Since St. Patrick’s Day was two days ago, it might make sense to feature Irish mythology this weekend, but instead I’m going with Scottish. Hey, I’m part Scots-Irish, after all. The particular focus of this post is local to the Orkney Islands in the north, although it appears to have been influenced by Scandinavian folklore. I refer to the Nuckelavee, a much-feared beast capable of causing all sorts of destruction. Although it lived in the sea, it would occasionally venture onto land to cause droughts, wilt crops, and give diseases to cattle with its venomous breath. It was truly a force of nature. The Nuckelavee was known to especially get angry at the smell of burning seaweed, which the Orcadians did to make ash that would neutralize acidic soil. It does have its weaknesses, however, most notably an aversion to fresh water. As such, anyone being pursued by the creature could escape by crossing a river or stream. Along the same lines, it refused to leave the sea when it was raining. That malevolent entities were incapable of crossing running water was a pretty common idea, but I couldn’t say how it originated. The most famous account of a Nuckelavee encounter comes from nineteenth-century Scottish folklorist Walter Traill Dennison, who credits the tale to an islander named Tammas who escaped the monster by splashing lake water on it. The Nuckelavee is also kept under control during the summer by a seasonal spirit known as the Sea Mither. She was known to provide life and warmth, and to keep away storms.
Her main enemy was a winter spirit called Teran, who stirred up the sea and waves. Every year, she’d triumph over Teran during the spring and hold him captive at the bottom of the sea, but he’d break free and overpower her during the fall.
Sounds like a rather tedious existence, but such is the way of myths explaining the seasons. When at the height of her power, the Mither was able to confine the Nuckelavee as well.
I haven’t yet gotten into the appearance of the Nuckelavee. As with most such creatures, descriptions differ a bit. It’s also suggested that it might have had a different form when under the sea, which I guess humans would have never seen. Sometimes said to ride a gruesome horse, the story credited to Tammas fused the two together. It wasn’t quite a centaur, but rather the head and torso of a man growing out of the back of a horse. The man’s head was ten times as large as an ordinary one, and the mouth like that of a pig. The human-like torso also had arms long enough to reach the ground. The horse’s head had one flaming red eye. And most disturbing of all, the Nuckelavee had no skin, so its insides were constantly visible.
Its blood was black, and flowed through yellow veins. Apparently nasty beings that looked like horses but came from the water were a major problem in the British Isles at one point. You can see a gallery of recent Nuckelavee illustrations here.