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Water-maids

This article is an excerpt from the upcoming book Heathenry and the Sea by Dan Coultas.


A generally well-meaning form of water-wight is the water-maid. Various forms can be found under different names throughout Germanic folklore, in the oceans, on the shore, and in inland waterways such as rivers and streams.


Whilst often well meaning, ‘like the marbendill, both salt- and fresh-water women have spae-sight, and can be made to answer questions, or give prophecies uninvited, as in Thiðriks saga when Högni sees three water-maids bathing in the Danube, and they prophesy to him that all who cross the river must die.’[1] They are of course not influencing the future here, just telling it, and there are other tales where the prophesies have more favourable outcomes.


The Danube seems to be a haven for water-maids. As well as in Thiðriks saga they are also said to inhabit the river in The Nibelungenlied, where Hagen comes across them when searching for a ferryman:


‘He heard the splash of water and began to listen. It came from mermaidens that bathed their bodies in a clear brook to cool them. Hagen spied them, and stole up secretly. When they were ware of him, they fled. Well pleased were they to escape him. The hero took their garments, but did them no further annoy.


Then one of the mermaids (she hight Hadburg) said, "We will tell thee, noble Hagen, if thou give us our clothes again, how ye shall all fare on this journey among the Huns." They swayed like birds in the water before him. He deemed them wise and worthy of belief, so that he trusted the more what they told him. They informed him concerning all he asked them.’[2]


These water-maids were the inspiration behind the Rhinemaidens who guard the Rhinegold from a number of would-be thieves (with varying success) in Wagner’s Ring cycle.[3]


Water-maids have been known to act maliciously, deliberately luring people to their deaths. One example is Sarkless Kitty, said to reside in a ford across the River Dove in Farndale, on the North York Moors. ‘Sarkless’ is local dialect for ‘naked’, and Kitty is said to ‘appear to young men on the opposite bank of the Dove and using her beauty, tempt them to their deaths in the treacherous waters’[4] in a manner reminiscent of the sirens of Greek mythology, who would lure men to a watery death using their beautiful voices, or closer to home, the morgan of the Severn Sea, who ‘was heard on many an autumn evening singing around Steart [in Somerset], so bewitching that any man who heard her was compelled to wade out into the sea, further and further until the quicksands swallowed him up.’[5] Here the water-maid is using the combination of the Severn Seas high tidal range, and the quick sand on the beach, to trap the victims she has lured with her song. In any case, it is clear that young men should have their wits about them if they see or hear a beautiful woman near the water’s edge.


There are also folk tales of water maids forming relationships with, and even marrying human men, and their male equivalents, mermen, seducing human women. These relationships are not usually seen as being manipulative or ill purposed. ‘One of the most popular mediaeval Scandinavian ballads was “Agnete og Havmanden” (Agnete and the Merman), in which a young woman is lured beneath the sea to marry a water-man and bears him children, but at last returns to the land.’[6] Here we see that whilst the young woman has a relationship with the merman, no harm befalls her, and she can return home.


The same is often true in tales of men’s relationships with water-maids. The tale of the mermaid of Zennor from Cornish folklore tells of mermaid who sang at the local church (in Cornish Folklore mermaids can shapeshift into human form to walk on land). One day she left with a human man, and neither of them were seen again. The locals said that she had taken him for a husband, and the two of them had raised children beneath the waves.[7]



The Mermaid of Zennor by Matt Greenway. (C) 2021


It is not just humans, but also the Gods who have been known to form intermate relationships with water-maids. In Hárbarðsljóð, Odin, in the form of Harbarth the ferryman boasts:


"Lively women we had, if they wise for us were; Wise were the women we had, if they kind for us were; For ropes of sand they would seek to wind, And the bottom to dig from the deepest dale. Wiser than all in counsel I was, And there I slept by the sisters seven, And joy full great did I get from each. What, Thor, didst thou the while?"[8]


Some speculate that the sisters described here are the daughters of Aegir and Rán, however most sources state that they had 9 daughters, and here 7 sisters are mentioned. Regardless, Odin’s boast is that he has been with water-maids of some form, and that the experience was mutually pleasurable.

[1] K. Gundarsson. 2007. p. 49. [2] M. Armour (trans.). The Nibelungenlied, In Parentheses. 1999. pp. 116-117. [3] W. Mann (trans). Das Rheingold, Friends of Covent Garden. 1964. p. 17. [4] K. Roberts. 2013. p. 123. [5] S. Kingshill & J. Westwood. 2014. p. 49. [6] K. Gundarsson. 2007. p. 49. [7] W. Bottrell. Stories & Folklore of West Cornwall, Kessinger Publishing. 1880. [8] H. Bellows (trans.). 1936. p. 128.

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