Origins of the Maelstrom

Extract from the forthcoming Vol. 2 in the Viking and Norse series:

Grottasongr is what can be called a true Scandinavian fairy tale, in essence a poem put to song by two young slave girls. Slavery is one of the most overlooked aspects of Old Norse culture, and it was common for girls and boys to be bought to serve in the houses of the fledgling nobility.

The Prose Edda tells us that is a time of peace – the Pax Romana having spread to the lands of the North – that their ruled in Denmark king Frothi. This King of legend travels to his counterpart Kings in Sweden, journeying to Old Uppsala. Here he buys two slave girls called Menya and Fenya, both big and strong. They are taken back to Denmark, to serve the Danish house of the Scyldings at Old Lethra, serving King Frothi, or Frode, or Frodo, a name that is familiar to all of us. The two girls are put to work, tied to a magic grindstone, Grótti too big for any man to turn. They are ordered to grind without rest, grinding out the wealth for the king and sing for his household. King Frothi is demanding, and the no matter how hard the girls work for him, it is never enough and on they must grind. Eventually they reveal to the king that they are descended from Mountain Giants, that they are infamous warriors and feel that they feel badly treated and prophesize the coming of a great army that will take from him the wealth they have created. They tell him, that they require the blood of human sacrifice to warm them. Their message falls on deaf ears and on they grind until they break the turning ark of the grindstone. This is when, unable to turn any more, they turn and face the King, uttering to him their prophecy of vengeance:

Mölum enn framar. Let us grind on!

Mun Yrsu sonr, Yrsa’s son,

niðr Halfdanar, Hálfdan’s kinsman

hefna Fróða; will avenge Fróthi:

sá mun hennar he will of her

heitinn verða be called

burr ok bróðir, son and brother:

vitum báðar þat. we both know that

– Gróttasöngr: The Lay of Grótti, The Mill Song

And on they grind, harder and harder, grinding stone on stone, turning it by an impossible force until the grindstone itself is wrecked and split in two, the destruction of the stone matching their increasing wrath at the intransigence of the King. The song is finally finished with the impending arrival of the army, saying the last line:

Frothi, we have ground to the point where we must stop, now the ladies have had a full stint of milling.

This is the end of the peace for Frothi and the Kingdoms experience war into the Viking Age and beyond. A King from the sea called Mysi attacks Frothi, killing him and taking all of the wealth of his House as predicted by the two giantesses. Mysi takes Fenya and Menya with him on his ships and asks them to grind salt. They grind for him but it is never enough, until, unwilling to grind any more, they stop and the ships of the King sink beneath the ocean. Finally, a giant whirlpool swallows the ships and all their men, grindstones turning.

From this saga we get the name for whirpool, ‘mill’ and ‘stream’ – ‘mill stream’, or ‘maelstrom’. This is how and why the sea produces salt.