Scandinavian Folk-Lore
Illustrations of the Traditional Beliefs of the Northern Peoples



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Mermen and Mermaids

The mermaid is described as being golden-haired, and possessed of human shape down to the waist; below that she is like a fish, tail and all. Icelandic fishermen believe that they sometimes see her, for the most part north about Grims-ey. She especially has her eye on young men, and comes on board the boat to them, if they happen to be nodding, but the ‘Credo’ in the old Graduale is a good defence against her.

The merman (marbendil) lives at the bottom of the sea, and never appears above the surface, unless when fished up. In Landnáma-bók it is told that Grím, one of the early colonists, went out fishing one winter with his thralls, taking with him his little son. The boy began to grow cold, so they put him into a seal-skin bag, which was drawn tight round his neck. Grím caught a merman, and said to him, “Tell us all our fortunes, and how long we have to live, otherwise you shall not get home again.” “It matters little for you to know,” said the merman, “for you will be dead before spring; but your son will take land and settle, where your mare Skalm lies down under her load.” More than this they could not get out of him.

Mermen have been caught in this way not unfrequently, and have also been found driven dead on shore, or in the stomachs of sharks. When they are caught alive, they always want to get back to the same spot as they were taken at; they are of few words, and give little heed to men. Once some fishermen from Höfdi on Latra-strönd caught a woman on one of their hooks, and took her home with them. She said she lived in the sea, and was busy screening her mother’s kitchen chimney when they caught her. She continually entreated them to take her out to sea again, and let her down at the same place as they got her, but they would not.

She remained there for a year, and sewed the vestments that have been in Lauf-ás ever since. At the end of the year she was taken out to sea again, for they saw that she would never be happy on land. She promised to send some cows up on shore, and told them to be ready to receive them whenever they appeared, and burst the bladder between their nostrils, otherwise they would immediately run back into the sea. Not long after this, twelve heifers came up out of the sea, and proceeded to Höfdi. They were all sea-grey in colour; six of them were caught and greatly prized, the other six escaped.

“Then Laughed the Merman.”

There is an old Icelandic saying, frequently made use of, “Then laughed the merman,” the origin of which is said to be as follows. Once a fisherman caught a sea-creature, which called itself a “marbendil”; it had a big head and long arms, but resembled a seal from the waist downwards. The merman would give the fisher no information of any kind, so he took him ashore with him, sorely against the merman’s will. His young wife came down to the sea to meet him, and kissed and caressed him, at which the man was delighted and gave her great praise, while at the same time he struck his dog for fawning on him.

Then laughed the merman, and the fisherman asked the reason why he did so. “At folly,” said the merman. As the man went homewards, he stumbled and fell over a little mound, whereupon he cursed it, and wondered why it had ever been made upon his land.

Then laughed the merman, who was being taken along against his will, and said, “Unwise is the man.” The man kept him prisoner for three nights, and during that time some packmen came with their wares. The man had never been able to get shoes with soles as thick as he wished them, and although these merchants thought they had them of the best, yet of all their stock the man said they were too thin, and would soon wear through.

Then laughed the merman, and said, “Many a man is mistaken that thinks himself wise.” Neither by fair means nor foul could the man get any more out of him, except on the condition that he should be taken out again to the same fishing bank where he was caught; there he would squat on the blade of an out-stretched oar, and answer all his questions, but not otherwise. The man took him out there, and after the merman had got out on the oar-blade, he asked him first what tackle fishermen should use, if they wished to have good catches.

The merman answered, “Bitten iron and trodden shall they have for hooks, and make them where stream and sea can be heard, and harden them in horses’ tire; have a grey bulls line and raw horseskin cord. For bait they shall have bird’s crop and flounder bait, and man’s flesh in the middle bight, and fey are you unless you fish. Froward shall the fisher’s hook be.”

The man then asked him what the folly was that he laughed at, when he praised his wife and struck his dog. “At your folly, man,” said the merman, “for your dog loves you as its own life, but your wife wishes you were dead. The knoll that you cursed is your treasure-mound, with wealth in plenty under it; so you were unwise in that, and therefore I laughed. The shoes will serve you all your life, for you have but three days to live.”

With that the merman dived off the oar-blade, and so they parted, but everything turned out true that he had said.

“Well I mind that morning
The merman laughed so low;
The wife to wait her husband
To water’s edge did go;
She kissed him there so kindly,
Though cold her heart as snow;
He beat his dog so blindly,
That barked its joy to show.”

The Merman and the Mermaid in the Faeröes.

The merman (marmennil) is like a human being, but considerably smaller in growth, and with very long fingers. He lives at the bottom of the sea, and annoys fishers by biting the bait off the hooks and fixing these in the bottom, so that they have to cut the line. If he is caught, he is so dexterous that he can loose the thread that ties the hooks to the line, and so escape from being brought up, and taken on board like any other fish. One time when he tried to play his tricks at the bottom of the sea, he was rather unlucky, for just as he was about to lay hold of the line of Anfinn from Eldu-vík, with intent to make it fast, Anfinn gave a pull, and caught the merman by the right hand.

With one hand he could not free himself from the line, and so was drawn up; a cross was made upon him, and he was taken home. Anfinn kept him in his house on the hearth-stone, but had to remember every evening to make a cross on the four corners of this. He would eat nothing but fish-bait. When they went out to fish, they took the merman with them, and had to recollect to make the mark of the cross on him, when they took him on board the boat.

When they rowed over a shoal of fish, he began to laugh and play in the boat, and they were sure of a good catch, if they put out their lines then, especially if he dipped his finger into the sea. Anfinn had the merman with him for a long time, but one day the sea was pretty stormy when they launched the boat, and they forgot to make the cross on him. When they had got out from land, he slipped overboard, and was never seen again.

The mermaid is like a human being above the waist, and has long brown hair like a woman, which floats round about her on the sea, but her arms are shorter. Below the waist she is like a fish, with a scaly tail. If she turns towards the boat when she comes up out of the water, a storm is sure to come, and then it is a case of rowing home as fast as possible, and so try to escape being drowned. But if the merman comes up beside her, it will be good weather. The mermaid sings so sweetly that men lose their senses with listening to her song, and so they must thrust the thumbs of their gloves into their ears, else in their madness and frenzy they will leap out of the boat into the sea to her.

The Merman and Mermaid in Norway.

When the weather is calm, sailors and fishermen sometimes see mermen and mermaids rise up out of the sea. The former are of a dusky hue, have a long beard and black hair, and resemble a human being above the waist, but below it are like a fish. The latter, on the other hand, are fair and like a beautiful woman above, but below they have also the shape of a fish. The fishers sometimes catch their children, whom they call Marmaeler, and take them home with them to get knowledge of the future from them, for they, as well as the old ones, can foretell things to come.

Now-a-days, however, it is very rare to hear mermaids speak or sing. Sailors dislike to see these beings, as they forebode storm and tempest. To try to do them harm is dangerous. A sailor who once enticed a mermaid so near that she laid her hand on the gunwale, and then hacked it off, was punished for his cruelty with a terrible storm, from which he only escaped with the greatest difficulty.

The Fisher and the Merman.

One cold winter day a fisherman had gone out to sea. It began to grow stormy when he was about to return, and he had trouble enough to clear himself. He then saw, near his boat, an old man with a long gray beard, riding on a wave. The fisherman knew well that it was the merman he saw before him, and knew also what it meant “Uh, then, how cold it is!” said the merman as he sat and shivered, for he had lost one of his hose.

The fisherman pulled off one of his, and threw it out to him. The merman disappeared with it, and the fisherman came safe to land. Some time after this the fisherman was again out at sea, far from land. All at once the merman stuck his head over the gunwale, and shouted out to the man in the boat,

“Hear, you man that gave the hose,
Take your boat and make for shore,
It thunders under Norway.”

The fisherman made all the haste he could to get to land, and there came a storm the like of which had never been known, in which many were drowned at sea.

The Merman and the Calf.

An old woman in Stradil tells the following story after her grandmother. Once, when no ship had been wrecked for a long time, and the merman thus had not got his victim, he went up on shore, and cast his hook into the cows which went about on the sandhills. Just beside the sea there lived a peasant, who had two pretty red calves that he did not want to lose, so he coupled them together with rowan tree, and the merman had no power over them. All the same he fixed his hook in them, but he could not drag them down into the sea, and had to let go his hook, with which the calves came home in the evening. The man took it, guessing it was the merman’s, and hung it up beside the stove, where it hung till one day, when only an old woman was left in the house. Then the merman came and took his hook, and turning about to the old woman, said in his own imperfect speech, “Two red cows’ first calves; rowan tree to couple; man couldn’t drag them; man has lost many good catch since.” With that he went away with the hook, and never tried to take cattle on the beach again.

The Dead Merman and the Sand-Drift.

A dead body was once washed ashore on the Danish coast, and buried in the churchyard of Nissum. No sooner had this been done than the sand began to blow over the country from the beach, and this continued for three days, growing always the longer the worse. People now began to think there was trolldom in the matter, and applied to a wise man for advice.

On his learning that the sand-storm had begun immediately after the burial of the dead body from the sea, he declared that this was undoubtedly a merman, and that his burial in Christian ground had caused the drifting. They must instantly dig him up again, and see whether he had sucked his fore-finger into his mouth past the second joint. If he had done this there was no help for it, but if not they should bury him in the sandhills, and the drifting would cease. They accordingly dug him up again, and sure enough they found him lying with his finger in his mouth, but he had got it no further than the second joint. They then buried him in the sand-hills, and the drifting ceased. After that all bodies washed ashore were buried in these hills, down to quite recent times.

The Sea-Sprite.

The sea-sprite is seen after sunset standing on out-lying reefs, and when men row out to fish he calls upon them and asks to be taken on board the boat Sometimes they have taken him on board, and set him on one of the seats to row with the others; during the darkest part of the night he can row against two at the least, so strong is he. He is good at finding the fishing-ground when it is not clear enough to see the land-marks, but he grows smaller and smaller as day approaches, and fades away into nothing when the sun rises out of the sea. They have made the sign of the cross on him, but as the eastern sky grew redder and redder before the sun, he begged more and more piteously to be let go. One time they would not let him away, but when the sun rose he disappeared, and his pelvis was left lying on the seat, for the sea-sprite is said to take to himself a human pelvis, and this is left behind if the sprite himself disappears. He can also produce ocular deceptions : sometimes he seems like a man, sometimes like a dog. He is of a dark-red colour, and hoots and howls so that it can be heard a far way off. Fire flies from him when he is on shore. He has only one foot (or tail), but can hop a long way with it, and his tracks have been seen in the snow. When he meets a man on land he tries to drive him out into the sea.

The Shepherd and the Sea-Folk.

One time there was a rich yeoman who had a large and splendid house, with a sitting room all panelled from floor to ceiling, but it had the defect that any one who stayed there on Christmas eve was found dead next morning. It was, therefore, difficult to get any one to stay there, for no one wished to remain at home that night, and yet it was necessary for some one to do so. Once the yeoman had got a new shepherd, as he did frequently, for he had many sheep and required an active man to look after them. The yeoman told the man honestly of this bad point about the farm, but the shepherd said he did not mind such trifles, and was quite as willing to come to him for all that He came to him accordingly, and they got on very well together.

Time passed until Christmas came, and the yeoman and all his household went to evensong on Christmas eve, except the shepherd, who was not making ready to go to church. His master asked why this was. The shepherd said he meant to stay at home, as it was impossible to leave the farm to itself, and let the cattle want their food so long. The farmer told him never to mind that, no one could venture to stay there on Christmas eve, as he had said before, for every living thing then about the house was killed, and he would not have him risk it on any account The shepherd professed to think this all nonsense, and said he would try it. When his master found he could not persuade him, he went away with the others, and left him there alone.

The shepherd, when left to himself, began to think over his design, and decided that he had better be prepared for all emergencies, as there was plainly something wrong. He kindled a light in the sitting-room, and made it quite bright. Then he looked for a place to hide himself, and loosening two planks of the panelling at the end of the room, he crept in there, drawing them into their places again so as to leave no trace. There he stood between the panelling and the wall, being able to see all that went on in the room through a chink in the boards.

No long time after he had thus disposed of himself, he saw two unknown and very grim-looking men enter the room, and look all round it. Then one of them said, “ The smell of man ! the smell of man!” “No,” said the other, “there is no man here.” They then took lights, and looked everywhere in the room, high and low, till at last they found a dog that was lying below one of beds. Him they took and wrung his neck, and threw him out at the door. The shepherd saw then that it would not have done for him to come in contact with these fellows, and thanked his good fortune that he was where he was. After this the room began to fill with people, who proceeded to lay the table, and had all their table-service of silver—dishes, spoons, and knives.

Food was then served up, and they sat down to it, making great noise and mirth, and were there eating, drinking and dancing all night. Two, however, were set to watch and tell if they saw any man on the move outside, and whether day was about to dawn.

Thrice during the night they went out and said they saw no one coming, and that it was not yet day. When the shepherd thought that it must be dawn, he seized both the loose boards, sprang out into the floor with the greatest violence, clapped the boards together, and yelled with all his might, “Day! Day!”

The strangers were so startled at this that they tumbled out, heads over heels, leaving all their belongings—table, table-service, and clothes which they had put off during the night to be all the lighter for dancing. Some were hurt and some trodden under foot, while the shepherd continued to chase them, clapping his boards and shouting “Day! Day!” till they reached a lake a little way from the farm, into which they all dived, and then he saw that they were “sea-folk” or “water-dwellers.”

After that he went back home, dragged out the dead ones, and killed the half-dead, and then burned up the bodies. When his master came home, he and the shepherd divided between them all that the visitors had left, and from that time forward nothing strange happened there on Christmas Eve.

The Origin of the Seal.

SEALS originally come from mortals who have intentionally drowned themselves in the sea. Once in the year, on Fastern’s Eve, they can take off their skins, and enjoy themselves as human beings, with dancing and other amusements, in caves and on the flat rocks beside the beach.

A young man in Mikladal had heard of this, and there was pointed out to him a place not far off, where they assembled on that night. Towards evening he slipped away to this, and kept himself concealed, until he saw the seals in great numbers come swimming up, take off their skins and lay them on the rocks. He noticed that a most beautiful girl came out of one of the seal-skins, and laid it a short distance from where he had hid himself, so he slipped up and took possession of it. They danced and played the whole night, but when day began to dawn, every seal went to look for its skin.

The girl was distressed when she missed hers, and traced it to the man from Mikladal, but as he, in spite of her entreaties, would not give it back to her, she had to go home with him. They lived together for many years and had several children, but he had always to take care that his wife should have no chance of getting hold of her seal-skin, which he therefore locked up in his chest, and always carried the key about with him.

One day he was out fishing, and as he sat and fished out at sea, he discovered that he had left the key at home, and called out to the others, “To-day I have lost my wife.” They pulled up their lines and rowed home in all haste, but when they reached the house, the woman had disappeared, and only the children were left. To prevent these coming to harm when she had left them, she had put out the fire and laid away all the knives. Then she ran down to the beach, put on the skin and plunged into the sea, where a male seal came up by her side,—he had all the time been lying out there waiting for her.

Whenever these children came down to the beach, a seal might often be seen to rise and look towards land, and it was believed that this was their mother. So a long time passed, and it happened that the man intended to go into a large cave to kill seals.

The night before this took place, he dreamed that his former wife came to him and told him that if he went on this expedition, he must take care not to kill the big seal at the mouth of the cave, for that was her mate, nor the two young seals at the back of the cave, for these were her two young sons, and she described to him the colour of their skins.

The man, however, gave no heed to the dream, but went with the others, and they killed all the seals they could lay their hands on. The spoil was divided when they came home, and the man got for his share the big seal and the hands and feet of the two young ones.

In the evening they had boiled the head of the big seal, and the flippers of the young ones for their supper, but when these were set on the table there was a great crash in the kitchen, and his former wife came in like a fearful troll, snuffed at the dishes, and cried, “Here lies the head of my mate, the hand of Hárek, and the foot of Fridrik, but it shall be avenged on the men of Mikladal; some of them shall perish on the sea, and some fall down the cliffs, till their number is so great that they can reach round the whole island of Kallsö, holding each other by the hand.”

After uttering this curse she disappeared and was never seen again, but to this day some are always being lost on the dangerous waters and cliffs in this neighbourhood, and it is also said that there is always a lunatic on the south farm in Mikladal. The number of those lost must, therefore, still be insufficient to stretch round the island.