Merrows, Selkies, and Kelpies: Irish and Scottish Underwater Creatures Like the Mermaid
The Widespread Legend of the Mermaid
For the last thirty years modern society has been captivated with the image of a gorgeous woman who is half-fish, otherwise better-known as a mermaid. Walt Disney produced a movie in the '80s which retold the fairy tale once written by Hans Christian Anderson. Since then, numerous other mermaid movies, television shows, and books have popped up on the market to entertain and delight the masses. But where did the idea of the mermaid originate? Did Hans Christian Anderson create this image?
Mermaids have been a part of mythology for centuries—more like thousands of years. In fact, if one digs deep enough, one may find a story of a mermaid in almost every culture and ancient society around the world...though they might call the mermaid something different depending on the region and people. In this article, we will take a look at the inspiring and thrilling legends of the mermaid as she existed in Scottish and Irish legend.
The Merrow: The Gaelic Mermaid and Merman
In Ireland and parts of Scotland there are many tales of the "wee folk" or fairies, and not surprisingly the Gaelic people have their version of the mermaid/merman called the merrow. Sailors and people who lived by the seashore had a whole gamut of merrow lore, and many still tell the enchanting tales today. In writer W.B. Yeats' collection of Irish folk tales, there is an entire section dedicated to the stories of the merrow. Quite often in legend the merrow is said to have a green-ish tint to its skin with webbed fingers, the tail of a fish, and seaweed green hair.
One particularly frightening and prevalent legend of the merrow tells the tale of male merrows who capture the drowned souls of sailors and put them into pots. These pots stay at the bottom of the sea, never to release the poor sailors' souls...unless a willing human being were to release them. The male merrows were said to be downright malevolent and awfully ugly. Perhaps this is why we have stories of female merrows seducing human men. The females would seduce sailors and other young men by singing to them (similar to the Greek sirens), and then drag them under the waves to the bottom of the sea. No one knows what happened to these men, though some believed they stayed alive in a state of enchantment. Others believed they were drowned and killed.
One particularly interesting aspect of these Gaelic legends is that the merrows were only able to swim underwater with the aid of magic—a magical red "cap" to be exact. If a person was to steal this cap and not return it to the merrow, the merrow would then be unable to return to his/her home under water. In one legend, an Irish man is granted use of the red cap so that he can visit a male merrow's home under the sea.
Probably my favorite story of a real mermaid encounter is the story of an Irish man who found two dying merrows on the side of a rock. Apparently they had been washed up to shore from a bad storm. One was badly hurt while the other was lying there dead. The man wanted to help the hurt merrow and took the merrow home to nurse back to health. He kept the boy merrow in a tub of water and fed it shellfish and milk, because the boy merrow would not drink or eat anything else that was offered to him. This occurred in the 1800s, I believe, and it was said to have been a big story in the local paper.
Selkies: The Seal Women of Shetland
A lesser known legend of a supernatural sea creature is that of the selkie. The selkie is a seal-person, or a being that is able to change forms between that of a seal and a human being depending on if he/she is on land or in the sea. This legend comes from Orkney and Shetland but can be heard in tales across Ireland and Scotland, as well as in Iceland. According to legend, selkies are shapeshifters, shedding their seal-skins when they come onto land.
There are numerous stories about selkie women who are captured by sailors and taken onto land with them to be made into their loyal wives. The men were said to have hidden the selkie's seal-skin in order to keep her bound to the land. Unfortunately for these men, most of the time the selkie woman has an insatiable longing for the ocean..and if she finds her hidden seal-skin? Well, she puts it on and runs back to her home under the waves, never to be seen again.
The seal-men or selkie males are said to be very attractive (as opposed to male merrows who were supposedly rather ugly), and legend has it that if a woman wants to have a selkie-lover she need only cry seven tears into the water and he will appear to her. Usually these love stories are tragic and end in more tears for the human lovers. In some cases, selkies are malevolent and will seduce humans to the water and drag them under...while other stories tell of selkies saving drowning sailors.
There are theories of origin for selkies. One of them says that the selkies were merely women from Northern cultures that wore skins and used animal-skins on their kayaks. They came from the sea, and so therefore the legend of the seal-woman was born. Or perhaps the legend comes from old sailor stories where indeed they had sightings of seals and imagined these seals to be beautiful women instead.
Today selkies have been used as characters and plotlines in movies, television shows, and books of all kinds.
Underwater Creatures by Country:
Loch Ness Monster
Washer at the Fords
Kelpies: The Scottish Water Horse
Water spirits in the form of a horse can be found in folklore in many different places. The water horse spirit that is most well-known in Scotland is called the Kelpie. This legend is so popular in fact, that there is a large Kelpie statue in Falkirk that can be visited today (see the picture to the right). The Scottish Kelpie is said to be a spirit that inhabits bodies of water known as lochs in Scotland. The debate persists today on whether the Kelpie is a benevolent or malevolent creature, as both sides of the debate are present within Scottish folklore.
Some believe the Kelpie was an evil creature that would eat human beings, and so this was used as a way to deter small children from going too near the water. Another legend says that the kelpie would shift shapes into the likeness of a good-looking young man and seduce young women...eventually dragging them under the water to their deaths. There are also tales of kelpies being made to stay in their human form and therefore wed their human counterparts...usually a silver bridle has been removed from the kelpie's neck and hidden in order to keep them in human form (Interestingly, the silver bridle of the kelpie is similar to that of the merrow's red cap or the selkie's seal-skin).
Other stories say that kelpies were harmless to humans and simply might cause a bit of mischief with local waterways and wells. Typically the Kelpie was depicted in literature and artwork as being a large black horse that could shift into human form, while other water horse spirits in other countries were depicted as pale white and sometimes pale green with seaweed in their manes and tails.
Other Mysterious Underwater Creatures
The water was a place of mystery for our ancestors all over the world, and therefore was subject to having many stories and legends conjured up about paranormal creatures and such. In addition to the ubiquitous legends of the merrows and selkies, there are other sea creatures from Gaelic folklore including (but not limited to):
Loch Ness Monster
This is one that we've all heard of and tells the story of a large dinosaur-type creature that inhabits Loch Ness in Scotland. Sightings date back decades and still occur in modern times.The Loch Ness Monster's name is Nessie.
Morgens are water spirits in Irish lore that are notorious for drowning unsuspecting men. They are the Irish equivalent to the Greek siren and show up in the form of a beautiful woman combing their long hair. Their songs are seductive and lure the men to their deaths.
Finfolk are pretty much the same type of being as the merpeople, but they are almost always known to be malevolent. They do not eat human beings, but they capture human beings and force them into marriage and slavery. They are said to live in a huge palace under the water and visit Orkney Island looking for human spouses.
Simply put, the Sprite is a water spirit known throughout the world that probably originated in England. They are smaller spirits and tend to frolick and play in ponds and streams and can be quite mischievous.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list, as water spirits and creatures are known throughout the world in a whole myriad of forms. However, Scotland, Ireland, and England tend to have some of the most intriguing legends of these beings dating back centuries.
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© 2014 Nicole Canfield