Heathens of Yorkshire
-by Dan Coultas, April 2019
Sometimes call the nicor, and known to the Norwegians as the nökk or fossegrim and the Swedish as näck, the nixie can be a complicated character. Depending on whether the source is Scandinavian or Anglo-Saxon they can be either male or female, and either entirely maleficent, or in some cases helpful. This wight ‘dwells in rivers, lakes, and occasionally fjords—though he is likeliest to dwell in waterfalls, as the Norwegian name fossegrim (waterfall-spook) suggests—and claims a human life once a year’ (Gundarsson 2007:50). This direct taking of human life, rather than just predicting it, sets he nixie apart from the other water-wights as a particularly dangerous being. One way of trying to avoid becoming the annual victim is to make an offering to the nixie whenever you go on or near it’s water.
Like some of the other water-wights, they too can predict death as well as claiming lives themselves. ‘When someone is fated to die soon, the Nökk is often heard calling out, in hollow tones, ‘Cross over!’ This ominous cry can also be a wailing, moaning voice, like that of a man at the point of death’ (Simpson 1988:230). Rather than the idea of calling someone to drown, or a calling a sailor onto the rocks, the implication here is that the victim is about to ‘cross over’ from this life to the next, by a means which might not directly involve the water.
There is a tale from my local town of Pontefract of a water-wight inhabiting the mill race. The tale has been recorded by John Billingsley in ‘West Yorkshire Folk Tales’, and tells of a young maid called Mary:
‘One of her jobs was to draw water from the millstream. It frightened her at first, as when she came to the mill, she’d had a dream, a nightmare really, but one that had truly felt real. In the dream she saw a body tumbling along in a stream of water, turning over and over, and she’d come to in a bit of a lather, like, But it were one o’ th’ basic jobs of a maid so she had to do it, and gradually she got used to it and laughed at how fearful she’d been at first. Because, in truth, she’d got to enjoy it. You know what it’s like in summat like a mill race, even if there aren’t many of ‘em around any more – it’s a fast-flowing stream, channelled so that to races down to the waterwheel, and it makes a lovely gurgling, tumbling sort o’ noise. Mary found the sound of it really fetching.
There’s this deep undertone that flowing water has, you know, and it can be quite hypnotic. So she used to sit there a while, stare at the water, and allow herself to daydream. And sometimes if she wasn’t working, when time and weather allowed, she’d go sit there, for she loved the mood it put her in, the sense of peace and a world beyond. The babbling of the water would seem just like that, a babbling, with words and all, and sometimes she would lean closer to try and hear the words.
Well, I’m sure you can guess what’s coming. There came a day, a warm evening actually, as Mary sat for a while after work, and that night the words were particularly alluring, as if speaking directly to her heart, and she leaned closer over the bank as she really thought she could almost hear those words. Who knows, maybe she thought it were the fairies and she might be able to eavesdrop on their conversations. Maybe she thought they were talking about her, or maybe she was just a little bit hypnotised, entranced even, by that sound. There she was, rocking to and fro with the singing of the waters, almost a part of their song, when she came to – but too late, ‘cos there she’d slipped off the bank and suddenly, as she fell into the water, she remembered her dream. The voices were all around her now, and she cried out as she heard them because she understood, and they told her of her past and of her future, and that future was none too bright nor long. There was a body turning over and over as the water raced and it was hers. The voices sang and Mary tumbled, and the big millwheel greeted her with a shudder; it hesitated, just for a moment, but it was too late to stop, so it turned on.
Through on the other side came that girl, the voices quiet now, the body bloodied and lifeless, shattered by her passage through the wheel’ (Billingsley, 2010:144-146).
The actions of this wight, or group of wights, seem to be those of a nixie. Not only predicting their victim’s death, but playing as active part in their demise. The tale is of a specific wight, which lives in a stream in Pontefract, but other similar wights exist all over England, and indeed the world, which have similar traits; luring their victims to a watery death through song.
As with many folklore tales, there is a lack of detail about exactly where any when the events take place. All we know of the location is that it is a water mill near Pontefract. The most likely candidate for this is Queen’s Mill, in Castleford, 3 miles to the north of Pontefract. The current mill was built in the nineteenth century, but there is evidence of flour being produced on the site for over 900 years, meaning that Mary’s encounter with the ill willing wight could have taken place anywhere between around 1000 and 1900CE. This is one of many examples of pagan beliefs in the wights of the land and of the water surviving through local folklore.
Jenny Green Teeth is a well-known water-wight from Lancashire, who’s characteristics also fit with that of a nixie. ‘Jenny Green Teeth, that hideous old spirit, will wrap weeds around any fool’s ankles and drag him to a horrible drowning. She is evil. That’s why they must keep clear of areas covered by the duckweed. It reveals Jenny’s presence’ (Hayward 2003:52). Whereas the wight in the tale from Pontefract inhabits fast flowing water, Jenny Green Teeth’s domain is the still, weed filled waters. She uses the weeds to hide, waiting for her victims to get close before snatching them and dragging them under. A similar water spirit, the grindylow, also dwells in still, weedy waters, but in this instance in Yorkshire, from where it grabs the legs of children who stray too close. A Grindylow attack is described in the fictional world of Harry Potter:
‘Harry twisted his body around and saw a Grindylow, a small, horned water demon, poking out of the weeds, its long fingers clutching tightly around Harry’s leg, its pointed fangs bared’ (Rowling 2000:430).
Further north, another similar water-wight, Peg Powler, inhabits the river Tees. She too is said to have green hair, and drags her victims to their deaths in the river. Whether its Jenny Green Teeth, a gringylow, Peg Powler, or another nixie, it seems that the inland waterways of Britain are teeming with ill willing water-wights ready to drag the unwitting into the water.
As might be expected, several ways have been suggested in folklore for protecting oneself against these ill willing wights. ‘People protected themselves against a näck by binding him with steel, throwing a stone in the water, and reciting a magic formula. This formula combines naming the preternatural being with the magic effect of insult and accusation’ (Kvideland and Sehnsdorf 1991:259). Steel (and iron) is well known to be harmful and much disliked by wights, both on the land and in the water. It is therefore seen to be useful against those who wish you harm, but its use should always be avoided if trying to work with a helpful wight.
There are examples of the Nixie being helpful. ‘He will tune fiddles and teach folk to play the fiddle if he is offered a black lamb; if a fiddler lets this wight suck blood from his finger, the Näck will teach him a certain tune that everyone who hears must dance to’ (Gundarrsson 2007:51). This help it seems is still of a rather trickster like nature, but it is certainly preferable to being killed!