Remembering Nehalennia on the Sea

This past week marks a full year since my dedication to Nehalennia, and that’s worth celebrating!


Nehalennia is a multifaceted goddess Who defies easy categorization. Her worship was concentrated in the modern-day Netherlands, with artifacts (and temple remains!) unearthed in Domburg and Colijnsplaat, and was of particular importance to the Morini people. And Her devotees were spread far beyond this region:

“Nehalennia may have been a local goddess belonging to the tribe of the Morini. She was worshipped not only by local people, but perhaps more frequently by travellers. The siting of her shrines, the professions of her dedicants and, above all, her iconography, proclaim her to be a goddess of seafarers. Some of her devotees were Roman citizens, many were Celts, and there is the occasional Germanic name. The homelands of Nehalennia’s worshippers ranged from Trier and Köln to Besançon and Rouen. Their professions varied from sea-captain to merchants dealing in wine, salt, and fish-sauce.”

Green, M. (2004). Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art. London, UK: Routledge.

From 2013-16, I lived in a rural little town along the sea in northern Germany. I could walk to the Danish border from my apartment, and my daily commute was a winding path along a harbor. The port was sleepy, populated primarily with retirees on fishing boats and ferries full of Danish tourists, but it was once a bustling center of commerce, filled with rum-runners and supplies from all across Europe and Denmark’s colonies (as this now-German city was once under the Danish crown).

Nearly every weekend I would ride my bike 30-50 kilometers around the region so I could get to know the land better. One weekend, on a whim I decided to ride out to the most northernmost point I could reach. I thought it might feel like the end of the world.

And as I dragged my heavy old mountain bike the last few meters up a muddy, sandy bank to the point marked by my GPS, I felt like I had ended up somewhere else.

A photo of a beach on the German-Danish border, with sailboats in the background.
One of the photos I took that day. You can’t tell from the photo, but it was really cold out there…

The waves were quiet; the sea was calm. Seabirds waddled around my bicycle as soon as I lodged it in a patch of scrub brush. Sailboats floated on the water at the reaches of my vision, and the placid sky reflected the sea. I was alone, there on the beach; even the Currywurst-Imbiss had closed up shop on that Sunday afternoon. The silence felt holy, as though I had unwittingly stepped into a cathedral. 

I was agnostic back then, but even to my materialist mind, something felt different about this beach in comparison to the shores of northern California from my early childhood. It went deeper than the topographical differences, further than the lack of tourists at this place. It felt like someone else –someone old, and patient, and expansive– was there and noticed me. I didn’t know what it meant, but it stuck with me for years, even long after the memory of my other bike rides had faded.

 Years later, I recognize that presence as Nehalennia.

Maybe, had I been a polytheist then, I would’ve recognized Her. But it wasn’t until 2019 that I consciously encountered Nehalennia in Detroit, Michigan of all places.

Detroit & Divination

In late October last year, I traveled to Detroit on a business trip (and to visit a good friend while there). I had flown in a little earlier than my manager, so while killing time at a café waiting for him to arrive, I noticed there was a metaphysical shop next door and decided to stop in.

As I wandered by a display case of necklaces, one of them immediately caught my eye. That in itself was odd — I don’t like wearing jewelry, especially since I worked with diesel engines at the time, and necklaces were banned in our garage as a safety hazard. Still, this dolphin pendant was beautiful, and I noticed that it was dedicated to a goddess called Nehalennia — not one who I was familiar with. Still, I picked it up, and vowed to do more research later.  

Within a few hours of being back at the hotel, I had made my first libation to Nehalennia. Within a few weeks, I had begun to form a solid devotional relationship with Her, leading eventually to becoming a Hearthkeeper for her in ADF. Shortly after arriving home after my Detroit trip, I picked up Bela Siol’s Oracle of Nehalennia deck, which was my first divinatory tool. When asked for advice, She has been straightforward, concise, and direct. In our relationship, She is the Steerswoman, the Captain, and I personally do not experience Her softer, more motherly side that I know She also has.  As I’ve noted in a few posts before, I don’t have a strong “godphone” — I do not receive direct verbal communication from any deities, and I almost never “see” them in dreams or meditation. But with Nehalennia, sometimes I’m lucky enough to feel the ghost of a sensation of cool sea breezes and saltwater. She is calm, patient, and incredibly sturdy and stable. The symbol of a rudder or an anchor suits Her perfectly.

So on that 1-year anniversary last weekend, I performed a quick rite and offered Her:

  • Local sea salt, since many of Nehalennia’s historical devotees were salt merchants
  • Sherry wine (fortified wine like port and sherry was often brought on sailing voyages due to its long shelf life)
  • A lovely set of prayer beads by Hearthfire Handworks
  • A homemade duivekater, a special loaf of bread present in some of Nehalennia’s iconography. (I used this recipe; Dutch readers, my apologies for butchering your lovely bread with my lack of bread-baking skills…)

I also performed a quick divinatory check-in and asked, “how can I best serve You in the next year going forwards?”

Her response was that I needed to figure it out on my own. I had to laugh, because that was the exact card I had pulled last year for this same question. Nehalennia may be a guide, but She still expects us to walk on our own.

A small bookshelf shrine with offerings of a loaf of bread, salt, wine, a prayer bead necklace, and also a candle and an image of the goddess Nehalennia.
My little bookshelf shrine filled with the offerings mentioned above. That framed image is a page from a book printed in the 19th century.

Connections Across Space & Time

Nehalennia was the first deity outside of the Ancient Egyptian gods that I had ever connected with. Perhaps this is in part because it was easier to approach Her without feeling some sort of obligation to engage with an entire pantheon. It’s still under debate “whether she belonged to the Celtic or Germanic pantheon: some scholars have linked her to Nerthus or to a Suebian goddess equated with Isis (Tac. Germ. 40 and 9 respectively), but with no certainty. ” [2] She is also a psychopomp, a guide for the dead [1], and in my limited experience, many psychopomps are quite adept with guiding lost living humans too. Perhaps She saw me those years ago for what I was — a lost, wandering soul — and eventually drew me in. 

Plus, I was immediately drawn to Her areas of interest, especially Her association with travelers (pre-COVID, I traveled every couple months) and merchants (I’ve worked in the field of shipping and logistics for most of my career). A large portion of my current job entails shipping goods from Germany to the US, and it’s interesting to think that when I say a prayer for my goods to arrive in the port safely, I’m doing the same thing that one of Her seafaring devotees had done many centuries ago. It’s a fascinating link across time, though I certainly admit that the journey nowadays is much less perilous. Merchants shipping their goods from the Low Countries up to Britannia in the Roman era risked their lives, whereas the worst that has happened with me was the port of Philadelphia temporarily misplacing one of our containers last month!

And She has helped make connections across space too. Every time I make offerings to Nehalennia, I feel connected again to the sea. It wasn’t “Her” sea, exactly — I lived on the Baltic, not the North Sea — but it was close. I also spent most holidays with family friends in Cologne, which I consider sacred to Her due to the several devotional stelae were uncovered there. [3]

I regret that I never visited the Netherlands while living in Europe; I was a dirt-poor grad student and didn’t travel nearly as much as I would’ve liked. (The only time I was in the Netherlands was at 2:00 AM at a gas station where the night bus en route to Belgium had stopped. I was so sleepy that I thought I was still in Germany, and wondered why I had suddenly lost the ability to read anything. I feel bad for the cashier who had to put up with some weird tourist mumbling German in an odd accent.) I also never made it out to the Frisian islands. Someday, when COVID-19 restrictions end and I save up enough vacation time (and money), I plan to visit Her shrine and pay respects to Nehalennia in Her homeland (and be a good tourist — reciprocity is important!)

While I don’t believe that the gods are omniscient with perfect foreknowledge of the future –in part due to the fact that I believe in a probabilistic universe, not a deterministic one– I do believe that They have excellent foresight and predictive analytical skills infinitely beyond what a human could ever approach. And while I also don’t exactly believe in “fate” or predestination, it’s fascinating to think about the events that lead up to us honoring the gods we do. For example: I met Nehalennia in Detroit because I was on a work trip; I was on a work trip because I wanted to visit a friend who lived in Detroit;  I had initially met that friend because we both worshipped the Egyptian gods; and I worshipped the Egyptian gods because I was initially drawn to Anubis as a kid. If I start unraveling that thread, I wouldn’t have encountered Nehalennia if it wasn’t for Anubis.  The chains of causality are fascinating to think about, and I wonder what I’ll be saying next November, after another year with Nehalennia.

I also love hearing about other people’s experiences with Nehalennia and other associated deities, so please feel free to share them, or correct any historical errors I might have made!

A fluffy white dog sits in a small cat bed.
As Nehalennia is frequently depicted with dogs, please enjoy this silly photo of my puppy trying to fit in my cat’s bed.

References

[1] Green, M. (2004). Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art. London, UK: Routledge.

[2] Tommasi, C. (2013). Nehalennia. In R.S. Bagnall et al (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, London, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved here.

[3] Simek, R. (2014). Continental Germanic religion. In L. Christensen, O. Hammer D. & Warburton (Eds.), The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe. Routledge. Retrieved here.

9 thoughts on “Remembering Nehalennia on the Sea

  1. Absolutely lovely to read about your journey and bond with Her. Funny thing that struck me was that you said that you don’t have a very strong “godphone” connection with Her. Neither do I. My other deities come on much stronger and can sometimes talk in meditation or trance. With Nehalennia it’s very much a silent presence which I can only catch a glimpse of. (fabric flowing in the silten wind and sometimes the suggestion of a face in profile)

    I am curious about the bookpage you have on Her altar. Which book is that from/where did you find that? I’ve not been able to find a representation of Her like that.

    Nehalennia being linked to Nerthus comes from Jacob Grimm and his book Teutonic Mythology. Those days they only had the sketches and a few fragments of stone left from the first batch of altar stones discovered, and we did not know a lot about her. Grimm thought that She was a local variation of Nerthus, because of the harvest themes and the name. This has however been debunked after the other altar stones being fished up in the ’70s.

    Should you come to the Netherlands and have the time/money/opportunity, also be sure to visit Leiden where most of Her stones are beautifully displayed. And should you want a tourguide/someone to gush with you, hit me up, I’m only 20 minutes away 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s such a relief to hear that you don’t have much of a “godphone” with Her either! By the way, I adore reading your posts about Nehalennia and other regional deities. You have such a great writing style and a really fantastic perspective, given you’re actually from the area! (Also, your English is so flawless that I assumed until recently that you were a native speaker.)

      Funny enough, I got that book page from Etsy! It was from a seller in Italy who has a few pages left from that book: https://www.etsy.com/shop/SephoraAntiques?section_id=27816548

      Thank you for debunking that point about Nerthus! I’ll strike that out in my notes, that’s good to know.

      Also, thank you so much for that offer, I’d be delighted to take you up on it once I get back across the ocean! And if you find yourself in Oregon/Washington states, you’ve got a friend here too.:D

      Like

      1. Aww, you’re making me blush! Thank you. I’m actually very glad to hear you like what I write since I’ve been having some trouble motivating myself lately due to all that is going on. It feels like I’ve screaming into a void of nothingness lately, so I am really glad to hear that you like what I write.

        Those book pages are amazing! Oh my. My wallet is not going to like this…

        I’m planning on making a new post about Nehalennia, updating the knowledge that I’ve gotten over the years (the other one is quite old) and you’ve really inspired me into wanting to make a more personal post about my own journey. Now to find the motivation and inspiration to do it!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. cgw

    I don’t know a thing about Nehalennia except from your blog, but you sound like a uniquely and exceptionally well matched devotee. Best wishes on the rest of the journey!

    Like

    1. Thank you kindly, I appreciate it! I’m glad it’s entertaining.:) Also, very random, but every time I see your username I have to do a double-take because I also get automated emails from work from a computer on a semi truck called CGW (short for Central Gateway), usually informing me about some sort of software bug. So I much appreciate your comments instead.:D

      Liked by 1 person

      1. cgw

        Bahahaha sorry if my user name makes you work-twitch! xD My longest held screen name is “cleargreenwater”, I just did CGW because I was lazy and didnt feel like typing it out and that’s what people call me for short!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing how you came to venerate Nehalennia. She isn’t a goddess I know much about or have experience of so your post has been informative.

    ‘in my limited experience, many psychopomps are quite adept with guiding lost living humans too’ – yes, me too, this directly corresponds with my experiences with Gwyn ap Nudd.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Finding Nehalennia |

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