“Agneta & the Sea King” by John Bauer.

Fascination with the Danish ballad Agnete og Havmanden, or “Agnete and the Merman”, has long been prominent in the Scandinavian countries. In spite of arguments over origin and dating, the poem has survived centuries of uncertainty through its thrilling themes of forbidden sexuality, spiritual toil, and outright abandonment.

A Tragic Tale

Axel Olrik dates this ballad to the post-medieval period, though its precise origin date is uncertain. Olrik also believes that the source is German rather than the assumption that it is natively Danish. There were many variations of the ballad written during the 18th and 19th century which are considered the foundation for modern alterations. Among these texts, the ballads written by Jens Baggesen, Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger, and Hans Christian Andersen are the most widely circulated.

In Jens Baggesen’s rendition, c. 1812, the story is as follows: a beautiful young Danish woman, Agnete is approached by the unnamed merman while sitting near to the sea. The merman approaches her, professing his love, and she agrees to return to the sea with him admitting similar feelings. During her time under the sea, she bears the merman two children, but upon hearing the bells of the church from the surface, she begs her husband to allow her to go to the surface just one more time. Vowing to return the following day, the merman grants her request, and she leaves her children with her husband to return to the surface.

Coronation of the Sea Queen: "Now you shall be my queen & stay with me forever." Illustration by John Bauer.