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Then the Merman Laughed

Mermaid image above Copyright © 2002 Chloe Hedden. It may not be reproduced in any way without permission of
An Icelandic tale

A merman is a dwarf that lives in the sea. There is an old saying in Iceland that many people use as a proverb: “Then the merman laughed”. As for how it arose, it is said that certain farmer drew up in his finger-net a sea-dwarf who called himself a merman, with a big head and broad hands, but shaped like a seal below the navel. He would not teach any of his magic lore to the farmer, so the latter took him ashore, much against his will.

The farmer’s wife, a young and lusty woman, came down to the shore and greeted her husband, kissing and fondling him. The farmer was pleased and praised her, but drove his dog away with a blow when it came up with the wife to greet him. Then, when he saw that, the merman laughed. The farmer asks why he laughed, and the merman says: “At stupidity.”

As the farmer was making his way home from the sea, he stumbled and tripped over a tussock. He cursed the tussock heartily, asking why it had ever been sent by fate to stand on his land. Then the merman laughed (for he was being carried along, against his will), and said: “This farmer has no sense.”

The farmer kept the merman in his house for three days. Some travelling merchants came there, with wares to sell. Now the farmer had never been able to get boots with soles as thick and strong as he wanted, but those merchants thought they had boots of the best quality. The farmer could take his pick among a hundred pairs, and still he said they were all too thin and would end with holes no time. Then the merman laughed and said: “It’s clever men that make the biggest fools.”

The farmer could not get any further words of wisdom out of the merman by fair means or foul, except on condition that he took him out to sea again, right back to the very fishing-bank where he had been caught; then he would squat on the blade of the farmer’s oar and answer all his questions, but not otherwise. So, after three days, the farmer did this. And when the dwarf was on the oar-blade, the farmer asked what gear fisherman ought to use if they wanted good catches.

The merman answered: “Chewed and trodden iron must be used for the hooks, and the forging must be done where one can hear both river and wave, and the hooks must be tempered in the foam and sweat of tired horses. Use a fishing-line made from a grey bull’s sinews, and cord from raw horsehide. For bait, use birds’ gizzards and flounders, but human flesh on the middle bight, and then if you get no catch you’re surely fey. The barb of a fishhook must point outwards.”

Then the farmer asked him what was the stupidity he had laughed at when he praised his wife and struck his dog. The merman answered: “Your own stupidity, farmer. Your dog loves you as dearly as his own life, but your wife wishes you were dead, and she is a whore. The tussock you cursed covers a treasure destined for you, and there’s money in plenty over it; that was why you had no sense, farmer, and why I laughed. And the black boots will last you all your life, for you haven’t many days to live —three days, they’ll last you three days!”

And with this he plunged off the oar-blade, and so they parted. But everything the merman said proved to be true.

Source: J. Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1972, pp.92-93

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