In winter people traditionally gather around the fire to enjoy stories as the stormy winds thunder outside. Come closer to the hearth as I regale you with Assipattle and the Mester Stoorworm, a centuries-old dragon-slayer folk story from Scotland’s Orkney Islands with many Norse elements. On the surface, it is a fairy tale about a village threatened by a gigantic sea serpent and how they responded to this existential threat. Though meant to entertain with its adventure and romance, it also has many details that perhaps link it to older roots of a culture that centered the Earth and healing and revered female spiritual power, all of which are profoundly needed in our own time. If we re-envision the tale through the lens of these clues, we may be able to find guidance for how our own communities — local, national, and global — can more successfully confront profound challenges.
Here is the summarized original tale:
Assipattle is a lazy, daydreaming farmer’s son smitten with the princess Gemdelovely. Alas, his beloved sister, is the one called to the castle to be Gemdelovely’s handmaid. One day the Stoorworm, a very hungry giant sea serpent, arrives and threatens to eat all the villagers and burn down the village with its fiery breath. A Sorcerer, in consultation with the Queen, Gemdelovely’s evil stepmother, decrees that seven maidens must be sacrificed each week to satisfy the Stoorworm’s hunger. When the village runs out of maidens, the Sorcerer and Queen, demand that Gemdelovely be next. The King agrees, but also declares that any brave young man who kills the Stoorworm will receive Gemdelovely’s hand, the kingdom to rule, and the Norse god Odin’s sword. Assipattle rows into the Stoorworm’s stomach and sets its liver on fire before triumphantly racing back to shore. The Stoorworm, in its death agony, tosses its teeth into the ocean and creates the Orkney Islands while its body becomes Greenland. Assipattle and Gemdelovely wed. The Sorcerer is killed with Odin’s sword. The Queen is shut up in a tower. The King gives his kingdom to Assipattle. The village celebrates. Quite a tale!
From a fairy tale standpoint, which, to be fair, is how the story was intended to be heard, the hero marries the princess and the sea serpent is dead, so all ends happily. Still, fairy tales did and still reflect and influence our perspective on the world. So, if we try looking at the tale from the standpoint of what would actually happen in a community facing a catastrophic threat that took these measures, things are somewhat different. An entire generation of the village’s young women, except Gemdelovely and Assipattle’s sister, are dead. Gemdelovely has been given as a prize to a young man not necessarily of her choosing. The Sorcerer and Queen, though not the wisest of leaders, are also dead or silenced. The King has given over his authority to someone with no leadership qualifications at all. And who is to say when the next sea serpent will arrive to take up where the last one left off. What could possibly go wrong?
While the village’s response may seem unbelievable from a more realistic perspective, how often have we humans responded to challenge by sacrificing the well being of those most vulnerable, especially women, never confronting what is really causing the problem, and placing those who have the most extreme and least effective solutions in leadership positions?
However, the story has a dizzying array of details that are not necessary to the plot as now told but that do have meaning in traditional European spiritual beliefs and practices.
- Assipattle is the seventh son of a seventh son, or a person of great spiritual power.
- Assipattle’s unnamed sister loves to go barefoot. In Nordic tradition, women walked barefoot in the fields to ensure the land’s fertility and abundance.
- Assipattle’s sister is noted as his only loving family member which could reflect the sister-brother bond that was especially strong in matrilineal societies.
- Assipattle’s sister is called to be a companion to Gemdelovely which could refer to the double goddess motif found throughout the world.
- Gemdelovely is dressed as a bride for her sacrifice and will confer upon her spouse rulership of the land, just as the sovereign goddesses bestowed leadership power on their consorts.
- The killing of the Sorcerer, who could represent a druid or magician, with Odin’s sword could speak to the conquering of the traditional religion in the Orkneys by the Norse.
- The Queen is locked away in a tower like so many fairy tale young women whose regenerative force is hidden away. Perhaps this speaks of silencing the Queen’s spiritual power, but also the possibility of her return since she is not killed.
- The King’s willingness to hand over all his power to the young warrior may echo mythical kings who are sacrificed to give rulership to the next generation.
- There are seven maidens, a magic number that may indicate they are goddesses or holy women.
- The whole village comes to watch both the sacrifice of the maidens and Gemdelovely, perhaps indicating a community-wide ritual to address grave threats.
- The Stoorworm’s making of islands by tossing teeth echoes the Cailleach’s creation of mountains by dropping stones. Serpents were also believed to have great powers of rebirth and regeneration.
- The celebration lasts nine weeks, another magic number.
To me, it is significant that all these seemingly unnecessary details could have been forgotten, but the storytellers have, for generations, continued telling them. Perhaps if we re-envision the story with characters and actions based on the details we can find positive lessons related to facing our own time’s challenges.
We’ll meet again in Part II to continue our exploration.
Carolyn Lee Boyd is a writer, drummer, and herb and native plant gardener. Her essays, short stories, memoirs, reviews, and poetry have been published in a variety of print magazines, internet sites, and book anthologies. She explores goddess-centered spirituality in everyday life and how we can all better live in local and global community. She would love for you to visit her at her website, www.goddessinateapot.com,where you can find her writings and music and some of her free e-books to download.
Scottish Fairy Tales, Random House, London, 1994 (no author, no longer in print), but the story is widely published in anthologies of Scottish fairy tales; Walter Traill Dennison with language notes by Rachel Louise Lawrence, Assipattle and Mester Stoorworm, Blackdown publications, 2015; Susan Gitlin-Emmer: Lady of the Northern Light: A Feminist Guide to the Runes, The Crossing Press, Freedom, California, 1993
Illustration: Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale Ltd. Public Domain.
Illustration: Squire, Maud Hunt, 1873-1954 (illustrator), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]