Nykur

Variations: Nykur Hestur (Nykur Horse), Nickur; Nennir, Ninnir (Ninny); Flóðhestur (Hippopotamus); Kumbur (Clump); Skolli (Devil); Vatnaskratti (Water Fiend)

The Nykur or Nennir is the water-horse of Iceland. It is found across the island in association with pools, lakes, ponds, rivers, and the sea, and accounts of its misdeeds date as far back as the Book of Settlements. Its name follows the naming tradition of water-creatures across northern Europe, including the Baltic Nixa, the Germanic Nixy, and the Netherlandish Nikker. Suggested etymologies for this naming group include Nick (as in Old Nick, the devil), an Indo-Germanic root meaning “black” or “dark” (compare Latin niger, for instance), or nihhus, an Old High German word for crocodile.

A nykur is a horse, usually grey in color, with reversed hooves. Coat variations include dapple grey and black, but pink, white, yellow, and grey with a dark streak on the back have been reported. Red cheeks are possible, as is a blaze that gives the impression of a single eye. The mane may be of a different color. The neck is short. The hooves are uncloven, and the tufts on the pasterns also point backwards. It will not allow anyone to inspect its hooves. A nykur can change shape at will, although shapeshifting is not a major part of its myth. It has been said to also appear as a wild, unmilkable cow with reversed hooves, or as a giant salmon or other fish. In the Elenarljóð ballad, the nykur takes on the form of a handsome young man to woo the heroine in hopes of drowning her. More monstrous appearances include twelve-legged forms, or massive, stout beasts with dragging bellies, protruding heads, and skin hanging in heavy folds.

Nykurs are malicious and cruel creatures. They present themselves as tame, friendly horses, but anyone who mounts them will find themselves sticking to the nykur’s back, as if held fast by glue. The nykur then gallops wildly off into the sea, plunging its rider into the water and drowning them. Nykurs will also break the ice on lakes to drown people ice-fishing. The booming sound of breaking ice is said to be the neighing of the nykur.

Nykurs beget foals with normal mares, but only if they are in the water. Horses descended from nykurs will lie down and roll over whenever ridden or led through water as high as their bellies.

As long as there is no water within sight, it is safe to ride a nykur. If a nykur is detected in the vicinity of a body of water, it should be scared off to prevent potential disaster. Nykurs hate fire, and keeping a fire burning nearby for a whole day will make it move elsewhere. They also avoid holy water.

With the right approach, a nykur can be caught, tamed, and forced to work. There is a swelling under a nykur’s left shoulder. If the swelling is punctured, the nykur becomes safe to ride, and loses its harmful nature, but the lump may return with time.

Nykurs hate to hear their name. If they hear the word nykur or nennir – or indeed, any word similar to it – they buck and shy and gallop away into the water. They also dread hearing the names of God and the Devil, and the sound of church bells; making the sign of the cross also repels them. A shepherd girl who prepared to mount a nykur exclaimed “Eg nenni ekki á bak!” (“I don’t feel like getting on its back!” Hearing the word nenni, the nennir galloped away and vanished into a lake. In another tale, a group of children mounted a nykur, but the oldest and wisest child held back, saying “I don’t feel like getting on its back”. The nykur ran off with its riders and drowned them, leaving the eldest to tell the sad tale. The heroine of the Elenarljóð ballad has a similar stroke of homophonic luck.

Butter-lake Heath, in the east of Iceland, got its name from a nykur-related incident. A servant girl left a farm to sell butter in the village of Vopnafjörthur. Along the way she grew tired, and was grateful to find a tame grey horse standing unattended. She mounted the horse and continued along her way, but the moment the horse saw the nearest lake, it dashed into it, drowning the girl. Thus the lake earned the name of Butter Lake, and the surrounding heath became Butter-lake Heath.

The nykur of Svarfathardale, near to the northern town of Akureyri, was known to live in deep pools by the river. The inhabitants of the village chased it off by building fires around the pools and throwing burning coals into the river all day. The nykur was scared off, and there have been no drownings since.

In Grimsey it was said that a nykur lived in the sea and neighed every time the islanders returned to the mainland for a cow. The neigh of the nykur drove the cows mad, causing them to jump into the sea and drown. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the people of Grimsey dared keep cows on the island.

There are places all over Iceland named for the nykur, from Nykurborg to Nykurvatn.

References

Árnason, J.; Powell, G. E. J. and Magnússon, E. trans. (1864) Icelandic Legends. Richard Bentley, London.

Benwell, G. and Waugh, A. (1961) Sea Enchantress: The Tale of the Mermaid and her Kin. Hutchinson, London.

van Hageland, A. (1973) La Mer Magique. Marabout, Paris.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Simpson, J. (1972) Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

Stefánsson, V. (1906) Icelandic Beast and Bird Lore. The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 19, no. 75, pp. 300-308.

Grootslang

Variations: Groot Slang, Big Snake, Great Snake, Great Snake of the Orange River, Ki-man

The Grootslang, literally “big snake” or “great snake”, dwells in or around the Orange River in the Richtersveld, South Africa, in association with fabulous diamond deposits. Its home may be in the Orange River itself, a pool underneath the King George Cataract, a big rock, or a semi-mythical cave known as the “Wonder Hole” or the “Bottomless Pit”. The cave is said to be the source of the diamonds of South Africa; from there they move down a pipe to the river, which carries them to the sea.

As its name implies, the grootslang is an enormous snake, big enough to take cattle at the water’s edge. It has huge diamonds in its eye-sockets, and its presence exerts an evil influence on all who see it. It is some forty feet long, and leaves a serpentine spoor on muddy river banks that is 1.5 to 3 feet wide. There are never traces of feet associated with the grootslang’s spoor.

Over time the grootslang has accumulated elephantine features. This stems partly from the cryptozoological desire to connect it to the mokele-mbembe and other such surviving dinosaurs, and partly from Rose’s description of it as “huge, like an elephant, with the tail of a serpent”.

References

Cornell, F. C. (1920) The Glamour of Prospecting. T. Fisher Unwin Ltd., London.

Green, L. G. (1948) Where Men Still Dream. Standard Press Ltd., Cape Town.

Rose, C. (2000) Giants, Monsters, and Dragons. W. W. Norton and Co., New York.

Zankallala

The Zankallala is a terrifyingly mighty creature from the folklore of the Hausa people. He is only the size of two clenched fists, but he wields a snake as a walking-stick, a pair of scorpions as spurs, and a swarm of bees as a hat. His mount is a jerboa. Wherever he goes, he is followed by birds that sing his praises and attack his enemies. He is also implied to have supernatural powers.

Even the dodo, the fearsome monster, the Swallower-of-Men, is powerless before the Zankallala. Once a boy was being chased by a dodo along a riverbank, and he came upon the Zankallala.

“Where are you going?” asked the Zankallala. “I’m running away from Dodo”, said the boy. “Stay”, said the creature. “The Dodo will not harm you”. And immediately a silk-cotton tree grew over the Zankallala, and the birds in it sang in praise.

“The Lion is afraid of the Zankallala,

The Hyena is afraid of the Zankallala,

Dodo is afraid of the Zankallala”.

When the dodo caught up with his quarry, he was nonplussed. “Where is my property?” he demanded. But the Zankallala responded impudently, saying “What property have you given me?” This infuriated the dodo. “If you will not give me my prey, then you will be my meal!”

With that the dodo gobbled up the tiny creature, only for the Zankallala to emerge from his stomach, accompanied by the joyous chorus of the birds. Then the dodo ate him again, but the Zankallala came out of his back, telling the birds to continue singing his praises. The third time the dodo swallowed him, the Zankallala emerged from the monster’s head, killing it.

“You may leave in safety”, the Zankallala told the boy, “you have seen that one is stronger than another, you escaped because you met me”.

This tale of a small trickster creature outwitting the dodo is sometimes told with a centipede or hedgehog replacing the Zankallala.

References

Tremearne, A. J. N. (1913) Hausa Superstitions and Customs. J. Bale and Sons and Danielsson, Ltd., London.

Namungumi

Variations: Nalumgumi; Liporo (possibly); Napolo (possibly)

The Namungumi or Nalumgumi, usually translated to “whale”, features in the initiation ceremonies of the Yao people of Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

Despite the “whale” designation, the namungumi pictured in the inyago ceremonies has four limbs. There is a stylized and ornamental webbing drawn between the limbs, and there are two knobs marking the juncture of the neck with the forelimbs and tail with the hindlimbs respectively. It has prominent tusks around its head. The entire body is crisscrossed with a complex grid pattern.

The namungumi lives in Lake Malawi. It would surface near a village, and the people could come and carve off chunks of meat from its vast body. This action was painless and the wounds healed immediately. The meat itself tasted different depending on where it came from – some areas on the namungumi’s body produced choice cuts, while others were practically inedible.

As an initiatory figure the namungumi represents water and kinship.

A similar creature, the Liporo of the Anyanja, is not as large. Its habits include killing hippos and tipping canoes. It is believed to be extinct. The Napolo is a similar flood-related water serpent.

References

Morris, B. (2000) Animals and Ancestors: An Ethnography. Berg Publishers, Oxford.

Stannus, H. (1919) The Wayao of Nyasaland. Harvard African Studies, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Moskitto

Moskittos are a cautionary tale about the perils of introducing invasive species. They originated with the Chippewa River mosquitos, which were large enough to straddle a stream, pick lumberjacks off logs as they floated by, and drain them dry. They were so big, in fact, that if caught in such a straddle, they could be tied up and used for bridges.

To combat this menace, Paul Bunyan introduced deadly fighting bumblebees from Texas. These pugnacious bees quickly set about battling the mosquitos and gave the lumberjacks a respite.

Alas, it was not to last. The mosquitos and bumblebees eventually made peace and hybridized. Their offspring had stingers at both ends.

Fortunately for humanity, the “moskittos” had inherited the bees’ love of sugar. They flew out to feed on a shipment of sugar on Lake Superior, and gorged themselves until they were too heavy to fly and drowned.

References

Brown, C. E. (1935) Paul Bunyan Natural History. Madison, Wisconsin.

Laughead, W. B. (1922) The Marvelous Exploits of Paul Bunyan. Red River Lumber Company, Minneapolis.

Nanabolele

Variations: Dinanabolele, Linanabolele (pl.)

Thakáne and her two brothers were the children of a Basotho chief. In some versions there is only one brother, Masilo; in some retellings the siblings are orphans, in others their parents are merely distant figures. Either way Thakáne was like a mother to her brothers. She cared for them, made their food, and filled their water jugs. When they had to go to school, it was Thakáne who took them there. When they were circumcised in the traditional grass huts, the mophato, it was Thakáne who took them there and waited on them until the ritual was over and they had rested. It was their sister who brought them the clothes they would wear as men.

But Thakáne’s brothers did not accept her choice of clothing. Only items made from the skin of a Nanabolele would do. They wanted shields of nanabolele hide, and shoes of nanabolele leather, and clothing of nanabolele skin, and hats cut from nanabolele, and spears tied up with strips of nanabolele. They refused to leave the mophato until their request was fulfilled.

It was a tall order. The nanaboleles, they who shine in the night, were horrid, reptilian creatures that live underwater and underground. They glow in the darkness, giving off light like the moon and stars do. They were deadly predators. Surely there was some mistake! “Why do you ask the impossible?” asked Thakáne. “Where am I supposed to find nanabolele skin? Where? ?” But her brothers would not be swayed, declaring that it became them, as the sons of a chief, to wear nanabolele skins.

So Thakáne set out, knowing that if their father was around, he would have done the same. It fell upon her to accomplish the task in his stead. She set off with oxen, beer calabashes, sweetcorn balls, and a large retinue in search of the nanaboleles. She sang as she went:

“Nanabolele, nanabolele!

My brothers won’t leave the mophato, nanabolele!

They want shields of nanabolele, nanabolele!

And shoes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!

And clothes they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!

And hats they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!

And spears they want of nanabolele, nanabolele!”

When Thakáne sang, the waters of the nearby stream parted, and a little frog hopped out. “Kuruu! Keep going!” it told her. Thakáne kept going from river to river, following the directions given by frog after frog, until at last she came upon the widest and deepest river yet. She sang her song, but nothing responded. Then she tossed some meat in, followed by an entire pack ox, but nothing happened.

Finally, the waters stirred, and an old woman stepped out, greeting Thakáne and inviting her to come in with her. Thakáne followed the old woman into the river, followed by her company. To her surprise, there was an entire river under the water, dry and breathable. But there was nobody there. It was empty and silent as the grave.

“Where are all the people, Grandmother?” said Thakáne to her guide. “Alas”, said the old woman. “The nanaboleles have eaten them, adults, children, cattle, sheep, dogs, chickens, everything! Only I was allowed to live, I am too old and tough to eat, so they make me do their work for them”. “Yo wheh!” said Thakáne. “We are truly in danger then”. But the old woman bade them hide, leading them into a deep hole which she covered with reeds.

It wasn’t long after Thakáne and her friends had hidden that the nanabolele returned to the village, sounding like a huge herd of oxen. The creatures glowed, shining like the moon and the stars, but they did not sleep, instead sniffing around intently. “We smell people!” they snarled. But they found nothing, and eventually tired and went to sleep.

That was the opportunity Thakáne had been waiting for. She and her companions emerged from hiding and, singling out the biggest nanabolele, quickly slaughtered it before it could wake up the others. Then they flayed it in silence and prepared to leave.

Before they left, the old woman gave Thakáne a pebble. “The nanabolele will follow you. When you see a red dust cloud against the sky, that will be them on your trail. This pebble will save you from them…”

Sure enough, dawn had barely broken when Thakáne saw the cloud of red dust. The nanaboleles were in pursuit! Thakáne quickly dropped the pebble on the ground, and it grew, becoming an enormous mountain that she and her friends climbed. They took refuge at the top, while the nanaboleles exhausted themselves trying to climb it. Then, as the reptiles lay catching their breath, the mountain shrank, Thakáne picked up the pebble, and the chase continued.

Thus it went on for several days, with the nanaboleles catching up only to be worn out by the pebble-mountain. But when Thakáne reached her home, she called upon all the dogs of the village to attack the nanaboleles. The creatures, terrified, turned tail and ran back to their abandoned village under the river.

There was only one thing left to do. The nanabolele skin which gives off light in the dark was cut and prepared into items of clothing and armor and weapons, and Thakáne herself took them to her brothers in the mophato.

Nobody else had seen such wondrous items, and Thakáne’s brothers rewarded her handsomely, giving her a hundred head of cattle.

References

Dorson, R. M. (1972) African Folklore. Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, New York.

Jacottet, E. (1908) The Treasury of Ba-Suto Lore. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London.

Postma, M. (1974) Tales from the Basotho. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Billdad

Variations: Saltipiscator falcorostratus (Cox)

Boundary Pond in Maine, near the Canadian border, is the only spot where Billdads live. These creatures are beaver-sized with long kangaroo-like back legs and short forelegs. The paws are webbed and the beak is strong and hawk-like. The powerful tail is large and flattened, like a beaver’s.

The first hint that a billdad is about is a distinct sound, like a paddle hitting the water. This is caused by the billdad’s method of fishing, which consists of jumping above a surfacing fish and smacking it hard with its flat tail. Adult males can cover over sixty yards in a single leap. The stunned fish can then be collected and eaten at leisure.

The retiring billdads are usually heard and not seen. They are left alone by lumberjacks – and with good reason. The only man known to have eaten billdad meat, the late Bill Murphy, suffered odd symptoms after tasting it. He ran screaming out of the mess hall and leaped over the lake just like a billdad. Alas, he could not swim like one.

Billdad has been off the menu since.

References

Cox, W. T. (1910) Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. Judd and Detweiler, Washington D. C.

Trollgädda

I am indebted to Fredrik “Tektalox” Hansing for introducing me to and translating material related to this enormous esocid!

Variations: Trollgäddor (pl.); Jättegädda (Giant Pike); Krongädda (Crown Pike); Skällgädda (Bell Pike); Sjörå

The lakes and waterways of Sweden are home to Trollgäddor, “troll pike”. These variable supernatural creatures take the form of a large pike, and cause problems ranging from being nuisances to attacking people.

Sometimes the pikes are associated with the Sjörå, the Mistress of the Lake; some may even be Sjörå themselves. More frequently they are the pets of the Sjörå. The water-spirit dresses them up with bells like cows, and the fish are called skällgäddor or “bell pikes”. Anglers who return those pikes upon capture are rewarded with success at fishing; those who kill them incur the Mistress’ wrath and find their livestock dying off.

The krongädda or “crown pike” is another of the Sjörå’s pets. It is a pike with a crown, and is regarded to be the Sjörå’s prized possession. The exact nature of the “crown” is unclear. It has been suggested that the crown is actually the remains of a bird’s talons embedded in the fish’s skull, left behind by an unfortunate osprey drowned by its “catch”.

Other times the trollgädda’s appears as a normal pike with no distinguishing characteristics. A pike captured in Lake Odensjön was large enough, but as the angler returned home it grew heavier and heavier. By the time he entered the house he had to drop it, and it started thrashing about as it grew big enough to destroy the house. Fortunately the angler had the presence of mind to let it out; the fish squirmed and flopped its way back into the water and disappeared.

Trollgädda tales vary by locale. The Kvittinge pike kills a human every year. In Lake Mjörn there is a huge, hairy, and bearded pike tied up with an iron chain. In Skåne there are pikes as big as wooden beams. The Dalsland pike has eyes as big as saucers and scales as big as roof tiles. It barely fits in the coves, and seeing it is a clear sign that fishing will be futile.

The pike of Lake Bolmen is as long as the lake is wide, and can barely move. It is so big that its back looks like a rocky island, and so old that a willow shrub grows on its head and neck. An enterprising angler tried to catch the pike using a rope for a fishing line and a dead foal for bait. When the trollgädda bit, the angler fastened the rope to a lakeside barn and went to get help. They returned to find the barn dragged out into the lake.

References

Gustavsson, P. (2008) Laskiga vidunder och sallsamma djur. Alfabeta, Stockholm.

Hansing, F. (pers. comm.)

Svanberg, I. (2000) Havsrattor, kuttluckor och rabboxar. Bokforlaget Arena, Falth & Hassler, Smedjebacken.

Shuyu

Variations: Shu-fishShuyu

The Shuyu or Shu-fish can be found in abundance in China’s Peng River. It looks like a chicken with red feathers, and has four heads (or four eyes), six feet, and three tails. It caws like a magpie. Eating it cures melancholy.

The red color, multiplicity of appendages, and the triple (three-lobed?) tail combine to suggest a crayfish or lobster.

References

Mathieu, R. (1983) Étude sur la mythologie et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne. Collège de France, Paris.

Strassberg, R. E. (2002) A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. University of California Press.

Kurrea

The Kurrea is an enormous reptilian creature from the Boobera Lagoon, the Barwon River, and the Narran River in New South Wales, Australia. It may be considered the local variant of the rainbow serpent, although the lumping of such entities may be overzealous. The term kurrea, a Euahlayi word, has also been translated as “crocodile” in the one Narran River account, but a “serpent” interpretation is probably more correct. A 39-foot carving of the kurrea is clearly snake-shaped.

The deepest part of the Boobera Lagoon is bottomless and that is where the kurrea lives. An enormous serpentine creature, it is incapable of moving on dry land. When a kurrea wants to travel, it tears up the ground on the banks of the lagoon, excavating channels along which it can swim. The many shallow channels around the lagoon are evidence of the kurrea’s movements.

Anyone who dared fish, swim, or paddle in the Boobera Lagoon would immediately be attacked and devoured by the kurrea. This hostile behavior could cause serious shortages, as the lagoon had large flocks of waterfowl and schools of fish.

Once a man called Toolalla, of the Barwon River, decided to rid his people of the kurrea. He was a skilled hunter and, armed with his sharpest and strongest weapons, he stood on the bank of the lagoon. Before long the kurrea had noticed him and swam towards him. But despite all his preparations, Toolalla discovered that even his best weapons could not even injure the kurrea.

Toolalla made the wise decision to flee for his life. The kurrea followed him, gouging out a channel at high speed and rapidly gaining on his prey. Toolalla managed to climb up a tall bumble tree where the snake could not reach him. The bumble tree is also the kurrea’s mother-in-law, and the only thing it fears. Eventually, frustrated and disappointed, the kurrea returned to the Boobera Lagoon, where it continued to be a threat to all who trespassed on its domain.

Today the kurrea is harder to see. Its descendants are the gowarke, the giant, black-feathered, red-legged emus of the Baiame swamps.

References

Buchler, I. R. and Maddock, K. (eds.) (1978) The Rainbow Serpent: A Chromatic Piece. Mouton Publishers, The Hague.

Mathews, R. H. (1907) Notes on the Aborigines of New South Wales. William Appleworth Gullick, Sydney.

Reed, A. W. (1982) Aboriginal Myths, Legends, and Fables. Reed, Wellington.