Monthly Archives: February 2011

101 uses for a dead folk tale

So there’s a question, what are different folk tales for, what is their purpose, to what uses are they put….?

Obviously you’ve got the entertainment factor, that’s a basic starting point; often people expect to find morals in the story, personal lessons; many are teaching tales where skills and knowledge are passed on, the correct way to prepare land, grow and harvest a crop or other such practical matters. Then there are the tales like December’s The Black Bull of Norroway, where there are a multiplicity of lessons and meanings, of personal, practical, cultural and spiritual essence, layered across each other like a trifle. With a lot of tales we can dig so deep it becomes anthropological archaeology.

Our example this month is another worldwide tale type with a purpose that nowadays appears obsolete to the casual eye. This is the tale which answers a simple question: Why The Sea is Salt*.

The chief protagonist procures a magical hand mill, or flour grinder, with which they are able to grind out anything and make themself rich and prosperous. Envy being what it is, the mill generally changes hands (usually through theft and, for moral or comic effect, a couple of times) until it eventually ends up on a ship in the possession of someone who has only partly understood it’s magic, namely they know the charm to start it but, like the sorcerers apprentice, not how to make it stop.   They set the mill turning to grind out that valuable commodity salt and sure enough it fills the ship, which consequently sinks while the would-be millionaire vainly tries to undo the spell.   So both ship and story come to rest, with the mill deep at the bottom of the ocean still grinding out salt to this day.

Although this story most often comes to us dressed in medieval clothing, it actually dates from the Iron Age and it’s special gift is the illumination of an essential transition for man. Prior to this a large part of everyone’s time would need to be taken up with grinding grain, estimates say up to 10 hours a day, using a saddle quern, where wheat is ground by rubbing one stone back and forth over another stone which holds the grain. Then someone invented the all mod-cons wonder of the labour-saving (drum roll) Rotary Quern! (Fanfare).

Made from two circular pieces of particular igneous rocks such as millstone grit, one atop the other, the lower stone has a slope curving down from a central spindle and the upper stone is carved so that, by the central hole where the grain is fed in, there is space beneath it for a grain of wheat but as the grain rolls down towards the edge the gap becomes progressively narrower until only flower can pass out. When correctly aligned the upper stone, which can be a lot heavier than the handstone of a saddle quern, floats on the material being ground and rotates fairly easily. Since the rotary action means you are not changing direction all the time and the grinding surface is considerably larger, it is much more efficient.

The rotary quern was the first domestic labour saving mechanical device, you could think of it as the great grandaddy of the microwave, blender, breadmaker or dishwasher. This high status, skilfully crafted, wonder of precision engineering reduced the daily grind (quite literally), freeing up your time to pursue other enriching activities or, rather than getting ground down, you could, if you don’t mind putting your nose to the grindstone, grind for others – for a fee! Either way, possession of a rotary quern, or mill, could clearly make you wealthy, therefore it must be magical because it grinds out riches: to be sure, you can grind out gold with it.


Archeology wonderfully illustrates the technological and economic significance of this great leap forward, but it is the folk tale that gives us a more personal understanding of the social and emotional impact of such awesome inventions. The gift is a connection to our ancestral roots, looking back around two and a half thousand years, and a reflection of how maybe we aren’t so very different today.


…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

The Travelling Talesman

* My favourite version of this story to date is from Welsh legends and folk-tales Retold by Gwyn Jones, which comes variously with and without illustrations but either way Gwyn’s fluid prose and nicely turned similes are very well worth the time.


Welsh legends and folk-tales

Puffin Books


ISBN-13:9780140310979, 978-0140310979


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Filed under Folk Tale, history, stories, Storytelling