What is it about frogs in fairy tales? They are green and slimy, with big staring eyes and wide gaping mouths, and they make burping noises in the night. Kissing one is hardly appealing, making them a favorite curse of evil fairies and witches, who know that a kiss can hold a power beyond any other kind of magic, if it conveys love.
Numerous stories tell of princes and princesses turned into water creatures, and of fish who are magical helpers when they are treated kindly. Usually a magical kiss, and the acknowledgment of love will break the spell–short of throwing the frog against the wall.
However, once a reader gets past the fairy tales that have been cleaned up to be moral tales for children, one finds a tremendous body of material on various kinds of water beings. One of these is the water nixie–a.k.a. knucker, neck, sprite, sylph, siren, Lorelei, mermaid, melusine, or water-man, depending on the language and the culture where the stories originate. Like the magical fairyland, people envisioned an under water kingdom separate from but parallel to the dry land world, such as the realm of Poseidon, king of the seas or the underground realm of the dwarves and earth sprites.
But it isn’t easy being green. Ask any Jenny Greenteeth–one name of such water creatures. This one appears in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men as the heroine’s first adversary, and she is fairly easily conquered with an iron frying pan.
The majority of such stories are cautionary tales, warning people (probably children and non-swimmers) away from water, as the water beings would lure the unsuspecting human into the water to drown, mostly with malice, but sometimes with only the desire for company. Water-people are often shape-shifters, both changing from fish or snakes to humans, but sometimes to other things as well, such as treasure. Insome cases the water-folk have no specific shape at all, but like Odo in Deep Space Nine, are basically liquid.
A well-known version is the Greek sirens, who use their beautiful voices lure sailors with to wreck their ships on the rocks of the island. Another version is the Rhine maidens or the Lorelei, who live in the Rhine. The Ring Cycle of Wagner is based on the Theft of the Rhinegold which is cursed and brings the destruction of all who own it until it is all returned to the Rhine–much like the gold of the Aztecs in Pirates of the Caribbean.
One tale explains the red water lilies in a German lake as being stained by the blood of a girl who committed suicide rather than keep her father’s bargain to be the bride of the water-man who provided the fish that the family ate.
Several stories, such as that of Melusine, reflect the selkie legends, without the theft of the sealskin, where the water-woman falls in love with a human and provides wealth and sometimes even a magical castle, with the proviso that he allow her a day of complete privacy once a week, and that he never watches as she births their children. Of course, the husband eventually must satisfy his curiosity, and learns that she is a mermaid who must get back into the water and her natural form. In one case, the ghost of the nixie still haunts the castle and can be seen every seven years, either as a woman or as a snake with a gold key in her mouth. Retrieving the key both sets her free and brings her power to the rescuer if she is his bride.
People lured by the water-folk don’t always drown. The nixie can be convinced or tricked into giving up the person stolen by offering her items of gold–comb, spinning wheel, mirror. Other times, the person can get away from the nixie by throwing similar items behind them as they run away, which causes the items to become forests, mountains and other obstacles.
In other stories, the nixie, or sometimes a troll, is scared away from a village inn or grain mill when he comes to cook a meal (uninvited) at the solstice or new year. Everyone is afraid of the nixie except a man and his performing bear, who are too tired to travel on. The nixie teases the bear, which attacks the nixie and drives it away. Later on, the nixie asks the owner of the mill or inn if he still has the “big cat” and never bothers the village again. Yet, the nixie and the man are on speaking terms and apparently see each other occasionally.
In a few stories, the nixie can be coaxed to teach the human to play music with the proper enticement–blood, a black animal, or vodka. The music may be to lure people, but it may also just be part of the lifestyle of the nixie, which can be presented as having more fun than the humans do–much like fairies in general where the party goes on forever and the road never ends.
Other legends, which don’t quite have all the pieces of a complete story, speak of the water-people who come to market bringing their flour and butter for sale just as the human people do, but who can be recognized by their red caps and the wet hems of their pants and skirts. Why they wear red caps is a mystery. Was Little Red Riding Hood (a.k.a. Red Cap in the Grimm version) really a nixie? These folks don’t menace anyone, but the prices of their goods predict the future prices–if they sell high, prices go up, but if they sell low, prices go down. How they manage to grow flour and cows under the water is not explained
Some water-women are beneficial in other ways, such as the Lady of the Lake of Avalon in the Arthurian cycle.
This would be the time to get all Freudian and Jungian, musing on the unconscious and the anima, the intuitive and the psychic, or to consider the water-ape theory of evolution, as a race memory of living in the edge of the waters, like manatees, or even of being in the womb surrounded by water. But I won’t go there–others have already worked that field, adding to the fascination of the beings that live in the water.
I think we all need to believe in a different, less mundane life than the one we lead, and the fantastic creatures of alien worlds give us more scope for imagination.
Neck, Water Nixie, and others, Scandinavian Mythology from Wikipedia
Sacred Texts – http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/tfm/tfm056.htm
Water Spirit Legends 1 http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/water.html
Water Spirit Legends 2 http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type4050.html
The Water Nix, Sur La Lune http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/authors/grimms/79waternix.html