The Norse sea goddess Rán has been portrayed as a cruel woman, filled with a greedy desire to drag ships full of men down to the bottom of the ocean so that she may steal their lives and their treasure. She, along with her brother/husband Ægir, are sometimes identified as being neither Aesir nor Vanir, but older beings than the actual gods.
In Fridthjof’s Saga the hero is caught in a storm and mourns the idea the he must soon lay himself to rest on “Rán’s bed.” This saga also has the following passage:
“Gold is good to carry / When you go a-wooing,
Empty-handed no one / Comes to sea-blue Ran.
Cold is she to kisses, / Flee’th from embraces,
But the sea-bride yieldeth / Met with shining gold.”
This ties in with the idea of Rán’s greed, for the men of old would make sure to always carry at least some small bit of gold with them when they were in dangerous waters. This gold would be used to win the favor of the sea goddess should the sailors meet a watery doom.
It seems odd that a society that has such strong ties with the sea would view it in such a negative light. It is not as if the Vikings were afraid of the open waters. They would sail out of sight of the land (something the ancient Greeks would never do) and the Vikings sailed far and wide. They went to sea in ships that were amazingly well-adapted to traveling both on the ocean and inland waters but they also undoubtedly had a healthy respect for the dangers one could encounter when traveling Rán’s road.
I think the key point to remember is that death by drowning was not considered a noble thing, it would not earn you a seat in Valhalla but a place in the undersea hall of Rán.