Tuesday 28 May 2019

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Legendary Beings: Spectacular Water Spirits

Legendary Beings: Spectacular Water Spirits

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Legendary Beings is a series in which I'll talk about beings from folklore, mythology and legends that I haven't read about yet, and the books I discover that feature them.

This time, I'm looking at specific stories of water spirits/nymphs or similar. Regular readers will know I'm a huge fan of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, and all of the following creatures/characters I discovered through reading Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid: From Fairy-tale to National Monument by Christopher Bo Bramsen, which I bought when in Copenhagen, Denmark last year. They are all so fascinating, and I loved reading the little we're told about them in the book, but would absolutely love to read retellings of these these legends/folktales/stories.


"Melusine [...] or Melusina is a figure of European folklore and mythology (mostly Celtic), a female spirit of fresh water in a sacred spring or river. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a serpent or fish from the waist down (much like a mermaid). She is also sometimes illustrated with wings, two tails, or both. [...]

The most famous literary version of Melusine tales, that of Jean d'Arras, compiled about 1382–1394, was worked into a collection of "spinning yarns" as told by ladies at their spinning coudrette (coulrette (in French)). He wrote
The Romans of Partenay or of Lusignen: Otherwise known as the Tale of Melusine, giving source and historical notes, dates and background of the story. He goes into detail and depth about the relationship of Melusine and Raymondin, their initial meeting and the complete story. [...]

It tells how in the time of the Crusades, Elynas, the King of Albany (an old name for Scotland or Alba), went hunting one day and came across a beautiful lady in the forest. She was Pressyne, mother of Melusine. He persuaded her to marry him but she agreed, only on the promise—for there is often a hard and fatal condition attached to any pairing of fay and mortal—that he must not enter her chamber when she birthed or bathed her children. She gave birth to triplets. When he violated this taboo, Pressyne left the kingdom, together with her three daughters, and traveled to the lost Isle of Avalon.

The three girls—Melusine, Melior, and Palatyne—grew up in Avalon. On their fifteenth birthday, Melusine, the eldest, asked why they had been taken to Avalon. Upon hearing of their father's broken promise, Melusine sought revenge. She and her sisters captured Elynas and locked him, with his riches, in a mountain. Pressyne became enraged when she learned what the girls had done, and punished them for their disrespect to their father. Melusine was condemned to take the form of a serpent from the waist down every Saturday. In other stories, she takes on the form of a mermaid.

Raymond of Poitou came across Melusine in a forest of Coulombiers in Poitou in France, and proposed marriage. Just as her mother had done, she laid a condition: that he must never enter her chamber on a Saturday. He broke the promise and saw her in the form of a part-woman, part-serpent, but she forgave him. When, during a disagreement, he called her a "serpent" in front of his court, she assumed the form of a dragon, provided him with two magic rings, and flew off, never to return."
From wikipedia.

The Melusine legend appears in Possession by A. S. Byatt, the only book I can find where their isn't just an odd reference.

Possession by A. S. ByattPossession by A. S. Byatt

"Literary critics make natural detectives," says Maud Bailey, heroine of a mystery where the clues lurk in university libraries, old letters, and dusty journals. Together with Roland Michell, a fellow academic and accidental sleuth, Maud discovers a love affair between the two Victorian writers the pair has dedicated their lives to studying: Randolph Ash, a literary great long assumed to be a devoted and faithful husband, and Christabel La Motte, a lesser-known "fairy poetess" and chaste spinster. At first, Roland and Maud's discovery threatens only to alter the direction of their research, but as they unearth the truth about the long-forgotten romance, their involvement becomes increasingly urgent and personal. Desperately concealing their purpose from competing researchers, they embark on a journey that pulls each of them from solitude and loneliness, challenges the most basic assumptions they hold about themselves, and uncovers their unique entitlement to the secret of Ash and La Motte's passion. From Goodreads.

Bookdepository | Wordery | Goodreads

I do think the story of Melusine would make a really interesting full length novel, if only someone would retell it.


"Lorelei is a feminine water spirit, similar to a siren or mermaid, said to send sailors to their death, by luring them near cliffs with her beautiful singing voice." From Wikipedia.

Lorelei comes from a legend surrounding a cliff of the same name on the bank of the river Rhine in Germany.

"The Lorelei [..] is a 132 m (433 ft) high, steep slate rock on the right bank of the River Rhine in the Rhine Gorge (or Middle Rhine) at Sankt Goarshausen in Germany. [...]

The name comes from the old German words lureln, Rhine dialect for "murmuring", and the Celtic term ley "rock". The translation of the name would therefore be: "murmur rock" or "murmuring rock". The heavy currents, and a small waterfall in the area (still visible in the early 19th century) created a murmuring sound, and this combined with the special echo the rock produces to act as a sort of amplifier, giving the rock its name. [...]

The rock and the murmur it creates have inspired various tales. [...] In 1801, German author Clemens Brentano composed his ballad
Zu Bacharach am Rheine as part of a fragmentary continuation of his novel Godwi oder Das steinerne Bild der Mutter. It first told the story of an enchanting female associated with the rock. In the poem, the beautiful Lore Lay, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Rather than sentence her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way thereto, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. She does so and thinking that she sees her love in the Rhine, falls to her death; the rock still retained an echo of her name afterwards. Brentano had taken inspiration from Ovid and the Echo myth.

In 1824, Heinrich Heine seized on and adapted Brentano's theme in one of his most famous poems,
"Die Lorelei". It describes the eponymous female as a sort of siren who, sitting on the cliff above the Rhine and combing her golden hair, unwittingly distracted shipmen with her beauty and song, causing them to crash on the rocks." From wikipedia.

Lorali by Laura DockrillLorali by Laura Dockrill

Colourful, raw, brave, rich and fantastical - this mermaid tale is not for the faint-hearted.

Looking after a naked girl he found washed up under Hastings pier isn't exactly how Rory had imagined spending his sixteenth birthday. But more surprising than finding her in the first place is discovering where she has come from.

Lorali is running not just from the sea, not just from her position as princess, but her entire destiny. Lorali has rejected life as a mermaid, and become human.

But along with Lorali's arrival, and the freak weather suddenly battering the coast, more strange visitors begin appearing in Rory's bemused Sussex town. With beautifully coiffed hair, sharp-collared shirts and a pirate ship shaped like a Tudor house, the Abelgare boys are a mystery all of their own. What are they really up to? Can Rory protect Lorali? And who from? And where does she really belong, anyway?
From Goodreads.

Bookdepository | Wordery | Goodreads

I don't know if this is a direct retelling (or more of a retelling of The Little Mermaid? It sounds quite similar), but this is the only thing close to a retelling I've found.


"Undine is a fairy-tale novella (Erzählung) by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul. [...] The story is descended from Melusine [...]. It was also inspired by works by the occultist Paracelsus." From Wikipedia.

This fairy tale is inspired by the mythological creatures, Undines.

"Undines [...] (or ondines) are a category of imaginary elemental beings associated with water, first named in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus. [...] Undines are almost invariably depicted as being female, and are usually found in forest pools and waterfalls. The group contains many species, including nereides, limnads, naiades and mermaids. Although resembling humans in form, they lack a human soul, so to achieve immortality they must acquire one by marrying a human. Such a union is not without risk for the man, because if he is unfaithful, then he is fated to die." From Wikipedia.

More on the story by Fouqué:

"[...] it tells of a water-sprite, Undine who can gain an immortal soul only through marriage to a mortal. Living under the care of a fisherman and his wife in a simple hut, she is discovered by the knight Huldbrand when he is on a quest in the forest to fulfil a mission for Berthalda, whom he has seen at a tournament and whose glove he light-heartedly requested as a favour. A fateful meeting with Kühleborn, the shape-changing guardian and uncle of Undine, sets events in motion; Huldbrand marries Undine, but when she reveals that Berthalda is in fact the daughter of the fisherman, tensions arise between the three, and Kühleborn emerges from the River Danube to snatch Undine to safety. Thinking that he has lost her for ever, Huldbrand prepares to marry Berthalda despite attempts to dissuade him, unaware of the terrible price of infidelity to his other-worldly bride. Sure enough, when Berthalda demands that the castle well be opened to wash away the freckles that reveal her plebeian background, Undine appears from the depths to give Huldbrand a last kiss which proves fatal to him. From the British Library.

Haunted Waters by Mary Pope OsborneHaunted Waters by Mary Pope Osborne

In this compelling tale of romance and terror, a little-known legend has been woven into a novel that will grip readers from beginning to end.

Who is Undine, the mysterious, wild maiden who swims at midnight to hear the fish sing? When Lord Huldbrand first meets her on a lost and haunted promontory, she seems utterly beautiful and pure. But gradually he begins to wonder just how much he really knows about his bride. He fears her murky past and her mystical powers. And worst of all, he fears that the faceless demon that stalks them through the woods and castle, cackling with laughter and howling with rage, could be coming to claim her. A love story with a horrifying mystery at its core, HAUNTED WATERS tests its young hero's commitment to a heroine who sparkles and changes like water.
From Goodreads.

Book Depository | Goodreads

Undine by Penni RussonUndine by Penni Russon

A gorgeously spooky book about magic, family, power and love.

Being sixteen is confusing and unpredictable enough for anyone. But if you're Undine, you also begin hearing voices calling you home in the middle of the night - and then you suddenly produce a storm out of thin air. Your best friend Trout insists on falling messily in love with you, while you end up with a crush on his older brother. Meanwhile, the ocean begins appearing in your inland bedroom, and your dead father turns out to be not so dead after all.
From Goodreads.


This is apparently a very loose contemporary retelling. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but I really think I'll have to try and get a second hand copy, because I am so intrigued!

Agnete and the Merman

"Agnete og Havmanden (Danish) or Agneta och havsmannen (Swedish) ('Agnete and the merman') is a ballad. [...] In the ballad, a merman woos Agnete to leave her children behind and come and live with him in the sea. She does so and has several children by him. But one day she hears the ringing of church bells and with the merman's permission returns to land to visit the church. In some versions, the images of saints in the church turn away from Agnete when she enters. She meets her mother, telling her about her new aquatic life. In most variants, she then abandons the merman and stays with her previous family. In some versions from all regions, however, she returns to the sea." From Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any retellings of Agnete and the Merman, which is a shame! I think it sounds like such an interesting story, like The Little Mermaid in reverse!

Honourable mention: Rusalki

This isn't about a specific character from myth or folklore, but a mythological creature, because they just sound so interesting! There is an opera called Rusalka, the story of which is very similar to Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, so I've not included that.

I just find them fascinating, and feel they could feature in a wonderful horror story of revenge.

"In Slavic folklore, the rusalka (plural rusalki) [..] is a female entity, often malicious toward mankind and frequently associated with water. [...]

In 19th century versions, a rusalka is an unquiet, dangerous being who is no longer alive, associated with the unclean spirit. According to Dmitry Zelenin, young women, who either committed suicide by drowning due to an unhappy marriage (they might have been jilted by their lovers or abused and harassed by their much older husbands) or who were violently drowned against their will (especially after becoming pregnant with unwanted children), must live out their designated time on Earth as rusalki. However, the initial Slavic lore suggests that not all rusalki occurrences were linked with death from water.

It is accounted by most stories that the soul of a young woman who had died in or near a river or a lake would come back to haunt that waterway. This undead rusalka is not invariably malevolent, and would be allowed to die in peace if her death is avenged. Her main purpose is, however, to lure young men, seduced by either her looks or her voice, into the depths of said waterways where she would entangle their feet with her long red hair and submerge them. Her body would instantly become very slippery and not allow the victim to cling on to her body in order to reach the surface. She would then wait until the victim had drowned, or, on some occasions, tickle them to death, as she laughed." From Wikipedia.

The Boat House by Stephen GallagherThe Boat House by Stephen Gallagher

A dark love story, and a disturbing tale of a divided soul. In the days leading to the fall of the Soviet empire, a young woman with a deadly secret slips unnoticed into the West. And when Alina Petrovna first appears in Three Oaks Bay it’s clear that her frail, luminous beauty is likely to cause some ripples in the surface calm of the peaceful resort town. For Pete McCarthy, the boatyard worker who gives her shelter, she’s an enigma. A complex, well-meaning young woman with a difficult past. Someone whose mystery deepens as the season gets under way, and the deaths by drowning begin... From Brooligan Press.

Bookdepository | Wordery | Goodreads

Rusalka by C.J. CherryhRusalka by C.J. Cherryh

She is the tormented ghost of a murdered girl, pitiless spirit of the wilderness, who prevails only upon living souls. And her name is the most dreaded in Russian folklore. Rusalka.

Impetuous Pyetr Kochevikov, a fugitive from Voyvoda with a price on his head, has none of the superstitions of his fearful young companion, Sasha, as they flee through the vastness of the forest.

But when they arrive exhausted at the cottage of the wizzard Uulamets, Pyetr is dismayed to learn that he can mock the spirits no longer. And when he finds himself enchanted by Uulamets' beautiful and wraithlike daughter, no mortal power can assuage the Rusalka's terrible thirst for life...
From Goodreads.


Another book that is sadly out of print, but it does sound really interesting, even if the cover leaves a lot to be desired.

You may also like:

Legendary Beings: Well-Known Witches

Over to you graphic

Have you heard of any of these water spirits before? Have you read any of these books? Or know of any other books featuring them? Or are there any other water spirits whose stories you're particularly interested in? Have you read any retellings of their stories? Please share with me any recommendations!

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