-by Dan Coultas, November 2018
Rán is a Goddess who is very important to me, but also one who I feel is often misunderstood. I hope this piece does her justice.
Rán is the wife of Aegir, and mother of nine daughters, the waves. Their names are Blóðughadda (Bloody hair), Bylgja (Billow), Dröfn (Comber), Dúfa (Wave), Hefring (Lifting), Himinglæva (Transparent on top), Hrönn (Wave), Kólga (Cool Wave) and Uðr (Wave). Other than this little is known of her lineage. She is most often said to be a giantess rather than a member of the Asir or the Vanir, but both she and her husband maintain a good relationship with the Gods of Asgard, unlike many amongst the giants, and in Skáldskaparmál she is listed amongst the Goddesses. Several sources state that she is very beautiful.
Another difference between Rán and most of the rest of giant kind, is that whereas there is little to know evidence of offerings to the giants, offerings to both Rán and her husband were commonplace. The Roman commentator Sidonius observing 'Moreover when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy shore, it is their usage thus homeward bound to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death' (Sidonious, Letters VIII). As well as human sacrifice, gold is often recorded as being an appropriate offering to Rán. 'In Friðjof's Saga, it is said to have been a lucky thing to have gold on one's person if lost at sea' (Ellis Davidson, 129). She is mentioned twice in the saga:
"On bolster I sat In Baldur's Mead erst, And all songs that I could To the king's daughter sang; Now on Ran's bed belike Must I soon be a-lying, And another shall be By Ingibiorg's side."
(Eiríkr Magnússon and Morris 1875: 84)
"The red ring here I hew me Once owned of Halfdan's father, The wealthy lord of erewhile, Or the sea waves undo us, So on the guests shall gold be, If we have need of guesting; Meet so for mighty men-folk Amid Ran's hall to hold them."
(Eiríkr Magnússon and Morris 1875: 86)
As well as making offerings of gold to ensure a safe crossing, gold was also held back in reserve, to present to Rán on reaching her hall.
Further evidence of the importance of Rán to the arch-heathens can be found in the number of attestations she has in kennings, such as Ránar-land ('Rán's land'), -salr ('Rán's hall'), and -vegr ('Rán's way'), and rán-beðr ('the bed of Rán'). All of these kennings highlight not only her strong connection with the sea, but also how strongly ingrained she was in the culture.
Although in Egil's saga, it is her husband Aegir against whom the hero wishes his revenge for the drowning of his son, when he says 'Could I have avenged my cause with the sword, the Ale-brewer would be no more' (Egil, Sonatorrek), it is more widely accepted that it is Rán who takes the lives of sailors lost at sea. 'Her name means “robber”, and she was said to have a great net with which to drag men down' (Wodening, 2008:97). There are several examples of her fulfilling this role in the Eddas. In Helgakviða Hundingsbana I in the Poetic Edda, it is said that:
'And Sigrun above, brave in battle, protected them and their vessel; the king's sea-beasts twisted powerfully, out of Ran's hand toward Gnipalund.'
For this reason Rán is often cast in a negative light, as a jealous sea giantess stealing the souls of unwitting seafarers.
However, there is also evidence of Rán being a gracious hostess of those who spend eternity in her hall. A commonly held belief was that 'when people were drowned they were thought to have gone to Rán, and if they appeared at their own funeral feasts, it was a sign that she had given them good welcome' (Ellis Davidson, 129), and it was believed that 'those who has gold for Rán were treated kindly' (Wodening, 97). In this, Rán can be seen as a personification of the sea itself. Like the sea she can be ruthless, and cruel to those who do not pay her the proper respect. But to those who understand and respect her, she is a friend.
'The idea of the hospitality of Aegir and Rán, who were so anxious to throng their underwater realm with the hosts of the dead, may be compared with that of the god of battle. It is by no means inconsistent with their power to destroy' (Ellis Davidson, 129). Whereas Odin and Freya are the hosts of the worthy battle slain, so Aegir and Rán are the hosts of the drowned. They host our ancestors just the same as Odin, Freyja and Hel do, and should we be lost at sea, may one day host us. It seems logical then that offering were made to them, and continue to be made to them, to ensure a positive relationship.
Rán's hospitality is not just reserved for drowned sailors. The Eddas state that the Gods of Asgard often gather in her hall. In Lokasenna it states that:
'Ægir, who was also called Gymir, had prepared ale for the gods, after he had got the mighty kettle, as now has been told. To this feast came Othin and Frigg, his wife. Thor came not, as he was on a journey in the East. Sif, Thor's wife, was there, and Brag, with Ithun, his wife. Tyr, who had but one hand, was there; the wolf Fenrir had bitten off his other hand when they had bound him. There were Njorth and Skathi his wife, Freyr and Freyja, and Vithar, the son of Othin. Loki was there, and Freyr's servants Byggvir and Beyla. Many were there of the gods and elves.'
Whilst it is her husband Aegir who is known to be the master brewer, as the Lady of the house, Rán would have had a crucial role as hostess of the feast. As her hospitality is fit for the Gods themselves, it must surely mean that to spend eternity as her guest must be one of the more comfortable options for a heathen afterlife.
Now that I have explored the literary sources, I will now talk a little about my own UPG with Rán. Whilst Rán is an important Goddess to most modern sea-faring heathens for the same reasons as she was for the sea-faring heathens amongst the Saxons and the Norse, as a submariner she is even more important to me. The reason for this is that I have found that when we are dived, she seems to be one of only two deities that I can really connect with, the other being her husband Aegir. On land, and on the surface, I often work with Freyr, Thor and others, but when I am beneath the waves, I feels like I cannot reach them. It is only Rán and Aegir that I can reach amongst the Gods. This makes perfect sense to me now, as the deep is their realm, but I must admit that it did come as a surprise to me the first time I experienced it. When I was a surface sailor, I had often felt a strong connection with Thor and Njord when I was at sea, but when dived, I was unable to feel anything from them. Whereas for most sailors, Rán is the Goddess below, who they will only truly come into contact with should a terrible fate befall them, as a submariner, I actively enter her domain. I am her guest; yet unlike the majority of her guests, I can leave again, should she choose to let me.
Whilst I accept that Rán, like the sea itself, can be very dangerous if not properly respected, I choose to focus on her positive aspects. Her hospitality, her beauty. All of the Gods and Goddesses have their 'flaws', the aspects of them that seem less pleasant from a human prospective, and whilst it is important to be aware of them, if they stopped us from wanting to work with them, we'd be left with a very short list of deities to worship. The goddess of the deep is no different.
I try to maintain a strong relationship with Rán. I always hold a blot to her before I go to sea, and then make an offering of gold before the submarine dives. I then hold another blot to thank her for our safe return. Before I dived for my first patrol, the wake of the submarine lit up with bioluminescence the very moment the offering hit the water. This was an affirming moment for me, and one which I took to mean that the offering was well received, and that Rán would grant me safe passage through her realm. Fortunately to date she always has, however like those sailors referenced in Friðjof's Saga, I always carry a gold sovereign with me at sea, just in case!
Egil's Saga Ellis Davidson, HR. 1964 Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Puffin. Eiríkr Magnússon and Morris, William. 1875. Three Northern Love Stories and Other Tales. Larrington, Carolyne (Trans.). 1999. The Poetic Edda. Oxford World's Classics. Sidonious, Letters VIII. Sturluson, Snorri.1982. Faulkes, Anthony, ed., Edda. Wodening, Swain. 2008. Hammer of the Gods.