Svané and Rosmer the Merman

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“Then wrought proud Lady Svané lyle what Rosmer little wist; for she’s tane out the goud sae red, and laid herself i’ the kist”[1] ~ describing Svané’s ruse to escape from Rosmer (i.e. she took out the gold and put herself in the chest)

Not all kidnapped women were mermaids; occasionally, mermen would capture mortal women and take them into the sea.  Such was the case of Svané, who was stolen from her mother’s home in Denmark.

The story of Rosmer Hafmand was written down in the Kaempe Viser, a Danish work composed in the early 1500s, and finally written down in 1591.[2]  It has three renditions of this tale, two with an “Eline,” and one with Svané.  The only one in my collection was Svané’s story, and I could not find the other two anywhere except in summary.  It is, however, the first of the collection,[3] and from what I can go off of, it seems the most authentically Danish.  After all, “Eline” is not really a Danish name…

Rosmer and Svané

The story begins with Svané already stolen from her home.  Her mother, Hillers, sends ships out to find her.  After eight years, Svané’s youngest brother “happens” upon her home.  Her husband, Rosmer, lets him stay, but only because Svané tells him it is her “nephew.”

I *think* he stays for 15 years (the word is “fifthen”).  Svané then concocts a ruse: she tells Rosmer that her “nephew” misses his home, and that Rosmer should return him there, along with some gold.  Rosmer agrees, and carries Svané’s brother and a chest of gold up to the land.  What Rosmer doesn’t know is that Svané has taken out the gold and hidden herself in the chest![4]

Rosmer returns to “the bottom o’ the sea” (one of two references showing him to be a merman),[5] only to find Svané gone!  Instead of at “home” in the sea, she is now at home in her mother’s house, safe and happy on land once more.[6]

The Other Ballads

The other ballads are similar, simply adding more detail.  In them, the brother is named Roland, and the girl “Eline” (sometimes “Ellen”).  In one of them, Eline becomes pregnant with Roland’s child, and thus must escape from Rosmer (yes, even though Roland was her brother).[7]

Although it’s difficult to provide analysis on subjects I can’t find a ton of information on, I would venture to guess that the “Eline” comes from the Scottish story of Rowland, King Arthur’s son.  In that story, Ellen is kidnapped by a merman, and Rowland battles him and forces him to release his sister Ellen.[8]

I have a feeling that the *original* story had Svané as the principle character’s name.  Svané is a Nordic name meaning “swan.”[9]  This would clearly fit into the Danish origins of the story.  I believe it became “Ellen” when it came to areas influenced by Rome.  For Ellen is a derivative of the Greek name Eleni – or Helen, as we would say – meaning “light.”[10]

Now, it may not seem like the two go together.  One means swan, the other light.  However, they come together in more ways than you’d think.  First of all, swans traditionally symbolize light.[11]  Second, Eleni is connected with swans.  After all, in myths, her mother Leda was raped by Zeus in the guise of a swan.  The swan fathered light.

But…so what?

The Importance of Svané

Yes, Svané falls into our kidnapped mermaids motif, only this time, it shows more accurately what would have happened: a man from across the sea would come and kidnap women.

However, the importance of Svané is not that she was kidnapped, but in her link with Eleni – her link with light.  Like Eleni, Svané is taken across (or into) the sea, and then returns – just like the sun.  Interestingly, in ancient myths, fish deities were also associated with the sun – for the sun sinks into and rises from the water.[12]

I tend to think there’s always a grain of truth in stories, and so I have no trouble believing there were women like Eleni and Svané: taken from their homes and then brought back.  After all, both stories reference explicit places that we still have today.  However, their stories got swallowed up into the myths of the sun disappearing and reappearing each day.  Thus, the “kidnapped mermaids” merge with the “meaningful mermaids;” but because of their association with the myths of fish/sun deities, they also allude to our next category: the historical priestess/deity maidens of the deep.

I say priestess/diety because it is my belief that the two merged over time.  The stories mix up the false god being worshiped, and the real women priestesses doing the worshiping.  As the facts became foggy over time, these “sea maidens” became what we know today: mermaids.

However, we don’t have stories of priestesses; we only have stories of mermaids.  I’ll attempt to trace some of their attributes found in our stories, however I don’t want to dwell too much on this.  As Svané’s story shows, they have little to do with our lessons.  Rather, my goal is to enlighten you on the real women confronted with Christianity – and why it was so hard to save the “mermaid”…

 

 

Sources

[1] Rosmer Hafmand; or The Mer-Man Rosmer, taken from TRobert Jamieson’s Popular Ballads and Songs, Volume II, in Heidi Anne Heiner, Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011), 407.

[2] William Peace, Two Norse Lays (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1872), Google Book.

[3] Margaret Dean-Smith, “The Ominous Wood,” The Witch Figure, ed. Venetia Newall (Boston: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1973) 49, Google Book.

[4] Rosmer Hafmand, 406-407.

[5] Ibid., 407.

[6] Rosmer Hafmand, 408.

[7] Ibid.402-403.

[8] Rosmer Hafmand, 404.

[9] “Svane f,” Nordic Names.  Accessed April 26, 2018.

[10] “Ellen,” Baby Name Wizard.  Accessed April 26, 2018.

[11] “Swan Mythology,” Swan Songs. Accessed April 26, 2018, and “Swan Symbolism,” Good Luck Symbols. Accessed April 26, 2018.

[12] Melusina from Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould 17, and The Mermaid from Sea Fables Explained by Henry Lee 78, both in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World

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