Stay Away From the Water (The Good Folk, Part 2)

Hello, this is LukeLore! A companion piece to The Ghost Story Guys podcast, where I share some of the folklore surrounding the stories the main episodes tell. Today I'll be taking another look at fairy folklore as a companion piece to episode <<26: In the Land of the Faerie, the Digression is King>>, as well as now Lukelore episode 4: The Good Folk. Sorry about the random break everyone. I got a double whammy flu-like virus and infected abscess on my shoulder. It’s… Been a process. A process lacking in sleep with many horrible details I shall spare you. I’m much better now though! So what we’re doing is making an extra big Lukelore, plus a bonus Halloween episode. For this episode though, we’re looking at a particular kind of fairy. We’re going down to the water for a bad time and looking at stories of the otherworldy creatures that can be found there if you’re unlucky. I’ll start this one off with the kelpie. They also have a Scottish name ACK ISH-KEI which simply means water horse, and they have equivalents across Ireland and Wales. They can appear as humans on land, they can be tricksters, buuuut they can also be downright terrifying nightmare fuel. I’m not sure if this is all kelpies, but it’s sure as heck some of them, they can seal a person in place if they touch one. Climb on to one? Or just place your hand on one? And then you become stuck to the kelpie unless it chooses to let you go.

And there are plenty of stories where they choose not to do this, and instead haul off screaming children into the bottom of their associated lake, loch, or swamp where the kelpie can breathe and the children can not.

Yeah…

Kelpie stories can get pretty dark.

There’s a traditional story of ten children playing near water when a horse trots over to them and stands still so they can climb up on its back. The children are delighted as they all climb on, the horse growing longer and longer so that there’s always space for another child to climb. Soon nine children are laughing on the back of the magic horse encouraging the tenth child to jump up with them and play!

But the tenth child is suspicious of the sudden appearance of a magic horse, as you bloody should be, and just reach out to stroke the horse with a finger tip. Where the tip of their finger touches the horse, it becomes stuck fast.

All ten children trapped, the kelpie heads out into the water and, as soon as it is deep enough, starts to head UNDER the water with its meal. The tenth child manages to either cut their finger off with a knife or else tear it off depending on which version of the story you hear, leaving the nine children who climbed on its back screaming in terror trapped as they’re dragged off to their doom.

Yep… Kelpies!

There are other stories of kelpies though! They’re not always hungry for the flesh of children. Sometimes they’re dangerously horny and pursue human women. I shan’t be sharing one of them.

Bonus nightmare fuel, there are stories of kelpies that can hide in the form of a suspiciously abandoned boat. The shapeshifting git can stick the curious to it just as securely in this form, and then it’s Bad times at the bottom of the lake for you as your sweet new boat you found gives a triumphant shriek and turns into a hungry water horse.

For everyone thinking the British Isles is clearly unto fairies as Australia is to nature, and just avoiding the place will keep you safe, I have some bad news for you. The United States has Kelpie stories too. So just assume any suspicious horse in a swamp is not a horse you should play with. Report it to professionals to help, who will either be better suited to help a stray horse anyway or else get killed by the kelpie instead of you. Win-win really.

For you, not the poor sod who went to help a horse and got eaten by a kelpie instead. But better them than you. Next is one of the stories I would have cut from a normal sized Lukelore, but we’re making up for lost time here. A nice and nasty fairy bogeyman from my home county of Lancashire: Jenny Greenteeth.

Also known as Wicked Jenny she’s one of a variety of river hags who vary from region to region. Most likely a shared parable to keep kids away from dangerous water full of entangling weeds, although I saw one source suggesting that figures such as Peg o’ Nell or the Grindylow may have their roots in very old memories of sacrificial practices. Jenny or Ginny Greenteeth was my local version though.

She’s a rather simple bogeyman, either a fairy creature or for some stories the ghost of a witch. Children playing in still waters thinking they are safe will be sneaked up upon, her fingers will wrap around their legs like the tickling of the duckweed that can sometimes be called Jenny Greenteeth weeds and before they know it she’s got an unbreakable hold on their legs and is yanking the unsuspecting child down to their doom.

It’s very likely that the duckweed connection is literal: She’s a bogeyman used to keep kids away from water with the entangling weed. Well… You would hope so, anyway. The idea that a river hag is waiting among the weeds to grab you if you get too cloase is not a pleasant one. What’s easily the best known water fairy, and therefore the hardest to take seriously at this point, has got to be mermaids. Even outside of Disney’s The Little Mermaid they’re pretty ubiquitous. I doubt anyone over the age of two needs them explaining. They’re a pretty whimsical figure in pop culture these days, they only really need to chill out looking fabulous to get by and it’s a niche they share pretty comfortably with unicorns.

While mermaids never seem to be the worst of otherworldly creatures there’s obviously more of an edge to the older stories. Hans Christian Anderson’s original story is one heck of a downer that doesn’t go well for poor Ariel. It’s got heavy undertones of not making deals with the devil for its moral centre. Every step she took onland was like stepping on knives, the sea witch wins by using the mermaid’s stolen voice to get with the prince, and the Little Mermaid stumbles to her doom destroyed by the sea she no longer could return to. She did win an afterlife for being pure though, she got to become an air spirit who watches over people after the original tale had established mermaids have no soul so only get oblivion should they die. Truly a heart warming fairy tale for the ages.

It did at least work as a whole story though. Most mermaid folklore just sees them as vapid beauties that men chase, sometimes to their doom and sometimes to the capture of the mermaid. If you could steal a personal possession of theirs, like a comb, you could force the mermaid to come live with you in human form and she was bound to be with you until she found her possession, at which point she could flee back to the sea. I don’t really see what moral they were shooting for there, except maybe mermaids should avoid human men just in case they’re a weirdo. There is a slight counterculture interpretation of mermaids I’ve seen popping up on social media lately that focus on mermaids being predators of men, which I’ve been enjoying immensely. Some of the art and comics people have been coming up about man eating mermaids has been brilliant, there are even a few recent B movies popping up about this. Another less terrifying fae creature, but probably still something you should leave well alone, are Selkies. Selkies are similar to mermaids in behaviour, but they’re more a kind of shapeshifter. They can pass for human, or they can put on their seal skin and you wouldn’t know them from a regular version of the animal. Similar to stealing a mermaid’s possession in some stories men would steal the seal skin of a selkie woman to force her to be their wife, since selkies are known to make great wives, but there are also less creepy stories of selkies who chose a man. The husband would then be none the wiser unless he caught his wife sneaking out for a swim. While it seems possible to capture a selkie, and there are otherwise pleasant but bittersweet stories of love between selkies and humans that end tragically, don’t forget they’re still fae. They’re no pushovers and should be left well alone.

There’s a story of one selkie on the Danish Faroe Islands called Kopakonan. They even have a statue of her celebrating this story there. It follows a basic selkie story up to a point, she was kept as a wife until she found her skin and escaped. But it takes a darker turn from there… The islanders were organising a seal hunt and Kopakonan came to her former human husband in a dream, pointing out a bull seal and two pups which were her selkie husband and children begging him to spare them. Ignoring her, he killed any seal he came across resulting in their death. That night Kopakonan appeared at the village to curse all the menfolk to die either from drowning or from falling off the cliffs until such a time as there would be enough dead to join hands forming a ring around the island. I kind of want to go see the statue of her now. There really is a worrying amount of folklore centred on people trying to coerce a fairy creature into being a wife, and I’m starting to feel the humans are the villains of those stories, which then makes me worry whose stories these are… Talking mermaids and selkies, there’s a little bit of overlap with a couple of other things I have some small insights to share. Veering into Brothers Grimm mainland Germanic fairy tale, with the parallel of trying to grab a wife via magical means, we’ve got the Swan Princess fairy tales. I only bring this one up because of a bloody brilliant take on this. A fascinating absurdist twist I found online a while back, I think it was one of the Tumblr fandom discussions that get screencapped and shared around. Everyone assumes a swan princess will be a dainty meek one, easily captured and held as an unwilling bride. I want you to think about swans for a moment.

Honking great doom beasts that can ragemurder other animals if they get annoyed and quite easily snap a grown man’s arm with a crack of one of their overdeveloped wings.

Does any of that SOUND meek and frail? Any swan that polymorphed into a princess would turn an Amazon warrior’s head, standing at least 6 foot tall and that wide again in pure muscle. You aren’t stealing a swan princess. You’re hoping she goes easy on you, this would be a princess who can bend metal and wouldn’t need shapeshifting brothers to deal with you despite what some fairytales may suggest. Heading down to the warmer bits of Europe, since we’ve already mentioned mermaids we can wrap around to the tale of the sirens. Most pop folklore is happy to depict them as a sort of singing mermaid who can entrance people with their voices. But a stand out tidbit of speculation I saw recently may mean that they aren’t luring men to their doom via libido (as easy as that usually is, and despite how that lines up with poor mermaids and selkies being hunted for wives). The translation may instead mean something else entirely. Instead of attractive fish women laying down a honey trap, there’s a good chance what the sirens tempted people with in the original versions of the tales is KNOWLEDGE. The siren call was irresistible information, secrets of the world that would cause people to dash themselves to death upon the rocks desperate for more. I think that’s pretty compelling over the idea that temptingly hawt half women can sing you to your dumbass doom, so while we’re doing a jumbo sized Lukelore that included mermaids I thought I would fit this in while I could as I don’t tend to dabble in Greek mythology. Incidentally, my favourite ever potential mistranslation in folklore is the slipper in Cinderella. There’s a very good chance that the original slipper wasn’t glass, and was instead squirrel skin. Squirrel slipper doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as glass, though, so I don’t see that alternative making much of a come back. While we’re in the Mediterranean, we’ve got another water horse to take note of. The hippocampus! Not the bit in your brain named after them, the literal horsefish that’s wild and likely to kick your head in, but that’s just standard operating procedure for a wild horse. Whereas a Kelpie is a dangerous childhungry fae monster, this is more a funky cryptid. I thought I would include them as water based fairy horse disambigioation. Are you in a marsh with your strange new friend being smothered by an aura of malice? No touchy evil water horsy. Are you in warm ocean? Feel free to yell out that Poseiden has a cool horse, and then don’t touch it anyway because it’s strong and your head is made out of crushable skull. Just leave fairy stuff alone, is the good rule of thumb here. That’s all for Luke Lore this time.