The Element of Water
The following article looks at the Element of Water from a Celtic folklore perspective, rather than from a traditional Western Mysteries position.
Of the four Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water, many individuals consider Fire to be the most transformative, dangerous and destructive. Needless to say, this is because of Fire’s amazing ability to reduce physical objects to piles of ash. The Water Element, however, has the equally amazing ability to entirely extinguish the Fire Element. Another interesting feature of The Water Element is how it can manifest in a variety of forms. Water can be a stagnant pool, a delightfully soothing babbling brook, or a raging tsunami.
When we use the term “water” we typically refer to the liquid state of the compound, which consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. H2o, as we all know. The solid phase is known as ice, and its gas phase is of course called steam. Water in its frozen state has a degree of solidity, like Earth, and in its gaseous state is like Air. We could say, then, that water has certain shape-shifting qualities. Another unique property of water is its ability to dissolve a large variety of chemical substances. Because water can dissolve so many things, it is sometimes called the universal solvent.
Up to 60% of the human adult body consists of water. The brain and heart are composed of 73% water, the lungs about 83% water, the skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones contain about 31%. Amazingly, the amount of water on Earth is said to have remained the same since the Earth was formed. This fact supports James Lovelock’s assertion that our planet is a self-regulating body. Finally, nearly 97% of the world's water is salty or otherwise undrinkable. The scientific study of water is known as hydrology, but my own personal interest in the Water Element is less to do with science and more to do with its prominence in folklore, mysticism and magical lore, especially in the Celtic tradition.
First of all, the following is a story told on Shetland during the early part of the 19th century:
“One day, the mother of a nine-month-old baby girl heard her child utter a terrible scream. The mother rushed to the cradle where the child was turning blue in the face and her voice becoming more and more hoarse. The child was fast becoming a changeling and unrecognisable as the healthy child she was moments before. A local woman living nearby, and with the gift of the second sight, was quickly summoned to offer assistance. A bucket of salt water was immediately fetched from the sea and three stones from the shore heated over the hearth. When the stones were red hot, they were plunged into the salt water. The child was stripped and placed into the bath, turned around three times clockwise, and three times anticlockwise. The child was then wrapped in a wet blanket and passed through the peat fire three times. The child was then put to bed. An effigy of the child was made and then set on fire. The child soon recovered and lived to a ripe old age”.
That story was related by an old woman talking about herself as an infant, and presumably told to her when she had become an adult. The cleansing quality of water is a feature of that tale, and also the fact that the water used, like holy water, contains salt. The significance of number three (traditionally a magic number) in the story also is significant. Many Celtic folktales relating to Fairies and the Otherworld feature the significance of water. This is because Water, usually in large quantities – but not always – represents the unknown and the potentially dangerous. When we are close to water, such as seashores and lakesides, then we are in a liminal space.
Another story, of which there are hundreds of versions, relates how a young man accidentally discovers a sealskin at the side of a lake or on a beach. Taking possession of the skin means that its real owner, in Scotland known as a selkie, cannot return to the water. The selkie is then forced to marry the finder. However, if the sealskin is eventually discovered by its natural owner, then the selkie, or seal-wife, is able to return to the sea or lake from which she came, and where in fact she has always truly belonged. In many versions of the tale, it is implied that the marriage will be long-lasting provided the man never strikes his wife. However, in all versions of the tale he eventually does strike her, either deliberately or accidentally – and that’s the end of a happy, if not an unconventional, union.
A similar tale of that sort sometimes reverses the gender roles. In one Scottish story, a young girl sitting by a loch is joined by a handsome young man. He eventually places his head in her lap and she strokes his hair, only to discover strands of seaweed on his scalp. The girl quickly realises that the young man is not what he originally appeared to be. Nonetheless, she keeps her wits about her, and waits for him to fall asleep. Quietly she slowly gets up and runs as fast as she can home. Not till she reaches the relative safety of the cottage door and opens it does she dare to look over her shoulder. And there, just behind her, is the young man in the shape of a waterhorse. The girl rapidly closes and bolts the door, while the horse violently rages outside.
The folklorist Jeremy Harte points out that in that type of story water represents danger and can also be understood on more than one level. For children, the tale is said to be a warning about the real danger of drowning if you stray too close to the lochside. To a young woman the tale is a warning how to slip out of a difficult situation with a testosterone- driven young man. Jeremy Harte says that such stories weaved together ideas felt too raw in bygone Celtic cultures to be expressed in a more earthy way – ideas of seduction, menace, violence and desire.
Although Celtic folk acknowledged that water was literally dangerous, they fully recognised that water is essential to life. Unlike modern times where we simply turn on a tap and lo! and behold, there it is – our ancestors had to go to a well, regardless of time, season or weather. Fetching water was very hard work. Water, of course, could also be protective, as illustrated in Robert Burns tale of Tam O’Shanter. With a witch in hot pursuit, Tam only escapes her clutches by crossing a bridge over a river. As Burns points out: “no diabolical power can pursue you beyond the middle of a running stream”.
Nonetheless, all water is potentially dangerous. No matter how placid or attractively blue a lake might look on a sunny summer’s day, below the surface lies a different world altogether. Another word for a lake is a mere, and many folk tales feature a mere. It is said that the word mermaid is derived from mere, though modern usage tends to associate mermaids with the sea. However, these water beings also feature in folklore as denizens of inland waters.
For example, there is said to be a supernatural water being residing in the Black Mere on Morridge Moor in Staffordshire. It is said that no animals will drink from the pool and that birds avoid flying over its water. The mermaid is believed to seize passers-by who happen to be there at midnight. It is also said that an attempt was once made to drain the mere, but the mermaid threatened to flood the nearby town of Leek, which is why the proposed draining project was quickly abandoned and never resumed. There is also said to be a similar dangerous mermaid that dwells at the Mermaid Pits, at Fornham All Saints, a small village in Suffolk. She also appears late at night to drag her victims into the pool. Some of these supernatural beings have a variety of names, such as Jenny Greenteeth, Nelly Longarms, Rawhead, Bloodybones, and Peg Powler, who is associated with the River Tees. The list goes on and on. Doxey Pool, at the top of the Roaches in Staffordshire is yet another example. The pool is very small; it measures only about 15 x 10 metres. It might look very ominous and bottomless, but it is only a few metres deep. Nonetheless, its supernatural resident is said to entice unsuspecting victims to a watery grave.
Then we have the Glaistig; a female being belonging to the Scottish Gaelic tradition, and who is sometimes described as half-woman and half-goat. It is said that her goat-like lower body is sometimes concealed by a long, green dress, in which case she might be assumed at first glance to be a normal human being. Some Glaistigs are said to be helpful, inasmuch as they protect cattle and herders. But like all members of the fey, they are ambiguous by nature. One is advised to keep on the better side of them or suffer the consequences. In addition to that, there is the bean-nighe. She also is part of the Scottish tradition and sometimes referred to as the Washer at the Ford. When first spotted she appears to be washing blood-stained clothing beside a stream or pool. She is in fact, a harbinger of death. Closer to home is the Mermaid’s Pool, situated just below Kinder Scout. The water is salinated, which is unusual for an inland lake. The Mermaid’s Pool is believed to have healing qualities, that is – if you are brave enough to bathe in it. But again, the mermaid might be having an off day and simply drag you to your doom.
What all these various legends and folk-tales serve to highlight, besides the obvious danger of water, is the elusive and deceptive nature of the Water Element. We are entering the realm of the magical when we approach the Water Element. Sometimes things are not quite what they seem at first glance. Reflections in water can be very beautiful but also deceptive. The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus is a classic example of the deceptive feature of water, where what is reflected back to us is an illusionary image. In the case of Narcissus, he fell in love with his own reflection and paid the ultimate price. Narcissists in the modern world also create a false and obsessive image of themselves, which is why it is often argued that the “selfie generation” sometimes falls victim to narcissism.
When the water of a pond or river is clear and we can see below the surface, the depth of the water tends to looks shallower than it actually is. Light waves distort the image, and if you have ever dipped a straight stick in a pond the stick will appear to bend below the surface. Another attractive feature of water is the way it tumbles over rocks or cliff edges to create waterfalls. Most people find waterfalls magical, and in some legends, fairy folk are said to dwell behind them. The delightful waterfall known as Janet’s Foss near Malham in North Yorkshire is one example.