Folklore

Water Nymphs #folklore

Where there is water, there is a story about an otherworldly creature living in it…

Folklore

Hero Tales and Legends of the Rhine by Lewis Spence [1915]

The Lorelei

Many are the legends which cluster round the name of the Lorelei. In some of the earlier traditions she is represented as an undine, combing her hair on the Lorelei-berg and singing bewitching strains wherewith to lure mariners to their death, and one such legend relates how an old soldier named Diether undertook to capture her.

Graf Ludwig, son of the Prince Palatine, had been caught in her toils, his frail barque wrecked, and he himself caught in the whirlpool and drowned. The prince, grievously stricken at the melancholy occurrence, longed to avenge his son’s death on the evil enchantress who had wrought such havoc. Among his retainers there was but one who would undertake the venture–a captain of the guard named Diether–and the sole reward he craved was permission to cast the Lorelei into the depths she haunted should he succeed in capturing her.

Diether and his little band of warriors ascended the Lorelei’s rock in such a way as to cut off all retreat on the landward side. Just as they reached the summit the moon sailed out from behind a cloud, and behold, the spirit of the whirlpool was seen sitting on the very verge of the precipice, binding her wet hair with a band of gleaming jewels.

“What wouldst thou with me?” she cried, starting to her feet.

“To cast thee into the Rhine, sorceress,” said Diether roughly, “where thou hast drowned our prince.”

“Nay,” returned the maid, “I drowned him not. ’Twas his own folly which cost him his life.”

As she stood on the brink of the precipice, her lips smiling, her eyes gleaming softly, her wet dark hair streaming over her shoulders, some strange, unearthly quality in her beauty, a potent spell fell upon the little company, so that even Diether himself could neither move nor speak.

“And wouldst thou cast me in the Rhine, Diether?” she pursued, smiling at the helpless warrior. “’Tis not I who go to the Rhine, but the Rhine that will come to me.”

Then loosening the jewelled band from her hair, she flung it on the water and cried aloud: “Father, send me thy white steeds, that I may cross the river in safety.”

Instantly, as at her bidding, a wild storm arose, and the river, overflowing its banks, foamed right up to the summit of the Lorelei Rock. Three white-crested waves, resembling three white horses, mounted the steep, and into the hollowed trough behind them the Lorelei stepped as into a chariot, to be whirled out into the stream. Meanwhile Diether and his companions were almost overwhelmed by the floods, yet they were unable to stir hand or foot. In mid-stream the undine sank beneath the waves: the spell was broken, the waters subsided, and the captain and his men were free to return home.

Nevermore, they vowed, would they seek to capture the Lorelei.

Songs of the Russian People by W. R. S. Ralston [1872]

The Rusalkas are female water-spirits, who occupy a position which corresponds in many respects with that filled by the elves and fairies of Western Europe. The origin of their name seems to be doubtful, but it appears to be connected with rus, an old Slavonic word for a stream, or with ruslo, the bed of a river, and with several other kindred words, such as rosá, dew, which have reference to water. They are generally represented under the form of beauteous maidens with full and snow-white bosoms, and with long and slender limbs. Their feet are small, their eyes are wild, their faces are fair to see, but their complexion is pale, their expression anxious. Their hair is long and thick and wavy, and green as is the grass. Their dress is either a covering of green leaves, or a long white shift, worn without a girdle. At times they emerge from the waters of the lake or river in which they dwell, and sit upon its banks, combing and plaiting their flowing locks, or they cling to a mill-wheel; and turn round with it amid the splash of the stream. If any one happens to approach, they fling themselves into the waters, and there divert themselves, and try to allure him to join them. Whomsoever they get hold of they tickle to death. Witches alone can bathe with them unhurt.

In certain districts bordering on the sea the people believe, or used to believe, in marine Rusalkas, who are supposed, in some places, as, for instance, about Astrakhan, to raise storms and vex shipping. But as a general rule the Rusalkas are looked upon in Russia as haunting lakes and streams, at the bottom of which they usually dwell in crystal halls, radiant with gold and silver and precious stones. Sometimes, however, they are not so sumptuously housed, but have to make for themselves nests out of straw and feathers collected during the “Green Week,” the seventh after Easter. If a Rusalka’s hair becomes dry she dies, and therefore she is generally afraid of going far from the water, unless, indeed, she has a comb with her. So long as she has a comb she can always produce a flood by passing it through her waving locks.

In some places they are fond of spinning, in others they are given to washing linen. During the week before Whitsuntide, as many songs testify, they sit upon trees, and ask for linen garments. Up to the present day, in Little-Russia, it is customary to hang on the boughs of oaks and other trees, at that time of year, shifts and rags and skeins of thread, all intended as a present to the Rusalkas. In White-Russia the peasants affirm that during that week the forests are traversed by naked women and children, and whoever meets them, if he wishes to escape a premature death, must fling them a handkerchief, or some scrap torn from his dress.

On the approach of winter the Rusalkas disappear, and do not show themselves again until it is over. In Little-Russia they are supposed to appear on the Thursday in Holy Week, a day which in olden times was dear to them, as well as to many other spiritual beings. In the Ukraine the Thursday before Whitsuntide is called the Great Day, or Easter Sunday, of the Rusalkas. During the days called the “Green Svyatki,” at Whitsuntide, when every home is adorned with boughs and green leaves, no one dares to work for fear of offending the Rusalkas. Especially must women abstain from sewing or washing linen; and men from weaving fences and the like, such occupations too closely resembling those of the supernatural weavers and washers. It is chiefly at that time that the spirits leave their watery abodes, and go strolling about the fields and forests, continuing to do so until the end of June. All that time their voices may be heard in the rustling or sighing of the breeze, and the splash of running water betrays their dancing feet. At that time the peasant-girls go into the woods, and throw garlands to the Rusalkas, asking for rich husbands in return, or float them down a stream, seeing in their movements omens of future happiness or sorrow.

After St. Peter’s day, June 29, the Rusalkas dance by night beneath the moon, and in Little-Russia and Galicia, where Rusalkas (or Mavki as they are there called) have danced, circles of darker, and of richer grass are found in the fields. Sometimes they induce a shepherd to play to them. All night long they dance to his music: in the morning a hollow marks the spot where his foot has beaten time. Sometimes a man encounters Rusalkas who begin to writhe and contort themselves after a strange fashion. Involuntarily he imitates their gestures, and for the rest of his life he is deformed, or is a victim to St. Vitus’ dance. Any one who treads upon the linen which the Rusalkas have laid out to dry loses all his strength, or becomes a cripple; those who desecrate the Rusalnaya (or Rusalkas’) week by working are punished by the loss of their cattle and poultry. At times the Rusalkas entice into their haunts both youths and maidens, and tickle them to death, or strangle or drown them.

The Rusalkas have much to do with the harvest, sometimes making it plenteous, and at other times ruining it by rain and wind. The peasants in White-Russia say that the Rusalkas dwell amid the standing corn; and in Little-Russia it is believed that on Whit-Sunday Eve they go out to the corn-fields, and there, with joyous singing and clapping of hands, they scamper through the rye or hang on to its stalks, and swing to and fro, so that the corn undulates as if beneath a strong wind.

In some parts of Russia there is performed, immediately after the end of the Whitsuntide festival, the ceremony of expelling the Rusalkas. On the first Monday of the “Peter’s Fast” a figure made of straw is draped in woman’s clothes, so as to represent a Rusalka. Afterwards a Khorovod is formed, and the assembled company go out to the fields with dance and song, she who holds the straw Rusalka in her hand bounding about in the middle of the choral circle. On arriving at the fields the singers form two bodies, one of which attacks the figure, while the other defends it. Eventually it is torn to pieces, and the straw of which it was made is thrown to the winds, after which the performers return home, saying they have expelled the Rusalka. In the Government of Tula the women and girls go out to the fields during the “Green Week,” and chase the Rusalka, who is supposed to be stealing the grain. Having made a straw figure, they take it to the banks of a stream and fling it into the water. In some districts the young people run about the fields on Whit-Sunday Eve, waving brooms, and crying, “Pursue! pursue!” There are people who affirm that they have seen the hunted Rusalkas running out of the corn-fields into the woods, and have heard their sobs and cries.

Besides the full-grown Rusalkas there are little ones, having the appearance of seven-year-old girls. These are supposed, by the Russian peasants, to be the ghosts of still-born children, or such as have died before there was time to baptize them. Such children the Rusalkas are in the habit of stealing after death, taking them from their graves, or even from the cottages in which they lie, and carrying them off to their subaqueous dwellings. Every Whitsuntide, for seven successive years, the souls of these children fly about, asking to be christened. If any person who hears one of them lamenting will exclaim, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” the soul of that child will be saved, and will go straight to heaven. A religious service, annually performed on the first Monday of the “Peter’s Fast,” in behalf of an unbaptized child will be equally efficacious. But if the stray soul, during seven years, neither hears the baptismal formula pronounced, nor feels the effect of the divine service, it becomes enrolled for ever in the ranks of the Rusalkas. The same fate befalls those babes whom their mothers have cursed before they were born, or in the interval between their birth and their baptism. Such small Rusalkas, who abound among the Little-Russian Mavki, are evidently akin to our own fairies. Like them they make the grass grow richly where they dance, they float on the water in egg-shells, and some of them are sadly troubled by doubts about a future state. At least it is believed in the Government of Astrakhan that the sea Rusalkas come to the surface and ask mariners, “Is the end of the world near at hand?” Besides the children of whom mention has been made, women who kill themselves, and all those who are drowned, choked, or strangled, and who do not obtain Christian burial, are liable to become Rusalkas. During the Rusalka week the relatives of drowned or strangled persons go out to their graves, taking with them pancakes, and spirits, and red eggs. The eggs are broken, and the spirits poured over the graves, after which the remnants are left for the Rusalkas, these lines being sung:–

Queen Rusalka,
Maiden fair,
Do not destroy the soul,
Do not cause it to be choked,
And we will make obeisance to thee.

On the people who forget to do this the Rusalkas will wreak their vengeance 7. In the Saratof Government the Rusalkas are held in bad repute. There they are described as hideous, humpbacked, hairy creatures, with sharp claws, and an iron hook with which they try to seize on passers-by. If any one ventures to bathe in a river on Whit-Sunday, without having uttered a preliminary prayer, they instantly drag him down to the bottom. Or if he goes into a wood without taking a handful of wormwood (Poluin), he runs a serious risk, for the Rusalkas may ask him, “What have you got in your hands? is it Poluin or Petrushka (Parsley).” If he replies Poluin, they cry, “Hide under the tuin (hedge),” and he is safe. But if he says, Petrushka, they exclaim affectionately, “Ah! my dushka,” and begin tickling him till he foams at the mouth. In either case they seem to be greatly under the influence of rhyme.

Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Asrai

Asrai or ashrays are water fairies. In some accounts they appear as beautiful maidens, tall and lithe with translucent skin, although they are in fact hundreds of years old.

Naiads

Freshwater spirits of Greek mythology. The naiads are a type of nymph associated with fountains, streams, springs, and lakes. Taking their name from the Greek for “to flow”, they were believed to move freely from one body of water to another and were not attached to one specific water source. Generally represented as beautiful and benevolent, occasionally they displayed a reckless side, such as in the tale of Hylas, friend of Hercules, who vanished after the naiads became transfixed by his beauty.

Lorelei

Water spirit of the river Rhine in German folklore. Usually depicted as a siren-like creature sitting on a rock combing her hair, luring fishermen and sailors toward her with her sweet singing, causing their boats to be dashed on the rocks.

Näcken

Water spirit of Scandinavian folklore. The näcken, meaning “naked”, generally took the form of an attractive, scantily clad male. He played the violin beautifully and enticed women and children to enter the water, where they drowned. The only way to break his spell was to cut the strings of his violin.

Oriyu

A water spirit in the Arawak, Guiana, tradition who lives in the rivers and streams, accompanying fishermen in their dug-out canoes and sometimes appearing in female form, combing her long hair on the riverbank with a silver comb that is often forgotten and left behind in her haste to escape inquisitive human eyes.

Rusalka

A Russian spirit of the water and the woods. Rusalki (the plural of rusalka) are described in Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology (1828) as “of beautiful form, with long green hair; they swing and balance themselves on the branches of trees, bathe in lakes and rivers, play on the surface of the water and wring their locks on the green meads at the water’s edge.” They were said to be most active at the beginning of summer when people sang, danced, and wove garlands for them, which they cast into the streams. A rusalka was the inspiration for Antonin Dvorak’s opera of the same name, in which a water maiden falls in love with a human prince.

*Read more in the book.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

The Akheloides

The akheloides was the collective name for the naiads of the river Akheloios in Anatolia, central Greece; they were born the daughters of the river god, Acheloos. The akheloides were very similar to the sirens, in that they would use their sweet, melodious voice to lure sailors and fishermen to drive their ship in towards shore to hear their song where they would be dashed against the rocky shoreline.

Naiad

The naiad (“to flow” or “running water”) of Greek mythology were one of the twelve species of nymphs, they were associated to freshwater lakes, rivers, and springs.

It was believed by the ancient Greeks all the water of the world was connected by one underground system, therefore Naiad were not restricted to remaining locked to their water source, they could travel through the subterranean waterways from one water source to another. However, if their body of water ever dried up or was somehow destroyed, the associated water fairy would die. Naiads were said to have the ability to foretell mortals their destiny and generally predict the future. Because naiads are not mortal women they have the privilege of being sexually aggressive and active without shame. Although generally benign, naiads could prove to be very dangerous as they were well known to act on their jealous tendencies. Punishments from a naiad ranged from being drowned to having been struck blind.

Pegaeae

The pegaeae were a sub-species of the naiads, they are the nymphs of fresh water springs and fountains in classical Greek mythology.

*Read more in the book.

A Wizard’s Bestiary by Oberon Zell Ravenheart and Ash “LeopardDancer” DeKirk

Lorelei

Beautiful female merfolk of Germany who are said to guard magickal treasure hidden along the Rhine River, as well as magickal and spiritual knowledge.

*Read more in the book.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John Matthews and Caitlin Matthews

Lorelei

In German folk tradition, Lorelei is a water nymph who lives in the echo of cliffs on the river Rhine near Sankt Goarshausen. Lorelei was originally a young girl who drowned herself in the waters there. She would rise from the waters and sing her song, combing her hair to lure sailors to their deaths, like the Sirens of old. She became better known after Heine’s poem Die Lorelei.

Nacken

The Nacken is a Swedish water monster that appears in the shape of a white horse of great beauty, only its hooves are reversed. At other times, the Nacken can be in the shape of a handsome youth from the waist up, but from the waist down he has the body and legs of a horse, like a centaur.

Rusalki

Rusalki are the water nymphs of Slavic mythology. They live in the waters of lakes and rivers and frequently sun themselves on rocks or along the branch of an overhanging tree. Rusalki look like human women except for their translucent skins and the tails that they sometimes have. They have the ability to transform into water creatures at will, and also into horses. As nymphs of the seasons, Rusalki spin the cycle of each season. The tradition says that they are the spirits of drowned girls, like the Lorelei, but in common with the Sirens, they sing to attract young men with a view to making them enter the water, at which point they are pulled under.

*Read more in the book.

Further Reading:

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

The naiads of Greek mythology were the nymphs of flowing water: springs, fountains, rivers, and lakes. These freshwater nymphs were seen as beautiful, light-hearted, and mostly benign. Like all nymphs, they lived for a very long time but weren’t truly immortal.

The rusalki, singular rusalka, of Slavic mythology were the restless spirits of children who died unbaptized and of virgins who were drowned. They were given different personalities, depending on region. Around the Danube River, they were beautiful girls dressed in robes of mist, singing songs, bewitching passers-by. In northern Russia, they were ugly, naked and wicked, eagerly waiting to ambush humans. All rusalki were out to entice men: whether to enchant or to torture them.

Lorelei is the German legend of a beautiful young woman who threw herself into the Rhine River over a faithless lover and was turned into a siren. She is associated with a large rock which stands on the bank of the Rhine River which gives off an echo. Lorelei is said to lure fishermen to destruction.

The nacken is a water spirit from Scandinavian folklore. He is a scantily clad male who plays the violin so beautifully, it attracts women and children to the water where they are drowned.

As none of these nymphs are mortal, they’ve never been constrained by the morality of humans and thus had the freedom to be sexually aggressive and promiscuous without consequence. But looking at their supposed origin stories, one could argue that they are also taking vengeance to a whole new level. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…

Water Nymphs in Modern Culture

You can get a whole host of different types of genres when you type in “water nymph” on Goodreads. Check it out here. The same with “naiad”. Check that out here.

There are water nymphs in the Anime series Adventure Time.

Water Nymphs are water spirits from traditional folklore, in this case depicted as having moving bodies of water for hair and wearing swimsuits. The Nymphs are known for their lack of being able to tell a good joke without messing it up.

The Nymphs make their first appearance in the episode “Power Animal.” They’re seen playing in the pond near the Tree Fort telling terrible jokes to each other. They later attend a party in the Cloud Kingdom.

Learn more about this here.

There are naiads in the Grimm TV series.

When woged, females grow fin-like skin on their arms and in between their fingers and toes, with the feet resembling flippers. Gills grow on the sides of their necks, and their fins and gills have a blue iridescence along the edges. Their eyes also glow electric blue. Males, while retaining the fins and gills, have orange or yellow eyes and no colored tinge on their fins or gills. Males also gain sharp, fish-like teeth. When woged, Naiads make squeaks, squeals, and chirps while breathing air through their gills. Naiads keep their legs close together, which makes the limbs resemble a tail fin, and they can swim through the water as fast as a fish.

Naiads must live near a form of water as they suffer from a condition that prevents their sweat glands from producing the oil that moisturizes the skin, rendering them incredibly susceptible to dehydration. If unable to enter water at least once a day, a Naiad’s skin will dry out and peel; after two days away from the water, they will die of severe dehydration.

Learn more about Naiads in the Grimm universe here.

Water Nymphs in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Water Nymphs

Water nymphs can be male or female. They are attractive to their prey: humans. But when in their natural habitat, they can appear in any way they wish. They live in all the freshwater of the earth. They can travel from one source of water to the next, using the special waterways that connects all water.
Inquisitive creatures, they enjoy to watch humans go about their daily lives. Like most water fay, though, they enjoy the taste of human flesh. They also take human lovers on occasion, just as Greek myths say.
Water nymphs are extraordinary musicians and are sought-after to perform at most fae gatherings.

Translation in Afrikaans: water nimf.

Where did you hear about water nymphs for the first time? What do you think of water nymphs? Is there a specific water nymph that caught your fancy? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to these fae.

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