You’ve likely heard of sirens, mermaids and water-horses, but have you heard of Åmænd, Nøkker and Bækheste? The fear of drowning is a universal one. We see this demonstrated by the malevolent shapeshifting water spirit, a myth that crosses cultures and borders with the kind of ease only universal fear can achieve. Let’s look at the Danish fear, so we can compare and contrast it with some relatives, shall we?
“Å” means river and “mand” means man in Danish. The Danish water spirit literally translates to River Man. This isn’t much of a surprise. Danish is an abhorrently pragmatic language in that we more often than not choose to name things after their basic function. Towel is håndklæde (“hand cloth”). A straw is a sugerør (“sucking pipe”). A vacuum cleaner is a støvsuger (“dust sucker”). You catch my drift, I’m sure.
As the name suggests, the Åmand takes his shape as a moss-covered man. Occasionally, he may take his shape as a giant pike with a horse’s tail and mane. Sometimes he’ll don the shape of a bearded man in dark-colored clothing. H. C. Andersen wrote the fairy tale Klokkedybet (“The Bell Deep”), which builds on the myth of the Åmand. H. C. Andersen was born in Odense. Perhaps relatedly, an Åmand is believed to inhabit the waters of Odense.
It’s the Åmand’s responsibility to keep his waters healthy with fish. Likewise, it’s his decision whether or not those fish are caught by the fishermen occupying the water with their dinghies. Like any good water spirit, the Åmand lures unsuspecting humans to their watery deaths. He does so by playing his violin or harp. If you trick the Åmand into teaching you his songs, he’ll trick you in turn. He’ll teach you the music of the elves and have you play it in front of an audience. Everyone in the audience will dance straight into the lake and drown themselves, yourself included. As a last resort, you can try to play the song backwards or cut the strings of the instrument, but you’d be hard-pressed in succeeding.
As it’s the tradition for all devil figures, the Åmand can be controlled by humans if rituals are followed. If you want to bathe in his lake, you protect yourself by throwing a rock into the water. If the rock lands without making a sound, you must declare that the Åmand is bound in place. When you’re done bathing, you release the Åmand by throwing another rock into the water, making sure this one splashes loudly. If you wish to bind the Åmand in place, so you can steal his fish (aka better your fortune in fishing), you use cemetery ashes that you attach to a stake in the middle of the lake. The stake must burn, and you must finish stealing the Åmand’s fish before the stake burns down, spreading the ashes in the water. Lastly, you can make a circle of holy soil (not water, for obvious reasons, I daresay) around the Åmand’s lake. Do this on a Thursday night and the Åmand will spring forth from the lake and run away.
The Åmand demands a human sacrifice once a year as payment for playing groundskeeper – or lakeskeeper, as that’ll be. If you know anything about Danish history, this might make you think of the Tollund Man and the Grauballe Man, both incredibly well-preserved bog bodies from the late 3rd-4th century BC. Denmark has a particular history of sacrificing humans by way of drowning, so it’s no surprise our folklore reflects this.
If the Åmand gets no sacrifice, he’ll capsize the dinghies and drag sailors to their watery deaths. Like flowers on a grave, white water lilies will sprout from his garden at the bottom of the lake where he’s drowned the unfortunate sailors. These water lilies are also called nøkkeroser. This is because the Åmand is also referred to as the Nøkke, which leads us to our first intricate cultural overlap…
The Scandinavian Nøkke/Nøkken/Näck
Alternatively, the Danish Åmand is also known as a Nøkke (Danish), Nøkken (Norweigan) and Näck (Swedish). These modern Scandinavian names are derived from the Old Norse nykr, meaning “river horse”. In Denmark, we have a saying that goes kært barn har mange navne, which means “a beloved child has many names”. The Nøkke is very much that case: a beloved child with too many names to account for.
Taking it a step further, we also have the bäckahäst (Swedish) or bækhest (Danish), meaning “brook horse”. The bäckahäst/bækhest was often described as a majestic white horse that would appear during foggy weather. Anyone who climbed onto its back would not be able to get off again. The horse would jump into the river, drowning the rider. If this type of water-horse sounds more familiar to you than a violin-playing River Man, then that’s because it probably is. For our next cultural overlap, we go immediately west of Scandinavia – to the British Isles.
The Celtic Water-horse
There are many names for this water spirit, all dependent on what location you’re in. Each-uisge is the Scottish Gaelic term, each-uisce is Irish, Ceffyl Dŵr is Welsh and Cabyll-ushtey is Manx/Isle of Man. What’s common for all these particular water spirits is that their primary shape is that of a viciously malevolent horse hellbent on drowning whoever sits on its back – exactly as the bäckahäst/bækhest.
Maybe you’re more familiar with the less violent, Scottish-only version of this horse: the Kelpie. The Kelpie also takes the shape of a horse, although it can adopt human form. It’s said that the kelpie retains its hooves when appearing as a human, effectively marking it as a devil figure exactly as the Danish Åmand/Nøkke. Speaking of devil figures, our last cultural overlap introduces us to Japanese yōkai, the mythological monsters hugely popularized by international media in recent times.
The Japanese Kappa
Instead of a horse or man the Japanese kappa takes the shape of a child-sized frog with the strength of a full-grown man. Like the Åmand/Nøkke and the various water-horses, the kappa lives in the water where it lures people to their deaths. It might seem more appropriate for a water spirit to take an aquatic shape, but then you start to dig into the details, and the appropriateness vanishes. For example, the kappa has a beak rather than a mouth. It also has an indented bowl-shape on top of its head that carries water from the kappa’s lake. The kappa is a proud creature, but if you can trick it into bowing for you while on land, the water from the indented bowl on top of the kappa’s head will pour out. If the water empties out completely, the kappa will weaken and die.
Let these creatures be a lesson for you to never take the waters too lightly. This is coming from a Scandinavian who grew up by the coast in a seaside fisherman’s town. I bet I’ve been close to an Åmand or two in my lifetime. Have you?