The Northern Sea

How shall the sea be referred to? By calling it Ymir's blood, visitor to the gods, husband of Ran, father of Aegir's daughters, whose names are Himinglava, Duva, Blodughadda, Hevring, Unn, Hronn, Bylgja, Bara, Kolga; Land of Ran and of Aegir's daughters and of ships and of terms for sea-ship, of keel stem, planks, strake, of fish, ice: Sea King's way and roads, no less ring of the islands, house of the sands and seaweed and skerries, Land of fishing tackle and of sea birds of sailing wind. As Orm Barteyiarskald said: "Out on the sea-bank of good vessels Ymir's blood roars." --Skaldskaparmal

icycoastIn the historical myths of the northern tradition, the sea was both revered and feared. The ability to sail with reasonable accuracy and safety was what built the short-lived Viking empire (and before that, brought in an important survival food in the form of large-scale fishing in the North Atlantic), yet the sea itself was a constant source of threat. This is where we find the differences between the Vanir god Njord, who is in charge of ships and coastlines, and the Jotnar gods Aegir and Ran who move with the energy of the ocean itself. Both were propitiated, but Njord was generally friendly, while the ocean-giants could swing from friend to foe with a moment’s notice.

All the countries of northern Europe border on the sea, and fishing and seafaring are an important aspect to the economy of every one, especially fjord-surrounded Scandinavia. (The Vikings called the River Eider, a main water-channel leading to the sea, “Aegir’s Door”.) However, the Age of Migrations, as it is now referred to, brought a huge upswing in shipbuilding (as can be seen in the ship museums in Oslo and Roskilde) and changed the face of Europe. Seafaring became even more crucial, and even more propitiated. Sailors threw gold (and sometimes sacrificed animals or humans) over the side of their ships in order to ask for the aid of Aegir and his family.

fjord2With our modern forms of travel, we tend to forget the importance that the sea and its gods had for our ancestors. We put the sea-gods aside in our worship, ignoring the fact that three-quarters of our planet is still their home, not ours. I have been to many a blot where Aegir is referred to merely as “the beer-god” and thanked briefly for his gift of booze, while nothing is said about his awesome oceanic power, nor his wife and daughters. It would be sad to think that modern Northern Tradition groups place a higher priority on becoming intoxicated than in revering the forces of Nature that surround us.