Yorkshire Legends and Traditions of Wells
Springs and wells of water have, in all lands and in all ages, been Greatly valued, and in some regarded with a feeling of veneration little, if at all, short of worship.
They have yielded their treasure to the sustenance and refreshment of man and beast, as age after age of the world’s history has passed along, and have been centers around which village story and gossip have gathered for generation after generation. Little wonder, therefore, is it that legends and traditions abound concerning them. These are often extremely local, and therefore little known.
The names alone, however, suggest much. The memory of the mythical gods, satyrs, and nymphs of the ancient heathen times lingers in a few, as in Thors-kil or Thors-well, in the parish of Burnsall; and in the almost universal declaration — by which not over-wise parents seek to deter children from playing in dangerous proximity to a well — that at the bottom, under the water, dwells a mysterious being, usually named Jenny Green-teeth or Peg-o’-the-Well, who will certainly drag into the water any child who approaches too near to it.
The tokens of medieval reverence for wells are abundant. The names of the saints to whom the wells were dedicated yet cling to them. “There is scarcely a well of consequence in the United Kingdom,” says the editor of Lancashire Folk-lore, “which has not been solemnly dedicated to some saint in the Roman calendar.”
Thus in Yorkshire we have Our Lady’s Well or Lady Well, St. Helen’s Well (very numerous), St. Margaret’s Well at Burnsall, St. Bridget’s Well near Ripon, St. Mungo’s Well at Copgrove, St. John’s Well at Beverley, St. Alkelda’s Well at Middleham, etc. Dr. Whitaker remarks that the wells of Craven, which bear the names of saints, are invariably presided over by females, as was the case with wells under the pagan ritual, in which nymphs exclusively enjoyed the same honor.
- Source: Thomas Parkinson, Yorkshire Legends and Traditions (London: Elliot Stock, 1888), pp. 202-203.
In many of the deep pools of the streams and rivers guardian-demons were believed to reside, and it was dangerous to bathe in them.
Sometimes, when a castle or mansion was being sacked, a faithful servant or two contrived to rescue the plate chest, and to cast it into a deep pool in the nearest stream.
On one occasion a diver got to the bottom of such a pool to fetch up the plate of the neighbouring castle. He dived, saw the plate chest, and was preparing to lift it, when the demon ordered him to go to the surface at once, and not to come back. At the same time the demon warned him that, if he did come back, he would forfeit his life. The diver obeyed. When he reached the bank he told what he had seen, and what he had heard.
By dint of threats and promises of large reward, he dived again. In a moment or two afterwards his heart and lungs rose and floated on the surface of the water. They had been torn out by the demon of the pool.
- Source: Walter Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland (London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by Elliot Stock, 1881), p. 67.
Holy Lake near Neuhoff
There is a lake known as Holy Lake near the village of Neuhoff not far from the Elbe River in the district of Wolmirstedt.
At the time of Burkhard, the twenty-seventh archbishop of Magdeburg, who served from the year 1295 to the year 1304, this lake was filled with spirits and ghosts. They often frightened the fishermen and boatmen, and caused them much harm, drowning and causing the miserable death of many. When Archbishop Burkhard, a very pious and God-fearing man, heard of this, he went to the lake with great sincerity, and blessed the place, driving the evil spirits away, and they have never been seen there again.
From that time until the present day the lake has been known as Holy Lake.
- Source: J. D. H. Temme, Die Volkssagen der Altmark, mit einem Anhange von Sagen aus den übrigen Marken und aus dem Mageburgischen (Berlin: in der Nicolaischen Buchhandlung, 1839), pp. 145-46.
- Translated by D. L. Ashliman. © 2011.
On the Island of Rügen, in a thick forest, there is a deep lake. It is rich with fish, but its water is cloudy, and one cannot fish there. Nonetheless, many long years ago a number of fishermen attempted to do so, and brought their boat to the lake. The next day they returned home for their nets, and when they came back, their boat had disappeared. Then one of the fishermen looked around and discovered the vessel stuck in the top of a tall beech tree.
He cried out: “Who in the devil put my boat up the tree?”
They saw no one, but a voice from nearby answered, saying, “The devils did not do it. I did it together with my brother Nickel!”
- Source: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, “Bruder Nickel,” Deutsche Sagen, vol. 1 (Berlin: In der Nicolaischen Buchhandlung, 1816), no. 55, p. 70.
- Translated by D. L. Ashliman. © 2011.
Her beauty was her undoing. Lorelei was not wilfully seductive, but men could not resist her charms, and she could not resist their advances. She was bringing scandal and disgrace to the respectable town of Bacharach-on-the-Rhine.
There was even talk that she must be a witch or a woman possessed of the devil. The bishop, however, would not hear of an execution without due process, and he summoned her to his court. His questions were at first stern and severe. Her answers were simple and sincere. The bishop’s severity, his piety, and his priesthood, however, did not prevail, and in the end he pronounced her free of all guilt.
“I cannot continue like this!” she cried. “My eyes are the destruction of every man who looks into them. I have loved only one man, and he abandoned me and left for a distant land. Please let me die!”
But the good bishop could not bring himself to pronounce a death sentence. Instead, he proposed that she dedicate herself to God, and called three knights to accompany her to the convent. Arrangements were made forthwith, and the three knights were soon underway with their beautiful ward.
When their path led them past a high cliff overlooking the Rhine, Lorelei had one last request of her escorts. “Please,” she said, “let me climb the cliff and have one last look into the Rhine.” Unable to deny her this wish, the three knights tethered their horses, and the four of them climbed to the top of the cliff.
Standing at the edge of the precipice, Lorelei said, “See that boat on the Rhine. The boatman is my lover!” And with no further warning, she jumped from the cliff into the Rhine.
The three knights also met their death there, without a priest and without a grave.
Who is the singer of this song?
A boatman on the Rhine,
And we always hear the echo
Of the Three-Knight-Stone:
As though there were three of us.
- Retold from the ballad Loreley by Clemens Brentano (1801).
- © by D. L. Ashliman, 2011.
- The name of the water/forest spirits featured here is variously spelled Lorelei, Loreley, Lore Lay, and Lore Ley.
- Additional German ballads featuring Lorelei include:
Water Nixes, The Water-Man, and His Wife
The water-man (Wendish wodny muz), also called the nix (Wendish nykus), as well as his spouse the water-woman (wodna zona), lives in the rivers, lakes, and ponds of Lusatia. He tempts passers-by to go bathing, in order to drown them. This he does to everyone who trespass into his domain while bathing. Blue spots on a drowned person’s body are a sign that the nixes caused the drowning.
In appearance a nix cannot be distinguished from a human. On dry landhe is powerless, and can be taken prisoner and forced into servitude. He produces children with his wife, and these interact with human children.They even associate with humans at dances and fall in love with pretty girls and young men. The daughter of a water-man can always be recognized by the wet hem on her skirt.
The water-man usually wears a red cap on his head, and the water-woman red stockings on her feet. Further, in the towns of Upper Lusatia it has been observed that if a man wearing a linen jacket with a wet bottom hem comes to the weekly market and buys grain at above the market price, then grain will become more expensive. However, if he sells grain at a better
price than others, the price of grain will fall. This man is the water-man.
His wife is often seen sitting on a bank in her red stockings spinning or bleaching her laundry. In this last instance it means there will be rainy weather or high water. Just as the water-man bargains with grain, she bargains with butter, thus giving an indication of future prices.
In the region around Zittau during the moon’s first and last quarters, the water-man sits on riverbanks where the water is slow and deep and makes no sound. His appearance is ugly, with a very pale face and long black hair that hangs down to his shoulders. He is dressed from head to foot in brownish-yellow leather that has been put together entirely from little scraps. By moonlight he counts them aloud, at the same time slapping his legs with his hands. He can be recognized by this sound.
Curiosity seekers and daredevils, lured by this sound, have seen him sitting there on an overhanging bank and have attempted to interrupt him by counting and clapping. He slipped into the murmuring water, and nothing happened to them, but then they had the unpleasant experience of hearing clapping and counting in front of their house every night. This continued
until fear and anger finally caused them to join in with the counting, upon which they heard loud laughter, and were then no longer disturbed in their rest.
- Source: Karl Haupt, “Die Wassernixen, der Wassermann und seine Frau,” Sagenbuch der Lausitz, vol. 1 (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1862), no. 44, pp. 46-47.
- Translated by D. L. Ashliman. © 2011.
- Lusatia (German Lausitz) is a region centered on the Neisse and Spree rivers with a historically mixed culture of Slavs (known as Wends or Sorbs) and Germans. The western portions are now part of Germany; the eastern portions belong to Poland.
- Note by Karl Haupt:
The Slavic woda (water) and wodny (nix) have been associated with the Germanic Wodan. The Scandinavian Odin is, of course, also a nix (or Nichus, a personification of Odin’s). However, the German Wuothan appears foremost as the ruler of the air, as a god of wind and storm, whose breath [German Odem] blows in the woods and around the mountain summits. It is possible, of course, that the Slavs transformed the air god into a water god. Slavs have a great affinity for water. They practice water oracles, water sacrifices, and sacred ablutions in the manner of Oriental custom. The musical nix of the Wends is just as significant for the Slavic perspective as are the dwarfs and the wild huntsman — who live within the mountains and in the air — for the perspective of the Germans. Just as the music of a storm is more magnificent, simpler, and at the same time more spiritual than the more artful but smaller splashing of waves, so do the two nations differ from each other. Lusatia shows both tendencies. Its religious views differ as greatly as do the Germanic mountain forests of the south and the Slavic water forest (along the River Spree) of the north. But concerning the similarity of the words, their meaning can well reflect the view that water plays the same role for the Slavs that air does for the Germans, thus indicating a common linguistic root.
- Link to addition information about the Germanic god Wodan or Odin: Odin’s Home Page.
The Merrow, or if you write it in the Irish, Moruadh or Murrúghach, from muir, sea, and oigh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales.
The male Merrows (if you can use such a phrase — I have never heard the masculine of Merrow) have green teeth, green hair, pig’s eyes, and red noses; duck-like scale between their fingers.
Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows.
They have, when in their own shape, a red cap, called a cohullen druith, usually covered with feathers. If this is stolen, they cannot again go down under the waves. Red is the color of magic in every country, and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and magicians are well-nigh always red.
- Source: W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London: Walter Scott, 1888), p. 61.
- Compare Yeats’s etymology with the following words, all of which mean, respectively, sea-woman (or maid) and sea-man:
- Danish: havfrue, havmand.
- English: mermaid, merman.
- German: Meerfrau, Meermann.
The Water Snake
There was once an old woman who had a daughter; and her daughter went down to the pond one day to bathe with the other girls. They all stripped off their shifts, and went into the water. Then there came a snake out of the water, and glided on to the daughter’s shift. After a time the girls all came out, and began to put on their shifts, and the old woman’s daughter wanted to put on hers, but there was the snake lying on it. She tried to drive him away, but there he stuck and would not move. Then the snake said, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll give you back your
Now she wasn’t at all inclined to marry him, but the other girls said, “As if it were possible for you to be married to him! Say you will!”
So she said, “Very well, I will.” Then the snake glided off from the shift, and went straight into the water. The girl dressed and went home. And as soon as she got there, she said to her mother, “Mammie, mammie, thus and thus, a snake got upon my shift, and says he, ‘Marry me or I won’t let you have your shift;’ and I said, ‘I will.'”
“What nonsense are you talking, you little fool! as if one could marry a snake!” And so they remained just as they were, and forgot all about the matter.
A week passed by, and one day they saw ever so many snakes, a huge troop of them, wriggling up to their cottage. “Ah, mammie, save me, save me!” cried the girl, and her mother slammed the door and barred the entrance as quickly as possible. The snakes would have rushed in at the door, but the door was shut; they would have rushed into the passage, but the
passage was closed. Then in a moment they rolled themselves into a ball, flung themselves at the window, smashed it to pieces, and glided in a body into the room. The girl got upon the stove, but they followed her, pulled her down, and bore her out of the room and out of doors. Her
mother accompanied her, crying like anything.
They took the girl down to the pond, and dived right into the water with her. And there they turned into men and women. The mother remained for some time on the dike, wailed a little, and then went home.
Three years went by. The girl lived down there, and had two children, a son and a daughter (Hybrid demons in human form). Now she often entreated her husband to let her go to see her mother. So at last one day he took her up to the surface of the water, and brought her ashore. But she asked him before leaving him,
“What am I to call out when I want you?”
“Call out to me, ‘Osip, [Joseph] Osip, come here!” and I will come,” he replied.
Then he dived under water again, and she went to her mother’s carrying her little girl on one arm, and leading her boy by the hand. Out came her mother to meet her. She was so delighted to see her!
“Good day, mother!” said the daughter.
“Have you been doing well while you were living down there?” asked her mother.
“Very well indeed, mother. My life there is better than yours here.”
They sat down for a bit and chatted. Her mother got dinner ready for her, and she dined. “What’s your husband’s name?” asked her mother.
“Osip,” she replied.
“And how are you to get home?”
“I shall go to the dike, and call out, ‘Osip, Osip, come here!’ and he’ll
“Lie down, daughter, and rest a bit,” said the mother.
So the daughter lay down and went to sleep. The mother immediately took an axe and sharpened it, and went down to the dike with it. And when she came to the dike, she began calling out, “Osip, Osip, come here!”
No sooner had Osip shown his head than the old woman lifted her axe and chopped it off. And the water in the pond became dark with blood.
The old woman went home. And when she got home her daughter awoke. “Ah! mother,” says she, “I’m getting tired of being here; I’ll go home.”
“Do sleep here tonight, daughter; perhaps you won’t have another chance of being with me.”
So the daughter stayed and spent the night there. In the morning she got up and her mother got breakfast ready for her; she breakfasted, and then she said good-bye to her mother and went away, carrying her little girl in her arms, while her boy followed behind her. She came to the dike, and called out, “Osip, Osip, come here!”
She called and called, but he did not come. Then she looked into the water, and there she saw a head floating about. Then she guessed what had happened.
“Alas! my mother has killed him!” she cried.
There on the bank she wept and wailed. And then to her girl she cried, “Fly about as a wren, henceforth and evermore!”
And to her boy she cried, “Fly about as a nightingale, my boy, henceforth and evermore!”
“But I,” she said, “will fly about as a cuckoo, crying ‘Cuckoo!’ henceforth and evermore!”
- Source: W. R. S. Ralston, Russian Folk-Tales (London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1873),
- Ralston’s source: A. A. Erlenvein.
- This is a type 433 folktale.
- The Mermaid (from the Digital Tradition Folk Song Data Base).
- Water Spirit Legends 2: The Hour Is Come but the Man Is Not
- The Nixie Changelings from the Saal River (Germany, Jacob and Wilelm
- Changelings in the Water (Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).
- The Nickert (Germany, A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz).
- The Sea Nymph(Sweden, Herman Hofberg).
- The Three Chests: The Story of the Wicked Old Man of the Sea (Finland).
- The Njugl (Shetland Islands, John Nicolson).