Why the Sea is Salty, or, Hamlet (Amlo∂i)

A Scandinavian saga.

Once, such a long, long time ago, a rich brother and poor brother lived, not far from one another.  As the winter solstice and the time of Jól (“Yule”) approached, the poor brother had not a thing to eat, not even the crumbs of a stale loaf of bread.  He went to his rich brother to beg for meat or fish or berries or beetroot – anything to keep the Jòl, for the offerings to Thor that he might protect us from the powers of Hel during the dark days of the 13 weeks of winter. 

Not for the first time did the poor brother find himself relying upon his rich sibling, and the rich brother, honestly, started to tire of this dependence.  Enough being enough, but family still being family, the rich brother did not find himself happy to see the poor, but he let him in.  Then he said, “I’ll give you one of my goats and a barrel of mead, but you must do what I ask you to do.”

Full of thanks and happiness along with his hunger pangs, the poor brother said, “Anything, I’ll do anything!”

They walked through the household and out to the barn, where the rich brother selected a portly goat.  “Take this one,” he said, and handed him a leash.  Then he rolled out a barrel of mead, and they loaded it across the poor brother’s shoulders.  “Now, go to Hel.”

“I gave my word,” said the poor brother, and he nodded and blinked, swallowing hard.  So he walked all day with his goat and his barrel, headed for home, wondering how he could follow through. 

When the sun dipped low and the clouds thickened, and the night began to gather, he saw a bright light coming through the spruce.  “Perhaps that is for me,” he thought, shoulders aching.  So he turned off the road and went for the light. 

He was afraid in the woods, because it was the time of year when the souls of the dead ride through the winter skies.  The days grow ever shorter, and the difference between the world of the living and that of the dead is so slight that it is difficult for the Jòl Riders to tell where they are going.  Above him he saw black shapes shooting in and out of the clouds, and he heard the braying of wolves through the forest.  He shivered, but he focused on the light, and carried on with his goat. 


He soon came upon a clearing, in the middle of a windless glade of pine trees.  A large bonfire burned nearby, the ground littered with fresh cut stacks of wood.  But the light was not coming from the fire.  In the clearing stood a long and narrow hall with three windows and a curved roof covered with sod.  A golden chain hung around it, under the eaves.  The light shined through a hammer carved into the door.  Leaning next to the cabin stood a wizened old graybeard.  He had a hefty axe in his gnarled hands, as he had been chopping wood for his solstice bonfire. 

“Good evening,” called the poor brother.

“Same to you.  Nice goat.”  He wiped a paw-like hand over his brow.  “Why are you passing by this Hof, so late in the day, when the nisser and the gnomes, the dark elves and the dead men roam? ”

“Well, actually,” he hedged a moment.  But he felt tired, and simply said,  “I’m going to Hel.  If I can find my way.”

The graybeard sniffed, then scratched at a fuzzy ear.  “You’re not far off.  This is the way,” he said, pointing toward the door.  “When you get there, you’ll be the talk of the place.  Goats and mead are scarce in Hel.”  He smiled a toothy grin.  “But don’t sell it to anyone unless you get the little grindstone, which sets behind the door, as part of the bargain.  When you come back, I’ll show you how to use it.  It can grind just about anything.”


Thanking the graybeard for his advice, the poor brother adjusted his barrel, and gave a great knocking to the longhouse door.

It creaked open.  He passed inside, and just as the old man had said, all manner of dead men, skin as dark as jet and eyes to match, swarmed around him like ants on a hill, like flies on a carcass.  They stretched their bony fingers out to the goat, licking their skinless lips and begging for some meat, and a horn of mead.  He grasped the goat and the barrel and his knuckles shined white. 

In the center of the room he saw the source of the light: a young girl, golden-haired and gleaming, lying still on a table, eyes closed and not moving at all.  Around her swirled nine tall women, each faintly glowing white.  Some leaned over the girl, caressing her.  Some leaned over the dead men, consoling them.  Sometimes they would touch a dead man, motherly and tender.  His twisted black body would jerk and spasm, transforming into golden light, and it would slowly rise into the air, drifting above the golden girl and into the rafters, out of sight.


“By rights, this goat is mine,” he said, “for me and my wife, for our solstice, and for Thor.  I feel sorry for you all, though, so I suppose we can make a deal.  I’ll give it to you for the grindstone behind the door there.”

The frantic host wailed and screeched, refusing the preposterous offer.  But the poor brother stuck firm, and despite the haggling and waggling and chin-waving and cursing, they finally parted with the stones.  He handed over the goat and the mead to one of the tall women, who said to him, “One of the stones is Fire, and the other is Ice.  What do you plan on doing with them?”

“The graybeard outside told me they can grind almost anything.  He promised to show me how to use them.”

She smiled at him, and said, “Whatever that old hound tells you, remember that whatever you grind, give an offering to the alfar.”  Then she turned and carried the goat to an altar, and poured the mead into horns for the gleeful dead.

Back outside the longhouse door, he showed it to the graybeard.  His sharp white teeth glowed as he smiled and taught him how to use it.  Thanking the man, the poor brother hurried home.  But it was a long way, and he didn’t make it before the solstice had passed.

“I’ve waited hour after hour, watching and worrying, without even two sticks to rub together, wondering where you’ve been,” his wife said.  His son clung to her skirts, eyes red and wet.

“Well, I had to go a long way for one thing, and then after that something else followed, and then something more, you know how it goes,” he shrugged.  “But,” he grinned, “now you will see what you will see.”  And he ruffled the boy’s hair, who wiped his nose with his finger.

He set the grindstones on the table, his wife rolling her eyes and rubbing her growling belly.  He whispered to the stones, then ground them together.  Candles appeared, all aflame, and a tablecloth with a fancy brocade.  A whole roast with turnips and parsnips, beets and carrots filled the table, and horns of mead and shining silverware, silk napkins, all the nice things you’d love to have on a winter solstice.  Whatever he whispered, he ground from the stones.  His wife gaped and cawed, and clapped her hands to the stars.  His son shouted and laughed, asking him again and again where he found such a wondrous thing. 

“Don’t worry yourself with where I got it, little Amlo∂i.  It works, its wonderful, that’s all fine and good.  That’s all you need to worry about.  That and let’s hope the stream doesn’t freeze over.”

After wife and son had eaten their fill, he put them to bed.  He snuck out of the house, and walked into the woods to a clearing of low, flat rocks.  On the rocks he placed one copy of everything he’d made with the grindstones.

Over the next few days he ground out meat and drink and delicacies and cakes and fur coats and dresses and toys and candies.  He thought about how poor he had been, and how hungry he had caused his wife and son to be through all their troubles.  So with the Jólablót (“Yule Sacrifice”) ceremonies coming up, he invited all his neighbors for a great feast.  Because they lived near the village where his wife came from, all of the attendees were his in-laws.  So he also invited his brother, to thank him for his past help. 


When his rich brother arrived and witnessed the sumptuousness of his poor brother’s household, he got a wild look in his eye.  “It was only a couple weeks ago when this cretin was in such dire straits that he begged me for scraps for Jól, in the name of the gods.  And now he is living like a King!”  He turned to his brother and asked, “Where in Hel’s name did you get all this?”

“From behind the door,” he said, picking at his nails and arching an eyebrow.  Which of course made his brother throw a fit.  But later in the evening, after a bit too much mead, he started to let things spill.  He showed everyone the grindstones and said, “This, this is what has given me all this wealth.”  Everyone scoffed, and he felt insulted, so he began to grind out all kinds of things: hat pins and snuff bottles, bone combs and toothpicks, amber and jet amulets, feather quills and inkpots. 

Amidst all the spirited guests and the simmering rich brother, the young son reminded his father of the Braggaful ritual, always performed on the first night of the Jólablót.  So his father ground out a massive but docile boar, and everyone gathered around.  They put their hands on the boar, one by one, and each person in turn spoke about their promise for the next year. 

“I will build a new boat,” “I will visit my father in the mountains,” “I will finish preparing the new field,” “I will take my family to Uppsala.”  “I will become even richer,” boasted his brother.  Then they took the boar outside and slaughtered it, and the boar’s spirit would carry their promises to the gods.  The poor brother ground out more mead, and everyone drank deeply.

The rich brother seethed over with jealousy, and begged his brother for the stones.  After much coaxing and more drinking, he finally agreed to lend it to him.  “You did keep me fed, more times than I can remember.  And many times lent me money when I was in need.  Plus, you’re my brother.  So, you can keep it until the equinox.”

The rich brother clapped and laughed, and reasoned that he could grind out plenty of food and things by the equinox.  However, the poor brother, too drunk to remember, never bothered to teach him how to use it properly.

When he got home, the rich brother told his wife to go outside, take a walk, a constitutional, a rest, play games with your shuttlecock or walk the dogs, whatever!  “You deserve some time off.  The mowers are working our fields, and I will take care of everything for dinner.”  She left in a huff, perplexed and disoriented by his odd behavior.

He set the grindstone on the table and thought that he’d impress everyone in his household by preparing all their dinners. “Herrings and broth, onions and ramps, grind them all out, quickly and fast!”  So the grindstone churned out herrings and broth, onions and ramps.  He went into the parlor and spent most of the day dreaming about what he’d do with the fabulous stones. 

As he idly dreamed, in the kitchen the stones were filling the bowls, then the plates, then the table, then the floor.  The rich brother heard the crashing, and dashed in.  He grabbed at the stones, twisting and shouting, but they went on spouting more food until the broth was so deep he thought he’d drown.  He fumbled for the door, and spilled out into the parlor.  Soon the entire house ran over, and he dashed off down the road, a waterfall of herrings and broth, onions and ramps crashing behind him.

Out in the fields, his wife grew bored with her leisure.  “Well, he hasn’t called me in, but it is nearing time for dinner,”  she thought.  “He probably can’t figure out how to boil the water,” she sighed, and decided to march on home.

She and the mowers started on their way back, but the roadway seemed oddly wet, and fragrantly so.  The rich brother hurtled past them, screaming out for them to run.  “Unless you can swallow all the herrings in the sea, run away!  Run away!”  Right behind him over the hill gushed the herrings and broth, onions and ramps.

They ran as fast as they could, all the way to the poor brother’s house. 

“You must stop the stones!” the rich brother begged.  “Soon everything will be buried in herrings and broth, onions and ramps.”

The poor brother leapt to action, scooping up some herrings, some broth, some onions and some ramps into a bowl and tearing through the woods to the flat rocks.  Once he left his gifts for the alfar, the grindstones stopped, and everyone was relieved.

The rich brother now divined the secret to making the grindstones stop, and he lusted over all the things he could make.  “Let’s celebrate,” he urged, so they ground out more mead, and they drank.  But the rich brother could not take his mind off all the things he wanted, and he resented his poor brother for showing him up.  So while everyone drank themselves silly, he poisoned his brother’s horn.  And so ended the second night of the Jólablót.


In the morning the poor brother’s wife couldn’t wake him, and she moaned and cried, and little Amlo∂i wailed and bawled.  The rich brother took her home to be his second wife, and adopted Amlo∂i as his son, and of course he took the grindstones with him.

In no time at all he lived in a finer household than anyone around.  He had more land and more fields, more mowers and more grass.  He ground out so much gold that he stored it in golden warehouses.  It spilled down the hillsides toward the sea, and every ship that passed by saw the glinting of the sunlight on the rivers of gold. 

But the days never grew longer after the Jólablót had passed.  He had quite forgotten to sacrifice a goat, and the winter persisted.  The short, dark days went on and on, a tired old sun barely dragging herself across the sky.  Everyone grieved for the seasons except the rich brother, who smiled and smiled at his piles of gold.

Twelve years later, little Amlo∂i had become a tall young man, and he ventured farther and farther from the household of his rich uncle.  One day during the Jól, he saw a dark figure step out of the woods, and beckon to him, then re-enter the thick trees.  Thinking it looked like his dead father, he followed it.  He called to it, but received no answer.  He could only hear a shivering, whispering sound like many voices speaking at once, far in the distance. 

It led him to the Hof where his father went to Hel, and the wind ceased.  He wondered at the graybeard chopping pine outside.  The light coming through the hammer shone, but it was very dim, no brighter than the dim light from the sun.  The graybeard snarled at the young man, but continued with his chopping.  The shadowy figure looked at him, then entered the hall.  Amlo∂i knocked on the door, and it flung wide open.

He came inside, and saw it packed with countless dead, inky men.  They moaned and whimpered, but barely lifted their heads.  They sat drooped over long tables, piled atop one another, wheezing and farting and drooling.  Nine tall women sat around a young girl, who lay prone and unmoving.  “Tell me, what is happening here?” he asked.

One of the women opened her eyes, and said, “We cannot wake her.  We cannot remember the words to the Sólarjód (“The Song of the Sun”).  The world is filling with the dead, and we cannot move them on.  There is no difference between Hel and your world any longer.”

Amlo∂i felt great sorrow.  He begged them to tell him what to do.  They told him to grind together Ice and Fire, to re-begin all things.  “Give me two jotunn women who are bound to help me, and I will,” he promised.

When he returned to his rich uncle’s home, he presented the two women as gifts.  He said to his father, “These women have a touch of magic, and they are bound to you.  Give them the task of grinding the stones, to relieve yourself of the responsibility.  I ask only that you tell me how my father died.”

“He died of drinking, the poor man.  He drank you and your mother out of house and home.  He drank because he was poor, and he was poor because he drank too much.  Luckily, that will never happen to me.”  The uncle thanked him for the gift, and thought it a wonderful idea.  He set the women to work immediately, never letting them rest.  All day long they ground out gold and hauled it into his warehouses. 

The rich uncle feared Amlo∂i and his new curiosity, and especially the odd practice he had begun of wearing a goat mask every day.  So he hatched a plan to kill him, too.  He told his second wife that he had exchanged proposals with a King across the western sea, who had agreed to marrying Amlo∂i to his daughter.


He drafted a letter for the King, and in it he wrote that Amlo∂i was a pirate who boasted of stealing from the King’s ships.  And because the uncle felt it was only right for the young man to be dealt with accordingly by the King himself, he was sending him along with the happy suggestion that he be hanged upon arrival.  He sealed it and gave the letter to Amlo∂i, saying it was his new marriage contract, and he should deliver it unopened.  Amlo∂i bowed in his goat mask, took the letter, and said, “May your hawks never become handsaws.”

When he came before the King across the western sea, Amlo∂i gave him an altered letter, one that explained how his rich uncle used the grindstones to manufacture gold, and this was the source of his wealth.  The King desired to see them, of course, and asked Amlo∂i to return and entreat him to visit.

Return he did, but before coming back to his rich uncle, he visited the Hof.  He captured a boar, swore to re-begin all things, then killed it on an alter of stone.  He went into the longhouse and collected an army of the dead.  He propped them all along the shore outside his uncle’s home, and then ran inside.  “The King knows about the grindstone, and he demands you bring it to him,” he said.  “He has sent a great army to kill you if you do not comply – see them gathered on the beach!”

His uncle saw the army, and became seized with fear.  “What can we do, what can we do?” he cried.

“Send him the grindstone with the two women bound to you.  They cannot break their commitment to do what you command.  But have them grind out something simple, like salt, and sand, and water.  The King will see that it cannot grind gold and he will send it back to you.”

This the uncle thought a sound idea, so he commanded it right away.  The two jotunn women were loaded on a ship with Ice and Fire, and in the hold they ground away, making salt, and sand, and water.  This being Twelfth Night, Amlo∂i sacrificed a goat and drained its blood into a horn of mead, taking one drink for himself and giving the rest to Thor.

Great piles of salt poured over the gunwales until the ship sank beneath the waves, spinning into the deep.  Surges of sand and water carved out the skerries, and drowned the rich uncle and his home beneath the waves.

In the Hof, the nine women sang, and the young girl woke.  The dark dead tuned gold at the touch of the women and slowly raised into the sky.  The girl, ablaze in light, rose with them, where she made love to all the gods.  Outside the longhouse, the graybeard sniffed, and threw aside his axe.  He fell onto all fours, howled and brayed, and then set off to chase the bright Sun, rising in the east.

So the grindstone continues to spin, whirling out salt, and sand, and water, even to this day, under the Swelki, just north of Orkney.


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