Mardoll’s Tears and the Shining Sea

When writing my last post on Heimdall, I wondered if his name was connected to one of Freyja’s by-names, Mardoll. It’s usually translated as “Beauty of Light on Water”, perhaps inspired by the sun sparkling on the sea. It’s an appropriate name for Freyja, too, since her father controlled the waters, and she was the most desirable of goddesses.

The Scandinavians were a coastal people, who relied on the sea for food, trade and travel. Winter was when ice closed up harbour entrances and people stayed home; sun shimmering on the water meant spring had come and travel could begin again.

Another translation of Mardoll is “the One Shining Over the Sea,” perhaps indicating a star used for navigation (Isis and later Mary filled a similar role as Stella Maris) or else a to a sun goddess.  Either way, Mardoll comes from the elements márr, sea and döll or Þöll, shining. Poets called gold “Mardoll’s tears”, referring to one of Freyja’s myths.

Freyia is highest in rank after Frigg. She was married to someone named Od… Od went off on long travels, and Freyia stayed behind weeping, and her tears were red gold. Freyia has many names, and the reason for this is that she adopted various names when she travelled among strange peoples looking for Od. She is called Mardoll and Horn, Gefn, Syr.
(Gylf. 35)

Freyia also wept gold for Od. Her names are Horn, Thrungva, Syr, Skialf and Gefn, and likewise Mardoll.
(Skald. 75)

In the Skaldskaparmal section of the Prose Edda Snorri lists many kennings for gold, including Mardoll’s tears, with examples from various poets. Einar Skularson referred to gold as Mardoll’s weeping, Od’s [Odin] bedfellow’s eye-rain, and her eyelash-rain. The Lay of Biarki has many different kennings for gold, not forgetting “Mardoll’s tears”, and another poem Snorri quotes calls it the “fair rain of Mardoll’s lids”. (Skald. 37-9)

Mardoll, Heimdall, and Delling

I said that Mardoll is “usually translated” as “Beauty of Light on Water” or something similar (“Sea-Sparkler”). Like Heimdall, however, Freyja’s by-name is not actually all that clear. The second part, döll or þöll, has very different meanings. The döll is close to the –dalr in Heimdall, meaning something like “shining”, while þöll would make Mardoll mean “the one who makes the sea swell”. (Simek: 202) I’m not sure how he derives this, though, since þǫll means “fir-tree”.

As Grumpy Lokean Elder suggests, the Indo-European root –dhel, “to light, shining” is often assumed to be the root for –döll, but it remains a “best guess” rather than a hard-and-fast answer.

The three deities who share the döll element, Mardoll, Hemdall and Delling, can all be linked to light. There’s also a certain symmetry: Heimdall is the god who shines over the world, while Mardoll shines over the sea, and Delling is the father of day. (The word heim meaning “world” as in Heimskringla, the world’s circle, and marr meaning “sea”.)

Mar-döll or Mar-þöll, f. gen. Mardallar, one of the names of Freyja, Edda 21: prop. a mermaid, Jónas 151; Mardallar-grátr. the tears of M. = gold. Lex. Poët.; cp. the Mardallar-Saga in Maurer’s Volkssagen.

Heim-dalr, m., with single l, not Heimdallr, as shewn from the gen. -dalar, not -dalls; a later form used in the Rímur was Heimdæl-1, Þrymlur 1. 8 :– the god Heimdal, Edda, whence the poem Heimdalar-galdr, m. id. The etymology has not been made out: Heimdal was the heavenly watchman in the old mythology, answering to St. Peter in the medieval legends; respecting him vide Edda 17 (Sksm.) and passim, Gm. 13: he was also regarded as the father and founder of the different classes of mankind, see Rm. and Vsp. 1, — meiri ok minni mögu Heimdalar, the higher and lower sons of H., i.e. all men. II. a ram in Edda (Gl.) is called heimdali.

Dellingr, qs. deglingr, m. [dagr], . Da y. ‘ pr;X^, the father of the Sun, Kdd. i.

Delling is not one of the best-known Norse gods. Although the dictionary says he is the father of the sun, it is actually Day who is his son, and Night his wife. “Delling’s doors” appear to be a kenning for “dawn”, so although we don’t know exactly what Delling’s role in mythology was, we can assume he was bright or light-giving as well.

Another idea, although not as accepted, suggests that Heimdall’s name means something like “one connected with the home’s/world’s flourishing”. This would fit with Freyja’s name as well, making the sea fruitful, perhaps, or it might be a reference to amber, which comes from the sea. (They used to fish for amber in the Baltic sea.)

Odr leaves the grieving Freyja. Wikimedia.

Freyja and Odr

Pretty as the sparkle of sun on water is, to Old Norse poets it reminded them of the myth of Freyja and her wandering husband Odr, and how she wept tears of red gold while she sought him across many lands. Norse poets were often reminded of gold, depending on they did on the patronage of others, but it seems a sad image.

Still, the riches that came from her sorrow seem to have been the main point of the myth, from the red gold of her tears to Hnoss [Treasure], her daughter with Odr. Her father, Njord, was said to be so wealthy that he could give his followers whatever they desired, so perhaps Freyja too was so rich she even wept gold.

The sea was an important part of Scandinavian life, for fishing, trading and travelling. It played a substantial part in their mythology as well, especially in the myths of the Vanir, the family of deities Freyja belonged to. Half the slain went to Freyja, and some connect her home in the afterworld, Sessrumir, to the ship burials found across Scandinavia. The sea gave riches but could take lives.

It’s interesting that the poets usually call Freyja Mardoll when they refer to her tears. There’s a clear chain of associations, from the sparkle of the sea to the glint of tears, to the gleam of gold. Snorri tells us that Freyja and her brother were beautiful and mighty, and that Freyja was the most approachable of the goddesses. We also know that the giants found her the most desirable, with several losing their lives trying to marry her.

According to An Icelandic-English Dictionary, Mardoll later became a word for “mermaid”, a post-Christian rationalization of the seductive, gold-adorned goddess goddess of the Vanir.


References and Links

Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (pdf here)

Billington, Sandra and Miranda Green 2002: The Concept of the Goddess, Routlege. (Google Books)
Chase, Martin 2014: Eddic, Skaldic and Beyond: Poetic Variety in Medieval Iceland and Norway, Fordham University Press. (Google Books)
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
Orchard, Andy 2002: Cassell’s Dictonary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell Reference.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall) 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.

Grumpy Lokean Elder on Mardoll

The image at the top can be found here.

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