Why the Sea is Salt

Listen to our latest story on this Norse story by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe now by clicking the link below.

Cover art for the Tales of the Enchanted Forest Podcast episode "Why the Sea is Salt" by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. Also known as The Quern that Stands and Grinds at the Bottom of the Sea. Image shows a salt shaker shaking down the text which is "Why the Sea is Salt"

This story comes from Norway from our favourite fairy-tale and folktale collectors, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe! The original title was The Quern that Stands and Grinds at the Bottom of the Sea. The translator, George Webbe Dasent, changed it to Why the Sea is Salt for his translation to follow in the footsteps of other explanatory fables.

There are many variants of this story, and it can be linked back as far as the Old Norse Poem, the Grottasöngr or the Mill’s Song, which was about two slave girls forced to work at a magic grindstone. Scroll down to our Five Fantastic Finds section to learn more about the song. It is quite an epic tale and ends with the two girls declaring that they will destroy the Danish King Frodi.

To hear another popular Nordic story by Asbjørnsen and Moe, check out our episode and notes on East of the Sun, West of the Moon.


Once upon a time, there were two brothers. While both brothers grew up in the same family, one became very rich, while the other became poor. On Christmas Eve, the poor brother had no food to feed himself or his wife. In desperation, he went to his brother and asked if his well-to-do brother would give him anything to eat. The older brother looked down on his younger one and was reluctant to help.

So the rich brother says he will give him a sizeable ham only if the poor brother agrees to do one thing in return. Not seeing any possible way this could backfire, the poor brother quickly agrees and thanks him. With that, the rich brother tosses out some ham and tells him to go straight to Hel. Siblings can be our worst enemies sometimes.

 

1930's Greeting Card showing Santa sitting in an outside while a reindeer watches and a stack of toys sits in front of him. Text reads: The Same Old Crap

Not being one to go back on his word, the poor brother shrugs, takes the ham and starts walking. He walks around the whole day, looking for Hel. It was well into dusk when he saw a bright light. He turned and saw an Old Man with a long white beard who was in no way Santa standing outside an outhouse.

The Old Man asked where the poor man with the ham was going. The poor man (who we really should have named at this point) replied that he was going to Hel, but he was not sure he was going the right way. The Old Man explained that this, the outhouse, was Hel.

1930’s Greeting Card: The Same Old Crap

 

So, I have tried to look up a connection between outhouses and devils. The best most books and articles can do is mention that there are holes in outhouses, and those can be symbols for tunnels to Hell. One article linked outhouses with crescent-shaped cutouts to the jersey devil. Essentially, unholy creatures lurk in unholy places.

Old Man Christmas explains that the devil’s will want the ham for meat is rare in Hel, but he should only trade the ham for the hand-quern behind the door. It is a magical quern that could grind anything. If the poor man could get it, then the Old Man would teach him how to use it.

The ring of Hell that Dante missed was the one with the hand quern. By the way, for those unfamiliar, querns were one of the early ways to grind grain, and in their most rudimentary form, they were just a flat stone bed and a rounded stone that would be used predominantly by women to crush grain. The Romans used a more sophisticated quern with large concave and convex stones turned by asses to crush grain.

As seen below, there is a Saddle Quern. On display at Archaeological Museum, University of Stavanger, item no. S11891. Photo by Per Storemyr.

As seen below, there is a Saddle Quern. On display at Archaeological Museum, University of Stavanger, item no. S11891. Photo by Per Storemyr.

So, the man bravely enters the outhouse and negotiates with the devils before finally reaching a deal. They gobbled up the ham and tossed him the quern. Outside, the Old Man showed him how to use it, and the poor man left with the magic item. Who knew travelling to and from the underworld was so easy!

He ran fast in the deep snow and made it back home in the early hours of Christmas morning. His wife greeted him anxiously, and she was skeptical when he showed her the magic quern. He began turning and turning, and as he ground, the quern spat our lights, tablecloths, meats, ale, and everything they needed for an extravagant Christmas feast.

They were giddy with excitement and created so much food that three days later, they threw a magnificent feast for their family and friends. The rich older brother was spiteful and suspicious at once. His younger brother had been begging at his door just the other day. How had he turned the ham into meats, cheeses, and loaves of bread suitable for royalty?

Later in the evening, when the poor brother had drunk too much, his older brother took advantage of his stupor to press for answers. Jolly and drunk, the younger brother told his great tale: his journey to Hel, the quern that could grind anything, and the peculiar Old Man. The Older brother was immediately envious, and since it was his ham that went to the Devil’s for the quern, he demanded to buy it. After much negotiating, the younger brother finally agreed to sell it for 300 krone when the hay harvest season came.

Time passed, and the Harvest season arrived. True to his word, the younger brother sold the quern, but he failed to mention that there were magic words to stop the magic. Sure enough, later that day, the older brother tested his new item by grinding out some herring broth. Once he was happy, he stopped grinding, but broth kept pouring out. It spilled out at alarming volumes.

Panicked, he ran through town, and more and more broth kept flowing out to the point that there was a risk of flooding the entire village.

When he got to his brother’s house, he threw the quern at him and demanded that his brother make it stop. The clever brother agreed- for another 300 krone. Frustrated, his older brother threw the money at him and left.

The young brother made quick work of his new quern and used it to make everything he could have ever wanted. People from all over came to see his incredible quern.

Image shows the Skipper on his ship with the Quern . Norse tales Illustrated by Frederick T.-Chapman from the Norse tale Why the Sea is Salt.

One day, a Skipper came and asked if the quern could make salt. The no-longer poor brother laughed and showed him how easily he could grind out salt. The Skipper begged him for the quern. He revealed that he was a salt merchant and had to travel overseas to get his product. With the quern, he could create his own and wouldn’t have to make the long, arduous journey.

Reluctantly the owner eventually agreed, and the Skipper paid thousands of krone for it. But the Skipper was so excited, he took the quern and left so fast that he didn’t get the complete instructions. On his ship, he had a delicious sweet lunch to celebrate and then went to work grinding out salt.

As soon as he started grinding, salt began bursting out of the quern. The Skipper was so excited that he stopped turning, but the salt kept coming.

He tried holding the quern, putting it away, and turning it the other way- but nothing he did worked- the quern ground out salt (illustration above by Frederick T. Chapman).

Of course, the salt did not stop pouring out and eventually, it filled every inch of the boat, sinking it and taking the Skipper with it. To this day, the quern rests on the ocean floor: grinding and grinding. And that is why the sea is salt.


1. Grottasöngr

 

As mentioned in the introduction, parts of this story are similar to the 13th century Grottasöngr or the Mill’s Song/ Tale of Grotte. The Grottasöngr is a work song, and while it is believed that these were quite common in Norse society, there is only one other complete one, and that is the Darraðarljóð, a song about Valkyrie at the loom. However, instead of cloth, they are weaving the entrails of men. Similarly, the Grottasongr also seems to depict the triumph of women over men. At the heart of the Grottasõngr are two giantess maidens named Fenja and Menja.

They claim they had fought in many battles as Valkyrie-like figures and had built the fortunes and ruins of many kings. It does not touch upon how they come to be enslaved by King Fróð, but we quickly learn that they were captured. He had them sent to his mill-house where the two maidens were forced on the quern to turn and turn, creating a fortune for the King. In some variations, it is a magical quern, and in other, more recent retellings, it is a reference to the creation of flour that is the fortune.

 
 
 

Image above titled “Fenja och Menja vid kvarnen Grotte (xylograph)”
by Carl Larsson (artist) and Gunnar Forssell
(xylographer)

Similarly, the Grottasongr also seems to depict the triumph of women over men. At the heart of the Grottasõngr are two giantess maidens named Fenja and Menja. They claim they had fought in many battles as Valkyrie-like figures and had built the fortunes and ruins of many kings. It does not touch upon how they come to be enslaved by King Fróð, but we quickly learn that they were captured. He had them sent to his mill-house where the two maidens were forced on the quern to turn and turn, creating a fortune for the King. In some variations, it is a magical quern, and in other, more recent retellings, it is a reference to the creation of flour that is the fortune.

Image from "Tale of the Sagas" by Alice S. Hoffman, illustrated by Gordon Browne. Shows the two giantess' Fenja and Menja turning the quern and wishing for war and disaster.

Either way, the two girls turn and turn the quern. When the household falls asleep, Menja starts a song about who they truly are. They had, after all, played in the very mountains from which this quern had come from. Fenja and Menja had the gift of foresight, and as they worked they spoke of how Fróð better enjoy his fortune while it lasted. Fenja takes over the song and tells Fróð of an incoming army and how it will burn down his very hall. They turn the quern harder- until the stone cracks into pieces. The song ends with the maidens saying that they have milled for long enough: his fate, for them, is assured.

Image from “Tale of the Sagas” by Alice S. Hoffman, illustrated by Gordon Browne.

In Clive Tolley’s book on the song, he examines the “Giantess” and their gift of foresight. He touches on how some giantesses and Gods meddled with human affairs like it was a game of chess. This would explain how they were captured. To see the book, please check out the website!


2. Santa ambiguity trope

Since this story takes place around Christmas Eve, that pretty much makes it a Christmas story for me. So when the poor brother encountered the super helpful Old Man with a long white beard, I immediately thought he was Santa. But as Fox pointed out, he could also just be a regular guy who happens to know exactly what the protagonist needed to hear. Despite all my suspicion, there is nothing in the story that firmly proves or disproves him to be Santa Claus. This trope is known as Santa Ambiguity, and the best example of this is Miracle on 34th Street.

The plot of this film revolves around a mall Santa, Kris Kringle, and whether or not he is Santa Claus. Many small miracles happen throughout the story that could be explained away, but the endearingly saintly actions of Kris Kringle keep the characters and audience wondering. This question goes so far as to even end up in court. However, even when he is proven to be Santa, it is still unclear to the audience whether this is true or not.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if these kind Old Men with white beards are Santa or not. They keep their stories interesting, hopeful and add a bit of winter wonderland magic to their tales.


3. Magic Mill

This story falls under ATU 565, the Magic Mill and its parent trope- kindness rewarded and evil punished. While this story appears all over Europe, the most interesting variation is in Japan. The two versions are similar, but there are obvious regional differences. To start, the older brother wants to give the younger away as an ‘adopted’ husband, which would have been a last-ditch resort where the husband formally joins his wife’s family instead of vice versa. Instead of Christmas Eve, it was during the New Year when a family was expected to have enough food to offer to the Gods and to bring prosperity for the New Year.

“Kobito-Zukan” series illustrated by Toshitaka Nabata

The most prominent point for me was that the younger wandered until an Old Man gave him Manju’s or steamed dumplings to give to the kobito (little people) in a hole. After receiving the millstones, the man goes back home to his wife, like in the Norse story, but the older brother does not buy or ask for the millstones. He steals them! Then he has the bright idea to sail away somewhere far! However, after eating the stolen sweets from his brother’s house, he felt full and made some salt- but no one had taught him to stop the millstones. Eventually, he sank to the bottom of the sea with his millstones.


4. Salty Seas

Why is the sea so salty? Personality aside, the primary source of all the salt is simply rocks. As rain falls on the earth, it travels across the land and forms rivers. Along these rivers, water will slowly erode rocks and earth, releasing mineral salts that are picked up and carried to the ocean. The build-up of salt only continues to build as more water washes over the earth and into the ocean. While this is one of the biggest reasons for the salt content in the seas, it is not the only reason.

Some of this is also attributed to the vents on the seafloor. Ocean water seeps into these cracks and is heated by the intense heat from the Earth’s core. In these processes, a series of chemical reactions take place where water usually loses oxygen, magnesium, and sulphates. But from the nearby rocks, it also picks up metals such as iron and zinc. With this same process, underwater volcanoes can also help contribute to the ocean’s salt levels.

Illustration by Amy Caracappa-Qubeck, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Illustration by Amy Caracappa-Qubeck, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 

5. Sibling Rivalry

From Cain and Able to Cinderella and her Stepsisters, all over religion, myth, legends, fiction and non-fiction, we can see stories of a good sibling and a clear bad sibling. Why do these stories exist? Well, in the shortest possible terms- it has to do with dualism. By portraying one good character, we have a protagonist we are rooting for or a clear good guy. The version of Folklore and Fairy tales that we now like probably derived from an oral tradition, and an easy way to create tension is by having a pair of siblings. The familial relation also makes the cruelty of the bad sibling even worse because they are supposed to protect and love their siblings. This is rarely the case sadly. How many fairy tales have siblings murdered, tortured, dismembered and otherwise harming their siblings? Too many to count. In myths, we have Romulus and Remus, Seth and Osiris, Rostam and Sohrab, and in the same breath, we have Azula and Zuko, Starfire and Blackfire, and the list goes on and on! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: