Thursday, 28 June 2012

Yorkshire Folklore: Grindylows and Others

Many folk tales spring from stories told to children to warn them of certain dangers. In the Grindylows' case, the story was told to keep them away from water to prevent them from drowning.

The tale goes that Grindylows were water spirits who would drag little children into the depths of ponds, marshes or other bodies of water. It seems that these creatures originate in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but like most monsters of folklore have their roots elsewhere and different versions that are spread throughout the country, such as Peg Powler of North-East England and Jenny Greenteeth of Lancashire. It's not just Britain that has its share of water spirits - the Kelpie (Scotland), Merrow (Ireland), Nixe (Germany) and Kul (Arctic) are just a handful of examples from across the globe.

Painting of a Grindylow


Grindylows and their English counterparts like Peg Powler and Jenny Greenteeth are likely to have descended from the Germanic superstitions of Nixes, recorded in the epic Nibelungenlied (around 1180) as alluring water creatures with a beautiful humanoid form who would lure men to their depths.

The name possibly stemmed from the Grendel in Beowulf, but the word grindle can be found on Anglo-Saxon charters as reference to mires, bogs and lakes. In fact, Grendel and his mother lived in a bottomless pond the poet called grundleas. Not only that, but the mother was mere-wif or 'mere wife', with mere meaning pool in this instance. You can see, then, where the word mermaid got its name.

The fearsome Grendel

There's a charming little poem about water spirits, or mermaids, by James Bird of Suffolk (1788-1839) that his mother used to call to him:

Make haste and do your errand. Go not nigh
The river's brink, for the mermaids lie.
Be home at five!
 While Eastern counties tended towards the beautiful maiden water-spirit model, the North turned their spirits into something much uglier and much easier to be frightened of. 

According to Augustus Hare in 1876, belief in such creatures persisted up until the latter half of the 19th century.