Sunday, 28 January 2018

Agneta and the Merman

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman tells one version of what can happen if you fall in love with a supernatural sea creature.

An unusual feature of this ballad is that it was (indirectly) illustrated by the Swedish artist John Bauer. Bauer's illustrations were actualy produced to accompany a fairytale based on the ballad story written by Helena Nyblom for Bland Tomtar och Troll.

The ballad is known in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. Typically, it is called Agneta och Havsmannen (or Agnete og Havmanden, etc). But sometimes the merman is called the sea-king (Havskonungen or Sjökonungen).

Agneta meeting the Sea King, by John Bauer


Agneta was out walking by the seashore, when a merman appeared from the depths. This merman was quite good-looking, we may understand. He asked Agneta to go with him to the bottom of the sea, and she replied that she would be very happy to do that if he would take her there. So the merman blocked up her ears and mouth, and took her down to the bottom of the sea.

After some time, about 8 years, Agneta heard the church bells ringing, and she asked the merman whether she might go to church. The merman replied that yes she could go, but that she must come back to her children afterwards. Also, he told her that she must not let her hair down, she must not speak to her mother, and she must not kneel in church. The merman then blocked her ears and mouth, and took her out of the sea.

Well, when Agneta came to the church, you may know that she did let her hair down, she spoke to her mother, and she knelt down. When her mother asked her where she had been, Agneta told her that she had been with the merman, and that she had had 7 (or so) children with him. She also told her mother that the merman had given her a gold ring (and sometimes some other gifts).

At that, the merman appeared in the church, and all the pictures of the saints turned around. The merman was very upset. He told Agneta that the children were crying for her, and he urged her to come back to them.

But the ballad ends with Agneta telling the merman that she doesn't care that they are crying. She doesn't think about them at all, even the little one in the cradle. In some versions of the ballad, she says that she has already forgotten all about the children.

Agneta and the Sea King, by John Bauer

Although this ballad was known in Sweden (more than 50 variants are given in the Sveriges Medeltida Ballader list), it was not included in either Geijer & Afzelius's or Arwidsson's collections. No tunes for the ballad are included in Swedish songbooks.

The three Swedish texts that I have seen, one from Wikström's Folkdiktning (Asmundtorp, Skåne; full text here), and two from the Södermanland collection, are all very similar. They are also all very similar to Danish versions of the ballad, albeit slightly abbreviated.

In Denmark, the ballad was certainly popular. It also inspired a number of literary retellings, including those by Baggesen, Oehlenschläger, and H.C. Andersen, which spread the story more widely. As recently as 1992, a bronze sculpture (partly underwater) by Suste Bonnen celebrating this story was installed at the Slotsholms Canal in Copenhagen.

The ballad of Agneta and the Merman is reminiscent of the ballad of Little Kerstin and the Mountain King (Den Bergtagna / Liti Kjersti / Marit Hjukse). In both ballads, a girl runs away with a supernatural creature, lives with him for many years, has several children, and then returns to see her mother. But the differences lie not only in the fact that in one ballad the girl runs away with a mountain spirit, and in the other a sea creature. The endings of the two ballads can be quite different. In the Swedish and Danish versions of the ballad I have seen, Agneta refuses to return to her children at the bottom of the sea. In one Danish version, the ballad ends with her standing on the shore, laughing at the merman: the omkväde line hå hå hå perhaps comes from this final verse! In contrast, Little Kerstin is forced to return to the mountain, and only lives happily ever after after she has drunk a forgetfullness drink to forget her former life. Quite different. I will write about this Little Kerstin ballad soon ... I know, though, that there are Norwegian versions of the Agneta ballad where she too is forced to return and to drink.

The idea that church bells may be rung to disrupt the activities of trolls and other supernatural creatures, and to summon back those who have been abducted by them, can also be seen in Norwegian folk tales. Church bells tend not to appear in versions of the Little Kerstin ballad that I am familiar with.

Agnete og Havmanden by Vilhelm Kyhn


I am not aware of any modern recordings of Swedish versions of the ballad, but it has been recently recorded in Danish and Norwegian.

Virelai are a group from Denmark. They play medieval music and Danish folk music. They have recorded many Scandinavian ballads, and are definitely worth checking out! Here they are playing Agnete og Havmanden live:

And a studio version from their album Fra Bølger og Bjerge (2011):

Mynsterland are also a Danish group, a young big-band folk group. Their recording of Agnete og Havmanden is on their eponymous EP (2017). The melody is the same as the one used by Virelai, but the song is rather longer.

A Norwegian version of Agneta og Havmannen by Lajla Renate Buer Storli and Kim André Rysstad with harp accompaniment from Lajla Storli's album Møya som Drøymde (2013).

An unaccompanied song in Norwegian by Halvor Håkanes from Eg Heiter Halvor (1999). Quite a short version (Agneta og Havmannen).

Another unaccompanied version in Norwegian by Agnes Buen Garnås, Halvor Håkanes, and Eli Storbekken (Agneta og Havmannen) ...


E. Wigström, Folkdiktning, Copenhagen, 1880, No. 1.

Bidrag till Södermanlands Äldre Kulturhistoria, Södermanlands Fornminnesförening, Vol III, 1882, No. 25, p 43 and p 46.

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