Hélène Adeline Guerber
Myths of the Norsemen|
Chapter XX: Ægir
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Besides Niörd and Mimir, who were both ocean divinities, the one representing the sea near the coast and the other the primæval ocean whence all things were supposed to have sprung, the Northern races recognised another sea-ruler, called Ægir or Hler, who dwelt either in the cool depths of his liquid realm or had his abode on the Island of Lessoe, in the Cattegat, or Hlesey.
Ægir (the sea), like his brothers Kari (the air) and Loki (fire), is supposed to have belonged to an older dynasty of the gods, for he ranked neither with the Æsir, the Vanas, the giants, dwarfs, or elves, but was considered omnipotent within his realm.
He was supposed to occasion and quiet the great tempests which swept over the deep, and was generally represented as a gaunt old man, with long white beard and hair, and clawlike fingers ever clutching convulsively, as though he longed to have all things within his grasp. Whenever he appeared above the waves, it was only to pursue and overturn vessels, and to greedily drag them to the bottom of the sea, a vocation in which he was thought to take fiendish delight.
Ægir was mated with his sister, the goddess Ran, whose name means “robber,” and who was as cruel, greedy, and insatiable as her husband. Her favourite pastime was to lurk near dangerous rocks, whither she enticed mariners, and there spread her net, her most prized possession, when, having entangled the men in its meshes and broken their vessels on the jagged cliffs, she would calmly draw them down into her cheerless realm.
Ran was considered the goddess of death for all who perished at sea, and the Northern nations fancied that she entertained the drowned in her coral caves, where her couches were spread to receive them, and where the mead flowed freely as in Valhalla. The goddess was further supposed to have a great affection for gold, which was called the “flame of the sea,” and was used to illuminate her halls. This belief originated with the sailors, and sprang from the striking phosphorescent gleam of the waves. To win Ran’s good graces, the Northmen were careful to hide some gold about them whenever any special danger threatened them on the sea.
Ægir and Ran had nine beautiful daughters, the Waves, or billow-maidens, whose snowy arms and bosoms, long golden hair, deep-blue eyes, and willowy, sensuous forms were fascinating in the extreme. These maidens delighted in sporting over the surface of their father’s vast domain, clad lightly in transparent blue, white, or green veils. They were very moody and capricious, however, varying from playful to sullen and apathetic moods, and at times exciting one another almost to madness, tearing their hair and veils, flinging themselves recklessly upon their hard beds, the rocks, chasing one another with frantic haste, and shrieking aloud with joy or despair. But they seldom came out to play unless their brother, the Wind, were abroad, and according to his mood they were gentle and playful, or rough and boisterous.
The Waves were generally supposed to go about in triplets, and were often said to play around the ships of vikings whom they favoured, smoothing away every obstacle from their course, and helping them to reach speedily their goals.
To the Anglo-Saxons the sea-god Ægir was known by the name of Eagor, and whenever an unusually large wave came thundering towards the shore, the sailors were wont to cry, as the Trent boatmen still do, “Look out, Eagor is coming!” He was also known by the name of Hler (the shelterer) among the Northern nations, and of Gymir (the concealer), because he was always ready to hide things in the depths of his realm, and could be depended upon not to reveal the secrets entrusted to his care. And, because the waters of the sea were frequently said to seethe and hiss, the ocean was often called Ægir’s brewing kettle or vat.
The god’s two principal servants were Elde and Funfeng, emblems of the phosphorescence of the sea; they were noted for their quickness and they invariably waited upon the guests whom he invited to his banquets in the depths of the sea. Ægir sometimes left his realm to visit the Æsir in Asgard, where he was always royally entertained, and he delighted in Bragi’s many tales of the adventures and achievements of the gods. Excited by these narratives, as also by the sparkling mead which accompanied them, the god on one occasion ventured to invite the Æsir to celebrate the harvest feast with him in Hlesey, where he promised to entertain them in his turn.
Surprised at this invitation, one of the gods ventured to remind Ægir that they were accustomed to dainty fare; whereupon the god of the sea declared that as far as eating was concerned they need be in no anxiety, as he was sure that he could cater for the most fastidious appetites; but he confessed that he was not so confident about drink, as his brewing kettle was rather small. Hearing this, Thor immediately volunteered to procure a suitable kettle, and set out with Tyr to obtain it. The two gods journeyed east of the Elivagar in Thor’s goat chariot, and leaving this at the house of the peasant Egil, Thialfi’s father, they wended their way on foot to the dwelling of the giant Hymir, who was known to own a kettle one mile deep and proportionately wide.
Only the women were at home, however, and Tyr recognised in the elder—an ugly old hag with nine hundred heads—his own grandmother; while the younger, a beautiful young giantess, was, it appeared, his mother, and she received her son and his companion hospitably, and gave them to drink.
After learning their errand, Tyr’s mother bade the visitors hide under some huge kettles, which rested upon a beam at the end of the hall, for her husband Hymir was very hasty and often slew his would-be guests with a single baleful glance. The gods quickly followed her advice, and no sooner were they concealed than the old giant Hymir came in. When his wife told him that visitors had come, he frowned so portentously, and flashed such a wrathful look towards their hiding-place, that the rafter split and the kettles fell with a crash, and, except the largest, were all dashed to pieces.
The giant’s wife, however, prevailed upon her husband to welcome Tyr and Thor, and he slew three oxen for their refection; but great was his dismay to see the thunder-god eat two of these for his supper. Muttering that he would have to go fishing early the next morning to secure a breakfast for so voracious a guest, the giant retired to rest, and when at dawn the next day he went down to the shore, he was joined by Thor, who said that he had come to help him. The giant bade him secure his own bait, whereupon Thor coolly slew his host’s largest ox, Himinbrioter (heaven-breaker), and cutting off its head, he embarked with it and proceeded to row far out to sea. In vain Hymir protested that his usual fishing-ground had been reached, and that they might encounter the terrible Midgard snake were they to venture any farther; Thor persistently rowed on, until he fancied they were directly above this monster.
Baiting his powerful hook with the ox head, Thor angled for Iörmungandr, while the giant meantime drew up two whales, which seemed to him to be enough for an early morning meal. He was about to propose to return, therefore, when Thor suddenly felt a jerk, and began pulling as hard as he could, for he knew by the resistance of his prey, and the terrible storm created by its frenzied writhings, that he had hooked the Midgard snake. In his determined efforts to force the snake to rise to the surface, Thor braced his feet so strongly against the bottom of the boat that he went through it and stood on the bed of the sea.
After an indescribable struggle, the monster’s terrible venom-breathing head appeared, and Thor, seizing his hammer, was about to annihilate it when the giant, frightened by the proximity of Iörmungandr, and fearing lest the boat should sink and he should become the monster’s prey, cut the fishing-line, and thus allowed the snake to drop back like a stone to the bottom of the sea.
Angry with Hymir for his inopportune interference, Thor dealt him a blow with his hammer which knocked him overboard; but Hymir, undismayed, waded ashore, and met the god as he returned to the beach. Hymir then took both whales, his spoil of the sea, upon his back, to carry them to the house; and Thor, wishing also to show his strength, shouldered boat, oars, and fishing tackle, and followed him.
Breakfast being disposed of, Hymir challenged Thor to prove his strength by breaking his beaker; but although the thunder-god threw it with irresistible force against stone pillars and walls, it remained whole and was not even bent. In obedience to a whisper from Tyr’s mother, however, Thor suddenly hurled the vessel against the giant’s forehead, the only substance tougher than itself, when it fell shattered to the ground. Hymir, having thus tested the might of Thor, told him he could have the kettle which the two gods had come to seek, but Tyr tried to lift it in vain, and Thor could raise it from the floor only after he had drawn his belt of strength to the very last hole.
The wrench with which he finally pulled it up did great damage to the giant’s house and his feet broke through the floor. As Tyr and Thor were departing, the latter with the huge pot clapped on his head in place of a hat, Hymir summoned his brother frost giants, and proposed that they should pursue and slay their inveterate foe. Turning round, Thor suddenly became aware of their pursuit, and, hurling Miölnir repeatedly at the giants, he slew them all ere they could overtake him. Tyr and Thor then resumed their journey back to Ægir, carrying the kettle in which he was to brew ale for the harvest feast.
The physical explanation of this myth is, of course, a thunder storm (Thor), in conflict with the raging sea (the Midgard snake), and the breaking up of the polar ice (Hymir’s goblet and floor) in the heat of summer.
Ægir, as we have seen, ruled the sea with the help of the treacherous Ran. Both of these divinities were considered cruel by the Northern nations, who had much to suffer from the sea, which, surrounding them on all sides, ran far into the heart of their countries through the numerous fiords, and often swallowed the ships of their vikings, with all their warrior crews.
Besides these principal divinities of the sea, the Northern nations believed in mermen and mermaids, and many stories are related of mermaids who divested themselves for a brief while of swan plumage or seal-garments, which they left upon the beach to be found by mortals who were thus able to compel the fair maidens to remain on land.
There were also malignant marine monsters known as Nicors, from whose name has been derived the proverbial Old Nick. Many of the lesser water divinities had fish tails; the females bore the name of Undines, and the males of Stromkarls, Nixies, Necks, or Neckar.
In the middle ages these water spirits were believed sometimes to leave their native streams, to appear at village dances, where they were recognised by the wet hem of their garments. They often sat beside the flowing brook or river, playing on a harp, or singing alluring songs while combing out their long golden or green hair.
Many stories are told of priests or children meeting them playing by a stream, and taunting them with future damnation, which threat never failed to turn the joyful music into pitiful wails. Often priest or children, discovering their mistake, and touched by the agony of their victims, would hasten back to the stream and assure the green-toothed water sprites of future redemption, when they invariably resumed their happy strains.
Besides Elf or Elb, the water sprite who gave its name to the Elbe River in Germany, the Neck, from whom the Neckar derives its name, and old Father Rhine, with his numerous daughters (tributary streams), the most famous of all the lesser water divinities is the Lorelei, the siren maiden who sits upon the Lorelei rock near St. Goar, on the Rhine, and whose alluring song has enticed many a mariner to death. The legends concerning this siren are very numerous indeed, one of the most ancient being as follows:
Lorelei was an immortal, a water nymph, daughter of Father Rhine; during the day she dwelt in the cool depths of the river bed, but late at night she would appear in the moonlight, sitting aloft upon a pinnacle of rock, in full view of all who passed up or down the stream. At times, the evening breeze wafted some of the notes of her song to the boatmen’s ears, when, forgetting time and place in listening to these enchanting melodies, they drifted upon the sharp and jagged rocks, where they invariably perished.
One person only is said to have seen the Lorelei close by. This was a young fisherman from Oberwesel, who met her every evening by the riverside, and spent a few delightful hours with her, drinking in her beauty and listening to her entrancing song. Tradition had it that ere they parted the Lorelei pointed out the places where the youth should cast his nets on the morrow—instructions which he always obeyed, and which invariably brought him success.
One night the young fisherman was seen going towards the river, but as he never returned search was made for him. No clue to his whereabouts being found, the credulous Teutons finally reported that the Lorelei had dragged him down to her coral caves that she might enjoy his companionship for ever.
According to another version, the Lorelei, with her entrancing strains from the craggy rocks, lured so many fishermen to a grave in the depths of Rhine, that an armed force was once sent at nightfall to surround and seize her. But the water nymph laid such a powerful spell upon the captain and his men that they could move neither hand nor foot. While they stood motionless around her, the Lorelei divested herself of her ornaments, and cast them into the waves below; then, chanting a spell, she lured the waters to the top of the crag upon which she was perched, and to the wonder of the soldiers the waves enclosed a sea-green chariot drawn by white-maned steeds, and the nymph sprang lightly into this and the magic equipage was instantly lost to view. A few moments later the Rhine subsided to its usual level, the spell was broken, and the men recovered power of motion, and retreated to tell how their efforts had been baffled. Since then, however, the Lorelei has not been seen, and the peasants declare that she still resents the insult offered her and will never again leave her coral caves.
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