Norse Mythology features several mythical creatures such as dwarves, gods, elves, goddesses, giants, and spirits among others. Each one of these creatures is deeply woven into the Norse cultural fabric, including the spirits who were feared and venerated by the Vikings. In this write-up, we will specifically look into Nokken – so for everything you need to know about the water spirit of Norse mythology, we have got you covered!
Who is Nøkken?
The Nøkken, also referred to as Nokk, Neck, Nixy, Nix, Nykur or Nixie are shape-shifting water spirits in Norse mythology who usually appeared in the form of other creatures, such as humans, fish, snakes, horses, and dragons. Given that the Nøkken could shape-shift into a horse and would drown children, men, and women who would ride on its back, they were identified as the Brook Horse.
The water spirits are best known from Scandinavian folklore (male spirits) but are also common to all the legends and tales of the Germanic peoples (female river mermaids and mermen). The related English knucker was mostly depicted as a dragon or wyrm. In Slavic countries, there exist Slavic water spirits and in France, they were known as the Melusine.
The names of the water spirits in Norse mythology originate from common Germanic names ‘Nikwis/Nikwus’ which mean ‘to wash’. These names are also related to the Irish ‘nigh’, Sanskirt ‘nḗnēkti’, and the Greek ‘νίζω nízō’, which all mean ‘to be washed’.
The name ‘neck’ in Swedish and English means ‘nude’, which is drawn from the fact that the water spirits barely had any garments on. The name ‘Nykur’ is derived from the Faraose and Icelandic vocabulary, and it is used to describe ‘horse-like creatures’. The Old English word ‘Nicor’, meant ‘water monster’.
The Swedish Strömkarlen, Norwegian Fossegrim, Welsh Ceffyl Dŵr, and Southern Scandinavian Bäckahästen are closely related figures and they all refer to a ‘water horse’ or ‘brook horse’.
There are different legends and interpretations of water spirits across different countries. In this section, we will look at how the English, Germans, and Scandinavians perceived water spirits.
- Nøkken mythology in England
According to English folklore, there are several creatures with similar characteristics to the water spirits in Norse mythology. Some of these creatures are the Grindylow, the Shellycoat, Jenny Greenteeth, the Bäckahäst-like Brag, and the river-had Peg Poweler. Supposedly, ‘water-wyrms’ known as knuckers dwell in a pool known as knucker at Lyminster, near Arudel in the English county of Sussex. According to the great Victorian authority Skeat, the name of the pool originated from the Old English word ‘Nicor’, which was the name of a creature found in Beowulf.
A local antiquarian named Samuel Evershed claimed and tried to prove that the pool was associated with dragons, which he documented in the tale of St. George and the Dragon. Based on his account, the local English people believe in water dragons.
- Nøkken mythology in Scandinavia
According to the Scandinavians, Näcken, Näkki, Nøkk were male spirits who lured women and children to drown in lakes or streams by playing enchanted songs on the violin. Other spirits such as the Nøkken were regarded harmless to their audience, but also attracted men with their sweet songs. The lovely music was particularly dangerous to pregnant women and unbaptized children.
The water spirit was thought to be most active on Thursdays, on Christmas Eve, and during Midsummer’s Night. Aside from that, the water spirits didn’t have any true shape. Sometimes, they would take the form of a naked man playing violin in the brooks or waterfalls. Other times, he would be a floating object, or a horse, or even treasure, meant to lure his audience.
A tale is told of Fossegrim, who if properly approached taught a musician how to play so well that the waterfalls stop at his music and the trees dance to the rhythm. He fell in love and lived with a human but would always return to his home, which was in a nearby waterfall or brook.
The Scandinavians believed that they had to call out the name of the water spirits repeatedly to kill it and escape from bondage. They also believed that if one bought the water spirit a treat of Scandinavian vodka, a black animal, wet snuff, or 3 drops of blood, they would learn how to play good music without being drowned in the lake or sea.
Also, another group of Scandinavians believed that the Nokken may have lived deep down in the depths of the sea but would always go to the land to fetch his hostages. The water spirit would appear as a beautiful & tempting little horse, but if anyone stroke him and came to touch the tail, they would be permanently stuck to him. He then drowns them to the bottom of the water. However, if anyone was suspicious of who he was, they would call him by his true name – Nykur- and he would lose his power and run off to his home.
Lastly, the Nøkken were the explanation behind drowning accidents. Supposedly, the water spirit would scream at a particular spot in a lake or river then a fatality would take place at the same spot. The only way that the local people could save themselves was by throwing a significant amount of steel into the water.
- Nøkken mythology in Germany
The German water spirits are Nix and Nixie, who is said to be a river merman and mermaid who always lured men to drown in lakes, rivers, seas, or oceans. While most of them were malicious, some were completely harmless. The female spirits bear the tail of the fish, while the male spirits would take the form of a fish, human, or snake. When in human form, the local people would always identify them by the wet hem of their clothes or a slit ear.
They loved music, dance, and songs. The most famous Germanic water spirit was Lorelei. The Germans believed that she would sit on the rock at the Rhine and lured boatmen and fishermen to the reefs with the sound of her sweet voice. In Switzerland, there is a tale of a sea-maid who dwelled in Lake Zug and lured men into the sea. They were very mischievous and always had a magic song which they used to take hostages.