Why The Sea is Salty – A Viking Folktale

A long, long time ago a Viking Jarl had two sons, while he lived the sons were both well loved and wanted for nothing, but when the day came where the father died all of his worldly possessions went to the older son and the younger was left with nothing.

You might think that brothers would look after one another, but that was not the case.  The older filled his days with important things like raising children, leading his men, hunting, raiding, feasting and drinking and never spared a thought for his younger brother.  When they saw how things stood the thralls kicked the younger brother out of the house and told him to go find his fortune elsewhere as he was only getting in the way.

The younger brother grew poorer and poorer, as the son of a Jarl he had never learned the skills he would need to find a trade, he wasn’t a great warrior so he was never invited to join a warband or go a-viking so he could earn a place among the men at their feasts, all he could do was hope that others would be kind to him.

Eventually, one yuletide, he could find no one who would help him.  He had no money, and no food, not even a crust of bread. His house was cold and his wife was sick and weak.  He decided to ask his brother to at least give him a meal during this time of feasting.

The brother was not happy to see him, he did not want to help at all but his wife insisted that Yuletide was not the time of year to refuse anyone a meal so he said “If you promise you will do what I ask, I will give you meat and cheese and bread so you may feast this yule”

The poorer brother swore he would do anything, and thanked his brother again and again

The older brother had his thralls fill a sack with food which he handed to his brother “Here is your food,” said the rich brother, “now take it and go straight to Hell.”

The younger brother had no choice “I have given my word so to Hell I must go” he said. Taking his sack he set off walking.  He didn’t know where to find Hell but he knew it was cold there, so he headed north. He walked all the whole day, and long into the night.  Just as his feet began to feel like they couldn’t take another step he spotted a bright light ahead.

“Maybe this is Hell,” said the man to himself and he made his way towards the light.  The first thing he saw was an old, old man, with a grey beard that stretched down to his knees.  The old man was swinging an axe trimming a log for the yule fire.

“Good evening,” said the poor man.

“And the same to you” replied the old man “Where are you headed so late at night?”

“Oh! I’m going to Hell, if I only knew the right way,” answered the poor man.

“Well, you’re on the right track, for this is Hell,” said the old man. “When you get inside they will be all for buying your food, for good food is scarce in Hell.  If you have any sense you won’t sell it unless you get the hand-quern which stands behind the door in exchange.  If you get it, I’ll teach you how to handle the quern, it’s can grind almost anything.”

So the poor brother thanked the old man for his wisdom and stepped forward to knock at the door to Hell.

He was let inside almost immediately and very quickly was surrounded by hungry souls swarming around him eager to outbid each other for a share of the food.

“Well!” said the man, “by rights, I should be sharing this with my kindred for our yule feast; but since you need it so badly, I suppose I should let you have it. But I can’t go home empty handed, if I give you this food you must give me that quern behind the door.”

The hungry souls didn’t want to give up the quern, but you can’t eat stone and they were so ravenous that eventually they agreed and the poor brother, having gone to Hell as he had promised was able to leave carrying the quern with him.

Quern stone
By Rosser – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Quernupper.JPG, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2799057

The old man was still trimming the yule log outside and true to his word he explained how to use the quern.  there was a phrase to start it grinding and another to make it stop. The poor brother thanked the man and headed back home as fast as he could, but he could not make it home in time before the yule celebrations should have began.

“Where on earth have you been?” said his wife. “I was so worried.  I’ve sat here hour after hour without even a stick to light a yule fire.”

“I’m sorry” said the man, “I had to go a long way to keep a promise, but now I am here and I have something to show you.”

He put the quern on the table, and doing as the old man had told him he said “Grind lampoil and grind it good and fast” and the quern started to turn. The bowl filled with lampoil. The man said the words to stop the quern the instructed it to grind a tablecloth, a flitch of ham, loaves of soft white bread, hard cheese, roast meats, sweetcakes, honey, mead, ale and so on and so on until their feast could rival any in the land.  He just had to speak the word, and the quern ground out whatever he wanted. The wife couldn’t believe her eyes and asked where he had found this incredible quern, but he wouldn’t tell her.

“It doesn’t matter where it came from.  Just what it does, that’s enough.”

So they ate and they drank as much as their bellies could hold and soon they felt better than they had in months.  For several days they did little but sleep and eat and their bodies grew strong and hearty again.  As their old selves returned the brother said to his wife that it would be only right for them to share their good fortune with those who had helped them when they had nothing.

They prepared a great feast and invited everyone who had ever helped them, including the older brother.  You would think the older brother would be pleased to see his younger brother’s change of fortune, but when he saw the table heaving with food and the larder overflowing with all many of delicacies he became jealous and angry that his brother now had more than him.

“It was just yule eve when he came begging for scraps, and now he gives a feast as if he were a king!” and he turning to his brother he demanded “Where in Hell did you get all these riches?”

“Behind the door,” was the only answer offered.

As the feast went on some dishes ran low, and eventually the younger brother slipped into the pantry where he took out the quern and had it grind all manner of things so the feast could continue.  The older brother followed and saw the quern at work.  At once he demanded that it must be given to him.  The younger brother didn’t want to give it up but his brother coaxed and begged and offered him more and more in return until he finally agreed.  In exchange he received enough money for him and his wife to live in comfort for the rest of their lives and it was agreed that the quern would remain with the younger brother until harvest so he could make such provisions as they would need.

They quern was worked hard and by the time harvest came, the younger brother and his wife had a comfortable home, chests of fine clothes, coffers filled with coins and a larder bulging with food.  They handed the quern over to the rich brother without any cares. The rich brother was overjoyed, but in his rush to own the quern he didn’t spare the time to learn how to use it and the younger brother didn’t tell him.

The next day the rich brother stayed at home, letting his men get on with the work of the harvest without him.  He spent the day relaxing and gloating about his magical new possession.  As dusk came and dinnertime drew near, he put the quern on the kitchen table and remembering what he had heard his brother say said,

“Grind herrings and grind them good and fast.”

The quern began to grind, first it filled the dishes, then the table, then the floor, it kept on going until the hall was so full herrings were spilling out of the door.  The older brother waded through herrings to get to the quern, he hadn’t heard what his brother said to stop the quern. He tried everything he could think of but he couldn’t make it stop.  It ground on and on and the hall filled up with herrings, as the level rose up above his waist he realised he could soon drown in herring so he snatched up the quern and threw himself out of the door.  The quern continued to churn out more and more herrings, burying him in moments. Leaping to his feet the man set off down the road with the quern spewing out a waterfall of herrings that streamed behind him.

About this time his men were starting to head home ready for their dinner, as they started back from the fields, they saw their master running for his life with herrings cascading behind him. “I can’t stop” he cried “or the whole town will be swallowed up by herrings”

He ran all the way to his brothers house where he begged him to take back the quern and rid him of the curse.  The brother agreed, but only if only if his brother swore to never bother him or his wife again so long as he lived.

So the poor brother got back the quern and he set it to work grinding whatever he or his wife desired.  It wasn’t long before they had a fine home, far nicer than the one his brother lived in.  He was able to grind so much gold he could hire many men to work his land and equip many warriors to defend his people.  After a while the younger brother grew so powerful and famous that he became Jarl and his older brother was all but forgotten.  Tales of the magical quern were told all over the land until there was nobody who hadn’t heard about it.

One day the captain of a ship came and asked to see the quern.  The younger brother was happy to demonstrate it and share his story.  “Can it grind salt?” asked the captain.

“Of course” said the owner “It can grind anything.”

When the skipper heard that, he decided he had to have the quern.  That very night while everyone slept the captain snuck into the pantry and snatched the quern, he was long gone before anyone even noticed he had been there.

He boarded his ship as fast as he could, and set sail. When he had sailed a good way off, he brought out the quern and said “Grind salt, and grind both good and fast.”

The quern began to grind and the salt flowed like water, filling the bowls and then spilling onto the deck.  At first the captain was overjoyed, but as the salt spread further and further he started to worry.  Salt was flowing down into the hold and the ship was growing heavier and heavier. The captain tried everything he could think of to make the quern stop but whatever he tried made no difference, the quern just kept on grinding.  As the ship filled it began to sink lower and lower, the captain grew more and more desperate as the water level rose, but there was nothing he could do.  The quern kept on grinding as the boat sank to the bottom of the sea, and it kept on grinding when it reached the bottom, and it has kept on grinding day after day from that day until this.  If you don’t believe me fill your cup with sea water and try a swallow, the quern has ground so much salt that now where ever you try the sea will always taste of salt.

By xta11 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5046909

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