The skalds had many names for the sea in its different aspects. Its hurtful character was personified in the Sea-goddess Ran, “Robbery,” though she was rather demoniac than divine. Of terrifying nature, she was yet wife of Ægir, the sea in its calmer mood. The sea was called “Husband of Ran,” Land of Ran,” “Ran’s road,” and the wave “with red stain runs out of white Ran’s mouth.”1 Ægir and Ran had nine daughters whose names show that they are personifications of the waves. Among the riddles which Gestumblindi asked of Heidrik was: “Who are the maidens who go at their father’s bidding, white-hooded, with shining locks? “The answer was, the waves or Ægir’s daughters (Ægis meyjar).2 In Helgakvitha Hundingsbana the noise of Kolga’s sister (Kolga was one of Ægir’s daughters) dashing on Helgi’s ships is like that of breakers on the rocks, and “Ægir’s fearful daughter” seeks to sink them. But the vessel was wrested from “the claws of Ran.” In Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar Atli says to the monstrous Hrimgerd that she had sought to consign the warriors to Ran.3
In the first of these passages Ran tries to drag down the ships with her hands. She also possesses a net with which to catch sea-farers, and the gods first became aware of this when they were present in Ægir’s hall. The skald Ref speaks of Ran’s wiling ships into Ægir’s wide jaws. Hence to be drowned at sea was “to go to Ran.”4 The drowned were taken by Ran to her domain: she was goddess of the drowned and dangerous to sea-farers. Yet not all the drowned went to her halls. When Thorsteinn and his men perished at sea, they were seen by his shepherd within a hill near their dwellings.5
In the Egils-saga Bodvar, Egil’s son, was drowned, and his father cried: “Ran hath vexed me sore. The sea has cut the bonds of my race. . . . I shall take up my cause against the brewer of all the gods (Ægir) and wage war with the awful maids of the breakers (Ægir’s daughters), and fight with Ægir’s wife.”6 Folk-belief held that it was good to have gold in one’s possession when drowning. In the Fridthjofs-saga Fridthjof says in the storm that some of his people will fare to Ran and they should be well adorned and have some gold. He broke a ring and divided it among them, saying: “Before Ægir slays us, gold must be seen on the guests in the midst of Ran’s hall.”7 The fate of the drowned was not altogether bad. A piece of folk-belief about the drowned is preserved in the Eyrbyggja-saga, and it describes how Thorod and his men, drowned at sea, came as ghosts dripping with water to drink the Yule-ale several nights in succession. They were welcomed by their relatives, and it was a token that the drowned who thus came to their own burial-ale would have good cheer of Ran. This old belief, as the Saga says, had not been set aside though men had been baptized and were Christian in name.8 In Ran’s halls the drowned feasted on lobsters and the like.9
In later folk-belief Ran was still to be seen reclining on the shore combing her hair, like a mermaid, or in winter drawing near to the fires kindled by fishermen on the shores of the Lofoden islands. Swedish folk-belief also knew Ran as Sjörå, lady of the sea.”10
Ran, the “cruel and unfeeling,” may be regarded as originally a demoniac being of the waters, who tended to be viewed also as a guardian goddess of the drowned, whom, if she slew, she entertained in her water-world halls.
Personification of the waves is found in Celtic mythology, Irish and Welsh. They were the Sea-god Manannan’s horses or the locks of his wife. They bewailed the loss of Dylan, “son of the wave,” and sought to avenge him. Nine waves, or the ninth wave, had great importance in folk-belief.11