Serpents and Monsters
By Gary R Varner
An excerpt from "The Folklore of the Sea" by Gary R. Varner.
Mysterious and dangerous beasts are commonly associated with water and are universally found throughout the world’s folklore. Ancient Babylonian and Egyptian texts tell of a monster sea serpent and American Indian mythology is full of accounts of “enchanted lakes,” “water monsters” and “water gods”. Many of these myths are very similar to other stories around the world with comparable themes. “Water monsters” are part of Native American mythology from California to the Carolinas and are likewise found around the world.
The Water Monster was a feared supernatural creature said to eat both horse and rider if they got too close to the Water Monster’s lair. Likewise the Water Horse, a Faery being of Scotland and the Hebrides, would lay in wait in the form of a beautiful horse, sometimes even with saddle and bridle, for unsuspecting pedestrians. Should a weary traveler come across the magnificent animal and mount it to finish his journey it may be finished in a way not to his expectations. For once in the saddle the beasts would run off and drag the hapless traveler to the depths of a lake or river where he would be devoured. The Water Horse was also known in Wales by the name glashtyn. It was described as “a goblin of the shape and appearance of a small horse or yearling foal in his rough, unkempt coat.”
The Water Horse was said to “beguile lonely travelers with his numberless tricks, one of which is to lure them to a stream, swamp, or water-hole. When he has succeeded he vanishes with a long outburst of mockery, half neigh, half human laughter.”
A fearsome water creature called the Näkki is said to live in some of the rivers, springs and wells of Finland and, like the Water Monster and River Mermaids of North America and the Water Horse of Scotland, attempts to coax people, especially children, to their deaths. Described as a creature that looks like a man, naked with long hair and beard, he also may shape-change into an animal. Frequenting the shoreline of various bodies of water, the Näkki allows children to climb on his back and then plunge into the depths of the water to drown them. An identical creature to the Water Horse of Scottish lore, called the nökk, lives in the waterfalls and rivers of Norway. It is described as being in the shape of a “white horse grazing by the side of a lake”. His sole purpose is to lure little boys onto its back so that he can jump into the lake, drowning them as his due.
Other Finnish water creatures are the Vedenhaltia who is considered a “squatter of lakes, rivers or springs” and is mostly harmless unless you mock it. This creature also looks like a naked man with long dark hair. He is mostly seen sitting or standing in the water and, like the mermaid, either washing or combing its long hair.
Kelpies are another form of the Scottish water horse. The kelpie appears as a grey horse that is docile and easy to approach. By doing so, the kelpie attracts the most horse-shy individual, including children, to mount up and ride. Nevertheless, once that person is mounted upon the kelpie it takes off at high speed for the water where it drowns the rider and eats him or her, “leaving only the entrails on the shore.” The Kelpie did not only kill and eat humans however, but also animals and other fairies if they ventured too close. Kelpies may be what Beck calls “the most ancient and primitive type of the mermaid’s northern ancestors.”
A water monster, described as a “giant leech”, is said by the Cherokee to have lived in a deep hole in Valley River, in North Carolina. Mooney records the story:
“Just above the junction (of the river) is a deep hole…and above it is a ledge of rock running across the stream, over which people used to go on a bridge. …One day some men going along the trail saw a great red object, full as large as a house, lying on the rock ledge in the middle of the stream below them. As they stood wondering what it could be they saw it unroll—and then they knew it was alive—and stretch itself out along the rock until it looked like a great leech with red and white stripes along its body. …at last (it) crawled down the rock and was out of sight in the deep water. The water began to boil and foam, and a great column of white spray was thrown high in the air and came down like a waterspout upon the very spot where the men had been standing, and would have swept them all into the water but that they say saw it in time and ran from the place.” Legend says that many people lost their lives on this bridge and their bodies were later found with parts of their faces eaten off.
American Indian mythology is full of accounts of “enchanted lakes”, “water monsters” and “water gods”.
Ethnologist James Mooney wrote of water monsters in Cherokee lore on the Tuckasegee River in Jackson County and in Madison County on the French Broad River, 6 miles above Warm Springs, and on the Little Tennessee River between Graham and Swain counties, all in North Carolina. According to Mooney, a spot on the Tuckaseegee river called Akwĕ’tíyĭ was the home of “a dangerous water monster…the meaning of the name is lost.” At Dá kawá’â, on the French Broad River a “monster fish” lived and at Dâtsi’yĭ, just above Eagle creek on the Little Tennessee River a “traditional” water monster reportedly lived in a deep hole.
Among the Plains Indians, a “water dragon” was said to rise up from a lake to destroy his enemy’s children while the parents were away. A skilled hunter killed the dragon by throwing red-hot stones into its mouth. This mythic theme of a battle between water and fire is common from the Dakotas to British Columbia.
The Lakota believed that water spirits and water monsters were of the same nature—“Bad Gods”.
Water monsters especially are bad as they adversely impact the lives of the people. According to Short Feather, who wrote about such things in 1898, “water monsters make the floods. They spew them out of their mouths. They make springs. They inhabit swampy places. …When they take people or animals down to their places, they eat them. Or they may keep them. They took a girl down in the Missouri River and kept her for a long time. Her father threw a white dog in the river and the monster took the dog and gave up the girl.”
Here we see an offering being made to the water monster in exchange for the girl. The fact that the accepted offer was a dog is important in that dogs have been linked to the Otherworld throughout time and among most cultures. Dogs were a common sacrificial item in many wells throughout Great Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean up to the first few centuries of the Christian era.
Other beings today regarded as “water monsters” were a century or two ago regarded in a more respectful light. In a monumental report commissioned by President James Buchanan, written in 1857 by early ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the Dakotah Indians reportedly worshipped water Gods named Onkteri. Schoolcraft wrote “the significance of the name of this class (Onkteri) of Dakotah gods in uknown. In their external manifestation, they resemble the ox, but are very large. They can instantaneously extend their tail and horns so as to reach the skies, and these are the seat of their power. They are male and female, and propagate their kind like animals, and are mortal…It is believed that the earth is animated by the spirit of the Onkteri goddess, while the water, and the earth beneath the water, is the dwelling-place of the male god. Hence the Dakotahs, in their addresses to the water, in religious acts, give to it the name of Grandfather, and that of the Grandmother to the earth.”
Contemporary Indian lore equates these beings to “water spirits” and not high Gods and they are characteristically bad. Schoolcraft’s description of the Onkteri would appear, in fact to be that of the water monster rather than a God or Goddess. Schoolcraft related an incident of a flood being caused by such a spirit, which lived under St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi river. Evidently, when the Spirit swam through the waters it caused the swell to rush “down with a tremendous force which swept all before it; and a cabin which stood on the low bank of the river, near the fort, was carried away, with a soldier in it, who was never afterwards heard of….the soldier was taken by him for food, as he feeds upon human souls. The following chant, which is much used in the medicine-dance, shows the character of this class of the gods, in this respect:
“I lie mysteriously across the lake,
Decoying some souls.
Let me eat him alive.”
Water-monsters may be, according to J.A. MacCulloch, remnants of tales of human sacrifice. “Here there is the trace of an abandoned custom of sacrifice”, wrote MacCulloch, “and of the traditional idea of the anger of the divinity at being neglected.” He goes on to say “human sacrifice to water-divinities is suggested by the belief that water-monsters devour human beings, and by the tradition that a river claims its toll of victims every year.”
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