Vaettir Series: The nøkk/nykk/näck and bäckahäst

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The nøkk/nykk/näck  is found predominantly in Norway and Sweden. They can take on many forms, but often appear as handsome men and try to lure humans close enough that they can drown them. Besides appearing at times as an appealing young man, the nøkk could lure individuals in by playing the fiddle. They can also be invisible, look like wood floating in the water, old bearded men, a cute boy with red or blond hair, a face peering out of the water, or a large greyish-white horse. Those that appear as horses to try to trick children into riding them are called bäckahäst (brook horse) in southern Sweden. They are occasionally captured and used as draft animals for farm labor, but escape back to the water as soon as they are able. Nøkken are so fond of waterfalls that they are also sometimes called fossegrim (“waterfall spook”).

Nøkken are renowned for being incredibly skilled musicians, particularly with the fiddle and other stringed instruments, and this can either be a danger or a boon. Besides luring people to their deaths, individuals could befriend the vaettr and he would teach them how to play. The skill wasn’t without danger – one tale from Skåne tells that a musician who learned to fiddle from a näck lost his mind and could not stop playing, and those who were dancing to the music could not stop dancing. They were only freed when someone resisted and cut the violin strings with a knife. (This can also happen if you let the nøkk tune your fiddle for you.)

Suggested offerings for befriending this vaettr have been coins, black animals, three drops of blood from one’s ring finger, brandy, and snuff or tobacco, put into a lake or thrown into a waterfall on a Thursday evening.

The nøkk has a peculiar cry called the varskrik, which is similar to the call of the storlom (Gavia Arctica, the black-throated loon) or other eerie birdcalls. It’s sometimes suggested that the nøkk may not directly drown some victims, but that the sight and sound of him may fortell water-related deaths and severe weather. The nøkk is also associated with water lilies, which are nicknamed nøkkeblomst, nykkjeblom, or nøkkeroser.

Nøkken are said to claim at least one human life per year. To avoid being drowned, it’s recommended to offer a small gift of food and drink to appease them. Nøkken are also repelled by spitting, or by throwing steel in the water, even something as small as a needle. An incantation from Norway that is recited while throwing steel in the water is thus: “Nyk! Nyk! Nål i vann. Jomfru Maria kastet stål i vann! Du synker, jeg flyter!” (Nyk, Nyk, nail in the water. Virgin Mary cast steel in the water! You sink, I float!) One can also bind a nøkk with a nøkkstein – you take a rock, throw it directly up in the air as high as you can, and let it fall vertically into the water, and it will pin the nøkk to the bottom where he cannot reach you. Similar to other vaettir, insult or calling out their name is another was to drive them off. An insult rhyme from Sweden goes as follows: “Näck, näck, nålatjuv, far din var en stålatjuv, mor din var en frilla, gick i gårdarna och gjorde illa! Näcken är bunden!” (Näck, näck, needlethief, your father was a stablethief, your mother was a whore, did wicked things and more! Näck, you are bound!)

Extra creepiness: due to the way drowning victims often get a reddened face or nose, Norwegian folklore suggests that the victim got “sucked on” by the nøkk. 

The Icelandic nykur is similar to the bäckahäst. The Finnish näkki is very similar to the nøkk. German Nixen are more like river mermaids (I will cover similar German vaettir in a separate post.) Similar spirits are the English nicor/knucker (which is more like a water wyrm), the Scottish/Irish kelpie, and the terrifying Jenny Greenteeth of English folklore.

Works Referenced

  • Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols. Translated by James Stallybrass. London: Dover, 1966.
  • Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Elves, Wights, and Trolls. New York: iUniverse, 2007.
  • Hodne, Ørnulf. Norsk folketro. Oslo: Cappelen, 1999.
  • Kvideland, Reimund and Sehmsdorf, Henning K. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
  • Nordisk Familjebok (Stockholm, 1914, entry for näck)
  • Ordbog over det danske sprog 1700-1950 (entry for nøkke)
  • Simpson, Jacqueline. Scandinavian Folktales. London: Penguin, 1988.

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