One of the things I love about running this blog is taking requests for posts. I got one a few weeks back about the folklore of water. The more I delved into it, the more I realised there was too much for a single post. So we’re splitting things into categories. We’ll look at river folklore this week and we’ll do waterfalls next week.
Now one of the most obvious connections between rivers and folklore erupts in Greek mythology. Five rivers flow through Hades; the Styx, the Lethe, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus, and the Acheron. The dead drink from the Lethe to forget their human lives. Charon the Ferryman takes the dead over the Styx (the Acheron in some accounts).
But we want to narrow things a bit otherwise this article will be a million words long. We’ll focus on folklore rather than poking into mythology.
A River Flows Through It
I’ve talked about genius loci and their connection to rivers before, notably in the form of the River God Tyne and the Rivers of London series of books. And we talked about kelpies and their love of Scottish waterways.
In many Irish myths, rivers or streams act as boundaries between worlds. Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon, is named after the goddess (Sionann) that drowned in it. After death, the goddess gave the river her name and became one with it.
Scotland also has the shellycoat, a creature that wears a coat of shells. They haunt rivers and streams, and most think they’re mischievous rather than malicious. They might throw their voice as the cry of a drowning person.
It’s also while fishing in the river Wear one Sunday that the heir of Lambton caught a strange worm. Freaked out by its weird appearance, the young man tossed it down a nearby well. Eventually, the worm grew to mammoth proportions and became the Lambton Worm.
But what about other river folklore? Let’s take a look.
The Legend of the Singing River
In Mississippi, the Pascagoula River is associated with the legend of the Singing River. The ‘singing’ is a mysterious form of humming that seems to cover from the water itself. A range of origin stories seeks to explain the singing.
In one of them, the local people were the Biloxi and Pascagoula. A Biloxi princess, Anola, was promised to the tribe’s chief. Problem was, she loved the Chief of the Pascagoula, Altama. The Biloxi waged war on the Pascagoula over the marriage. Outnumbered and determined not to be enslaved by the Biloxi, the couple and the Pascagoula people drowned themselves in the river. They sang their death song as they did so, which in local legend explains the sounds of the water.
Kenneth W. Porter notes that “[t]here are several versions of such a mass-drowning in print, all mentioning Pascagoula Bay, Mississippi, and either the Biloxi tribe, or the Pascagoula, who were closely associated with, and perhaps absorbed by, the former” (1946: 169-170).
Porter also points out at a story “current in 1727” refers to the work done by a Catholic priest to entice the Pascagoula people “away from their earlier mermaid-worship to the religion of the Cross” (1946: 170). Apparently, she appeared while all of this was going on and lured the tribe into the bay with her singing.
He explains that oral versions of the story have the Biloxi drowning themselves “to avoid expatriation by the Whites”, though printed versions have them drown themselves to “escape domination” by other tribes (1946: 170). I’ll leave you to ponder that part yourself. But as with all folklore, it’s nigh-on impossible to pin down the original story.
Peg Powler and the Grindylow
The grindylow appears in British folklore as a cautionary tale. Sometimes known as Jenny Greenteeth, the grindylow lurks in English rivers, ponds and marshes. According to the legends, these nasty critters dragged children into the deepest parts of the rivers if they ventured into the shallows.
The River Tees boasts a specific version called Peg Powler (also the name of a very good northern folk band). This green-haired hag lured children into the river. William Henderson describes her “insatiable desire for human life” (1879: 265). He also notes that many call the froth on the Tees “Peg Powler’s suds” (1879: 265). A tributary of the Tees features a being called Nanny Powler, believed to be Peg’s sister or daughter.
Henderson goes on to relate the tale of Peg O’Nell, the water spirit dwelling in the rivers of the Ribble. According to him, Peg worked as a servant at Waddow Hall and managed to offend her mistress. Her employer “expressed a wish that she might fall and break her neck” (1879: 265), which Peg ended up doing. Along with stealing chickens, killing cows, and leading sheep astray, Peg also demanded a sacrifice in the Ribble every seven years. If the locals didn’t kill a dog, cat or bird in the stream on Peg’s Night, a human drowned there instead.
Lorelei and the Rhine
Henderson also describes Peg as “a sort of Lorelei” (1879: 265). A lorelei is a female spirit, very similar to a siren. A large rock formation on the River Rhine in Germany shares the name.
In an old story immortalised in ballad form in 1801, a beautiful woman named Lore Lay lived in the area. Her lover betrays her by accusing her of bewitching men. The local bishop sends her to a nunnery instead of ordering her execution. She asks to climb the rock on her way to the nunnery but falls to her death into the Rhine.
Dark Water Spirits and River Superstitions
The Tees isn’t the only river that’s home to a vengeful spirit. As we saw in our jaunt around Sheffield folklore, the Steel City claims dark water gods lurk in the Don. People feared their wrath if they didn’t cast in sacrifices. Even pop band Pulp threw coins into the churning waters to appease the gods.
Figures like Jenny Greenteeth appear in river folklore all over the world. Japan has the Kappa, monkey-like creatures fond of human blood. Australia has the Bunyip, with its tusks, flippers, and horse’s tails. People told many of these stories to keep vulnerable members of the community away from deep water. That’s even an issue today when many people can swim.
Of course, it’s not just spirits that live in rivers. Plenty of lore surrounds the waters that could sustain a community or steal away life.
Bodies fished out of the Thames appear in the work of Charles Dickens. A dead-house beside the Ouseburn in Newcastle housed those fished out of the Ouseburn or the Tyne.
Henderson relates a superstition from County Durham that drowned bodies floated on the ninth day after their death. Another legend claims a way to find bodies discarded in rivers: weight a loaf of bread with quicksilver and float it on the water. It should head for the body and float above it (1879: 59).
River Folklore: Just a Set of Cautionary Tales?
Rivers enable industry and trade – the growth of Newcastle upon Tyne depended on the export of coal along the Tyne. Our shipbuilding made us an industrial powerhouse. Many other rivers boast similar tales of might or glory. And rivers act like highways across the land.
But they’re also dangerous places with their fast currents and murky depths. They might look inviting on a warm day, but it’s easy to get into trouble. Telling tales of long-limbed hags or creatures with a taste for human flesh is one way to keep people out of harm’s way.
Or is there more to the stories than that?
Next time you walk alongside one, try peering into the water as it flows by. Who knows what you might see?
Henderson, William (1879), Notes on the folk-lore of the northern counties of England and the borders, London: Pub. for the Folk-lore Society by W. Satchell, Peyton and co.
Porter, Kenneth W. (1946), ‘A Legend of the Biloxi’, Journal of American Folklore, 59: 232, pp. 168-173.
Accessed on November 12 2018.
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