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Friday, September 27, 2013

"He preys on human lives, lurking beneath the waters..."

Many years ago by the river Gudsbransvågen, there was a flood and the bridge was destroyed in the great waters. After that, travellers used a ferry whenever there was a need to cross the river – sometimes it was also possible to wade across, when waters were low and the river was silent. 

Not long ago after the flood, a cry was heard, terrible and shrieking: “The time has come!” The day after, a man was found dead on his back, drowned in the river – and where he was found, the river was so shallow, that the knees barely touched the waters.

Theodor Kittelsen, Nøkken screams (1910)
In Norwegian folklore, nature and its elements symbolize a strong and independent nature, water perhaps being one of these that stand out the most. The ocean, lakes and ponds represents a parallel realm where the absence of the human being is striking; it is dark, it’s stagnant and disappears into an abyss. Especially after sunset it was dangerous to move near dark and quiet waters; here lived a creature called the neck, or nøkken, a cunning and dangerous water demon who were lying there lurking under the waters.  
Andreas Faye was a Norwegian priest and collector of Norwegian folklore. He described nøkken in his writings:
"Annually, nøkken will require a man as sacrifice. When someone is going to drown, the sound of nøkken can often be heard; it is a hollow and terrifying scream, which in many ways can resemble the voice of a man, wailing and whining, in the last seconds of his life."
This sinister image is also to be found in several of Theodor Kittelsen's works, whom of which I have written about earlier, related to the topic of the black plague. In one of Kittelsens’ perhaps most famous pictures Nøkken, created in 1904, we find ourselves in a quiet summer pond. The trees and the cool evening sky are reflected in the water, while water lilies are floating peacefully on the surface. It could all could have been very idyllic, had it not been for the deadly nøkken who, portrayed as an old tussock, is lurking in the water with his bright, luminous eyes:
"He’s lying there, lurking underneath the cool, dark waters. You reach out your hand. Hardly have you touched him, before he pulls you in with his wet, slimy hands. You may sit by yourself alone down by the lakeside one evening... where memories awake, one by one – memories with color and brightness. Then be aware! It is the neck, playing his lethal game."

Theodor Kittelsen, Nøkken (1904)

It is important to remember that many lives were lost in accidents and suicide out in the woods – for many hundreds of years it was therefore natural to interpret nøkken as the personification of the treacherous and dangerous waters. In many ways this image can still be viewed as an embodiment of human fear, the very helplessness which we dread and try our best to avoid.

There are several descriptions of the notations in old Nordic folk songs. One of them is called Heiemo og Nykkjen and describes the neck as a lover, who is bewitched by the beautiful song of a girl named Heiemo. An english translation of the song follows below, as well as a version sung by the wonderful Norwegian singer Helene Bøksle:

Heiemo sang her poem, the hillsides sang back.
(Wake up you noble youngsters)  
The Water spirit heard it, striding on the sea,  
(because you now have overslept.)

The Water spirit spoke to his helmsman:
(Wake up you noble youngsters)  
Steer my ship to the Christian land! 
(because you now have overslept) 

The Water spirit danced and Heiemo sang her poem  
(Wake up you noble youngsters)
It pleased all the folks in the houses Heiemo, 
(because you now have overslept)

Heiemo, quiet your sorrow, 
(Wake up you noble youngsters)
you shall sleep in the arms of the water spirit.
(because you now have overslept)

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