Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Folklore - Mermaids and Mermen and the North Sea,

They lived in the deep blue sea, in magnificent homes, they lived a life almost like humans on earth.

The most famous and popular was the mermaid, also known from H.C.Andersen's fairy tale about the little mermaid with the tragic life. The mermaid appears in various connections, often as the beautiful elf-maiden with long hair, or equipped with a fish-tail - or only her feet looking like fish-tails, while the rest of her body is human like in the fairy tale. One of her baits is her voice. She's able to stand in the water and sing as lovely as any elf-maiden.

She comes up from the waves and try to lure the fishermen and the sailors to sail longer out into the sea. They lose landfall and end down in the depth together with her, like the in the similar tale about the elf-maiden in the moor. The mermaid does not mean any harm, she has followed a fisherman on his lonesome sailings, she has fallen in love with him and wants to live with him forever. She is also able to catch a farmer on the beach. The result of a romance like this was the island Bornholm's protection figure Bonavedda, a vætte (a spirit), who had inherited the mer-people's psychic talents from his mother.

Ship in the waters by Ærø
The legends describe the mermaid with sympathy. There was a secret understanding between her and the sailors, because she knew the mood of the ocean better than they did - and she could warn them, when a storm was on its way. Upon the island of Ærø is a big stone on the beach, named Havfruestenen (the Mermaid Stone). The sailors and captains of Ærø went to this stone, where a mermaid gave them advice before they went to sea. If a mermaid showed in front of a ship, she was the cause of alarm. The sailors considered this as an omen of bad weather. Women did not like the mermaid. A woman in the fishing village Harboøre in West Jutland complained that a mermaid was in bed with her and her husband each night.

Although people usually considered the mermaid sympathetic, she had one fault - and this was a big one in those days. She was not a Christian, she belonged to the people of the vætter (spirits).  But maybe the clerics were most troubled by that?

Mermen hated priests, and they tried to drown them. Maybe that's why sailors do not like to have clerics onboard.

Galloway bull at Strandkær
The mermaids could defend themselves if they were offended. A mermaid drove her cattle up upon the beach at Tisvilde (Sjælland) and let it graze on the Tibirke field. The stingy farmers drove her cattle into a pen  and would not give it back to her, unless she gave them her shining belt. She did, and she got back her cattle and drove it towards the beach. She told her mer-bull: "Muddle up now!" And the bull muddled up earth and sand from the beach with its mighty horns, and the north wind blew up, and the town and its fields were buried in sand.

The merman was not as popular as the mermaid. He could be both evil and dangerous. A merman once kidnapped a beautiful fisher's daughter, Gertrud, on the beach outside Lindeskovgård's field. Her boy-friend Eskil took a terrible revenge. He sailed out in his boat, covered his head in a horse-tail and began playing music. The merman appeared from the water, lured by the music. Eskil grabbed hold of his hair and cut it off and threw a spear at him. Since then the merman was never heard of again.  But a few years later Gertrud's brother Thorvald was enchanted by a singing mermaid; he changed his behaviour, he was no longer as he used to be - or else he was the most sought after bachelor in town. One evening he sailed out in a quiet weather to do some fishing - and he never came back. His body was found later. The mermaid had taken him.

A legend from Husby.
The body of a man drove in at the beach of Husby in the western coast of Jutland. He was sucking his thumb, and he put it back into his mouth, when people tried to pull it out. He was buried in the church yard, but a violent sand-drift began. A wise man said that the buried man must be a merman -  he was then un-buried, and they saw that he was still quite fresh, so he was really a merman. They brought him back to the dunes, and the sand-drift stopped.  Since then all washed-ashore bodies were buried in the dunes.

It was common belief that there was magic in the air if a body had not decomposed. The detail about sucking the thumb might origin from an Irish myth about the god Finn. He was given a holy salmon, full of wisdom, and as he pressed his thumb upon the fish, he burnt himself. He put his finger upon the tooth in the back of his mouth - and he had now the wisdom transferred from the salmon. Everything was clear to him after that. Maybe the expression "wisdom-tooth" origins from that.

The motif with the finger in the mouth is also known from the Swedish runestone at Eskilstuna, where the hero Sigurd burns his thumb, puts it into his mouth and is able to interprete the bird-song.  

The North Sea at Ferring in a storm

The North Sea is not just a sea. It was a mighty personal power in the old days. It is not idyllic and friendly, although it might look like that on a sunny summer's day.

There is a deep respect among people for the immense powers of this wonderful ocean, for its capricious moods, for its greatness and for its wild beauty. There are legends of yearly human sacrifices to the North Sea in order to ease its mind.

Each Easter morning the fishermen at Ferring had a custom to walk down to the North Sea at Bovbjerg before sunrise. They were of the opinion that they were able to see, how they would manage in the year to come. Their experience showed that the omen was true. In the old days was said in Ferring that the North Sea claimed a human life each year. In return the sea would not break into land. A small child was therefore sacrificed each year. The child was put out into the sea in a barrel - or else would the sea cause a terrible damage.

Skarre Klit, Bulbjerg
The god Ran, Ægir's daughter, ruled the oceans, claiming sacrifices in the form of drowned sailors. In the magnificent Icelandic drama "The Loss of His son", we meet Egil Skallagrimson, where his son has drowned; we meet his deep hatred towards the god, who took his most precious possession, but we also meet his despaired powerlessness towards the enormous powers, he is facing. All his bravery is worth nothing, for he is not able to take revenge.

Source: Mads Lidegaard, Danske søer og vandløb fra sagn og tro, Nyt Nordisk Forlag, Arnold Busck,1999

photo: grethe bachmann


Wanda..... said...

I loved the mermaid tales and legends, but it's so hard to imagine how one could sacrifice a child to the sea.

Teresa Evangeline said...

The power of myths lingers still. I have heard many references to the North Sea and its intimidating power. Thank you for the stories of mermaids and men. It seems we've always been a strange and sometimes callous lot, we humans. But, much good, too. :)

Thyra said...

Hello Wanda!I like the mermaid too - one of my favorite stories is about the little mermaid and her unhappy love to the handsome prince. I read H.C.Andersens Mermaid a lot of times when I was a child!
It's not to bear to imagine those poor children who was sent out in the sea in a barrel. And it's something which really has happened.I hope they had drugged the children like they seem to have drugged the men and women who were sacrificed to the lakes - those we find in the moors now.

Thyra said...

Hello Teresa! We have both been gruesome and good! We still are!
I often think of how people back then really believed in all those things we like to read bout now. It is so easy to imagine the head of a mermaid or a merman coming up from the waves if you see the head of a seal! When you are staring out there everyhing gets blurred. You wrote about it recently on the blog. Our eyes trick us!


Joan said...

Hello Grethe.. I LOVE your header. An awesome photo. I have posts to catch up on here. I can tell I am going to enjoy them. Thank you!

Thyra said...

Hej Joan. It's so good to see you here again. I hope you are okay. I'm glad you like the photo. It was such a great experience that day to stand high up on the cliff, looking across the sea, and I couldn't hear a thing for the roar of the waves! I love the sea, but I get easily seasick!!

Grethe ´)