Tag Archives: Sea

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 www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

* 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

I do like to be beside the seaside

Travelling out on your apple hunting quest you will inevitably come to a place many of us visit around this time of year – the coast. So as you are enjoying the sun and sand, we will explore who else may be enjoying the sea.

Around the world, particularly the British Isles, and most frequently in Cornwall we find mermaids. Many folk on meeting mermaids are captivated by their beautiful looks and voices, (not to mention their wish granting abilities). If you find one stranded be very kind, take them home to the sea and in future they might help you with warnings of storms and, if you are a fisherman, by improving your catch. Do not be tempted to steal her tail, get her to become human, mortal or your wife (mermaids often being the folk tale equivalent of mail-order brides): Resist the temptation as it will only bring you woe!
However beautiful they are, however well you try to treat them, your dry, cosy house is not their natural habitat and it will all end in salty tears if they stay too long. Resentment builds, and once they’ve escaped, as they inevitably do, it’s wisest to avoid the sea, move inland and definitely never, ever again, go out in a boat.

Further up on the northern coast there are similar creatures, rather than a tail to steal there is the seal-skin of the Selkie (well it’s colder, you’d want a fur coat too) who transform from seal to human when they hide their coat behind a rock. The stories are often similar to those of mermaids except in one classic tale: The Selkie Vow. Here our protagonist is a veteran seal hunter, one day out hunting he loses his knife in the biggest seal he’s ever seen as it escapes, bellowing in to the sea. Later he is visited by a well-dressed man offering a valuable commission for many seal skins. He offers to show the hunter where he can find the best seals. Trustingly, the hunter follows him to the top of a cliff where he is suddenly grabbed and whisked over the edge. The two plummet deep into the sea. The seal hunter is transformed into a seal himself and they swim down into sandy, air filled caves where the king of the selkies lies wounded. The hunter removes his damning knife, heals the wounds and solemnly swears to do the seal people harm no more. Later, returned to land (and his customary shape), he takes up a different craft, usually fishing, where-upon his nets are always full and he holds true to his Selkie Vow.

Now you may chose to avoid all this by heading further inland, but even here water courses can be treacherous as they are often frequented by Kelpies. Despite the similarity in name and also being shape shifters, they are a different kettle of fish all together, a horse of a different colour so to speak. Kelpies usually appear in the form of a fit young horse, frisky and fun, willing, nay even keen for you to get on their back and ride about. This is not through some desire to give you a pleasant trot around the heather and glens or take you on a magical journey, but the opener for a short and terrifying gallop into the nearest water deep enough to drown you!

So enjoy your holiday, but with the wildlife, both mythological and natural, the rules are the same: observe from a safe distance and leave them in peace in their natural habitat.

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

The Travelling Talesman http://www.thetravellingtalesman.co.uk

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Filed under Abduction, Fairytale, Mermaid, sea creatures, Selkie, stories, Summer