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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It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Fishmen: The Finfolk

Growing up, my bedtime stories were the works of H.P. Lovecraft (as well as Edgar Allen Poe, and Doctor Seuss. This may explain a bit about me). The Shadow Over Innsmouth particularly came to life for me; it left such an impression that I enjoy ocean-centered nightmares to this day. Imagine my delight, then, on discovering a blog post about the Orkney Finfolk, a group of gloomy fish-people who like to steal humans and live in an ancient city at the bottom of the sea (*ahem* Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn. I should mention that I’m not the first one to make a connection to the Cthulhu mythos, either). These Finfolk have a lot in common with the fishy villagers of Innsmouth, but are–perhaps literally–several centuries older.

Waterhouse, John William, 1849-1917; A Mermaid
Something like a Finwife, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Superficially, the Finfolk seem kin to mermaids or selkies, but you’d be a fool to mistake them as such. They come in two genders. Finmen at first appear like any other man, but a closer look reveals that their “clothes” are actually artfully folded fins arranged specifically to fool humans. Their faces are dark and gloomy, their eyes black. Finwives, on the other hand, look more or less like mermaids (unless they look like old hags, but we’ll get to that in the moment). Topless in the freezing North Sea waves, they dust themselves with crushed pearls and cry out at fisherman. These are the Finfolks’ natural forms, but really they might appear in any form, as they are accomplished sorcerers and shapeshifters. They might show up as driftwood, as a tree, as someone close to you…

Nothing stops the Finfolk from crossing from sea to land: unlike selkies, they come and go as they please (several sites describe them as “amphibious”). Their motivations for venturing into human territory are two-fold: 1) to cheat or otherwise obtain silver, which they are obsessed with, and 2) to steal humans, whom they will drag away screaming and then force into permanent matrimonial servitude.

Obviously, this latter threat is what the people of the Orkney islands were most concerned with. They told stories all the way up through the 19th century of women disappearing off beaches and men out of boats; spouses abducted onto crafts that flew across the waves with unnatural speed; floating plants bursting to life to snatch a passerby into the cold, grey water. Depending on the season, the kidnapped’s destination was either the magical, vanishing island of Hildaland or the fearful Finfolkaheem, an opulent kingdom at the bottom of the sea. Both are described as Finfolk utopias, though for the human captives, they would be more like hell.

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Underwater Kingdom painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

First there is the particular torture of the places themselves. Hildaland is guarded by monstrous whales and hideous tusked Finmen, so good luck getting rescued out of there, never mind escaping it. It’s surrounded by mist; mortal boats might pass straight through it without realizing that it’s there (if they’re lucky). Finfolkaheem is even worse, though it would certainly be interesting to see. Full of massive crystal halls, multicolored seaweed, tiny phosphorescent creatures, and curtains fashioned after the aurora borealis, the Finfolk raise sea-cattle, ride sea-horses, herd whales, and train sea lions within the city’s borders. For humans, it’s a prison of the worst sort: there’s no escaping from the bottom of the ocean alive (no word on how the Finfolk keep them there to begin with. Sorcery?). That deep, the pressure and darkness alone would be enough to drive you insane.

Worse than the supernatural prisons are the Finfolk spouses themselves. Finmen are notoriously cruel and territorial, even to people they’re not married to (for example, they’ll stab secret holes in the fishing boats that cross them, enjoying the panic of fishermen that realize, too late, that the ocean is swallowing them alive). One of the reasons Finfolk prefer to marry humans (as opposed to each other) is because Finwives age much faster when coupled with their own species; I can only guess that this is because Finmen are moody pains in the a** and beat them mercilessly if they don’t bring home enough silver. The ladies aren’t blameless, though…Finwives pummel their human spouses just as cruelly, and for the same reason. Human spouses of either gender are worked to death, helpless in the face of monsters as old as the ocean itself.

eynhallow_in_1980
Eynhallow in 1980, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It does look kind of decimated, doesn’t it?

But some people fought back, and that’s why we don’t see much of the Finfolk today. You see, the Finfolk greed for silver can be turned against them: throw a handful of coins away from yourself, and you might outrun your fishy pursuer. The Finfolk also hate pure salt, which one man in particular took advantage of. After a Finman stole his wife, the Goodman of Thorodale  laboriously figured out where Hildaland was, boated out there, out-bluffed the terrifying creatures in the water, landed on the island, took out a bag, and rained salt everywhere. The Finfolk fled screaming into the sea, taking their livestock and prisoners with them. Their fields dried up, and Hildaland ceased to be a magical place. Now it is called Eynhallow; you can visit it today.

The final nail in the coffin for the Finfolk seems to have been the arrival of Christianity. Accounts claim that the Finfolk abhor crosses, and the more that appeared on the islands, the deeper they dove. After the 19th century, there ceased to be much mention of them at all.

That doesn’t mean they can’t still be out there, though. Deep beneath the North Sea waves. Dreaming.

 

How long can you hold your breath underwater? How about in the face of nameless horror? Share your story in the comments below.

 

Time to Clean House: The Kikimora

If you’ve read or played anything in The Witcher franchise, you likely looked at the title of this post and thought immediately of a insectoid swamp creature with taloned paws. While the Witcher kikimora are awesome, I want to take you back to where the monster began: pre-insectoid, and with more intelligent, devilish intent.

The short description of the Kikimora makes her sound almost quaint: she’s a Slavic house spirit, one that’s been around at least since before the advent of Christianity and likely before the advent of the written word. Depending on who you ask, she’s either the wife of the friendly house/forest spirit Domovoi or the less friendly, flesh-eating swamp monster Leshy. Many versions of the legend claim that she appears as a beautiful woman with her hair down, and that she’ll stay with the house and help you with your chores. Sounds great, right?

kikimora
Unnerving illustration courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Except that when you look closer, the Kikimora might not be as cute as you thought. She’s got some strange deformities, including the occasional chicken-like hand or foot. Truth be told, if you see her at all, you’re probably screwed. If you catch her spinning in the dead of night (which she does endlessly and without producing any thread), for example, you can expect to die within the week. An even less fun way to spot her is if she slips through the keyhole of your bedroom door at night to sit on your chest and try to strangle you. This latter habit can become such an issue that people try all manner of rituals to get her to stop, from turning a broom upside down by the door to sleeping with their belt on top of their bedspread. That might stop her from throttling you outright, but your problems don’t end there.

The Kikimora might help out with household chores, but woe betide the family that doesn’t keep their home in order. Invisible, she’ll whistle, make disturbing noises, break dishes, and generally poltergeist the hell out of the place. Variable in size, she can hide under the floorboards or in crevices beneath the hearth, sometimes coming out to roam the attic, leaving strange wet footprints in her wake. If someone doesn’t like you, they can make a Kikimora doll, hide it under a beam or the front corner of your house, and effectively curse you forever by calling her there. You might also just have the bad luck to inherit her…if a child died on your property or was buried somewhere below your house, she’ll be waiting for you. However she gets in, once she’s with you, she’s very difficult to make get out.

The mayhem the Kikimory (plural for Kikimora; there are more than one) create helped them get their name: pretty much every component of the word alludes to something awful. Kikimora may have descended from the Udmurt word kikka-murt, meaning scarecrow or–even better–”bag-made person.” This explains some of the weirder, more elderly descriptions of the creature. Mora is also linked with the more recognizable mare (as in nightmare). In Croatia, mora cause the same sleep paralysis the Kikimora does, appearing as beautiful women that suck the life out of their sleeping victims. In Poland, mora are the souls of living people who leave their bodies at night, which can be seen as little wisps of hair or straw, not unlike what the Kikimora might look like when she shrinks down to hide in the floorboards or slip through a carefully locked door.

The only way to dissuade the Kikimora from totally destroying your life is to a) keep very clean, and b) complete elaborate rituals to appease her. These include washing all of your pots and pans in fern tea, hanging juniper over the chicken coop (on top of everything, Kikimory love stealing eggs), and reciting involved prayer-poems before bedtime. No word on how to get her out of the house permanently; sorry.

But free maid, right?

elderlyspinnera
Sassy spinner courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

How thoroughly would the Kikimora destroy you upon seeing the state of your home? Share your story in the comments below.

Special announcement: Heading to Readercon 27? I’ll see you there. Tweet at me if you want to meet up and exchange some ghost stories.  

Better hope for a bird, or a plane: The Sluagh

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Thanks to Tommy Hansen (at Wikimedia Commons), for this lovely mood-setting image.

Happy 2016, everyone! Welcome to a new year, one full of possibility both bright and dark. I’m currently reading John Crowley’s famous Little, Big, and enjoying it so much that I decided to theme this month’s post similarly (though, as always, with a bit more horror). So, here we are. Let’s talk about fairies.

Even if they aren’t versed in old Fae mythology,  most people know that not all pixies acted like Tinkerbell. Characters like Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream remind us that there were more frightening imps than she; yet most depictions barely scratch the surface of just how bad those counterparts could be. Our monster this month will help us dig deeper.

As early as three thousand years ago, Irish and Scottish peasants looked up with fright as the sun went down. Retreating from the open sky, they hid in their houses–barred them shut–, and if they heard a gentle knocking at their door or scratching at their window, closed their eyes and prayed they would survive the night. The feared creatures flew in from the west on leathery wings, huge flocks (or murders) on the Great Hunt. They were the darkest and most terrible of the fairies, and then, after the advent of Christianity, sinners too vile even for hell. They were the Sluagh, (pronounced SLOO-AH), and if you just experimented with that word aloud, congratulations! You’ve called them to you.

Cursed never to walk the earth, they’ll swarm, screaming,  through the sky. Once they were human. Now they are little more than winged skeletons, with loose, flapping skin; a few wisps of hair; long, claw-like hands; and a mouth described variously as beak-like, with gnarled protruding teeth or a gasping, toothless, sucking pit.  If you never go outside after dark for the rest of your life, maybe you’ll make it. But if they find you, the only way to save yourself is to put someone else in their path. Who would take your place? They Sluagh will loom over you, shadow stretching over your heart, obscuring your eyes. You’ll hear a soft whispering, and then feel a terrible pull as your immortal soul is torn from your body. Once they have you, you are doomed to fly with them for the rest of eternity, just as anguished, and just as feared.

Does that thought depress you? Be careful not to give yourself too much to despair, because that will call them, too.

Even on nights when they weren’t hunting some idiot, the Sluagh would fly out in search of souls, blotting out the stars and appearing, from afar, like an enormous, pulsing flock of birds. They targeted people on the brink of death, victims who had yet to be given their last rites who would find their soul stolen before the priest could deliver the words. The dying were far easier targets than those still healthy, but if some errant soul were out for a night walk, he would do as well. Dark copper birds followed the flock, ruining crops and killing animals with their poisonous breath. Hell hounds, too, stayed at their heels, replacing sleeping babies with monsters and wreaking havoc.

If you listened closely, you might sometimes hear the Sluagh advancing and retreating as they fought their battles in the sky. Afterwards, in the cold light of morning, you might find their dark bloodstains on rocky meadow floors. If you saw the flock itself, some said, death would visit within a year. Others warned that the Sluagh could control men’s minds, using them as puppets and making them fight like dogs.

It was best, people decided, to just stay inside after dark. To bar the windows, especially on the west side of the house.

Still, some casualties could not be avoided. Sometimes the Sluagh would victimize people dear to their communities, such as the case where a child was taken, soul extracted, and body dropped to slam into his parent’s back yard. More often, however, the Sluagh were blamed for the disappearances of just the sort of people you might expect to be out at night: petty criminals, drunkards, outcasts. People of the sort that even if their neighbors noticed their absence, they would simply shrug, careful not to look at the sky. Some historians point to this selective disappearance as oddly convenient for those who wanted to clean up the town. Equally convenient was the fact that the most ostensibly malicious nights of the Sluagh hunt coincided perfectly with the nights Christian leaders wanted to discourage people from participating in pagan rituals. Were the Sluagh a mindless menace, or a political tool? If they originated before Christianity (and by all accounts, they did), what experience birthed that first, terrible story?

Regardless of whether the Sluagh existed or who they worked for, the fear they generated has spanned generations. Some view murders of crows with suspicion even today, and that small, quiet fear of the dark that we all enjoy remains etched in our DNA. It wouldn’t hurt, probably, to shut your window tight tonight.

Especially if reading their name has the same effect as speaking it.

auklet_flock_shumagins_1986
Most definitely hopefully not the Sluagh, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

Do you have an unreasonable distrust of birds? How many saggy-skinned monsters have you found hanging around outside your window? Dementors? Nazgul? Share your story in the comments below.