Fenja and Menja at the mill Grotti, by Max Koch, 1904

The Song of the Magic Mill

Fenja and Menja by Ernst Hansen, 1941
Fenja and Menja by Ernst Hansen, 1941

Grottasöngr, or The Lay of Grotti, is published in some editions of the Poetic Edda but not in others. It was not included in the Codex Regius, the oldest surviving copy of the compilation of poems that make up the Edda. But somewhere along the way, it was added to the mix, and for good reason. References to “Frothi’s Flour” go back at least to the 10th century, and the poem itself is pretty amazing, perhaps the most coherent in the entire collection, and aesthetically and intellectually pleasing as well.

 

Frothi is another legendary-historical figure who keeps popping up when you study Germanic mythology and history, like Ragnar Lothbrok, for instance. He’s name-dropped in Beowulf, the Ynglinga Saga, and Saxo’s History of the Danes. But he is definitely known for being responsible for a long-term peace in Denmark.

Whether he’s a legend or a real historical figure or some mix of the two, Frothi’s Peace eventually ended, and this poem is an attempt at explaining that. The details of the poem are less important, perhaps, than the metaphor.

The etins, the giants, are the counterparts to the gods. The etins are the wild, chaotic forces of nature, wild and unforgiving. The gods are the forces of order, the parts of the universe that give humans the ability to survive in a dangerous world.

In this poem, a king enslaves two giants, and makes them use a magic tool to establish unparalleled peace in the kingdom. But how much control can a man, even a king, have over chaos, the beings that grew from the mountains, hand-crafted massive boulders, and have the power to make magic real in the world? Frothi’s strategy is to work them as hard as he can – he’s seemingly unaware in the story that the women are giants, and wants to use as much of their strength as possible to ensure that the peace doesn’t lapse for even a moment.

In the end, Frothi falls. Was it hubris? Thinking a mere mortal can control something as powerful as these two sisters? Perhaps peace itself is too lofty a goal, and must always eventually fall victim to an army coming to take the king’s gold. Did he underestimate the power of women to resist an overbearing patriarchy? Should he have prayed to the gods more? Relied on technology less?

Or is it just that every king’s reign eventually ends, and sometimes it’s fun to remember them with a tall tale?

I transcribed this from Lee Hollander’s translation of the Poetic Edda, though looking at Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s translation of the Prose Edda, I think the introduction is either Brodeur’s, earlier than both of them, or otherwise of unmentioned origin.

*

Skjold was a son of Óthin from whom the Skjoldungs are sprung. He dwelled and ruled in that land which now is called Denmark but which formerly was called Gotland. Skjold’s son was Frithleif who ruled over the land after him. Frithleif’s son was Fróthi. He succeeded his father at the time when Augustus Caesar made peace in all the world and Christ was born. And because Fróthi was the most powerful king in all the Northern lands, peace was named after him wherever the Danish tongue is spoken, and all the people in the North call it “The Peace of Fróthi.” As long as it lasted, no man harmed the other, even though he met the slayer of his father or of his brother, free or bound. At that time there was no thief or robber, so that a gold ring lay untouched three years by the high road over the Jalangr-Heath. It happened that King Fróthi attended a feast given by King Fjolnir in Sweden, and there he bought two bond-maids whose names were Fenja and Menja. They were both tall and strong. At that time there were in Denmark two millstones which were so large that no man was able to turn them. And these stones had the power to grind out whatever he who turned them bade them grind. This quern was named Grotti, and Hengikjopt the man who had given the king this mill. Fróthi had the maids led to the mill and bade them grind him gold; and so they did, and at first ground for Fróthi gold and peace and happiness. Then he gave them rest or sleep no longer than whilst the cuckoo was silent, or a lay could be sung. It is said that then they chanted the lay which is called “The Lay of Grotti.”

Before it was at an end they had ground this fate for him: on that very night came there the sea king, Mysing, who slew Fróthi and took much booty – and that was the end of “The Peace of Fróthi.” Mysing took with him the mill, Grotti, and also Fenja and Menja, and bade them grind salt for him. At midnight they asked him whether he had enough salt, but he bade them grind on. They ground but a little while longer before the ship went down. At that spot is now a whirlpool in the sea, where the waters rush in through the eye of the millstone.

Since then the sea is salt.

Fenja and Menja at the mill. Illustration by Carl Larsson and Gunnar Forssell. 1886.
Fenja and Menja at the mill. Illustration by Carl Larsson and Gunnar Forssell. 1886.

The Lay of Grotti

1.
Now then are come to the king’s high hall,
the foreknowing twain, Fenja and Menja;
in bondage by Fróthi, Frithleif’s son,
these sisters mighty as slaves are held.

2.
To moil at the mill the maids were bid,
to turn the grey stone as their task was set;
lag in their toil he would let them never,
the slaves’ song he unceasing would hear.

3.
The chained ones churning ay chanted their song:
“Let us right the mill and raise the millstones.”
He gave them no rest, to grind on bade them.

4.
They sang as they swung the swift-wheeling stone,
till of Fróthi’s maids most fell asleep.
Then Menja quoth, at the quern standing:

5.
“Gold and good hap we grind for Fróthi,
a hoard of wealth, on the wishing-mill;
he shall sit on gold, he shall sleep on down,
he shall wake to joy: well had we ground then!

6.
“Here shall no one harm his neighbor,
nor bale-thoughts brew for others’ bane,
nor swing sharp sword to smite a blow,
though his brother’s banesman bound he should find.”

7.
This word first then fell from his lips:
“Sleep ye shall not more than cock in summer,
or longer than I a lay may sing.”

(Menja said)

8.
“A fool wert, Fróthi, and frenzied of mind,
the time thou, men’s friend, us maidens didst buy;
for strength didst choose us and sturdy looks,
but didst not reck of what race we sprang.

9.
“Hardy was Hrungnir, but his sire e’en more;
more thews than they old Thjatsi had.
Ithi and Aurnir are of our kin:
are we both born to brothers of etins. [giants]

10.
“Scarce had Grotti come out of grey mountain,
from out of the earth the iron-hard slab,
nor had mountain-maids now to turn the millstone,
if we had not first found it below.

11.
“Winters nine we grew beneath the ground;
under the mountains, we mighty playmates
did strive to do great deeds of strength:
boulders we budged from their bases.

12.
“Rocks we rolled out of etins’ realm:
the fields below with their fall did shake;
we hurled from the heights the heavy quernstone,
the swift-rolling slab, so that men might seize it.

13.
“But since then we to Sweden fared,
we foreknowing twain, and fought among men;
(byrnies we slit) and bucklers shattered,
we won our way through warriors’ ranks.

14.
“One king we overthrew, enthroned the other.
To good Guthorm we granted victory;
stern was the struggle ere Knúi was struck

15.
“A full year thus we fared among men;
our name was known among noble heroes.
Through linden shields sharp spears we hurled,
drew blood from wounds, and blades reddened.

16.
“Now we are come to the king’s high hall,
without mercy made to turn the mill;
mud soils our feet, frost cuts our bones;
at the peace-quern we drudge: dreary is it here.

17.
“The stone now let stand, my stint is done;
I have ground my share, grant me a rest.”

(Fenja said)

“The stone must not stand, our stint is not done,
before to Fróthi his fill we ground.

18.
“Our hands shall hold the hard spearshafts,
weapons gory: Awake, Fróthi!
Awake, Fróthi, if listen thou wilt
to our olden songs, to our ancient lore.

19.
“My eye sees fire east of the castle;
battle cries ring out, beacons are kindled!
Hosts of foemen hither will wend
to burn down the hall over thy head.

20.
“No longer thou Leire [the capital] shalt hold,
have rings of red gold, nor the mill of riches.
Harder the handle let us hold sister;
our hands are not warm yet with warriors’ blood

21.
“My father’s daughter doughtily ground,
for the death of hosts did she foresee;
even now the strong booms burst from the quern,
the stanch iron stays– yet more strongly grind!”

(Menja said)

22.
“Yet more swiftly grind: the son of Yrsa
Fróthi’s blood will crave for the bane of Halfdan–
he Hrólf is hight, and is to her
both son and brother, as both of us know.”

23.
The mighty maidens, they ground amain,
strained their young limbs of giant strength;
the shaft tree quivered, the quern toppled over,
the heavy slab burst asunder.

24.
Quoth the mighty maiden of the mountain giants:
“Ground have we, Fróthi, now fain would cease;
we have toiled enough at turning the mill.”

 

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