28 October 2015

Myth & Folklore: The Beautiful and Dangerous Water Nixie

By Kim Rendfeld

Perhaps the legends of underwater magical creatures arose from people’s mixed feeling about bodies of water. A river could slake the thirst of humans and animals, provide the means to bathe and do laundry, provide fish and game, and bring commerce in the form of merchant barges. But those sources of survival and wealth were dangerous, too.

For Germanic people, a nixie was a being to fear. She appeared as a beautiful woman, but underneath that beauty is a diabolical, vindictive, cruel character who wielded powerful magic and bided her time to get what she wanted.

Two folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm feature nixies, and the protagonists must save themselves. There is no prince coming to the rescue; in fact, there is no mention of royalty.

In “The Water Nixie” (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm079.html), the eponymous villain kidnaps a brother and sister who fell into a well and enslaves them. They escape while she is a church and use magic to slow her down.

“The Nixie of the Mill-Pond” (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm181.html) is even more colorful and complicated. Here is a teaser of a tale with strong women as hero, villain, and counsel, and a man who needs to be saved.

A miller who has fallen on hard times encounters the nixie at a pond. Instead of running for his life, he stands entranced. The nixie promises to make him prosperous again if he will give what has just been born in his house.

The guy makes the promise, thinking the nixie wants a puppy or kitten. You’ve already guessed what happens next. As soon as he walks in the door, he learns his wife gave birth to a son. Either the nixie cast some sort of spell on the miller, or he is a complete dolt.

As his son grows up, the miller warns him to stay away from the pond. The son obeys, becomes a huntsman, and gets married. One day he hunts a roe and needs to wash the blood from his hands. Unwittingly, he has strayed near the pond. As soon as he dips his hands in the water, the nixie’s got him.

When he doesn’t come home, the huntsman’s wife suspects what has happened; her husband had told her about the nixie. She looks for him near the pond but sees only his hunting bag. After hours and hours of searching, she falls asleep and is told in a dream to trek over a mountain, descend to a valley, and seek the counsel of an old woman.

The huntsman’s wife is brave, tough, and persistent, and the nixie does not give up without a fight.

To us, these stories are entertaining yarns of bravery, resourcefulness, trickery, love, and loyalty. To medieval folk, they were as true as a Bible story is to a Christian. These tales might have resonated more because the characters are ordinary working people, and other than the miller inexplicably forgetting his wife is pregnant, they are a lot like us.


“The Nixie of the Mill-Pond” collected by the brothers Grimm (http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm181.html)

Rivers: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Middleton

Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth by Carol Rose

Folklore, Volume 18, Volume 27, Issue 137 of 1890- : Publications - Folk-lore Society, v. 27, editors: Joseph Jacobs, Alfred Trübner Nutt, Arthur Robinson Wright, William Crooke

Kim Rendfeld explores religion, warfare, justice, and love in her novels set in eighth century Francia: The Cross and the Dragon, in which a young noblewoman contends with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband in battle, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, where a mother will go to great lengths to protect her children. To read an excerpt and the first chapter of either book, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to check out her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.