Wandering among Words No 1: Water
Water. It’s something most of us take for granted — for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for cleaning, for rituals. It drops out of the sky, wells out of the earth, erodes our coasts and scours the earth. Without it we would cease to be, in fact wouldn’t have come into being at all. Is it surprising that so many stories and associations and legends are attached to this sustainer of life?
From our windows we can see the river Usk flowing a few tens of metres below, through its valley down to the sea. Its banks are a tourist attraction, from locals and daytrippers who quaff their pints overlooking it to kayakers paddling in it and anglers wading through it hoping perhaps to land a salmon. The river’s name in Welsh is Afon Wysg, the latter word long thought to be meaning just “water”. (Afon of course means river, giving us the various rivers called Avon in England. And the cosmetics giant.) Some etymologists suggest Wysg signifies “abounding in fish,” cognate with pysg (Welsh: fish) — a derivation apparently also applying to the rivers Axe, Exe and Esk elsewhere in Britain — but this seems to me to unnecessarily complicate the etymology. But I’m no etymologist …
Such notions got me considering other associations of related Celtic words that Anglophones are rarely aware of. Take whisky for example (or whiskey, as some prefer it). This word derives from Irish Gaelic uisce meaning “water” (uisge in Scottish Gaelic) and was a nod to the Latin term aqua vitae. We all of course know that this referred to distilled alcohol in rather euphemistic terms as the water of life, supposedly capable of curing everything from the colic to smallpox. But do we all also know about the each uisge?
The Each Uisge (pronounced ‘ech-ooshkya’) is a Highland fuath or malignant spirit that takes the form of a water-horse. Katherine Briggs insisted that it only haunted the sea and the Scottish lochs whereas a different fuath, the Kelpie, emerged from freshwater streams and rivers; but not all writers stick to this distinction. Marian McNeill lists some half dozen Scottish lochs where ‘kelpies’ are said to lure humans into the water to be devoured; only traces of the victims — their liver or heart and lungs, for example — ever re-emerge on to the shore. Related beasties were reported from the Isle of Man (the river-dwelling Cabyll Ushtey) and from Ireland (the Aughigsky or Each Uisce, pronounced ‘agh-iski’) where the latter surfaced from the sea in November to eat cattle. Ceffyl Dŵr is the Welsh equivalent, though North Walian water-horses have a worse reputation than South Walian.
Not all water-horses derive their names from Celtic words for horse and water. Though the word Kelpie appears to originate in the Gaelic for a ‘colt’ the beast was called a Shoopiltee in the Shetlands, from the Old Norse for a ‘sea-boy’. Other terms seem to be related to Old English Nicor (itself cognate with Old Norse nykr, Norwegian nøkk, German nix and so on). Famously Beowulf’s swimming contest with Breca (Beowulf lines 506-580) involved him destroying nine nicors, sea-monsters which next day were washed up high and dry on the shore. The nicor reappears in Sussex folklore as the Knucker, a water-dragon which emerged from knuckerholes to consume cattle and humans, and in Somerset as a male water-spirit called Nicky Nye who dragged people into the river to drown them. Perhaps Norse settlers introduced a cognate word for Shetland and Orkney islanders because the mischievous Shetland water-horse is variously known as Noggle, Nuggle or Nygel , while islanders could only escape the more fearsome Orkney Nuckelavee by running over a freshwater stream.
To gauge how monstrous this ‘spirit in flesh’ was deemed to be we have a couple of detailed 19th-century descriptions. The Nuckelavee appeared as a sea-centaur with horse and rider seeming to be of one flesh; it had flappers like fins about its legs; its mouth was as wide as a whale’s, with steam emerging; it had one eye, red as fire; the ‘rider’ was a huge legless man with arms reaching down towards the ground; his head was variously three feet in diameter or ten times larger than a man’s, which rolled from one shoulder to another, with a very wide mouth projecting like a pig’s and exuding foul breath; the red raw flesh, thick with sinews, lacked skin and black blood could be seen running through yellow veins.
My current favourite theory regarding some of the descriptions of these water-horses, especially those around the Scottish coast, is that they seem to be related to the so-called Pictish Beast. It’s claimed that about 40% of all animals represented on these Dark Age monuments are these enigmatic creatures which I believe show some typical water-horse features such as the Nuckelavee’s wide mouth projecting like a pig’s. The similarity of all the Pictish Beast images suggests a common origin, possibly based on a sketch of the washed-up and decaying carcase of a dolphin.
More famous than Beowulf‘s sea-monsters is of course the cannibalistic Grendel, not so forget his dam, both of whom are associated with water; the fact that water is his world, to which he retreats after being mortally wounded by Beowulf and where his she-troll mother lurks, points to him being a shapeshifter, from underwater creature to the semblance of a human, much like many of the water-horses mentioned above. Despite the ogre being a parody of a human being he fascinates us, as the ‘intimate stranger’ described in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Of Giants so often does; but like the water-horses he is to be feared, for his name may derive from Old English grindan ‘to grind’ (or perhaps Middle English gryndel ‘angry’).
That water link with Grendel is inherent in many of the placenames cited in Anglo-Saxon charters from the early 8th to the late 10th century. Grendel’s Pit appears from Worcestershire to Devon, Grendel’s Mere in Wiltshire and Staffordshire, Grendel’s Beck in Worcestershire; there was also a Grendel’s Mire near Battersea in London. A relative of Grendel is the Yorkshire Grindylow, a water-demon who dragged unwary children into deep pools, as does its namesake in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. All these creatures belong a group of folktale motifs related to water-spirits: F420.1.1 for example deals with ‘Water-spirit as man’, F4220.127.116.11 with ‘Water-spirit as horse’ and F418.104.22.168 with ‘Water-spirits lure mortal into water’.
But we started in Wales, and with Wales I want to finish. Motif F420.1.4 is ‘Water-spirits in abnormal form’ and one of the most curious of these is the Welsh Afanc (pronounced ‘avanc’). This monster is particularly associated with the Llyn yr Afanc (‘lake of the avanc’) by the river Conwy in North Wales, where its presence was indicated by a kind of whirlpool sucking things down. It was eventually caught when it was persuaded to lay its head in a maiden’s lap, whereupon it was chained to oxen and dragged away from the lake to Glaslyn tarn in Snowdonia. Other lakes claim to have their afanc too, but I only know of one grave, the Bedd yr Afanc in the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire — in reality a Bronze Age long cairn enclosing a gallery grave — where the creature was buried after being caught in a pool by the bridge in nearby Brynberian. In modern Welsh an afanc is a beaver, but John Rhys pointed to the Old Irish cognate abacc, Modern Irish abhac, meaning a dwarf or misshapen person, as a more likely fit; in European mythology dwarfs had magical abilities, including shapeshifting.
However, as much as I peer into the waters of the Usk I have yet to see a Ceffyl Dŵr, an afanc or worse; perhaps it’s for the best. I’ll stick to looking for the etymology of words in books, not brooks — much safer.
Katherine Briggs (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. Routledge and Kegan Paul
Katherine Briggs (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies. Allen Lane
G N Garmonsway and Jacqueline Simpson (1980) Beowulf and its Analogues. J M Dent & Sons
Florence Marian McNeill (1956) The Silver Bough: Volume I, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk-Belief. Canongate Classic 1989
John Rhys (1901) Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx. Wildwood House 1980
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press 2001
Benjamin Slade ‘Explanatory Notes on Beowulf‘ Note 102 at http://heorot.dk/beowulf-rede-notes.html. Accessed 17/05/2016