Nixies are shape-changing fresh water spirits originating in Germanic myths and legends. The term nixie (or neck) is English in origin, while nix, nyx and nixe are the German equivalents. Nixies usually shape shift into human form, both male and female, but some can change into dragons (wyrms), horses, fish, or snakes. Nixies can be benevolent, malicious or merely harmless.
English versions of the nixie include:
- The Knucker, a dragon-like “water monster” that lived in a pool near the village of Lyminster and was known to kill both livestock and people;
- Jenny Greenteeth, a green-skinned, sharp-toothed, long-haired river hag that pulls in and drowns children and the elderly;
- Peg Powler, another green-skinned, sharp-toothed, long-haired hag from the River Tees who enjoys the same pursuits as Jenny Greenteeth, albeit with a narrower range of activity;
- The grindylow (which may have originated from Grendel of Beowolf fame), who also is partial to pulling in and drowning children with his long, sinewy arms;
- A type of mischievous bogeyman known as a Shellycoat, which wears a rattling coat of shells and likes to mislead wanderers who happen upon its particular river or stream; and
- The brag, a shape shifting water spirit in the form of a horse or donkey that tricks unwary travelers into riding on its back, only to throw them off into the nearest pond of water while running off laughing madly.
Scandinavian versions include:
- Male water spirits who play enchanted songs on the violin, luring women and children, and sometimes men, to drown in lakes or streams. Known as näck, nøkk, nøkken, strömkarl, Grim or FosseGrim, these entities were not intentionally malevolent. Usually portrayed as beautiful young men very scantily clad and lonely, their heartbreaking music causes humans to fall in love with him and become as unaware of their surroundings as is the FosseGrim himself, leading to unlooked-for fatalities.
- The brook horse (bäckahästen or bækhesten) is a beautiful, bright white horse that appears near rivers in foggy weather. Like the Scottish kelpie, once a person climbed upon its back they would be unable to dismount and the brook horse would plunge into the river, instantly drowning the rider.
German versions include:
- River mermaids (nixe) that are similar to salt water mermaids in that they are beautiful women with the tail of a fish, but can also assume human shape; river mermen (nix) can assume many different shapes, including that of a human, fish, and snake. These water spirits are particularly fond of music, song and dancing, and use these talents to lure humans. Some stories of nixes are malicious, but some show them as friendly and harmless.
The two most well-known types of German nixe are:
The most famously known reference to the Rhinemaidens appears in Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Three water nymphs (Rheintöchter or “Rhine daughters”) appear in this epic, but of all the characters in the Ring cycle, they are the only ones who did not originate in the Old Norse Eddas; instead, they most likely have their origin in the German Nibelungenlied, which contains stories about nixies.
In one part of the Nibelungenlied narrative, the Burgundian warrior, Hagen, and Gunther, the semi-legendary king of Burgundy, encounter three “wise women,” afterwards described as water-sprites, bathing in the waters of the Danube. Hagen steals their clothes and extracts a false promise from one that the two men will find honor and glory when they enter Etzel’s (aka Attila the Hun) kingdom. Upon return of their clothes, another of the sprites tells Hagen that her sister has lied; if they go to Etzel’s land, they will die there.
The German legend of Lorelei may also have figured in the creation of the Rhinemaidens (more about her later). Further possible sources lie in Greek mythology and literature. Similarities exist between the maiden guardians in the Hesperides myth and the Rhinemaidens, in which three females guard a highly desired golden treasure that is stolen in the telling of each tale.
This is by far my favorite nixie of all time.
“Loreley” is a common, alternate spelling for this fey creature. Like the Rhinemaidens, whose form came into being over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874, during which Wagner wrote his epic cycle of operas, The Ring of the Nibelung, the Lorelei is also a recent addition to nixie lore, but is no less fascinating for it.
There are many legends surrounding the “birth” of the Lorelei and just as many ballads about her. One such ballad says she was so lovely a maiden that men had but only to look into her eyes to be smitten and was thus taken for a sorceress. Claiming her one true love had abandoned her, she was committed to a nunnery and as she travelled to the convent along a narrow path above the Rhine, she espied a fisherman far below. Crying that he was her long-lost love, she leapt into the water, never to be seen again in mortal form.
Some say the Lorelei is the queen of the waters who’s voice “propagated the profound music of the universal soul” (Dubois, p.118), while others say she sits on the cliffs above the River Rhine, combing her hair and singing sailors to their deaths on the rocks below (McCoy, p.266).
The name Lorelei is derived from two words from an ancient Rhine dialect: lureln, meaning murmuring or lurking, and ley, meaning rock. There is, in fact, a 435-foot tall rock on the Rhine River called the Lorelei that is located in a particularly hazardous junction of treacherous and swift currents where many fishermen and sailors have drowned.
She was immortalized by Heinrich Heine in 1831 in his poem Die Lorelei, which proved to be so popular during the Nazi regime they did not ban it for its Jewish authorship. Sylvia Plath’s poem Lorelei honored her in 1956. Ballads continue to be written and sung about this elusive water spirit, my personal favorite of which was recorded by Blackmore’s Night and released in 2003 on their CD, Ghost of a Rose:
Merrily we sailed along
Though the waves were plenty strong
Down the twisting river Rhine
Following a song…
Legend’s faded storyline
Tried to warn us all
Oh, they called her “Loreley”
Careful or you’ll fall…
Oh, the stories we were told
Quite a vision to behold
Mysteries of the seas in her eyes of gold…
Laying on the silver stone, such a lonely sight
Barnacles become a throne, my poor Loreley…
And the winds would cry, and many men would die
And all the waves would bow down to the Loreley…
You would not believe your eyes, how a voice could hypnotize
Promises are only lies from Loreley
In a shade of mossy green, seashell in her hand
She was born the river queen, ne’er to grace the land…
Oh, the song of Loreley
Charms the moon right from the sky…
She will get inside your mind, loveley Loreley…
When she cries “Be with me until the end of time”
You know you will ever be with your Loreley…
Bibliography and Works Cited/Recommended Reading:
- Blackmore’s Night, Ghost of a Rose, Hunter, 2003
- Briggs, Katharine, An Encyclopedia of Faeries, Pantheon Books, 1976
- Cooke, Deryck, I Saw The World End, Oxford University Press, 1979
- “Dragons & Serpents in Sussex,” http://www.sussexarch.org.uk/saaf/dragon.html
- Dubois, Pierre, The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries, Simon & Schuster, English Translation 1999
- Franklin, Anna, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, 2002
- Grimm, Jacob, Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (1888), online at http://www.northvegr.org/
- Harland, John and Wilkinson, T.T., Lancashire Folk-lore Illustrative of the Superstitious Beliefs and Practices, Local Customs, BiblioLife, Nov 2009
- Moorey, Teresa, The Fairy Bible, Sterling Publishing Co., 2008
- “Mythical Creatures and Beings,” http://www.windlegends.org/mythical.htm
- O’Donnell, Elliott, Ghosts, Helpful and Harmful, Kessinger Publishing, Aug 2003
- Silver, Carol G., Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness, Oxford University Press, Oct 2000