Mermen Are Important Players in Scandinavian Culture and History
by Kathy Warnes
“I would be a merman bold,
I would sit and sing the whole of the day;
I would fill the sea-halls with a voice of power
But at night I would roam abroad and play.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson-Song of the Merman
Like the seas surrounding Scandinavia, including the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, the Norwegian Sea, the Archipelago Sea, and the North Sea, mermen have played an important part in the history and culture of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
Portraits and Powers of Mermen.
The Danish Nokke or Neck, the Finnish Vetehinen, the Norwegian Havmann and the Swedish Neck had the head and upper body of a powerful man which gradually tapered into a tail like a fish. The Danish Nokke was often pictured as a small boy with golden hair hanging in curls and wearing a red cap. The upper body of the merman is often pictured as handsome young man, and his lower body like a horse and others depicted him as an old man sitting on the cliffs wringing water out of his long white beard.
The legends said that mermen were shapeshifters, able to transform themselves into different shapes as quickly as sunlight reflecting in water. Contrary to more modern versions of the mermen scantily clad, legendary mermen often appeared in full dress attire playing the violin in rivers and waterfalls or materializing as an animal, especially as a river horse. Scandinavian names for the mermen like Naack and Nokk came from the old Norse nykr, which means “river horse.”
Mermen had powers that they used for both good and evil. Some stories said that mermen brewed storms, controlled the oceans, and lured mariners and unwary landlubbers to their deaths with enchanted music. One of the Norwegian myths about the Neck said that the Havmann or Merman was a monster with a human head that lived in both fresh and salt water. Whenever anyone drowned, people speculated that the Havmann took him away.
The Danish Merman’s Sock
The Neck often tried to prevent drowning accidents by screaming the sound of the loon at a particular spot in a lake to warn boaters to avoid that spot. Jacqueline Simpson tells a version of a folktale from Denmark called “The Merman’s Sock” in Scandinavian Folktales. “One fine fall day a fisherman rowed out to fish in the sea, and he hadn’t been fishing very long when the knife edged wind and the mountainous waves warned him to row for shore. Shivering with cold, he rowed hard, but the wind and waves held him back.
Then he saw something that made him shiver with fear on top of shivering with cold. A gray bearded man sitting on a wave as if he were riding a pony rolled toward him. The fisherman started to pray because he recognized the man as a merman and he knew the merman’s appearance meant a storm followed close behind.
The fisherman noticed that the merman’s violent shivering matched his own and the fisherman cried, “I’m so cold because one of my socks is gone!”
Quickly, the fisherman tugged off the boot on his right foot, stripped off the sock on his right foot, and threw it to the merman. The merman disappeared and the fisherman rowed safely to shore. Five weeks passed before the weather improved enough for the fisherman to go fishing on the sea again. He enjoyed a good day of fishing and was bringing in a full net when he saw gray hair under the water and then the merman came up beside his boat.
The merman sang,
Listen, listen, man who threw sock,
Turn around, turn around, row straight back,
There’s thunder over Norway.
Then the merman disappeared and the fisherman rowed back to shore pursued by storm demons. He reached shore just as the most violent storm of the season churned the waters. Many other fishermen were lost.
Jane Yolen and Shulamith Oppenheim told the Norwegian folktale version of the story in The Fish Prince and Other Stories: Merman Folk Tales. The Norwegian version of the story has the fisherman tossing a mitten to the freezing merman. In return, the merman saves the lives of the fisherman and his fishing friends.
The Musician Mermen
Mermen loved music and they often sat on the water enticing notes from their golden harps or violins that harmonized with all of the songs in nature. Swedish Neck lore had it that if a mortal wanted to learn music from a Neck, the mortal must give him an offering of a black lamb and promise him resurrection and redemption.
The Nineteenth Century Mermen sang about loneliness and longing for salvation. Swedish poet E.J. Stagnelius wrote a poem about a little boy who pitied the fate of the Neck and his pity saved his own life. The legendary story goes that two Swedish boys playing near a river that flowed by their home. A Neck arose from the depths of the river and sat on the water’s surface, playing his harp. One of the boys asked the Neck why he sat there playing the harp and told him that he would never be saved.
Weeping bitterly, the Neck threw down his harp and sank to the bottom of the river. The boys went home and told the story of their father, who also served as the parish priest. Their father asked them to hurry back to the river and comfort the Neck with the promise of salvation. The boys ran back to the river and found the Neck sitting on the river weeping and wailing. The boys told the Neck that their father, the priest, said that “your Redeemer liveth also.”
The Neck took up his harp and played sweet music until long after sunset.
The same legend also appears in Denmark, but in a darker version. The Danish story goes that a clergyman traveled one night in a carriage to Roeskilde in Zealand. He heard the sounds of music and he came upon a Neck playing a harp. The Neck asked the clergyman how to gain salvation and the clergyman told him that “Sooner will this cane which I hold in my hand grow green flowers than thou shalt attain salvation.”
Weeping, the Neck threw away his harp and the clergyman rode on. Suddenly, leaves and blossoms grew from his cane and the clergyman went back to the stream to tell the Neck the good news. The Neck joyously played his harp the entire night.
“The Merman With the Seven Sons” and “Agnete and the Merman”
An unusual underwater sculpture by Suste Bonnen called “Agnete og Havmanden” or “The Merman with Seven Sons” is located “on the beaten track” in the center of Copenhagen. It is located in the canal by the Hojbro Bridge on the other side of the bridge from the fisherwoman sculpture. After its original installation in 1992, the sculpture was renovated and unveiled again in August 1997.
Suste Bonnen based her inspiration for the “Merman With Seven Sons” on the legend of “Agnete and the Merman.” As a young peasant girl named Agnete walked by the seashore, a merman rose from the waves and offered her his hand. She immediately fell in love with him and followed him to the bottom of the sea to live with him as his wife. She gave birth to his seven sons, and had entered her eighth year of living under the sea when she heard the church bells ringing from her old village.
The sound of the church bells made Agnete realize how much she missed the church and her family and she asked the merman to allow her to go home for a visit. He gave her permission on the condition that she would return after Mass. Once on land again, Agnete decided that she couldn’t return to the sea so she remained with her family and languished of land for her husband and her sons under the sea.
Johannes Bjerg, a sculptor and director of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts created a sculpture and fountain of Agnete and her merman that sit by the Aarhus city hall in Aarhus, Denmark. Heavily influenced by El Greco Bjerg created Agnete and her merman in El Greco’s free flowing style.
The Merman in Lake Fagertarn, Sweden
Located in the Tiveden Nature Reserve in Sweden, Lake Fagertarn is famous for its red water lilies. A Swedish folk tale related how Lake Fagertarn’s red water lilies were created. Once a poor fisherman with a beautiful daughter lived beside Lake Fagertarn. Tiny Lake Fagertarn did not yield many fish and the fisherman had a difficult time providing for his family. One day as the fisherman fished in his oak dugout, he met a Neck or a merman and the merman offered him prosperous fishing in exchange for the hand of his beautiful daughter the day that she turned eighteen years old.
The desperate fisherman accepted the merman’s offer, and the day his daughter turned eighteen she went down to the shore of Lake Fagertarn to meet the merman. The merman offered the girl his hand so she could follow him to his watery home, but declaring he would never have her alive, the girl drew a knife from her clothes and stuck it into her heart. She fell dead, into the lake, her blood coloring the water lilies red. From that day forth, the water lilies of Lake Fagertarn have been red.
The Finnish Vetehinen
In Finland, the vetehinen, meaning merman, belonged to Finland’s mythology and possessed many of the same qualities as Norway, Sweden, and Denmark’s mermen. The vetehinen was said to appear naked except for his long black hair and beard and he had a fish tail a little bigger than a mermaid’s tail. He was a mixture of good and evil. Sometimes he would lure fishermen into deep water and other times he would rescue them.
After World War I, Germany set up a Dutch dummy company to develop and maintain German submarine technology and to get around the limitations of the Treaty of Versailles. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the Finnish Crichton Vulcan shipyard in Turku built the Vetehinen class submarines which served in the Finnish Navy during World War II.
Norwegian Havmann Days Held Every Year In May
English artist Antony Gormley sculpted Havmann or “The Man From the Sea,” a granite stone sculpture which is located in the Ranfjord in the city of Mo j Rana, or the Arctic Circle City in located in Northern Norway just South of the Arctic Circle.
In 1995, the Havmann was placed in the Ranfjord as part of Artscape Nordland. After some controversy about the sculpture, the citizens of Mo I Rana have adopted the Havmann as the town’s ambassador. The Havmann has also inspired and given its name to a yearly festival called the Havmanndagene or Havmann Days which is held in the town every May.
Rising from the mists of legend, mermen still have “a voice of power” in Scandinavian culture and history.
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