Grotti's Song (Grottasongr) is one of the most important, and at the same time, most neglected of the eddaic poems. Its importance comes from the fact that it is one of the oldest, and best preserved of the poems, and that it deals with a mythic theme of great significance and antiquity. Hollander puts it at before 950 a.d., well before Christianity arrived in the North. It's neglect is partly due to the fact that it was not included in the Codex Regius, and so is given second-class citizenship in the Edda. The other reason for its neglect is that it does not fit into the two groupings of the Edda; it is neither a poem about the gods, or about the heroic exploits of the Volsungs. However, the poem itself needs to proceed any further discussion of its nature and significance.
King Frodi of Denmark, while on a visit to King Frothi in Sweden acquired two female slaves. Their names were Fenja and Menja, and they were of the race of mountain giants. Back in Denmark, he put them to grinding the magic millstone, Grotti, which was too large for any human hands to turn. At first they ground out treasure, peace, and harmony, so that that time in the North was called "the peace of Frodi." But being refused any rest, the women ground out an army to destroy their tormentor.
Now are come to the king's house
The far-sighted pair, Fenja and Menja,
To stay with Frodi, Fridleif's son,
Mighty sisters in slavery held.
To the mill-stand the maidens were led,
And the grey stone they started to turn.
He permitted them neither peace nor rest
Before he heard the bondmaids' song.
Never was silent the circling wheel.
"Let the mill rest, let rest the stones."
But more he told the maids to grind.
They sang as they turned the circling stone,
Till Frodi's maids were mostly asleep.
Then Menja said-- to the milling come:
"For Frodi we grind gold and good fortune,
Abundant wealth from the wonderous mill.
May he sit on gold, sleep on down,
And wake up glad, for we've ground well."
"Here shall none another harm,
Plan no malice, nor murder plot.
None shall strike with steel, sharp-edged,
Though brother's banesman bound he finds.*"
This alone to them he said,
Less than the cuckoo I'll let you sleep,
Or time I take one song to sing."
"Frodi, you were not wise in this,
No friend to men when maids you bought,
Bought for strength and beauty alone,
But wondered about their breeding never."
"Hrungnir was strong, stronger his father,
But stronger than they, Thiazi was.
Kinsmen of ours were Idi and Aurnir,
Mountain giants' brothers-- we're born of them."
"From the grey fells had Grotti not come,
Nor the hard stone been hewn from Earth,
Nor the giant girl be grinding here,
Had we nothing known of it."
"Nine winters we playmates two
Were nurtured in strength beneath the Earth,
As maidens strove at mighty works,
Uprooting and rolling rocks from their place."
"Through the giants' stead the stone rolled,
And Earth shook with the shock of it.
We threw the mighty millstone down,
The swift-turning stone, so men could take it."
"Since that time in Sweden went,
Foreknowing pair, the people among,
Berserkers fought, and burst shields,
And went against a grey-clad* host."
"Overthrew one king, aided another,
To goodly Gothorm gave our help,
And knew no rest till Knui fell."
"Several winters warred we thus,
Winning fame for warlike deeds.
With sharp spears sheared we then,
Blades reddened with bloody wounds."
"Now we are come to a king's hall,
Unpitied to live our lives as slaves.
Mud gnaws our feet; it's frigid above,
Dragging strife-settler. Dreary is Frodi's!"
"Hands must rest, the rock stand still.
I'll do no more; I've milled my share."
"Hands will never have their rest
Till Frodi agrees we've ground enough."
"Hands will hold the hard shafts,
Weapons gory-- wake up, Frodi.
Wake up, Frodi, would you hear
Our songs of old, our ancient lore?"
"Fire I see burning east of the burg,
War cries wake, calls for beacons.
Hither will come a host quite soon,
and burn the town above the king."
"The throne of Lejre no longer you'll hold,
Red gold rings, or the rich mill.
Turn the handle harder, Sister,
Till we're warmed in warriors' blood."
"My father's daughter furiously ground,
Foreseeing a host fated to die.
The massive posts from the mill-stand leaped,
The iron mountings. More we'll grind."
"More swiftly grind; the son of Yrsa*
For Halfdan's fate will Frodi slay,
For he to her both has the name
Of son and brother, as both we know."
With all their might the maidens ground,
Young maidens in a jotun rage.
The shaft tree trembled, toppled down;
The bulky millstone broke in two.
Then the mountain-giant maiden spoke,
"Frothi, we've ground; we're finished now,
At milling labored long enough.
*The son of Yrsa (by incest) is Hrolf Kraki, a
great hero, and the subject of saga. Frodi had treacherously killed his brother, Halfdan.
Elsewhere the killer of Frodi is said to have been the sea king, Mysing.
*That is, wearing chain mail.
*This period in the North was called "The peace of Frodi," and Snorri associates it with the lifetime of Christ, but that time-frame does not fit with other elements of the chronology, which would make Frodi some centuries later.
Below is Thorpe's translation of the same poem. It is a very old translation, but generally accurate and literal, and most of the time makes the content of each half line match closely with the original, unlike most translators, who shuffle the arrangement of phrases in the stanza to fit their own purposes--metrical, logical, or otherwise. I would have included Bellows' translation as well, except that this is the one eddaic poem he didn't do.
The Lay of Grotti
1. Now are come
to the king's house
two prescient damsels,
Fenia and Menia;
they are with Frodi,
the powerful maidens,
in thraldom held.
2. To the mill
they both were led,
and the grey stone
to set going ordered;
he to both forbade
rest and solace,
before he heard
the maidens' voice.
3. They made resound
the clattering quern,
with their arms
swung the light stones.
The maidens he commanded
yet more to grind.
4. They sung and swung
the whirling stone,
until Frodi's thralls
nearly all slept.
Then said Menia
--to the meal was come--
5. "Riches we grind for Frodi,
all happiness we grind,
wealth in abundance,
in gladness' mill.
On riches may he sit,
on down may he sleep,
to joy may he wake:
then 'tis well ground!
6. Here shall not one
nor occasion death,
nor yet strike
with the biting sword,
although a brother's slayer
he find bound."
7. He had not yet said
one word before:
"Sleep ye not longer
than the gowks round the house, or than while
one song I sing."
8. Thou was not, Frodi!
for thyself over-wise,
or a fiend of men,
when thralls thou boughtest;
for strength thou chosest them,
and for their looks,
but of their race
didst not inquire.
9. Stout was Hrungnir,
and his father,
yet was Thiassi
stronger than they;
Idi and Ornir
our relations are,
brothers of the mountain-giants
from whom we are born.
10. Grotti had not come
from the grey fell,
nor yet the hard
stone from the earth;
nor so had ground
the giant maid,
if her race had
aught of her known.
11. Nine winters we
strong and nurtured
beneath the earth.
We maidens stood
at mighty works
ourselves we moved
the fast rock from its place.
12. We rolled the stone
o'er the giants' house,
so that earth thereby
so hurled we
the whirling rock,
that men could take it.
13. But afterwards, in Sweden,
we prescient two
among people went,
chased the bear,
and shattered shields;
a grey-sarked host,
aided one prince,
afforded the good
Quiet I sat not
ere we warriors felled.
14. Thus we went on
all those winters,
so that in conflicts
we were known;
there we carved,
with our sharp spears,
blood from wounds,
and reddened brands.
15. Now are we come
to a king's house,
and in thraldom held;
gravel gnaws our feet,
and above 'tis cold;
a foe's host we drew.
Sad 'tis at Frodi's!
16. Hands must rest,
the stone shall stand still;
for me I have
my portion ground.
To hands will not
rest be given
Until Frodi thinks
enough is ground.
17. Hands shall hold
the weapon slaughter-gory.
Wake thou, Frodi!
wake thou, Frodi!
if thou wilt listen
to our songs
and sagas old.
18. Fire I see burning
east of the burgh;
tidings of war are rife:
that should be a token;
a host will forthwith
and the town burn
over the king.
19. Thou wilt not hold
the throne of Lethra,
rings of red gold,
or mighty mill-stone.
Let us ply the winch,
girl! yet more rapidly;
are we not grown up
in deadly slaughter?
20. My father's daughter
has stoutly ground,
because the fate
of many men she saw,
spring from the mill-stone
into the Ornefiord,
Let us grind on!
21. Let us grind on!
will avenge Frodi:
he will of her
son and brother:
we both know that."
The maidens ground,
their might applied;
the damsels were
the axes trembled.
For whatever reason, Thorpe ends his translation at this point.
Grotti appears a couple of times in the Prose Edda, but the complete poem appears in only one manuscript of Snorri's Edda, so it is possible that Snorri did not have the poem in front of him when he composed his work. He does add some detail to the story, some helpful, some not so much. Associating "the peace of Frodi" with the time of Christ does not work with the chronology of the names mentioned in the poem. He gives us the name of the man who first gave the mill to Frodi, but no context otherwise. Finally, quoting Jean I. Young's translation, he gives the poem a folktale conclusion which does not at all square with the text of the poem:
"Mysing took Grotti and Fenja and Menja away with him and ordered them to grind salt. At midnight they asked him if he was not tired of salt, but he told them to go on grinding. They had ground on for a short time when the ship sank, and where the sea poured into the eye of the hand-mill was a whirlpool there afterwards in the ocean. It was then that the sea became salt." Elsewhere we hear that the whirlpool is the famous Maelstrom, and that its bottom is the hole in the center of the stone.
According to the poem it is not Mysing, a Viking in search of plunder, who defeats Frodi, but Hrolf Kraki to avenge the death of Halfdan. In the poem the mill-stone shatters, rather than being carried off, and the Jotun maidens with it. In fact, Snorri's version spoils the dignity and significance of the poem for the sake of harmonizing it with the theme of "how the sea became salt." I will give the Norwegian version of that folktale below.
At the dawn of civilization, almost all technology took on a mythic resonance, and was connected in people's minds with parallels in nature or the cosmos. The mill is one such innovation, and there are mythic stories from many cultures about magic mills which, like Grotti, could grind out whatever was requested. The mill, however, is more than an artifact; it is a microcosm of the cosmos. The earth goes round and round through its seasons, and life through its repeating generations. The heavens revolve around the pole star, and the procession of the equinoxes is a far vaster rotation that encompasses it all. The cosmos is a giant mill, and what it grinds out is time and fate. The old saying, "The mill of the gods grinds slow, but it grinds exceedingly fine," is a (largely unrecognized) statement about fate and time and the cosmos. In "Grotti's Song" it is significant that the mill can only be turned by Jotun maidens, for the Jotuns are the primal forces of nature and the universe. And it is only from them that we take the good things of life, and so we should be careful about pushing them too far. It would be difficult not to see a parallel between Frodi's Jotun-produced reign of peace and prosperity and our modern world with all the luxuries and conveniences it has obtained by pushing nature to the point of rebellion.
An interesting and relevant book to this discussion is Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission Through Myth, by
Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. It associates all myth with astronomy, and the mill is the classic example. The book uses little modern anthropological research, and speaks slightingly of contemporary anthropologists, and so was, perhaps understandably, trashed by nearly all the critics in the field. Unfortunately, the book does leave itself open to such attacks, which are only partially the result of academic narrow-mindedness and territoriality. It is both too trusting of older authorities, many of whose ideas are quite justifiably out of date, and too dismissive of much genuine scholarship from more recent times. And it buys into the "monomyth theory," an absurdity which has been all too popular from Joseph Campbell all the way back to Max Muller. (Not that these scholars agree with each other upon what the monomyth is.) To say that all the myths are strictly astronomical, and all go back to a single prehistoric, but unidentified civilization is saying too much. Still, the book calls attention to an important and often overlooked element of myth, contains much valuable information, and draws together a mass of sources from all over the world.
Another work relevant to our subject is the Finnish Kalevala. The Finns have been northern neighbors to the Germanic people from very ancient times, and there has been a considerable exchange between them of beliefs, ideas, and themes. There is a magic mill in the Kalevala as well. This mill is called a sampo, a word of indefinite meaning, though some modern scholars have associated it with a world column or tree. A tree and a mill would seem to be two very different things, but this particular mill sprouts roots that extend into the earth, the mountains, and the sea shore, rather tree-like behavior. It is also suggestive of the Norse world tree, Yggdrasil, which has roots extending into varous worlds. Also, if a tree is the central pole of the cosmos, which rotates around it, then it has another aspect of a mill. The creation, theft of, and final destruction of the sampo is a major unifying theme of the whole work. Like in the folk tale version of Grotti, the mill is destroyed at sea, but apparently is not the reason the sea is salty.
The Kalevala is a large collection of Finnish verse stories gathered together, arranged in a logical chronology, and connected by a certain amount of transitional verse to produce a somewhat loosely constructed epic poem. The author/editor of this material is a 19th century Finnish schoolteacher named Elias Lonnrot. There is much in the poem which must be very ancient, much older than the poems of the Edda. On the other hand, the poems were not collected until the 19th century, and so there has been some inevitable alteration over time.
The sampo seems to be a more complex mill than the rather crude quern design of Grotti. It has a colorfully ornamented, and apparently metallic cover. It is three sided with one side producing meal, one side salt, and one side gold. A three sided quern would be hard to imagine, and so the sampo would appear to be a geared mill, though that does not make it especially modern, since such mills go back almost to the dawn of history.
The sampo was created by Ilmarinen, the primal artificer, who also made the dome of the sky, and who is in many ways parallel to the Greek Haephestos and Daedalus, and the Germanic Wayland/Volund. Here is the account of the forging of the sampo from Rune X, of the Kalevala:
For his forge he sought a station,
And a wide place for his bellows,
In the country round about him,
In the outer fields of Pohja.
So he sought one day, a second,
And at lenght upon the third day
Found a stone all streaked with colours,
And a mighty rock beside it.
Here the smith his seach abandoned,
And the smith prepared his furnace,
On the first day fixed the bellows,
And the forge upon the second.
Thereupon smith Ilimarinen,
He the great primeval craftsman,
Heaped the fuel upon the fire,
And beneath the forge he thrust it,
Made his servants work the bellows,
To the half of all their power.
So the servants worked the bellows,
To the half of all their power,
During three days of the summer,
During three nights of the summer,
Stones beneath their heels were resting,
And upon their toes were boulders.
On the first day of their labour
He himself, smith Ilimarinen,
Stooped him down, intensely gazing,
To the bottom of the furnace,
If perchance amid the fire
Something brilliant had developed.
Ilimarinen finds a gold and silver crossbow in the furnace, but it is of an evil nature, demanding a head each day, and so he breaks it and casts it back into the furnace. This is reminiscent of the dwarf sword, Tyrfing, that once drawn cannot be resheathed until it has killed someone. (See my page, "Angantyr" on this site.) With his second effort, Ilimarinen produces a boat, but that too is of an evil nature, and he breaks it and casts it back into the furnace. His third try produces a heifer with shining golden horns, the Bear stars on her forehead and the Sun-disk on her head.
This is rather reminiscent of the lunar heifer described in a Cretan Myth. (See
"Cretan Myth" on this site.) One might well wonder if the other impliments have some cosmic significance as well. If so, it would give additional support to the thesis of Hamlet's Mill. The heifer too is evil, however, and so he dismembers it and throws the remains back into the furnace. The fourth effort produces a plow with a destructive nature, and that two he breaks and throws back into the furnace. For his fifth effort he summons the winds to blow, rather than having his servants work the bellows, and he finally produces the sampo:
On the evening of the third day,
Stooped him down and gazed intently
To the bottom of the furnace,
And he saw the Sampo forming,
With its many-colored cover.
Thereupon smith Ilmarinen,
He the great primeval craftsman,
Welded it and hammered at it,
Heaped his rapid blows upon it,
Forged with cunning art the Sampo,
And on one side was a corn-mill,
On another side a salt-mill,
And upon the third a coin-mill.
Now was grinding the new Sampo,
And revolved the pictured cover,
Chestfulls did it grind till evening,
First for food it ground a chestfull,
And another ground for barter,
And a third it ground for storage.
In reading this story, it is hard not to think of the Norse story of the competition between the dwarfs, the first of whom makes in his furnace, gold hair for Sif, Odin's spear, Gungnir, and the ship, Skidbladnir for Frey, while the second creates Thor's hammer, the ring Draupnir, and Frey's golden sun-boar. In both stories, Finnish and Norse, the smith's work seems as much, or more magic than craftsmanship.
Why the Sea is Salt
Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were two brothers, the one rich, and the other poor. When Christmas eve came, the poor one had not a bite in the house, either of meat or bread; so he went to his brother, and begged him, in God's name to give him something for Christmas Day. It was by no means the first time that the brother had been forced to give something to him, and he was not better pleased at being asked now than he generally was.
"If you will do what I ask you, you shall have a whole ham," said he, The poor one immediately thanked him, and promised this.
"Well, here is the ham, and now you must go straight to Dead Man's Hall," said the rich brother, throwing the ham to him.
"Well, I will do what I have promised," said the other, and he took the ham and set off. He went on and on for the livelong day. and at nightfall he came to a place where there was a bright light.
"I have no doubt this is the place," thought the man with the ham.
An old man with a long white beard was standing in the outhouse chopping Yule logs.
"Good-evening," said the man with the ham.
"Good-evening to you. Where are you going at this late hour?" said the man.
"I am going to Dead Man's Hall if only I am in the right track," aswered the poor man.
"Oh! yes, you are right enough, for it is here," said the old man. "When you get inside they will all want to buy your ham, for they don't get much meat to eat there; but you must not sell it unless you can get the hand-mill which stands behind the door for it. When you come out again I will teach you how to stop the hand-mill, which is useful for almost everything.
So the man with the ham thanked the other for his good advise, and rapped at the door.
When he got in, everything happened just as the old man had said it would: all the people great and small, came round him like ants on an ant-hill, and each tried to outbid the other for the ham.
"By rights my old woman and I ought to have it for our Christmas dinner, but, since you have set your hearts upon it, I must just give it up to you," said the man. "But,if I sell it, I will have the hand-mill which is standing there behind the door."
At first they would not hear of this, and haggled and bargained with the man, but he stuck to what he had said, and the people were forced to give him the hand-mill. When the man came out again into the yard, he asked the old wood-cutter how he was to stop the hand-mill, and when he had learnt that he thanked him and set off home with all the speed he could, but did not get there until after the clock had struck twelve on Christmas Eve.
"But where in the world have you been?" said the old woman. "Here I have sat waiting hour after hour, and have not even two sticks to lay across each other under the Christmas porridge-pot."
"Oh! I could not come before; I had something of importance to see about, and a long way to go, too; but now you shall just see!" said the man, and then he set the hand-mill on the table, and bade it first grind light, then a table-cloth, and then meat, and beer, and everything else that was good for a Christmas Eve's supper; and the mill ground all that he ordered. "Bless me!" said the old woman as one thing after another appeared; and she wanted to know where her husband had got the mill from, but he would not tell her that.
"Never mind where I got it; you can see that it is a good one, and the water that turns it will never freeze," said the man. So he ground meat and drink, and all kinds of good things, to last all Christmas-tide, and on the third day he invited all his friends to come to a feast.
Now when the rich brother saw all that there was at the banquet and in the house, he was both vexed and angry, for he grudged everything his brother had. "On Christmas Eve he was so poor that he came to me and begged for a trifle, for God's sake, and now he gives a feast as if he were both a count and a king!" thought he. "But for heaven's sake, tell me where you got your riches from," said he to his brother.
"From behind the door," said he who owned the mill, for he did not choose to satisfy his brother on that point; but later in t he evening, when he had taken a drop too much, he could not refrain from telling how he had come by the hand-mill. "There you see what has brought me all my wealth!" said he, and brought out the mill, and made it grind first one thing and then another. When the brother saw that he insisted on having the mill, and after a great deal of persuasion got it; but he had to give three hundred dollars for it, and the poor brother was to keep it till the haymaking was over, for he thought: "If I keep it as long as that, I can make it grind meat and drink that will last many a long year." During that time you may imagine that the mill did not grow rusty, and when hay-harvest came the rich brother got it, but the other had taken good care not to teach him how to stop it. It was evening when the rich man got the mill home, and in the morning he bade the old woman go out and spread the hay after the mowers, and he would attend to the house himself that day, he said.
"So, when dinner-time drew near, he set the mill on the kitchen-table, and said: "Grind herrings and milk pottage, and do it both quickly and well."
After a long, long time came also a skipper who wished to see the mill. He asked if it could make salt. "Yes, it could make salt," said he who owned it, and when the skipper heard that he wished with all his might and main to have the mill, let it cost what it might, for, he thought, if he had it, he would get off having to sail far away over the perilous sea for freights of salt. At first the man would not hear of parting with it, but the skipper begged and prayed, and at last the man sold it to him, and got money, many thousands of dollars for it. When the skipper had got the mill on his back he did not long stay there, for he was so afraid that the man should change his mind, and he had no time to ask how he was to stop it grinding, but got on board his ship as fast as he could.
When he had gone a little way out to sea he took the mill on deck. "Grind salt, and grind both quickly and well," said the skipper. So the mill began t o grind salt, till it spouted out like water, and when the skipper had got the ship filled he wanted to stop the mill, but, whichsoever way he turned it, and how much soever he tried, it went on grinding, and the heap of salt grew higher and higher, until at last the ship sank. There lies the mill at the bottom of the sea, and still, day by day, it grinds on: and that is why the sea is salt.
from Asbjjornsen and Moe.
Little of myth remains in this folktale, variants of which are widespread. Instead of the Jotun maids, who contribute to the cosmic nature of the myth, we have the common folktale theme of sibling rivalry. This version of the story has also been influenced by a related, but different folktale motif, that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice.
Hrungnir--the mightiest of all giants. Killed by Thor. Thiazi is a mountain giant best known as Skadi's father.