Danger: water!

The River Usk looking upriver from Crickhowell bridge, Powys

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.

The nuckelavee chasing an islander, painting by James Torrance (1859–1916): public domain
The nuckelavee chasing an islander, painting by James Torrance (1859–1916): public domain

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.

Pictish BeastMy 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’, F420.1.3.3 with ‘Water-spirit as horse’ and F420.5.2.1 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.

Danger WaterHowever, 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

23 thoughts on “Danger: water!

  1. On my next visit I think I shall keep away from English streams and rivers – not easy, because they surround the home of Elder Daughter & Co.. Only the tiniest of lakes nearby, though.
    The Nuckelavee is particularly repulsive in description.


    1. I’d steer clear of all bodies of water if I were you, Col — these things don’t need passports after all — but at least you and your daughter’s family will recognise the danger signs now: don’t ride any strange horses and keep away from the edge of pools!

      You’re right, the Nuckelavee is nasty: I guess crossing your fingers mayn’t be enough to combat it …


      1. Too late – I was brainwashed at an early age with the philosophies of Toad of Toad Hall characters on messing about in boats, and then totally indoctrinated by Swallows and Amazons et seq.


  2. I really like these kinds of posts of yours that discuss words or a concept or just some issue that has been percolating in your mind. I personally love the lore of water beasts. And living near the Pacific Ocean most of my life they have centered around actual beasts: whales, dolphins and seals/sea lions. Lately, and this hasn’t always been the case in my memory, our surfers have been meeting baby great white sharks, mostly from afar, though sometimes being injured by them, but thankfully have lived to tell the tale.

    Not to sound superficial in a post full of wonderful research, but you kind of stopped me at whisky (without the ‘e’). Really? I guess I never paid attention…too busy indulging? 🙂


    1. As regards spelling, quick research tells me that the American and the Irish prefer ‘whiskey’ while Scots, Canadians and the rest of the world go for ‘whisky’. With my Anglocentric eyes whiskey looks affected, or perhaps a childish rendition of the kitchen utensil — but I expect the reverse applies in the US!

      So pleased you like these discursive posts, Laurie — I know they’re not going to be to everybody’s tastes! I hoped this particular ‘wandering among words’ would evoke our deep fascination and oft-times fear of water. I know that the movie Jaws awoke a pathological fear amongst many film-goers that for them had lain dormant until John Williams’ score and Spielberg’s underwater shots of swimmers’ legs brought it all out into the open! UK waters have until recently been rarely visited by Great Whites but humming ‘duh-duh duh-duh’ will scare most seaside waders here witless …


  3. earthbalm

    Yes, fascinating post. I don’t seem to be getting notifications of your new posts at the moment. I’ll have to take a look at my settings this weekend. Have just returned from taking year 6 to PGL in Brecon. Great time had by all. I’d forgotten how much fun year 6 can be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hadn’t heard about ‘Parents Get Lost’ holidays but fascinated to hear they began as canoeing trips down the Wye. (Clearly there’s no Ceffyl Dwr on the Wye or we’d have heard about missing children by now!) Anyway, sounds great!

      Notifications: there are sometimes odd glitches but it may just be that my posts have been irregular of late!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely post. I’ve done my time with Grendel. And interestingly, in Australia there’s a sheepdog called a Kelpie, which I imagine must come from the Celtic word, though I can’t imagine why. It’s a wonderfully clever dog that leaps across the sheep’s backs as lightly as a watersprite – maybe it’s that!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Congratulations on having even heard of Tim Winton, let alone read him. I’m not a Winton fan but I’m in the minority, I know. I read Beowulf in my English degree and I must say I always felt rather sorry for Grendel and his mother.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I know what you mean about Grendel and his mum, a real clash of cultures there … I only know of the Winton because I picked up a copy of the book cheaply, and it seemed a quick-ish read, so I’ve not read any more of him to make a real judgement. Too bleak perhaps?


  5. Pingback: Awe, or just plain Aw? – Calmgrove

  6. In Scandinavia we have the Näcken (Swedish), Nøkk (Norwegian) or Nykr (old Norse), sometimes described as a male water spirit (in later art often pictured as a naked man playing violin in the stream) or a water horse. In either shape he lures people into the water and make them drown.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The depiction of the naked man playing a violin in a stream is reminiscent of the singing of the sirens (who famously tempted Odysseus) and similar nixies like those who entranced Hylas by the Black Sea and Cornish mermaids who lured sailors with their song, only for them to founder on rocks. Oddly your musical Scandinavian water sprite is male — most folktales seem to have male nicors being a lot less subtle and just grabbing their victims.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder if it is because he his a fresh-water spirit and thus more likely to drown women and children? His music is also supposedly capable of making people dance to death. if you hear this tune https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WniDzGNLMMM from a stream you know it is either Näcken or a bunch of folk musicians.
        Men on the other hand are more likely to be lured to get lost in the forest by a Skogsrå, a beautiful woman with a tree stem for her back (or a tail).

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s really interesting about Scandinavian freshwater spirits being mostly male (often the case with the water-horses of Scottish and Irish folklore). On the other hand, a great many human freshwater-spirits in the English and Welsh traditions were female, sometimes benign though often not: Jenny Greenteeth, for example, and Peg Powler were often instanced as malign females, nursery bogies who would drown you if you strayed too close to running water.

          I’ll listen to your Danse Macabre tune now! Don’t worry if you never hear from me again, it won’t be your fault…


          Liked by 1 person

            1. A hardback edition of the late Katherine Briggs’ A Dictionary of Fairies (1976) is one of my prize possessions, well researched and with a full bibliography but with a love of the subject evident in every entry. Jenny Greenteeth, Peg Power, Black Annis and their sisters are all there: whether they’re bogies to frighten kids with or genuine survivals of pagan folk beliefs, there’s a surprising consistency in their portrayal, and giving them personal names somehow makes them more alive.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Sounds like a great volume! I’m naturally mostly concerned with the ones I’m more likely to encounter in the Scandinavian nature but I will keep my eyes out for that one anyway. Also, I’m glad to see that you did not dance to your death 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

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