Not horsing around: the Nuckelavee

It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc.  It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.

Orkney Islands
One of the islands, courtesy of Colin Park at Wikimedia Commons.

Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.

At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.

Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.

Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:

 

***

Night beach
A little mood-setting image that sort of directly contradicts the first line of description of the story but that’s okay–AMBIANCE.

One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.

As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.

Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.

The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.

There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.

Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.

The Nuckelavee
A lovely illustration of the Nuckelavee, courtesy of contemporary James Torrance at Wikimedia Commons.

***

 

Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough.  Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.

Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?

Amirite?

 

Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.

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