Cautionary tales to protect children are a cross-cultural phenomenon. From stepping over pavement cracks to prevent an immediate attack of the ursidae variety or the immediate shattering of your own mother’s spine to the cannibalistic ‘Basket Woman’ of Native American Folklore who will hit you in the head with a stick and boil you should you dare to venture out past bedtime; the use of fear to quell rebellion in children is universal.
Some might argue that this oral tradition has been lost; that a more appropriate story for today’s generation is the one about that kid who used so many hashtags, they disappeared into their own ego. It is entirely possible that in today’s society the lure of the outdoors, the wild places of the world is not as prevalent as it was years ago, that children are aware of the very real and present dangers facing them, that the trolls, ogres and goblins have been relegated back behind the trees of time.
Is this really true? We’ve seen with the tulpa phenomena that is Slenderman, that storytelling has moved with the times…whether there is a cautionary sentiment or indeed, a moral of sorts remains to be seen, especially in light the tragic case of the attempted murder case in 2014 in which the lurking malevolence of ‘the internet’ was widely blamed. I am not in a position to comment either way, what is significant here is that stories are being told, stories which wield a degree of power.
Cautionary folktales and their monsters have always held a particular fascination for me. As a child, rivers, woods and ponds held wildlife rather than the dark creatures of myth. In the mid 1980s, stranger danger was a much more relevant story than being snatched by an ogre. When the huge television on its metal legs was wheeled out into the assembly hall of my primary school, it was the pylons and substations with the terrifying ‘jumping’ electricity
As well as getting your plimsolls caught in train lines!!
People older than I will no doubt recall Donald Pleasance’s mellifluous voiceover in the 1973 rather Eldritch public information video ‘Lonely Water ‘
a film that still stays with many to this day. What is interesting about this is in contrast to the gritty realism of its contemporaries, it instead purveys an air of mysticism about water…
In doing some research for a current novel, I came across the Inuit story of Qalupalik; a cautionary tale that tells of a green skinned, long-haired and fearsome water spirit that prays on disobedient children. You can watch an animated version of the story here.
Almost serendipitously, I was listening to a radio programme about folkloric tales from my own neck of the woods (North East England) and came across an almost identical creature by the name Peg Powler, a ‘river hag’ (The differentiation from a witch must be noticed here) a type of spirit with green skin, long hair and sinewy arms that pulls naughty children into the River Tees. The similarity of this Teesside demon to the Inuit Qalupalik is striking. What’s more, Peg Powler and Qalupalik are not limited to places north…
In Lancashire, lurking beneath the stagnant waters of ponds, there is a creature known as Jinny Greenteeth (in Cheshire and Shropshire she is known as Ginny, Jeanie, Jenny and, perhaps significantly Peg O’Nell)
This old woman who lurks in the waters of stagnant ponds also has green skin, long hair and arms; her modus operandi again, is to reach and snatch the disobedient young from the waters’ edge. A few Jinny Greenteeth stories are cautionary tales aimed at children don’t clean their teeth (which is a bit rich to be fair!)
Crossing the divide between Lancashire and into Yorkshire, there is the Grindylow; again, a long-armed, green creature that dwells in bogs and lakes and drags in children who stray too close to the waters’ edge.
I most certainly not in a position to be able to explain the link between these regional amphibious horrors, nor less to explain this idea of creatures, specifically female, that guard water. What I can do, however, is marvel at what seems to be a worldwide trend. There are, however some slight variations on a theme:
The Scottish ‘Maighdean Vaine’ or ‘Green Lady’ a blood-drinking water-seductress is seen as both malevolent or benevolent, more often than not though, a mischievous friend and companion to children who encounter her.
Nigeria has ‘Mommy-water’, a bereaved spirit wailing from beneath the waters of canals and lakes for her lost child. ‘Mommy-water’, like her western and Arctic contemporaries will reach out and pull you down if you get too close. The Jamaican ‘River-Mumma’ who guards the source of rivers is rather less predatory, instead, a more mermaid or siren type creature that sits combing her hair in the river and lures her victims to join her beneath the waves.
Scandinavian Näcken and German Nix or Nixie (There are variations of the spelling) are, again, siren-like water nymphs who lure their pray (mostly women and children) with song and music played on their fiddles.
It is in Slavic folklore that these seductive water-spirits are perhaps revered as much as they are feared. The Rusalka, water demons that vary in descriptions from naked maidens to hairy creatures are often seen as the spirits of murdered girls or suicides. They are also sometimes seen as spinners of fate and even had their own festival . ‘Rusalka Week’ or ‘Green Week’ in early June was the time when Rusalka rose from their watery depths and swing on the branches of the willow and birch trees; to swim during this time would be your death. To banish these spirits, there are variations of ritualistic fertility offerings that banish the Rusalka back below the waters from whence they came. In Belarus, an elaborate ceremony was performed; eggs were left at the foot of a birch tree, with wreaths woven into its branches and women swore eternal friendship to each other to weather the fickleness of men and prevent more suicides which would, in turn, create more Rusalka. Sometimes these trees, seen as symbols of femininity were hurled into the lakes to warn the Rusalka to leave the men alone.
There are of course, hundreds more variants of predatory water-entities in folklore across the world as well as aquatic deities (some of which are male) but there is not enough room to include all of them here. I have merely touched on what is clearly a very ancient and spiritual
Our world is around 70% water, a great percentage of our own being is water; our physicality and mind is affected, like the seas, by the pull of the moon. Much of what lies beneath the seas that surround us, has never been seen by human eyes. It has been suggested that the Celts and pre-Celtic aborigines were water-worshippers; a plethora of water-cults prevailed through Europe. Born of the seas, we evolved to sever our bind to water and perhaps, as we and our beliefs evolved, we look back over our shoulders at this ancient mother of ours with a certain trepidation.
As well we might.
“I cannot think of the deep sea without shuddering at the nameless things that may at this very moment be crawling and floundering on its slimy bed, worshipping their ancient stone idols and carving their own detestable likenesses on submarine obelisks of water-soaked granite. I dream of a day when they may rise above the billows to drag down in their reeking talons the remnants of puny, war-exhausted mankind-of a day when the land shall sink, and the dark ocean floor shall ascend amidst universal pandemonium.”
HP Lovecraft – Dagon