Thursday 25 June 2015

Water Spirits

Water. You can touch it, but you can’t hold it.  It runs between your fingers.  It flows away in streams, in rivers, talking to itself.  ‘Still glides the stream, and shall forever glide.’ In both its transience and its endurance it’s a metaphor for time. Rivers change every moment, but they are old – in some cases literally older than the hills. They were flowing before we were born; they will still be flowing long after we are gone.

Water reflects things – trees, the sky – but upside down, distorted and fluid.  Peer over the brink and your own face peeks up at you: like yet unlike, pale and transparent.  That image could be another you, living in another world.  Maybe in the Other World; after all, you can’t breathe water. So who is that? 

Modern mirrors show perfect reflections. Each one of us knows what we look like (or believe we do: mirrors still pull that sly trick of showing us ourselves in reverse.) But for most of history and prehistory mirrors were rare or non-existent. People saw one another’s faces but not their own. Only the reflecting surface of still water could offer the chance, but how could you be sure that the face looking up was truly yours?  Maybe it was an ancestor’s face, or a spirit’s. Maybe it had a message to give you. (But better not bend too close.)

A clear puddle after rain is a window into the ground. You can look down vertically into a deep underworld.  A far, bright sky flashes below the upside-down trees. Could it be the world of the dead, who are buried in the ground? In the spring or early summer of the year 2049 BCE (it makes me shiver to write that, but we know the precise date from tree-ring dating), at least fifty people with bronze axes gathered on a salt marsh to construct a wooden circle with an upside-down oak stump planted at its centre, roots in the air, crown in the ground. This was the circle now called Seahenge, and surely the inverted tree was intended to grow in the Other World - a real and solid version of the ghostly reflections of trees which can be seen in any pool.

Reflections in water show us three worlds, the sky above us, the surface which is touchable and level with the world we walk upon, and the strange depths beneath. If you plunge a straight stick or rod into water, it appears broken, but you can draw it out again unharmed. We know it's because of the refraction of light; but the effect must have seemed mystical and magical to people down the ages.  Is that what prompted the custom of ritual damage to swords and spears - bending, snapping and breaking them - before they were offered to the underwater world?  As if the water itself was showing what needed to be done?  In her book The Gods of the Celts Dr Miranda Green tells of two Iron Age sacred lakes into which important people threw important offerings: Llyn Fawr in South Glamorgan and Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Llyn Fawr is the earlier, the date of deposition of the objects lying around 600BC. Here a hoard was found in a peat-deposit that had once been a natural lake; find include two sheet-bronze cauldrons… socketed axes and sickles. The material [at Llyn Cerrig] ranges in date from the second century BC to the first century AD. The finds come from the edge of a bog at the foot of an eleven foot high sheer rock cliff which provided a good vantage point for throwing offerings. In the Iron Age the lake would have extended to [the foot of the cliff] and the uncorroded condition of the metalwork shows that it sank immediately into the water. The offerings are of a military/aristocratic nature: weapons, slave chains, chariots and harness fittings.

King Arthur’s sword Excalibur comes from under the water.   

They rode till they came to a lake, that was a fair water and broad, and in the midst of the lake Arthur was ware of an arm clothed in white samite, that held a fair sword in that hand.

Merlin and Arthur are advised by a ‘damosel’ (the Lady of the Lake) to row a boat towards the arm:

And when they came to the sword that the hand held, Sir Arthur took it up by the handles… and the arm and the hand went under the water.

At the very end of the Morte D’Arthur, at Arthur’s command Sir Bedivere manages (on the third attempt) to hurl Excalibur into the lake again:

And he threw the sword as far into the water as he might; and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it, and caught it, and shook it thrice and brandished, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.  So Sir Bedivere came again to the king and told him what he saw.
“Alas”, said the king, “help me hence, for I dread me I have tarried over-long.”

Only now may Arthur depart for the Isle of Avalon in a barge full of queens and ladies clad in black.  So the sword which conferred upon Arthur a kind of supernaturally-awarded status must be relinquished, returned to its mysterious Otherworldly keeper, before he can commence his journey to the land of death and rebirth in the watery Somerset fens. I wonder if some of those Celtic offerings were also funeral rites?

Water is necessary to life.  It has many practical uses. You  can drink water, wash in it, cook with it, irrigate your fields. It turns your mill wheel to grind your corn, but it can also drown you or your children, or rise up in floods and sweep your house away.  Homely, treacherous, necessary, strange, elemental: no wonder that we populated it with spirits. Goddesses like Sabrina of the Severn, or Sulis of the hot springs in Bath – loreleis, ondines, naiads, nixies – sly, beautiful, impulsive but cold-hearted nymphs whose white arms pull you down to drown.  

Then again, rivers can be gods, such as Father Tiber or TS Eliot’s ‘strong brown god’, the Thames. Or Stevie Smith’s ‘River God’:

I may be smelly and I may be old,
Rough in my pebbles, reedy in my pools,
But where my fish float by I bless their swimming
And I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.
But I can drown the fools
Who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to rules.
And they take a long time drowning
As I throw them up now and then in the spirit of clowning.
Hi yi, yippety-yap, merrily I flow,
Oh I may be an old foul river but I have plenty of go…

Male, female or animal, water spirits are dangerous and tricksy. Scottish kelpies or waterhorses used to linger by the banks of lochs in the gloaming, tempting people to climb upon their backs - upon which they would gallop into the water. The 19th century folklorist William Craigie tells how, in Scandinavia:

The river-horse (bäck-hästen) is very malicious, for not content with leading folk astray and then laughing at them, when he has landed them in thickets and bogs, he, being Necken himself, alters his shape now to one thing and now to another, although he commonly appears as a light-grey horse.

It is certain that the river-horse still exists, for it is no more than a few years back that a man in Fiborna district, who owned a light-grey horse, was coming home late one night and saw, as he thought, the horse standing beside Väla brook. He thought it strange that his man had not taken in Grey-coat, and proceeded to do so himself, but just as he was about to lay hold of it it went off like an arrow and laughed loudly. The man turned his coat so as not to go astray, for he knew now who the horse was.

In Kristianstad there was a well, from which all the girls took drinking water, and where a number of the boys always gathered as well.  One evening the river-horse was standing there, and the boys, thinking it was just an old horse, seated themselves on its back, one after the other, till there was a whole row of them, but the smallest one hung on by the horse’s tail.  When he saw how long it was he cried, “Oh, in Jesus’ name!” whereupon the horse threw all the others into the water. 

Even today people throw coins into fountains and wishing wells – ‘for luck’. In my novel Dark Angels, the 12th century castle La Motte Rouge has a well haunted by a mournful White Lady. I revisited her, and her friend the hearth-hob, in a story called By Fynnon Ddu which I wrote for the Sussex Folklore Centre’s journal Gramarye (Summer 2014, Issue 5): you can read the whole story here. I wanted to contrast the transience of humanity with the deep time in which such creatures live. In this story, the castle is just being built, yet both the hob and the water spirit are already ancient. Here’s an extract.

The hob hugged his tattered rabbitskin around him and peered into the well. It was a long, narrow pool, lined with leaning mossy stones. At one end a spring bubbled up under a rough rocky arch and trickled out at the other into a little deep-cut brook, and the dark water was full of weeds, cress and frogspawn. A small frog plopped into the pool and pushed through the skin of the water in a series of fluid kicks. The hob stiffened all over like a hunting cat. He shot out a hairy arm.
There was a swirl and a heave in the depths. The spring gushed up in a burst of fierce bubbles. The frog vanished in a fog of sediment.
“What did you do that for?” yelped the hob.
A face looked up through the brown water-glass, framed in drifting clouds of hair which spread away in filmy tendrils. The eyes were great dark blurs, the pale-lipped smile both shy and wild.
“You doesn’t even eat,” the hob groused on. “You doesn’t know what ‘tis to have an empty belly.”
The water spirit slipped upwards. Her head emerged from the water, glistening. In air and daylight she was difficult to see: a slanting glimmer, like a risen reflection. She propped narrow elbows on the brink and offered him a handful of cress.
“Lenten fare. That an’t going to put hairs on me chest,” said the hob sulkily, but he stuffed it into his mouth and chewed.
A bout of hammering battered the air. The water spirit flinched, and the hob nodded at her. “Yus. Men. They’m back again at last.”
She pushed her dripping hair back behind one ear and spoke in a voice soft as a dove cooing in a sleepy noon. “Who?”
The hob snorted, spraying out bits of green. “Who cares who?  S’long as they has fires, and a roof overhead, and stew in the pot –”
“Is it the Cornovii?”
“You allus asks me that.” The hob glanced at her with wry affection and shook his head. “They’m long gone,” he said gently. “They don’t come back. Times change and so do men.”
“Was it such a long time?” She was teasing a water-beetle with a tassel of her hair. “I liked the Cornovii. They used to bring me toys.”
“Things to play with.”  She looked up at him through half-shut eyes. “Knives and spearheads, brooches and jewels. Girls and boys. I’ve kept them all.”
“Down at the bottom there? How deep do it go?” Hackles bristling, but fascinated, the hob craned his neck and tried to peer past his own scrawny reflection.
“Come and see.” She reached out her hands with an innocent smile, but he drew hastily back.   

In Frederick de la Motte Fouqué’s ‘Undine’ (1807), a knight marries Undine, a river spirit, and swears eternal faithfulness to her.  However his previous mistress, Bertalda, sows suspicion of Undine in his mind and he comes to regard her unbreakable bond with the waterspirits – especially her terrifying uncle Kuhlborn, the mountain torrent – with fear and disgust.  He repudiates his union with Undine and prepares to marry Bertalda instead.  In a spine-tingling climax, the castle well bubbles uncontrollably up to release the veiled figure of the Undine, who walks slowly through the castle to the knight’s chamber. In my 1888 translation:

The knight had dismissed his attendants and stood in mournful thought, half-undressed before a great mirror, a torch burnt dimly beside him.  Just then a light, light finger knocked at the door; Undine had often so knocked in loving sportiveness.
            “It is but fancy,” he said to himself; “I must to the wedding chamber.”
            “Yes, thou must, but to a cold one!” he heard a weeping voice say.  And then he saw in the mirror how the door opened slowly, slowly, and the white wanderer entered, and gently closed the door behind her.
            “They have opened the well,” she said softly, “And now I am here and thou must die.”

Ignore the force of water at your peril. 

Picture credits:

Nokke (Water spirit) by Theodor Kittelsen

Reflection - Katherine Langrish, personal photo

Seahenge: Norfolk Museum

Sir Bedivere by Aubrey Beardsley University of Rochester

Hylas and the Nymphs by Frederick Waterhouse (detail) 

Nokke as White Horse by Theodor Kittelsen

Undine by Arthur Rackham

The Shipwrecked Man of the Sea by Arthur Rackham


  1. Wonderful. Loved the extract from your story. You capture that sense of eerie otherness so well.

  2. Thankyou,Sue! From you, that means a lot!

  3. Mystical, spine-tingling stuff! Thank you!

  4. That's a lovely piece of writing, pointing to many others.

  5. Lovely post. Water is an interesting motif in a lot of horror movies, I've noticed. Especially Japanese ones like The Ring and The Grudge. Dripping water, puddles of water, slimy wet long hair (the kind you pull out of the plughole), drip-drip-dripping water. It's almost a cliche now, but it's interesting that it's still used as indicating a supernatural (and malevolent) presence. It was used too in a recent British ghost story on TV, 'Remember Me' - a tap that wouldn't stop dripping.

    We need water, but something in us distrusts it too.

  6. I have never dared to watch either of those movies, Nick! But you're right. I must post on Japanese ghosts some time.

  7. I got nightmares just from reading the Wikipedia page of The Ring!

  8. Spine-tingling! In your story, I really like the relationship between the Hob and the water spirit.

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