Also known as Why the Sea is Salt or Why is the Sea salty? because of its most famous translation in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, “Kvernen som maler på havsens bunn” is a Norwegian folk tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in their famous Norske Folkeeventyr. I talked about some of […]
Also known as Why the Sea is Salt or Why is the Sea salty? because of its most famous translation in Andrew Lang’s Blue Fairy Book, “Kvernen som maler på havsens bunn” is a Norwegian folk tale collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in their famous Norske Folkeeventyr. I talked about some of these stories some time back here on the blog, and they’re part of our Thursday Throwback, but this is a new one for us.
The tale comes from the Old Norse poem Grottasöngr, part of Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, and tells the story of a poor man who goes to plead for food to his eldest and richer brother. It’s Christmas Eve and the rich brother feels like getting rid of his brother for good, so he promises to give him some rich food (usually ham or bacon, or a lamb depending on the variant of the tale) should the poor man perform a certain task. Our hero promises and the rich brother promptly gives him the food and asks him to go to hell. Like literally.
In the Norse version we’re talking about Hel, the afterlife, and Lang translates this as “Dead Men’s Hall”, but in some other versions it’s called “Devil’s dam”.
The poor brother promised, and he’s a man of his word, so he sets off for his journey. On the road, he meets an old man and shares with him the small feat of food his brother graciously gave him before sending him off to his doom. Instead of accepting the food, the old beggar gives him advice: apparently, the dwarves who inhabit Hel are craving that kind of food, but there’s no bacon in hell… and that’s really hell, if you ask me.
In light of this, the beggar instructs the man as such: when he’ll be at Hel’s threshold, he is to exchange his bacon for the hand mill behind the door. When he’ll have it, he is to return to the old man and he’ll tell him more.
Our hero obeys the instructions, ’cause you never dismiss an Old Beggar in a Norse fairytale, and is able to obtain the magic mill, even if the dwarves do not seem very keen to let it go.
No wonder there: the mill is a magical mill and will create anything one wants, but it will work incessantly on the task, at least until the wisher thanks the “good little mill” with a ceremonial formula.
As it often happens, the poor man is content enough and takes the price back to his wife, where she instructs the mill to grind out everything they needed for Christmas, from meat and ale to decorations and linen for the table.
Their feast is splendid and, on the third day of banqueting, they even invite the man’s rich brother, but they have too much to drink. Eventually, the man can’t resist and spills the secret of the hand mill to his brother, who is able to convince him to sell the magic wonder.
In vino veritas, we say, but apparently no one said anything about telling the whole truth: the poor man sells the magic mill for a couple of coins, but omits to tell his brother about the formula to stop the mill.
The rich brother sets the mill to grind out herrings and broth, but he’s unable to stop it, and broth floods his house.
Desperate, the rich man finds a sailor and sells the hand mill to him. The new owner sees a wonderful opportunity to become rich and bids the mill to grind salt, which could only be found in the mountains. He then sets sail for a faraway land, planning to sell his cargo and become rich.
He underestimates the mill’s power, however, and he’s unaware that its magic feat cannot be stopped. The mill grinds so much salt it sinks the boat, and it’s still grinding at the bottom of the sea.
The story also has some Japanese variants, listed by Kunio Yanagita in his studies.