The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Grangemouth, Scotland (perphotography.co.uk). Kelpies are shapeshifters or water-nymphs from Scottish folklore.
Thought I might try writing a series of posts on the four elements – earth, fire, air and water – and how they feature in folklore. So I’ve decided to start with water, for no other reason than that some of my favourite mythological creatures spring from there – undines, rusalky, selkies, kelpies, good old mermaids (and mermen) – there are tons, and I wondered where it came from, this belief that, lurking in the deep, are our shadow selves, our lost selves, our reflections.
We’re both attracted and repelled by water – by lakes, rivers, the sea – and though it gives us life, and we love to play in it, and travel on it, we also know that it is a terrifying and ultimately unknowable place, dangerous and unpredictable. It has to be respected.
In Beowulf, the monster Grendel and his mother live at the bottom of a terrifying lake – “blood-stained and turbulent” – where Grendel retreats to die after Beowulf wrenches off his arm, and where Beowulf himself plunges to do battle with his mother:
…many wondrous creatures
Harassed him as he swam; many sea-serpents
with savage tusks tried to bore through his corslet…
Beowulf’s great sword, Hrunting, is useless against his foe, and after fighting with her hand-to-hand he finally manages to decapitate her with a supernatural sword he finds in her lair, and in so doing the lake, which had been full of “strange sea-dragons… and water-demons” is cleansed, “purged of its impurity”.
Not all creatures of the deep are as deadly as Grendel’s mother, though many are ambiguous. There are several tales of mermaids (“sea-morgans” in the West Country and Brittany, “selkies” or seal-women in Scotland) who are caught by crafty fishermen to be their wives. Though the details differ, the basic story tends to run thus: a lone mermaid is surprised while dancing or “passing her shapely fingers through her bewitching ringlets”, and relieved of her “mantle” – her mermaid’s skin – without which she cannot return to her underwater home. She marries the fisherman, and bears him children, but then one day by chance she discovers her skin, which he has carefully hidden, and “…no sooner did she grasp it than she laughed so loudly that her laugh was heard all over the village… In an instant she regained her former youth and beauty, she no longer cared for husband and children, and swifter than the velocity of the March winds she returned joyfully to her beloved Tirnanog on the blue rim of the western ocean.” (The Kerry Mermaid)
Likewise, the rusalky, of Russian folklore, are beautiful water-nymphs, who at Christmastime leave the lakes and rivers that are their home to dance and sing. But, like the Sirens of Greek mythology, to hear their song means your doom, for you lose your sanity – and your soul.
In Robert Aickman’s short story, The Fetch, the protagonist, Brodick Leith, realises that his old Scottish family is haunted by a carlin – a wraith – who appears, like a banshee, whenever a relative – either by blood or by marriage – is about to die.
Mason, the manager of Brodick’s country estate, tells him of how she arises from out of the nearby sea loch, and Brodick recalls seeing her when his mother died:
“‘I saw no face,’ I said.
‘If you’d seen that, you wouldn’t be here now,’ said Mason.”
At one point, as he descends in the lift from his London flat, having kissed his wife goodbye, Brodick sees the carlin in the adjoining lift, ascending to his floor. In his desperation, he presses the emergency button, but the lift gets jammed, and by the time he returns to the flat, his wife, Shulie, has disappeared:
“The first thing I saw… was a liquid trail in from the street up to the gate of the other lift. Not being his hour,the caretaker had still to mop it up, even though it reeked of seabed mortality.
Shulie and I lived on the eighth floor. I ran all the way up. The horrible trail crossed our landing from the lift gate to under out front door…”
Of course, water is not only the source of strange or demonic beings, but can also be a protection against them – the Devil cannot cross running water, it is said. And a story from Watchet in Somerset tells of how its patron saint, St Decuman, was beheaded by local pagans, and where his head fell, a spring appeared, which was afterwards said to have healing properties. Incidentally, St Decuman wasn’t unduly perturbed by this apparent misfortune – he just picked up his head, put it back on his shoulders, and went back home to Wales!
St Decuman’s church, Watchet, Somerset (photo: westcountrychurches.co.uk)
The Anglo-Saxon World (Kevin Crossley-Holland)
A Treasury of Irish Folklore (editor: Padraic Colum)
Gramarye – the Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, Issue 4
The Enchanted World – the Book of Christmas (Brendan Lehane)
The Wine-Dark Sea (Robert Aickman, collection)
The Folklore of Somerset (Kingsley Palmer)