Friday, November 18, 2011

Water Spirits as Fairies

Wells, Springs, Pools,
and Fountains

In the search for habitable planets, humans will, more than anything else, look for planets which could have running water. Water is that which provides life. No matter how far back in human history we go, this was understood. Clean water not only allows a person to drink, it gives them something to clean with so as to prevent diseases. That same water helps crops to grow, providing food and a livelihood to the people around it. Few things held greater reverence for the Celtic people than pools of water. Indeed, water spirits were perhaps the most common of all nature’s spirits. (Briggs, 1967) The nature of fairies of the many wells and springs were so important to the people in ancient times that long after they stopped worshipping the other fairies, and deities had faded in importance to little more than murderous fairies, the Catholic Church was unable to stop the worship of water and so was forced to dedicate the sacred fountains to Saints in order to make the worship of water legitimate. (Maccullock, 1911)

Christians were not the first ones to rededicate wells and water to a new religion, however. Many of the river gods and goddesses within the Celtic lands “seemed to possess pre-Celtic names.” In other words, the importance of these gods was so great that the Celts continued to worship them even after they had overcome the original worshipers, a worship which continued even after they were Christianized. (MacCulloch, 1911) It was the spirits of the wells that were the people’s guardians and comfort. In one story, a group of horned witches kept invading a woman's home tormenting her and eventually forcing her to flee. After fleeing from her home, the woman collapses in tears beside a well and it is here that a voice speaks to her telling her what she must do to be free of the witches.  (Joseph Jacobs, 1892)

Well spirits and water spirits often have no personification but are beings represented only as a simple voice which provides advice to humans in need. In “Brother and Sister,” a witch curses the streams of the forest so that anyone drinking from them will change into an animal in order to curse her two stepchildren. The spring, however, warns the two children of the danger so that they can avoid drinking from the stream of water at first. (Grimm and Grimm, 1812) The voice in this story comes from the water itself. So, as before, the water of the ancient European world appears to be alive, not just in the form of a human but in and of itself. What we see in this story is that just because this living water can be cursed and poisoned by a powerful witch, this does not mean that the water is a willing participant in the problem. Thus Water, like any fairy, appears to have a limited amount of control over what happens to it. So while it can heal others and purify itself to an extent, there are some things it cannot overcome. In the aforementioned story, one of these things was a powerful, human witch.

Even so, Water is a powerful human ally against the other beings that might do them harm. There are many stories in which a person only has to cross water to be safe from a magical being pursuing them. (Wentz, 1911) In one of the most famous American folktales, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” a headless huntsman can be thwarted in his attempts to take a human’s head if the human simply crosses over a bridge which crosses over water. The simple act of crossing water is significant because the water, as we have seen, is alive and is at least at times a protector of humanity. So, just as household fairies won’t allow uninvited evil into a home, the water will protect humans from spiritual dangers.

Water does not, however, always appear to care who it is helping so long as it is helping people who are alive as this helpfulness extends to those who don’t deserve it. Criminals are able to cross water for safety just as easily or perhaps more easily than innocent children can, as the latter are more likely to be subject to drowning by the fairies within the water. What’s more, the advice of water fairies is given even to those who not only don’t necessarily deserve it but who would do evil with it. In the “Story of Gold Tree and Silver Tree,” a Scottish variation of the “Snow White” stories, a trout in a stream takes the place of the mirror in advising the evil stepmother, telling her not only that Gold Tree is more beautiful but also letting the stepmother know that her stepdaughter survived the Queen’s attempted murder as well as where she is located. This information allows the evil stepmother to try to kill her innocent stepdaughter again.  (Joseph Jacobs, 1896)
In this story, the trout is the personification of the pool of water as fish are often representative of the fairies within wells and other bodies of water.
“Even now in Brittany the fairy dweller in a spring has the form of an eel, while in the 17th century Highland wells contained fish so sacred that no one dared to catch them.” (MacCulloch, 1911)

“Odin also gained his great wisdom from a fountain known as ‘Mimir’s’ (Memor, memory) ‘Spring, the fountain of all wit and wisdom’ in whose liquid depths even the future was clearly mirrored and besought the old man who guarded it to let him have a draught. But Mimir, who well knew the value of such a favor (for his spring was considered the source or headwater of memory), refused the boon unless Odin would consent to give one of his eyes in exchange.”
(Guerber, 1909)
Even though the Mimir demanded something in return for his gift, he still seems only to care about what he can get out of his wisdom. Thus, water spirits’ goals would seem to be far more enigmatic than those of beings that were once human or are somehow connected to the mortal world. Yet it is obvious that they care about humanity in some form; otherwise why would they provide aid to those in need? One possible reason that the water seeks to aid humans could be that the water seeks respect above all else.

In one Russian tale, two rivers, the Volga and Vazuza, get into a dispute over which of them is wiser and stronger in order to gain the respect of the other. Eventually, they agree to race to prove which is better. This race takes the form of a race to the sea in the springtime so at least in this case their bodies are the rivers themselves. Russian rivers are well-known in myths to demand respect of humans; drowning anyone who doesn’t provide this respect while providing easy crossing for those who do. So it is apparent that these rivers greatly desire to be respected. The desire for respect, for sacrifices to it can make water a cruel being at times.

“The malevolent aspect of the spirit of the well is seen in the "cursing wells" of which it was thought that when some article inscribed with an enemy's name was thrown into them with the accompaniment of a curse, the spirit of the well would cause his death. In some cases the curse was inscribed on a leaden tablet thrown into the waters just as, in other cases, a prayer for the offerer's benefit was engraved on it. Or, again, objects over which a charm had been said were placed in a well that the victim who drew water might be injured. An excellent instance of a cursing well is that of Fynnon Elian in Denbigh, which must once have had a guardian priestess, for in 1815 an old woman who had charge of it presided at the ceremony. She wrote the name of the victim in a book receiving a gift at the same time. A pin was dropped into the well in the name of the victim, and through it and through knowledge of his name, the spirit of the well acted upon him to his hurt. Obviously, rites like these in which magic and religion mingle are not purely Celtic, but it is of interest to note their existence in Celtic lands and among Celtic folk.” –(MacCulloch, 1911)

Rivers themselves are enigmatic creatures; they provide water for humans to clean themselves, to drink from, to aid in the growing of crops, and to travel along. Yet at the same time they are a destructive force which floods the land; destroying the same crops they allow to grow, the cities they allow to exist and which drown the children they keep alive. It is not simply a matter of capricious opportunity, however, as again rivers will travel far out of their way in floods to do these things. In another Russian fairy tale, the spirit of the stream takes the form of a King-Bear who seizes Tsar-Medved’s beard as he’s drinking and won’t let go until he manages to trick the king into giving up two babies (a girl and a boy). The King-Bear in this case is a multi-elemental spirit as it later burns a falcon’s tale, finds the children in a secret underground lair, and carries them off to the mountains.

Water often seeks victims. Peg the Prowler drowns a person once every seven years (Briggs, 1967). In Celtic mythology, fairies appear as horses which then try to lure people to riding them so that they can drown these humans or even drive them into the water. Because rivers had such seemingly random emotions, humans would provide offerings to them in order to appease them. This is where the idea of wishing wells comes from. However, providing gifts to the water is not as simple as tossing a coin into a well. Great care must be given to insure that the water fairy is respected because, as with all fairies, they become helpful or dangerous based on how they are approached.

In the story of Mother Holle (Lang, 1890) a girl’s wicked stepmother forces her stepdaughter to do all the work as per the usual tale. As she is spinning outside the cottage, she drops her spindle into the well. Fearing her stepmother more than the depths of the well, the girl dives into it. Instead of splashing into deep water, she finds herself in another world with a woman who keeps her as a maid for weeks. Because she is so respectful, Holle comes to be very impressed with the girl and gives her gold as a reward. At this point, the stepmother is jealous of the girl’s sudden wealth and sends her own daughter out. Because the daughter is idle and disrespectful, Holle punishes her. This is more than just a statement that one should be hard-working, such stories are religious tales warning one to be respectful of the fairies.

One could argue that the girl in this tale was lucky because while she was respectful of the fairy once she met it, she was not careful in her approach. Humans who interrupt fairies during private moments will often pay with their lives. For protection and blessing from the wells, humans of the past would offer gold and models of limbs and other parts of the body that had been healed or which they desired the well to heal for them.

“Leaden tablets with inscriptions were placed in springs by those who desired healing or when the waters were low, and on some the actual waters are hardly discriminated from the divinities. The latter are asked to heal or flow or swell—words which apply more to the waters than to them, while the tablets with their frank animism also show that, in some cases, there were many elemental spirits of a well only some of whom were rising to the rank of a goddess. They are called collectively Niskas—the Nixies of later tradition, but some have personal names—Lerano, Dibona, Dea—showing that they were tending to become separate, divine personalities. The Peisgi are also appealed to perhaps the later Piskies.” (Religion of the Ancient Celts)

Clothes and cloth are another common offering provided to water fairies. In one story “treasures were flung into a sacred lake near Toulouse to cause a pestilence to cease. But a boy later fished up this treasure and, as a consequence, fell soon after in battle--a punishment for cupidity.”

It would seem than that water fairies’ goals go beyond those of simple respect as driving people into the water does not provide them with such. Though perhaps one could argue that fear is a replacement emotion for respect, or that water spirits are angered by the lack of respect they are currently being shown. If this is the case, however, why don’t they torture us with massive floods or make it impossible for the disrespectful to swim in them? The answer may be found in the fact that humans at one time would offer up one of their own to certain waters. While it’s important to remember that not all water fairies would seek the death of humans, some of them often do. But not just any death would do. It had to be a death by their hands.
What exactly were fairies after in such cases, however? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps they sought lovers, servants, companions. Or perhaps they sought to drain the human’s vitality for themselves. It’s even possible that, like a vampire, the water of the fairy must feed on the life of a human every so often. Speculation on such things is difficult at best so perhaps it is best to look a little further east to gain a better understanding of water fairies. In Russian mythology we see snakes that closely resemble Indian Nagas. (Ralston, 1872) Indian Nagas still exist within writing and the belief of not only India but also Chinese folk religions and Shintoism in Japan. So while the Naga myths did not duplicate themselves perfectly as they spread across the world, these stories did have a clear influence on those of Europe.

So it is with water fairies more than perhaps any other form of fairy that we see a clear connection between them and the beings of Asia which had multiple natures, multiple souls which means that the fairies may be difficult to understand because they are more than one thing at a time.