The Northern Way

Grimm's Teutonic Mythology

Chapter 17

(Page 11)

Dancing, song and music are the delight of all water-sprites, as they are of elves (p. 470). Like the sirens, the nixie by her song draws listening youth to herself, and then into the deep. So Hylas was drawn into the water by the nymphs (Apollod. i. 9, 19. Apollon. rhod. 1, 131). At evening up come the damsels from the lake, to take part in the human dance, and to visit their lovers. (106) In Sweden they tell of the strömkarl's alluring enchanting strain: the strömkarls-lag (-lay) is said to have eleven variations, but to only ten of them may you dance, the eleventh belongs to the night-spirit and his band; begin to play that, and the tables and benches, cup and can, gray-beards and grandmothers, blind and lame, even babes in the cradle would begin to dance. (107) This melodious strömkarl loves to linger by mills and waterfalls (conf. Andvari, p. 488). Hence his Norwegian name fossegrim (fos, Swed. and ON. fors, waterfall). On p. 52 it was cited as a remnant of heathen sacrifices, that to this dæmonic being people offered a black lamb, and were taught music by him in return. The fossegrim too on calm dark evenings entices men by his music, and instructs in the fiddle or other stringed instruments any one who will on a Thursday evening, with his head turned away, offer him a little white he-goat and throw it into a 'forse' that falls northwards (supra, p. 34). If the victim is lean, the pupil gets no farther than the tuning of the fiddle; if fat, the fossegrim clutches hold of the player's right hand, and guides it up and down till the blood starts out of all his finger-tips, then the pupil is perfect in his art, and can play so that the trees shall dance and torrents in their fall stand still (see Suppl.). (108)

Although Christianity forbids such offerings, and pronounces the old water-sprites diabolic beings, yet the common people retain a certain awe and reverence, and have not quite given up all faith in their power and influence: accursed beings they are, but they may some day become partakers of salvation. This is the drift of the touching account, how the strömkarl or neck wants you not only to sacrifice to him in return for musical instruction, but to promise him resurrection and redemption. (109) Two boys were playing by the riverside, the neck sat there touching his harp, and the children cried to him: 'What do you sit and play here for, neck? you know you will never be saved.' The neck began to weep bitterly, threw his harp away, and sank to the bottom. When the boys got home, they told their father what had happened. The father, who was a priest, said 'you have sinned against the neck, go back, comfort him and tell him he may be saved.' When they returned to the river, the neck sat on the bank weeping and wailing. The children said: 'Do not cry so, poor neck, father says that your Redeemer liveth too.' Then the neck joyfully took his harp, and played charmingly till long after sunset. (110) I do not know that anywhere in our legends it is so pointedly expressed, how badly the heathen stand in need of the Christian religion, and how mildly it ought to meet them. But the harsh and the compassionate epithets bestowed on the nixes seem to turn chiefly upon their unblessedness, their damnation. (111)

But beside the freewill offering for instruction in his art, the nix also extracted cruel and compulsory sacrifices, of which the memory is preserved in nearly all popular tradition. To this day, when people are drowned in a river, it is common to say: 'the river-sprite demands his yearly victim,' which is usually 'an innocent child.' (112) This points to actual human sacrifices offered to the nichus in far-off heathen times. To the nix of the Diemel they throw bread and fruit once a year (see Suppl.).

ON the whole there runs through the stories of water-sprites a vein of cruelty and bloodthirstiness, which is not easily found among dæmons of mountains, woods and homes. The nix not only kills human beings who fall into his clutches, but wreaks a bloody vengeance on his own folk who have come on shore, mingled with men, and then gone back. A girl had passed fifteen years in the sea-wife's house (i haf-fruns gård), and never seen the sun all that time. At last her brother ventures down, and brings his beloved sister safely back to the upper world. The hafsfru waited her return seven years, then seized her staff, and lashing the water till it splashed up high, she cried:

Hade jag trott att du varit så falsk,

Så skulle jag knackt dig din tiufvehals!

(had I trowed thou wert so false, I'd have nicked thy thievish neck), Arvidsson 2, 320-3. If the sea-maidens have stayed too long at the dance, if the captive Christian have born a child to the nix, if the water-man's child is slow in obeying his call, one sees a jet of blood shoot up from the water's bed in sign of the vengeful deed. (113) As a rule, there was likewise a favourable sign agreed upon (a jet of milk, a plate with an apple), but withheld in such a case as this.

And here is the place to take up Grendel again, whom we likened (p. 243) to the malicious god Loki, though Loki, even apart from that, seemed related to Oegir. Grendel is cruel and bloodthirsty: when he climbs out of his marsh at night, and reaches the hall of the sleeping heroes, he clutches one and drinks the blood out of another (Beow. 1478). His mother is called a merewîf (3037), brimwylf (she-wolf of the breakers, 3197), and grundwyrgen (3036) which means the same thing (from wearg, lupus, comes wyrgen, lupa). This pair, Grendel and mother, have a water-house, which is described (3027 seq.) almost exactly as we should imagine the Norse Oegir's dwelling, where the gods were feasted: indoors the water is excluded by walls, and there burns a pale light (3033). (114) Thus more than one feature leads on to higher beings, transcending mere watersprites (see Suppl.).

The notion of the nix drawing to him those who are drowning has its milder aspect too, and that still a heathen one. We saw on p. 311 that drowned men go to the goddess Rân; the popular belief of later times is that they are received into the abode of the nix or nixe. It is not the river-sprite kills those who sink in the element of water; kindly and compassionately he bears them to his dwelling, and harbours their souls. (115) The word rân seems to have had a more comprehensive meaning at first: 'mæla rân ok regin' was to invoke all that is bad, all evil spirits, upon one. It has occured to me, whether the unexplained Swed. rå in the compounds sjörå (nix), skogsrå (schrat), tomtrå (homesprite), which some believe to be rå angulus, or a contraction of rådande, may not have sprung from this rân, as the Scandinavian tongue is so fond of dropping a final n. Dame Wâchilt too (p. 434) is a succouring harbouring water-wife. The water man, like Hel and Rân, keeps with him the souls of them that have perished in the water, 'in pots turned upside down,' to use the naïve language of one story (no. 52); but a peasant visiting them tilts them up, and in a moment the souls all mount up through the water. Of the drowned they say 'the nix has drawn them to him,' or 'has sucked them,' because bodies found in the water have the nose red. (116) 'Juxta pontem Mosellae quidam puerulus naviculam excidens submersus est. quod videns quidam juvenis vestibus abjectis aquae insilivit, et inventum extrahere volens, maligno spiritu retrahente, quem Neptunum vocant, semel et secundo perdidit; tertio cum nomen apostoli invocasset, mortuum recepit.' Miracula S. Matthiae, cap. 43. Pez, Thes. anecd. 2, 3, pag. 26. Rollenhagen in the Froschmeuseler (Nn IIb):

'das er

elend im wasser wer gestorben,

da die seel mit dem leib verdorben,

oder beim geist blieb, der immer frech

den ersofnen die hels abbrech.'

(that he had died miserably in the water, and his soul had perished with the body, or abode with the spirit that ever without ado breaketh the necks of the drowned). The Swedish superstition supposes that drowned men whose bodies are not found have been drawn into the dwelling of the hafsfru (Sv. vis. 3, 148). In some German fairy-tales (no. 79) children who fall into the well come under the power of the water-nixe; like dame Holla, she gives them tangled flax to spin.

Faye, p. 51, quotes a Norwegian charm, to be repeated on the water against the nix:

nyk, nyk, naal i vatn!

jomfru Maria kastet staal i vatn:

du säk äk flyt. (117)


106. Hebel doubtless founds on popular tradition when (p. 281) he makes the 'jungfere usem see' roam through the fields at midnight, probably like the roggenmuhme to make them fruitful. Other stories of the meerweiblein in Mone's Anz. 8, 178, and Bechstein's Thür. sagen 3, 236. Back

107. Arndt's Reise nach Schweden 4, 241; similar dances spoken of in Herraudssaga, cap. 11. pp. 49-52. Back

108. Faye p. 57. Conf. Thiele 1, 135 on the kirkegrim. Back

109. Ödman's Bahuslän, p. 80: Om spelemän i högar ok forsar har man ok åtskilliga sagor; för 15 år tilbacka har man här uti högen under Gären i Tanums gäll belägit hört spela som the bäste musicanter. Then som har viol ok vill lära spela, blir i ögnableket lärd, allenast han lofvar upståndelse; en som ej lofte thet, fick höra huru the i högen slogo sonder sina violer ok greto bitterliga. (He that has a fiddle and will learn to play, becomes in a moment learned, only he promises resurrection; one who promised not that, did hear how they in the hill beat asunder their fiddles and wept bitterly.) Back

110. Sv. visor 3, 128. Ir. Elfenm. p. 24; similar Irish, Scotch, and Danish traditions, pp. 200-2. Conf. Thiele 4, 14. Holberg's Julestue sc. 12: 'Nisser og underjorske folk, drive store fester bort med klagen og hylen, eftersom de ingen del har derudi' (because they have no part therein). Back

111. 'Vertâne wassernixe,' fordone, done for (p. 488); 'den fula stygga necken,' Sv. vis. 3, 147; 'den usle havfrue, usle maremind,' 'den arme mareviv,' 'du fule og lede spaaqvinde!' Danske visor 1, 110. 119. 125. Holberg's Melampus 3, 7 cites a Danish superstition: 'naar en fisker ligger hos sin fiskerinde paa söen, saa föder hun en havfrue.' Back

112. Deut. sag., nos. 61. 62. Faye, p. 51. The River Saale yearly demands her victim on Walburgis or St. John's day, and on those days people avoid the river. Back

113. Deut. sag., nos. 49. 58-9. 60. 304-6. 318, 1. Here I give another Westphalian legend, written down for me by Hr. Seitz, of Osnabrück:---Dönken von den smett uppn Darmssen. Dichte bei Braumske liggt en lütken see, de Darmssen; do stönd vörr aulen tiën (olden tide) en klauster ane. de miönke åber in den klauster liabeden nig nå Goddes willen; drumme gönke et unner. Nig lange nå hiar hörden de buren in der nauberskup, in Epe, olle nachte en kloppen un liarmen be den Darmssen, osse wenn me upn ambold slêt, und wecke lüe seigen wott (some folk saw somewhat) midden up den Darmssen. Se sgeppeden drup to; då was et n smett, de bet ant lif (bis an's leib) inn water seit, mitn hâmer in de f´ûst, dåmit weis he jümmer up den ambold, un bedudde (beduetete) de buren, dat se em wot to smîen bringen sollen. Sit der tit brochten em de lüe ut der burskup jümmer isen to smîen (iron to forge), un ninminske hadde so goe plogisen (good ploughshares) osse de Eper. Ens wol Koatman to Epe rêt (reed) ut den Darmssen hâlen, do feind he n lütk kind annen öwer, dat was ruw upn ganssen liwe. [So in Casp. von der Ron, pp. 224-5 the meerwunder is called 'der rauhe, der rauche.' Conf. supra, pp. 481. 491] Do sgreggede de smett: 'nimm mi meinen süennen nig weg!' åber Koatman neim dat kind inn back ful, un löp dermit nå huse. Sit der tit was de smett nig mehr to seh or to hören. Koatman fårde (futterte) den ruwewen up, un de wörd sin beste un flitigste knecht. Osse he åber twintig jår ault wör, sia he to sinen buren: 'bûr, ik mot von ju gaun, min vâr het mi ropen.' 'Dat spit mi ja,' sia de bûr, 'gift et denn gar nin middel, dat du be mibliwen kannst?' 'Ik will es (mal) sehn,' sia dat waterkind, 'gåt erst es (mal) no Braumske un hâlt mi en niggen djangen (degn); mer ji mjöt do förr giebn wot de kaupmann hebben will, un jau niks afhanneln.' De bûr gönk no Braumske un kofde en djangn, hannelde åber doch wot af. Nu göngen se to haupe no'n Darmssen, do sia de ruwwe: 'Nu passt upp, wenn ik int water slåe un et kümmt blôt, dann mot ik weg, kümmt mjalke, dann darf ik bi ju bliwwen.' He slög int water, dåkwamm kene mjalke un auk kên blôd. gans iargerlik sprak de ruwwe: 'ji hebt mi wot wis maket, un wot afhannelt, dorümme kömmt kên blôd un kene mjalke. spöt ju, un kaupet in Braumske en ånnern djangn.' De bûr göng weg un kweim wir; åber erst dat drüdde mal bråchte he en djangen, wå he niks an awwehannelt hadde. Osse de ruwwe då mit int water slög, do was et so raut osse blôd, de ruwwe störtede sik in den Darmssen, un ninminske hef en wier sehn.---[Epitome:---The smith in Darmssen lake. Once a monastery there; bad monks, put down. Peasants at Epe heard a hammering every night, rowed to middle of lake, found a smith sitting up to his waist in water; he made them signs to bring him work, they did so constantly, and the Epe ploughshares were the best in the country. Once farmer Koatman found a child on the bank, all over hairy. Smith cried, 'don't take my son'; but K. did, and reared him. Smith never seen again. The Shaggy one, when aged 20, said, 'I must go, father has called me.' ---'Can't you stay anyhow?'---'Well, I'll see; go buy me a new sword, give the price asked, don't beat down.' K. bought one, but cheapened. They go to the Darmssen; says Shag, 'Watch, when I strike the water; if blood comes, I must go, if milk, I may stay.' But neither came: 'You've cheapened! go buy another sword.' K. cheapened again, but the third time he did not. Shag struck the water, it was red as blood, and he plunged into the Darmssen.]---The same sign, of milk or blood coming up, occurs in another folktale, which makes the water-nymphs into white-veiled nuns, Mone's Anz. 3, 93. Back

114. Conf. the dolphin's house in Musäus's märchen of the Three Sisters. Back

115. Probably there were stories also of helpful succouring river-gods, such as the Greeks and Romans told of Thetis, of Ino-Leucothea (Od. 5, 333-353), Albunea, Matuta. Back

116. Dan. 'nökken har taget ham,' 'nökken har suet dem,' Tullin's Skrifter 2, 13. Back

117. So Brynhildr calls out at last to the giantess: 'seykstu, gýgjar kyn!' Sæm. 229b. Back

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