Norway: Ran the Ravager
Mermaids are many things in many different cultures. Sometimes they are good omens, bringing a good catch to fishermen. Sometimes, they are a sign of misfortune, bringing portends of shipwreck or storms. In many cases, they can be both a blessing and curse.
One thousand years ago, the Scandinavian’s were a seafaring people that struck fear into neighbouring European countries. The younger sons of landowners, ineligible for inheritance, would often go a-Viking to seek their fortune across the seas.
They did not fear death in battle, for it was said that the Valkyries would gather their souls to feast and fight at Freyja or Odin’s side in Folkvangr & Valhalla until Ragnarok (the end of days).
Brave men and women they were, setting out on the tumultuous sea to raid, trade and even settle and farm in foreign lands.
But there was one obstacle that made the blood of even the boldest warrior run cold. And that was the sea.
It is easy for those among us who have never been at her mercy to have a romantic view of the sea. For those of us who have only experienced fair-weather sailing, the sea is a delight. She is cool, beautiful and pleasant.
The north men and women were under no such illusions. They were masters of the sea, as pioneer ship builders, sailors and navigators. But they knew the sea well enough to know she also wore another, much more sinister face. They knew that the sea could turn on you. One moment, she could be sunny and calm. The next, she could be whipped to a frenzy by perilous storms.
When your livelihood depended on traversing treacherous waters, it makes sense that the sea is something to be both respected and feared.
The Vikings believed that a glorious death could only happen with sword in hand. Those who died of sickness or were not battle dead went to Niflheim presided over by the goddess Hel (Queen of the Underworld).
But those who died at sea experienced a different fate. It was said that Ran, the goddess of the frigid North Sea, caught those who entered her domain in her net and drowned them. As such, Ran represents the cruel treachery of the sea.
Those who risked Ran’s Road often carried gold upon their person, to please her if they were drowned. They did not want Ran’s ire in the afterlife! Ran was depicted as merciless, collecting souls as she pleased. She was also filthy, stinking rich. All the riches of the oceans were said to be hers – including all sunken treasures! It was customary to offer Ran gold and other valuables to try and get on her good side before a sea voyage.
Ran was depicted as both a mermaid and in an almost human form and as both beautiful and terrifying. The meaning of Ran’s name is contested, but most historians agree is likely means “robber” or possibly “ravager” or “plunderer”. She is the wife of Aegir, a Jotunn (kind of pre-god, force of nature like a Greek Titan). Aegir represented calmer waters (although he might turn on you, depending on his whim). As such, he is generally viewed as being friendlier than his wife.
Together, Ran and Aegir were a bit of a power couple. They were mostly on good terms with the Norse gods and were very well known for throwing incredible parties!
Aegir and Ran had nine mermaid daughters that represented different waves. Their names are generally given as Himminglaeva “transparent on top” (i.e. glassy), Dufa “wave”, Blodughadda “bloody hair”, Hefring “lifting”, Ud “wave”, Hrönn “wave”, Bölge “billow”, Dröfn “comber” or “foaming sea” (alternately sometimes named Bára “wave”), and Kolga “cool wave”. You can find more about their daughters on this great site: http://www.northernpaganism.org/shrines/ninesisters/ran/honoring-ran.html
Ran’s daughters were all said to be the mother of the god Heimdallr. One version of the tale purports that one of the nine sisters lay with Odin and became pregnant with his son. Fearful of the wrath of her parents, she hid the pregnancy. When he was born, to protect their sister, all nine sisters claimed parentage, making Heimdall the son of nine maidens (or the son of the nine waves). As a person blessed with sisters, I find this story particularly touching. I know my sisters always have my back and I, theirs!
Visiting the cold north, it is easy to see how the people who lived there had a healthy respect and deep fear of the frigid waters. Their relationship with their sea goddess was shaped by their experiences of the sea. Norway is a land of extremes. Of freezing temperatures and midnight sun. The winters there are hard and arable land in short supply, meaning that the Vikings often lived short, harsh lives. They were survivors through and through.
Fortunately, modern Norway is also a land of adventure! On my visit, I went white water rafting and bob sledding in Voss. I saw incredible glaciers and stunning waterfalls plunging from snow covered mountain peaks. At one stage, weaving through the mist shrouded mountains, I was so overcome with awe that I remember thinking “I believe in the gods”. Being there was an unexpectedly moving spiritual experience.
Cruising Geiranger fjord was an incredible highlight. This beautiful fjord was carved by glaciers and there are many local legends about the various features of this mythic place. Another highlight for me, as a history lover, was visiting a 1000-year old wooden church that is still standing. I also couldn’t miss a trip to the Viking ship museum in Oslo to marvel at the ingenuity of these ancient ship builders, who would dare risk a dastardly death on Ran’s Road.
Ran represents the darkest aspects of the sea. She is cruel, in the way nature is cruel. She delights in drowning, not because she is evil, but because death is a normal part of life in the sea. A shark does not bother itself with the opinions of fish. As a drowner, Ran is being her truest self.
Ran introduces us to the darker aspects of ourselves and our own human nature. She taps into the lengths we would go to, to survive.
In Norway, I personally faced many fears; things that are linked to my base chakra and my survival instincts. I faced extreme cold (the Viking hell was a land of ice and snow for a reason!) I faced staggering heights. In bob sledding I faced speed so extreme I had to wear a kidney belt to prevent permanent damage to my kidneys. And I experienced both fear of drowning while rafting, and my own inner strength when another boat capsized and got into trouble. I had to scramble up a slippery rock face and grip a rope, tethering our boat in place with only my sheer strength of will, so our guide could assist those in the water. My now-husband was one of those who was tossed into the swirling vortex of icy water. I could only watch on helplessly as he vanished under the rapids, fighting his own battle with Ran.
Spoiler alert – he was fine and learned a lot about his own inner strength and instincts due to his experiences in Norway.
I do want to add that while this felt extremely stressful and dramatic, these experiences are all relatively safe - you are in good hands with expert guides. Yes, there is always an element of risk when facing the whims of nature. For many, our fear response is triggered by danger both real or perceived, so regardless of how much “real” danger you are in, the experience of the danger can still be deeply powerful and intense.
For me, these experiences were all personal mini victories. I discovered that I could deal with cold. I could deal with stress. I could master my own fear and surprise myself in a time of need.
Vikings prided themselves on their courage. Norway was the perfect place to channel my inner bad-ass and face my fears. Norway taught me that like those who had faced Ran and lived, I too was a survivor.
Norway also gave me a healthy respect for the water. As an Australian, I have experienced the water as a place of fun and play. Most beach-going Australians have also experienced the ocean’s strength and danger. I have absolutely been slammed into sandbanks by waves and caught in rips, so I am familiar with how quickly a situation can go from fun to life-threatening. But I had never experienced rapids before. I had never experienced such cold water before. All these things gave me a newfound respect for the sea – and for Ran, the Queen of the frigid waters of the North Sea.