You wouldn’t expect a Norse myth to be a parable on economic exploitation, and how bad deeds rebound on the doer. Grottasöngr, a story of how king Frodi forced two giantesses to work a mill without cease, and thus wrought his own destruction, is an unusual myth.
You can read the poem here, or here. Most of the Eddic poems come from the Codex Regius, a manuscript collection, but Grottasongr and other poems (Baldrs draumr, Hyndluljod, and Rigsthula, among others) were collected up from various places.
Grottasongr survived only because one copyist of Snorris Edda (the Prose Edda) copied out the whole poem instead of just one verse, as other copyists did. Snorri only mentioned it in the first place to explain why “Frodi’s meal” was a kenning for gold – the giantesses Fenja and Menja ground out gold from the magic mill Grotti.
He may have only quoted the relevant verse, but one copy of his Edda included the whole poem, perhaps because the copyist liked it, or their patron did. (Quinn notes that Snorri gives several kennings inspired by the story, so it must have been a well known one.)
Snorri’s summary, and the introduction to the poem, contradict the story told by the actual poem, as the poem ends with the millstone destroyed and King Frodi defeated by an army the giantesses have summoned against him. The intro and summary tack on another story, involving another king, to explain why the sea is salt. It drives home the moral about greed, which may be why it was added:
King Frodi went as a guest to Sweden to visit a king named Fiolnir. There he purchased two female slaves whose names were Fenia and Menia. They were big and strong. At that time there was discovered in Denmark two millstones so huge that there was no one strong enough to move them. But the millstones had this quality that they ground out whatever the grinder prescribed. This mill’s name was Grotti. Hengikiopt is the name of the person who sold King Frodi the mill. King Frodi had the slave-girls brought to the mill and told them to grind gold and peace and prosperity for Frodi. He did not give them any longer rest or sleep than while the cuckoo was silent or a song might be sung. The story goes that then they chanted the poem known as Grottasong. And by the time the poem was ended, they were grinding out an army against Frodi, so that during the night a sea-king called Mysing came them and killed Frodi, taking much plunder. Mysing took away with him Grotti and also Fenia and Menia and told them to grind out salt. And at midnight they asked whether Mysing was not tired of salt. He told them to go on grinding. They only went on grinding a short time before the ship sank, and there left a whirlpool in the sea where the sea flows down into the mill-hole. It was then that the sea became salt.
(Skald. 43, Faulkes’ trans.)
The poem’s ending is much more satisfying. Several verses describe how an invading army conjured up by the two slaves is creeping up on the sleeping Frodi, and then the giantesses, in their giant-rage, destroy the mill, completing their revenge on the greedy king:
23. The girls ground on, and tried their strength,
the youngsters were in giant-rage;
the shaped wood shook, the stand collapsed,
the heavy slab shattered in two.
24. And the rock-giants’s bride spoke these words:
“We have ground, Frodi, now we must stop,
the ladies have stood long enough at the milling.”
The ending may remind you of a scene from the movie Conan the Barbarian, where Conan is forced to push the Wheel of Pain until he finally gets strong enough to revolt and destroy it. Or indeed of the Biblical story of Samson, who was blinded and set to pushing a mill until he too rebelled and pulled down the temple on himself and his tormentors.
There are a number of King Frodis, all Danish. According to Snorri this Frodi was the son of Skjold, the legendary founder of the Danish ruling dynasty, a son of Odin and the Danish goddess Gefjun. According to Ynglingasaga, the Swedish king Fjolnir drowned in a vat of beer while visiting Frodi. The saga calls him Peace-Frodi, because his rule was legendary for its peace and prosperity.
The poem itself falls into the genre of dialogue poems, like Grimnismal, Vafthrudnismal, and Hyndluljod. The last, in which Frejya tries to convince the giantess Hyndla to help Ottar claim his inheritance, is probably closest to Grottasongr, since both of them pit a giant against a human rather than a god.
In all these poems the action is brief: the giantesses begin their work at dusk, and the army the giantesses call to destroy Frodi arrive at dawn. The dialogue poems need no longer than the time it takes to speak the words to take place, but Grottasongr compresses time a little bit so that the action of a whole night takes as long as it does to say twenty-four verses.
It’s interesting to compare Grottasongr with a poem like Grimnismal. In the poem Odin comes disguised to test his protege’s hospitality, and ends up hanging between two fires. He begins by reciting his knowledge of the geography and lore of Asgard, moves into a list of his own deeds, and finally reveals his true identity, and his tormentor is doomed.
Grottasongr has a very similar structure: first the scene is set with the giantesses brought in by Frodi’s men and set to milling. Menja, one of the giantesses, says that they will grind out peace, glory and riches for Frodi, and he tells them:
7. ‘You two shan’t sleep for any more than a cuckoo
over the hall,
any longer than I can sing a single song.’
The giantesses begin their work-song by taunting Frodi for not recognizing them as giants when he bought them as slaves, then recite their genealogy:
9. Hrungnir was hard, as was his father,
but Thjazi was mightier than them;
Idi and Aurnir, our relations,
rock-giant’s brothers: we were born from them.
Hrungnir fought Thor; Thiazi was the goddess Skadi’s father; Idi and Aurnir were his brothers. Both Hrungnir and Thjazi were powerful giants, and Thjazi was wise as well – these are not dumb trolls, but dangerous adversaries.
They segue into a list of their own deeds, mainly on the battlefield. Supporting first one, then another, they act like valkyries. Their warlike deeds set them in opposition to Frodi, an intrusion into the peaceful, prosperous world he is trying to create. Perhaps Frodi thought he could control this energy, but war is chaotic by its nature.
Not only does Frodi fail to ask questions about his new slaves’ nature and origin, but he and his men fall asleep, leaving the two giantesses to grind out his doom. (Like Geirroth in Grimnismal, or Vafthrudnir in Vafthrudnirsmal, they don’t realize who they’re dealing with until it’s too late. The audience knows, of course. But while they would naturally root for Odin, it’s interesting that Grottasongr makes a human king the villain and two giantesses the heroines.)
I mentioned at the top that the poem could be read as a parable on greed and exploitation. The 19th century poet Victor Rydberg, who took much of his inspiration from Norse myth, wrote a modern version called the New Grottasong (Den nya Grottesången), about the conditions in factories.
Grottasongr was composed long before modern factories, but it does have a concern with ethics at its heart. You can compare it to Volundardkvida, where a king tries to enslave a magical smith, who takes a bloody revenge. Both mill and smithy were important to the medieval economy; kings would have wanted to control their production. Both poems could be seen as a warning against ever-escalating demands for production and efficiency.
References and Links
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (A link to the PDF can be found at the Viking Society page.)
The Elder Edda, a Book of Viking Lore, Andy Orchard (trans.), Penguin Classics, 2011.
Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson, ed. and trans. Erling Monsen and A. H. Smith, Courier Publications, 1990.
Quinn, J. 2013: “Mythological Motivation in Eddic Heroic Poetry: Interpreting Grottasöngr,” in Revisiting the Poetic Edda, Routledge: 181-204.
Tolley, C., 2008. Grottasqngr. Viking Society of Northern Research. (A link to the PDF can be found at the Viking Society page.)
The image at the top can be found here.