian archaeological lingo, are a semi-rare kind of religious sculpture hailing from the mid-to-late Nordic Iron Age, and are particularly interesting as possible indicators of pre-Christian religious centers, where they were probably highly revered objects of cult and religious veneration. They are generally phallic, and though there are many Freudian things to be said about standing stones, I am not talking about any old rock defiantly erected against the sky, but quite literal stone erections. Though they are strictly found in certain areas of Norway, they are closely related to the so-called grave orbs ("gravklot") of middle Sweden.

Let's kick off with a proper non-story. A number of years ago, word reached my ear about a man in inner Rogaland who claimed to have a particular kind of rare archaeological artifact in his keeping: "A stone phallus", it was claimed. It should come as no surprise that sacred white stones qualify for bragging rights amongst private collectors, who acquire and keep them quite illegally, storing them in barns and cellars away from the prying eyes of museum conservationists and Johnny Law.

The excuses people resort to to avoid handing such items over range from humble to cynical. Among the formers we find farmers who are likely to stray upon them on their land, or acquire them as heirlooms from ancestors that did. Though there is rarely anything to fear, many express concern that reporting their findings will do them more harm than good. On the flipside, some are driven by contempt for central authorities, which is obviously misguided when museums - and hence the population as a whole - are the real victims. Sometimes there is an aspect of personal greed. Sometimes it's all of these things.

I have hunch that many people who keep contraband artifacts are proud by nature. Their secrets hinge on their ability keep their mouth shut, but where's the glory in that? If you are a pragmatic soul with countryside connections, finding artifacts in captivity is very achievable if you play your cards right. They are often hidden in the open, and usually where you least expect it. In this case, the owner and I shared a close, mutural acquaintance, and he thought that simply sitting on the stone (not literally) was the most hassle-free alternative.

When I established contact, I was very upfront about my desire to see, and possibly record the stone. Through feigned annoyance, the owner gladly blabbered on about the "the finest god damned phallus" he'd ever laid eyes on. I knew the area well, and I thought it looked extremely promising: The farmer lived closely to burial mounds, a minor cave containing finds of votive offerings, standing stones, and sacred place names. It also didn't hurt that the county of Rogaland is known for its abundance of sacred white stones. With a forecast like this, I naturally scheduled to visit as soon as possible.

A week later, I was drinking coffee in his living room, staring down at a wrinkly chanterell shaped rock. An irregular, bent, mopy, brown thing curled up by my feet, scarcely the mineral embodiment of masculine potency I'd been promised. The owner told vividly about his personal talismanic use of the stone, and the wonders it did for his virility. A little rub before a party, a small pat before a date, and he was all set to go. In his eyes it belonged to the farm, having been yanked out of the soil by his old pa, and beyond that, it served as a relic of the dark and confusing plane of existence called the past, but in my eyes it seemed laughably obvious that this was no stone shaped by human hands, and certainly nothing like the stones I've seen in museums. 

However, it recalled the famous dictum of the renowned historian of religions, and should I say, connoisseur of sacred stones, Mircea Eliade, that an object becomes sacred the moment a religious mind decides so. This particular stone had been found by a stream on their land,  and a geologist might concur that that's exactly how it looked. He already had my vow of silence, but there was nothing to report. The secret of his sacred brown stone was safe.

 Sacred White stones relaxing in Stavanger, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger / UIS

Sacred White stones relaxing in Stavanger, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk museum i Stavanger / UIS

The Pale Stone Phalli of Western Scandinavia

There seems to be no consensus on how many sacred white stones exist within the Kingdom of Norway. Certainly more than 60, and possibly less than 100, mostly concentrated along the West Coast. The archaeologist Franz-Arne Stylegar claims to be aware of 90 or so specimens, but that relies on the question of morphology, and if rough, even entirely natural, less phallic examples are to be included - as some argue they should. I have no overview of the number of Swedish grave orbs, but as the name implies they often differ from the Norwegian stones by their lack of the latter's pronounced "mushroom" shape. The ideal, or "archetypical", sacred white stones have certain recurring elements. A characteristic, explicitly phallic appearance, a flat base so it may stand, a double groove below the head, as if to imitate pulled back foreskin. The head is generally wider than the base shaft, as if swollen. Sometimes there is a cup mark/bowl, v-shaped grooves, or natural gashes. They are usually between 20 and 50 centimeters tall, though the largest can be up to about a meter tall.

The Swedish grave orbs are mostly found around Närke, the Mälar Valley, and on Gotland. They tend to be more round or lenticular, as well as a characteristic pillbox shape. However, Swedish examples are often carved with beautiful patterns and ornaments. As if by a rule, the Norwegian ones are not that elaborately ornamented. Instead, the finest Norwegian specimens were clearly sculpted for their luridly phallic shape. Usually carved from marble, granite, limestone or quartzite, the property of paleness was certainly an important consideration, and it's worth noting that all things white and fair have positive connotations in Norse mythology.

 Sacred white stone from Dønna. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone from Dønna. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Though I will be focusing on the Norwegian "archetypical shape", no two stones look exactly the same. Their apparent relation to the Swedish grave orbs, which are more often interpreted as stylized loaves or baskets of votive offerings, may raise some questions about the symbolism behind the variants. Some Norwegian examples look more like the Swedish grave orbs than dongs, and vice versa. None the less, the overtly phallic, sculpted examples of sacred white stones are numerious, similar, and distinct enough that they may be recognized as the ideal shape of a religious trend.

 A Swedish specimen currently displayed in the Stockholm Historical Museum is about the same size as a large truck tire, and was apparently found by the king/amateur archaeologist Gustav VI Adolf, which must have been a sign of his divine right to rule, or an ingenious piece of retrospective propaganda. Either way, great job, Adolf!

There is also a disclaimer to make about the dating: Though typically ascribed to the Migration Era and its neighboring centuries (say, 300-600 AD), the Norwegian archaeologist Bjørn Myhre argues that the grounds for placing them all in this narrow timeframe is tentative at best because we often lack dependable contexts. Instead, he suggests that the vast morphological variations of sacred white stones are best explained as a long-term development, stretching from the Late Roman to the Viking Era (Myhre 2006: 223). I would even entertain the possibility that some of the Gotlandic picture stones represent a local innovation in the sacred white stone/grave orb complex, for the sake of their material and shape.

 Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

Picture Stones at Änge, Gotland. photo: Wikimedia Commons

 National antiquarian Nils Sundquist presenting grave orbs to an enthusiastic crowd in Uppsala, 1940. Photo: PAul Sandberg/ Upplandsmuseet

National antiquarian Nils Sundquist presenting grave orbs to an enthusiastic crowd in Uppsala, 1940. Photo: PAul Sandberg/ Upplandsmuseet

 Sacred white stone from  Lillebøen, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone from  Lillebøen, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

What's in a name?

Before we move on to their cultic and symbolic significance, we must take a look at the term sacred white stone itself. In Nordic archaeology, it's extremely rare that we can attach specific historical terms to cult objects. We find metal figurines, wooden idols, rattles, and highly decorated tools and implements. Constructions in stone and wood are tentatively called hǫrgr, stallr, hof, and so on, but as soon as we are faced with carvings depicting figures, characters, and symbols, we are left with nothing but an educated guess to make sense of their purpose, let alone pinpoint a mythological identity. Sometimes, as in the case of the "valknut", the terminology is pulled straight out of a researcher's ass. This is sometimes necessary, but can result in very unfortunate consequences, especially when the terms are unleashed upon the uncritical but enthusiastic masses, who might be better off playing with sharp knives than playing telephone with their etymologies, or writing hate mail to Brute Norse.

These phallic stones and orbs, amazingly, could be one possible exception. The name "sacred white stone", at least, is taken directly from Old Norse literature. Specifically, it appears the eddic poem Guðrúnarkviða III, where the eponymous Guðrún is accused of making a cuckold of Atilla the Hun. Responding to the piquant accusation, Guðrún declares to swear her innocence "by the sacred white stone" (at inum hvíta helga steini). However, there's an issue: The poem goes on to describe a trial by boiling water, in which the defendant must pick a stone out of a sizzling hot cauldron. This form of ordeal is thought to have arrived in the Nordic area only after the Christianization. If Guðrún's "sacred white stone" is the same as the one in the trial by water, a medieval poet must either have muddled his motifs, or the term does not refer these stones. Though the application might have been a little strained, the name still sticks with many archaeologists. Indeed the stones are frequently white, they were probably considered sacred, and they are indisputably stones. Let's roll with it.

 Sacred white stone with cupmark. Stjørdal, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Sacred white stone with cupmark. Stjørdal, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Helgakviða Hundingsbana II makes a similar referance to an oath sworn upon a stone, only this time the oath is broken, and it's made upon "the drizzle-cold stone of Unnr" (úrsvǫlum Unnarsteini), and it is clearly no trial like the one described in Guðrúnarkviða III. It's not clear who the namedropped Unnr is, or what sort of stone the author imagines. Unnr ("wave") is the name of one of Ægir's nine raughters with the giantess Rán, who personifies the dangerous sea. It's also one of Óðinn's numerous aliases (ironically, a great swindler if ever there was). It may either reflect his property as a god of storms, which is often alluded to in his names, or it could be related to the ON verb unna "to love, confide". Whether the name should be read as simply "the love stone", or attributed or a deity tied to eros or maritime weather, is really anybody's guess. Norse sagas are dead silent about the veneration of phallic stones, though Landnámabók makes brief mention of a certain Eyvindr Lo­­­ðinsson, an early Icelandic settler, who set up a cult site called Gunnsteinar (literally "battle stones") by Flateyjardalr in northern Iceland. However, no sacred white stones have ever been found on Iceland, where the majority of Old Norse literature was composed and compiled. In all likelyhood, these medieval scribes were oblivious to their existence.

Seeing that Guðrúnarkviða III is commonly argued to have been composed no earlier than the 11th century, partially based on the motif of trial by saucepan, there is an obvious problem in relying too much on the eddic poems. The stones are not generally small enough that you may pick them up easily, either. However, some stones have made their way into Scandinavian folk tradition as "lifting stones", carried by adolescent men to test their manliness, and thus their relative worth on the marriage market, as Franz-Arne Stylegar talks about on his Norwegian blog.

 Grave orb at Inglinge Hög, Sweden. Photo: Smålands Museum

Grave orb at Inglinge Hög, Sweden. Photo: Smålands Museum

Even if we graciously suspend any disbelief and opt for a mid-Viking Era dating for the heroic lays, it remains unclear whether these stones were actively venerated at the time. If the sacred white stones belong in the 4th to 6th centuries, they would still predate the poems by hundreds of years. The poems can't be earlier than the Viking Era on grounds of linguistic and metrical criteria. On the other hand, the heroic lays are rife with archaisms, and this provides a small window of understanding. If not fully developed pieces of ancient poetry, they represent an amalgamation of myth, historical events, folk tales, and poems of varying antiquity (often appealing to the seductive idea of antiquity itself), circulating and developing across the generations. It's impressive enough that the legendary king Kíarr ("Caesar") and Atli ("Atilla") are even mentioned in Norse poetry given that, by then, more than half a millennium had passed since the Huns made rodeo clowns out of the Romans. That there might be some continuity of beliefs or topoi attached to the veneration of stones is no far-fetched idea. In fact it seems to be supported by their find contexts, as well as the later folk beliefs associated with them.

Sacred white stones were interpreted as cult objects long before they received any noteworthy scholarly attention. An interesting legend of cult continuity from Södermanland in Sweden mentions, that when Christianity came, the locals used an untamed pair of twin oxen to haul a grave orb down from the tallest barrow in the village, to the site that would become the 12th century Ytterselö church, where a monk read scripture over it, and thus "took the heathendom out of it". The stone is apparently still present in the church, where it was used as a baptismal font for some time. Intriguingly, the Ytterselö grave orb is hollowed out and decorated with Urnes-style ornaments. Since this is an art style foremost associated with the early Christian era in Scandinavia, it suggests that the orb made a transition from ancient pagan relic to a tool of Christian liturgy as early as the late 11th or early 12th centuries. Its pagan origins were clearly no deal-breaker to early Swedish Christians, who were probably pragmatic in their approach to powers both old and new. In Norway, a handful are known from medieval church sites, which could be taken as an indication that the churches in question were established on known pagan sacred sites. It heavily suggests that pre-Viking Era phallic stones still were still venerated and respected in the later phases of Scandinavian paganism.

Despite the frequent lack of dependable contexts, a pattern emerges from witness accounts and a handful of digs, suggesting that they were often placed on top of burial mounds, and even inside the graves themselves. It's been argued that some stones are related to the practice of depositing blocks, chips, and smaller orbs of white quartz in burials. This practice is primarily associated with the Migration Era, but apparently continues into Viking Era. It is also documented in Anglo-Saxon burials roughly within the same timeframe. Overall, quartz and quartzite seems to have had a special ritual or apotropaic significance in pre-Christian Northern Europe. They are useful for fire striking, and they are thermoluminescent: Rubbing two against one another can emit a faint glow in a dark environment (Samdal 2000: 54).

 Medieval stone cross and Sacred white stone, Sandeid, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger / UiS

Medieval stone cross and Sacred white stone, Sandeid, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum i Stavanger / UiS

Objects of fertility, eros, and power

As you probably already guessed, sacred white stones are commonly interpreted as objects of fertility. Other aspects may have been power, and aristocratic authority. These categories might seem incompatible to a modern audience, but were deeply intertwined in pre-Christian Scandinavian society, where military ethos saturated the culture, priestly functions followed social standing, and communal sacred sites were controlled and financed by ruling elites (Sundqvist 2015: 505). Human, animal, and vegetable fertility was not irrelevant to social ideology, taboos, and customs: Religion was truly everywhere. Court poets would frequently evoke erotic imagery to demonstrate the excellency and prowess of a king, and sexual metaphors extend well even into the military sphere. Nowhere is this as clear, perhaps, as it is with the 10th century ruler and pagan provocateur Hákon jarl, who seems to have kept a particularly keen eye for the potential of religion and poetry as tools of propaganda, drawing from a rich Norse tradition of seeing the world through metaphors of sex and gender.

His praise poems frequently cite the apparent fertility and prosperity of the realm to demonstrate his divine favor and right to rule. Hallfreðr vandræðaskáld, one of his court poets, describes the ruler in the poem Hákonardrápa as a divinely inspired heroic figure, eager to lay "Odin's pine-needle covered wife" beneath him. The tree-clad woman is none other than the giantess Jǫrð ("Earth"), representing the landscape itself. His military campaign becomes an erotic conquest, at least in metaphor (Mundal 2001: 31), which parallels how Norse mythology uses pre-Christian gender roles to explain cosmological principles. The untamed, more primordial and natural world of giants is often conceptualized as feminine, while the domesticated and cultured existence of gods and humans appears as masculine counterpart (cf. Mundal 2001; Steinsland 1994; Heide 2006: 279). In other words, there are many layers to what we may consider the "ideology" of the sacred white stones. Placing a symbol of virility on top of (and sometimes inside) an earthen mound commemorating the dead would evoke layer upon layer of symbolism in the gendered and eros soaked world of pre-Christian Scandinavia.

Though often thought of as grave markers, Myhre argues that many could have stood in outdoor shrines and sacred enclosures. Since some stones are short, looking almost like the glans of a penis without a shaft to speak of, he proposed that these could have been propped on top of cult pillars. The stubby, "glans-shaped" sacred white stone from Skatval in Nord-Trøndelag was found deposited in a pit on a secluded ridge, believed to be a cult site. It was hewn from white marble, had a bowl in its base, and had apparently been deposited with several blocks of untreated white marble, along with the remains of a 30cm wide, raised pole wedged into a crevice in the ditch. Could the stone have rested on top of it? If so, what was the symbolism of raising the phallus in the bottom of a wet ditch filled with white stones?

 Sacred White Stone with hidden cup mark under the base. Skatval, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Sacred White Stone with hidden cup mark under the base. Skatval, Norway. Photo: Vitenskapsmuseet / NTNU

Some stones bear a so-called cup mark. These are a category of rock carvings in the form of a round, concave depression in the stone, reminiscent of a bowl. Cup marks are known from the neolithic and all the way to the middle ages, and are therefore notoriously hard to date unless they appear in a clearly defined context. While their function remains largely a mystery, they are often interpreted in light of feminine reproductive, or solar symbolism (interestingly, Germanic mythologies personified the sun as female). As Solberg points out, this questions whether the sacred white stones can be seen as purely masculine attributes. Besides the fact that they are often attributed to female burials, some stones also have natural or carved grooves and clefts in them. These can either be on top, on the side, or hidden beneath the base itself, suggesting that these particular stones embody male and female sexuality within the same object, representing the "sacred wedding" of a divine couple, or even a hermaphroditic deity. In the cases where the bowl is carved on the bottom, the point could be made that it served to keep the stone locked in place when propped on top of a wooden pillar. However, this could hardly be the case where the cup mark is on the very tip of the phallus, where it seems more likely that it would have been filled with some kind of substance (more about that later). Because a sculptor could have avoided or smoothed out natural creases relatively easily, their inclusion in the material must often have been deliberate. Some stones even seem to have a sculpted vulva on its base.

If the stones were not grave markers first and foremost, we can speculate if the people buried in association with sacred white stones served a priestly function. Since they tend to be associated with women, another example of a phallic cult object is warrants attention. Vǫlsa þáttr is a short Medieval satire of pagan domestic cult, in which the lady of the house functions as priestess in an autumn sacrifice involving the adoration of Vǫlsi, a house god who is really the penis of the farm's old draft horse, embalmed in flax and leek. In the ritual, the cured phallus is passed between the members of the household. The men and women formulaically express their respective scorn or lewd admiration for the member, but both plead that an obscure collective called the Mǫrnir (singular mǫrn) receive the sacrifice. Mǫrn is used in skaldic poetry as a heiti meaning "giantess" in general, and as a name for the giantess Skaði especially. According to the Prose Edda, she arrives at the court of the Æsir in full war gear, demanding a husband in compensation for the gods killing her father, the giant Þjazi - this scene represents a total inversion of Norse gender roles, and a momentary burlesque upheaval of the regular social order. Upon the condition that Skaði may only choose her partner by the appearance of his, ahem, feet, the male gods all line up, and she points out the most beautiful pair of feet she can spy, falsely assuming she has chosen the fair god Baldr, when in fact the feet belong to Njǫrðr.

 Stone from Ullensvang, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Stone from Ullensvang, Norway. Photo: Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Since the Mǫrnir appear in the plural, Gro Steinsland has argued that they represent an ensemble of female ogresses, effectively making Vǫlsa þáttr a rare depiction of a Norse cthonic ritual. Others have argued that the Mǫrnir form a Scandinavian complement to the continental Matronae of antiquity. Etymologically, Mǫrnir may mean "those who crush", or alternately "those who make tender", which would be highly interesting in the context of a phallus cult. The singular masculine form mǫrnir also occurs as a poetic metaphor meaning "sword", which is often translated simply as "phallus". Surely, "he who makes tender [=impotent]" would be a more fitting interpretation of such an etymology, and falls straight in line with standard inter-masculine sexual defamation in the sagas, which dictates that one opponent must be a proverbial bitch to the other, resulting in a syntax error of masculinity, so to speak. This is central to Preben Meulengracht Sørensen's (1983) concept of "phallic aggression", which somewhat accurately describes the male half of Norse gender asymmetry: Soft and moist was a praised quality of women, and though women were allowed bend this expectation to some extent, the same qualities were heavily criticized in men to the point of social rejection (the Old Norse boy's name Úblauðr "Unmoist" speaks volumes). The role of "softener", in some regards, is a metaphysical role one could expect from a collective of giantesses. This might explain why the adult men of Vǫlsa þáttr perform the rite with an almost an almsot ritualized reluctance, while the wives act with enthusiasm. But Norse gender roles also developed with age: In the case of the adolescent son and daughter, the roles are diametrically opposite to those of the adults. The boy swings the member around and prompts his sister ("the bride") to "wetten the wobbler", while the girl shyly appeals to the virgin goddess Gefjon. The general pattern seems to be, that men go from active to passive as they age, while women go from passive to active. If the scene reflects a pagan attitudes to a phallus cult, even if it does so through satirical hyperbole, it suggests that it was an extremely rocky and taboo-ridden area, in which the men had to expressly avoid suspicions of ergi ("unmanliness, lewd conduct"). A possible allusion to phallic stones is also made in the text, as the Vǫlsi is referred to as a beytill, or "little jabber". For comparisson, a standing stone is a bautasteinn, which literally means "jabbing-stone".

 Stone exhibiting both phallic and vulvic traits. Tu, Rogaland, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger / UiS

Stone exhibiting both phallic and vulvic traits. Tu, Rogaland, Norway. Photo: Arkeologisk Museum I stavanger / UiS

Fertility stones in recent Scandinavian folk religion

To this day, the sacred white stones of Norway are sometimes approached by couples looking to conceive, but it's hard to determine if this a modern revival, or based in older folk tradition. Rituals of filling and smearing cup marks with grease or tallow, as well as sacrificing coins and trinkets in them, are well documented in rural Sweden as late as the 1930's (Henning 1982: 87). It's a seductive thought that the sacred white stones might have been venerated in a similar way.

Among the other doubtfully canonical rites from the pre-industrial Scandinavian countryside, the 18th century cleric Hans Jacob Wille provides a vivid description of such grease-smeared idolatry in the parish of Seljord in Telemark, Norway, where local farmers kept "twain stones of moderate size" which "until recently" had been venerated as gods. The stones were washed on Thursday nights (the most auspicious weekday for magic and witchery in Nordic folklore), greased up with butter and ointments by the fire of the hearth, and put in the high seats of the house. On the farm Kvålseth in Kviteseid, there were also two stones called Tussesteinene ("Tuss" <  is a sort of dangerous nature spirit, effectively "The Troll Stones") which according to the account were "shaped like sourdough loaves". They were treated to sit on good hay in the high seat of the house, were washed with buttermilk, and afforded a shower of fresh beer at Yuletide, but a drunk man of a more puritan disposition apparently broke the rocks into pieces and threw them away (Wille 1786: 46-47). Stylegar argues that they probably looked like another orb-like stone still kept in a nearby medieval church in Kviteseid. In a more innocent time the farmers would move it around potato patches for a more bountiful harvest, and was even claimed to heal the sick. It was aptly named the Tearstone ("Tåresteinen"), as the fun soon ended when the stone rolled off a dresser and crushed a child to death.

fister, uis 2.jpg

Attributes of an unknown god?

We haven't directly addressed the question of attaching a specific mythological identity to the stones. Scholars differ greatly on this issue. Freyr is commonly pointed out as a likely contender, though I do not necessarily agree with this reasoning. He is certainly imagined as a phallic deity, which goes back to his description in the temple of Uppsala according to Adam of Bremen. However, there are a lot of phallic depictions from all across the pre-Christian Germanic world. The penis makes an appearance far and wide in the pre-Christian North. I assert that the symbol is simply too far reaching that we can narrow it down to one single god by virtue of erection alone. In various contexts, we can imagine that the phallus could have worked as an attribute for just about any male deity. The fact that Freyr that captures the modern imagination seems incidental. Óðinn would not be an unlikely candidate either, or even the hypermasculine Þórr, as some mythological sources directly allude to an affiliation between his thunder-weapon and his manhood (Storesund 2013: 70).

While it is tempting to imagine the stones as an aniconic depiction of a male deity (cf. the lingam in Hinduism), we may also consider other interpretations. Perhaps they could have been used in the veneration of a goddess, represent a more abstract religious principle, or the power and influence of local dynastic bloodlines? In the case where the stones exhibit combined female and male sexual attributes, the aforementioned case could be made that they represent a divine couple. If so, perhaps Freyr and and the giantess Ger­­ðr, or even a union with his sister Freyja. Such an incestuous union is brought up in Lokasenna, and it would not be preposterous for a divine pair representing prosperity, love, and animal fertility. Going with the angle of a hermaphrodite god, Solberg argues for an association between sacred white stones, not with Freyr and Freyja, but their father Njǫr­ðr. Though Njǫr­ðr is a fairly obscure figure in surviving Old Norse literature, place names attest to his widespread popularity and importance in certain parts of Scandinavia. It turns out that the distribution of the sacred white stones and grave orbs roughly corresponds with the distribution of cultic place names related to the god Njǫr­ðr, mostly concentrated along the Norwegian west coast, and central parts of Sweden. While the eddic texts emphasize his role as a sea god, this is unlikely to have been representative in inland Sweden, where an agricultural function would make more sense. It is a useful reminder that Icelandic scribes did not possess the full overview of pre-Christian Scandinavian religion.

So what does this have to do with hermaphrodites? In the 1st century AD, the roman ethnographer Tacitus describes the cult of a Germanic goddess named Nerthus, who was venerated as a Terra Mater figure by a number of Germanic tribes. The Proto-Germanic form *Nerþus should be etymologically identical to the Old Norse counterpart Njǫr­ðr, which poses an obvious problem since the former is female, while the latter is male. Did Nerthus go through a sex change? It's difficult to imagine how. Because the gender of u-stem nouns merge, it eventually became impossible to distinguish grammatically between feminine and masculine forms of the name, which might explain some - but not all - of this mythological development. Some conjecture that Nerthus/Njǫr­ðr, in the early days, was an intermediately sexed deity who possessed a femine and a masculine aspect, in which case Tacitus, or rather his second or third hand sources (he never set foot on Germania Libera his entire life), must have misunderstood. He also mentions a divine ancestor to the Germanic peoples, Tuisto, speculated to come from Proto-Germanic *twis, meaning "double", which may or may not refer to a set of divine twins, or alternately, hermaphroditism (Simek 2007: 230, 336). Make of it what you will.

 Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Sacred white stone. Universitetsmuseet i Bergen / UiB

Another, and possibly more reasonable interpretation states that Njǫr­ðr, like his children Freyr and Freyja, originated as one half of a divine couple: A male Njǫr­ðr, and a female form *Njǫr­ð, who would have been difficult to distinguish from one another in retrospect. This may explain why only the masculine remains in Medieval mythological prose, where he is most certainly a man, and also why Njǫr­ðr is sometimes referred to in the plural in Viking Era skaldic poetry, as if there were several of him. In Lokasenna (36), an obscure reference is made to Njǫr­ðr having an incestuous relationship to an unnamed sister, which resulted in the birth of Freyr. Otherwise, Njǫr­ðr is the consort of the giantess Skaði, who is not biologically related to him in any source. However, she may be associated with a phallus cult via her epithet Mǫrn, and Vǫlsa þáttr. Skaði may originally have been a personification of the landscape, parallelling Óðinn's coupling with Jǫr­ðr. This seems in the proposed etymology of Scandinavia itself, going back to Proto-Germanic *Skaðinawjō - "The Harmful Isle", or alternately "Skaði's Isle" (the name Skaði means "harm"). If so, I can offer no explanation for how this connects to the motif of divine twinship, or the goddess Nerthus - unless Skaði and Nerthus were originally one and same, which would have to mean that the feminine *Njǫr­ð is actually Skaði, and that her separate Jǫtunn-lineage, as well as the marriage myth are later developments. However, this would be hard to reconcile with the culture god + nature ogress motif, unless these seemingly divergent perspectives co-existed as local religious variations, or by some pre-Christian bizarro logic that eludes us. It would, on the other hand, fit with Tacitus' assertion that Nerthus was perceived as an "Earth Mother" figure, seeing that the Earth is personified ambivalently as a giantess - a cosmological antagonist the gods must keep in check to retain cosmic balance. Not entirely bad, and actually quite necessary.

A possible eastern Scandianvian goddess form, Old Swedish *Niærdh(er) is attested in place names such as Nærthastaff (today Nälsta) - literally *Niærdh's staff - which could relate to the formerly discussed practice of raising cult pillars or stones to the deity (Sundqvist 2015: 269). While the common concentration phallic stones, orbs, and cultic place names tied to Njǫr­ðr seems the most compelling evidence to connect them so far, the possibly dual sexual imagery of certain examples may be worth considering in light of the divine couple-motif.

Summary

Though the terminology has not gone uncontested, sacred white stones are a fascinating and regionally distinct category of artifact. They are chiefly associated with the Late Roman and Migration Periods, but seem to have circulated and developed as objects of cult into the Viking Period, after which they were sometimes appropriated by Medieval Christianity, included in rural folk customs, and kept as highly revered ancient objects. They may or may not be tied to specific deities, but an early manifestation of Njǫr­ðr is a reasonable candidate. They were placed on top of burial monuments and likely other sacred sites, sanctuaries and enclosures, where they served as ritual objects, and were seen as multivalent symbols of fertility, vitality and power, with possible ties to the female aristocratic sphere.


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