07-Apr-2007 Filed in: Folklore
Olaus Magnus, the Nix playing in the river Svartafloden near Nyslott, Finland (1555)
Other names: Åkarlen, Strömkarlen, Forskarlen, Bäckmannen (The River Man) and Åhesten or Bäckahäst (the River Horse). In Norway you find a special variant called Fossegrimen (an ugly but musically talented creature living under waterfalls or near water mills). The origin of this creature is debatable - as a sacrificial myth (in many parts of Scandinavia the river expected an annual sacrifice), to explain the melodious sound of water or simply to warn people against water.
Here is Norwegian Hans Gerhard Sørensen's version of Fossegrimen:
The word Nøkken or Näcken dates back to a common European origin meaning 'to bathe' or 'to wash' [nig] but was used for 'sea creature' in the old Germanic languages, eg. nihhus (crocodile). The modern German Nix is a female creature, rather like the mermaid. The dangerous male sea spirit thus seems to be of Scandinavian origin.The English form Nixie was introduced from German in 1816 by the great historical novelist Sir Walter Scott.
Below three Swedish interpretations of this rare fiddle-playing creature:
Painting by Ernst Josephson and sculptures by Stig Blomberg (1901-1970) and Bror Hjorth (1894-1968)
Male creature who lives near streams and lakes, even beaches. Before going for a swim, it was wise to stick a knife in the ground on the beach as a protection against this dangerous creature. Sometimes he looks like an old man with a red cap and a long white beard (like a nisse/tomte), but he can also appear in the form of an attractive young man. In some stories his one foot is a horse hoof, in others he is an elegantly dressed man, in others again a cat or a horse.
He is known as a great fiddler who will teach anyone his skills for a minor sacrifice, though you can always expect him to try with different tricks to pull you into the water, but if you survive the lesson, you will become a great fiddler yourself, a myth similar to that told of the father of blues, Robert Johnson, who got his great musical talent from the devil himself. The Nix likes to receive meat as the price for teaching someone to play the fiddle, and there are many versions of the story where someone tries to fool the Nix by throwing him a meatless bone instead, but the Nix is no fool and instead "teaches" the offender to be silent.
The Swedish folklorist Nils Andersson has described how you can make the Nix teach you to play the violin (don't try this at home, kids!):
"While saying various magical incantations one should place one's instrument close to the water, where the Nix usually appears. After a period, during which you are not allowed to shave, cut your hair or go to church, you return to the water where you left your violin and now there are two violins which look alike. You have to choose one of them, and everything depends on this choice. If you take your own violin which the Nix in the meantime has tuned, you learn the art of playing, but if you take the Nix' violin, you drown."
If you become his pupil, he gains total control over you. He will teach you a certain melody (Swedish "Älvastråged"), but if you play it more than 5 times, things can become very dangerous and at the end you and the dancers will dance your way to the river where you will all drown.
Johan Tirén, Spelmannen and Näcken (The Musician and the River Fairy), 1898
Detail from Tiren's painting showing the Näcken in the waterfall:
As in the painting below by Th. Kittelsen, this creature was basically a negative force:
The Nix is a sexual predator who is particularly drawn to pregnant or unmarried women (also see the Sea Troll) - as well as to unbaptised children whereas men can in some cases, as mentioned above, control its power. There is no female Nix. The mermaid has many similarities though.
In some parts of Scandinavia he was a very attractive young man seducing young women and sometimes they became pregnant, but nothing came of this relation. The Nix as a grey or white horse living in the river is a very old motif. As a horse he tricks children to climb on to his back and ride him and then he takes them to the nearest water to drown them, an ancient abduction myth similar to modern urban folklore about alien abductions.
This myth also exists in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, old Norse territory, where the horse is called the Nuggle, and in Iceland, where the horse is known as the Nykur. You can read more about the Nuggle here and about the Nykur here.
(Illustrations: Sven Björnson and Hans Gerhard Sørensen)
Not surprisingly, more Scandinavian artists have been attracted to the fatal character of the nix than to the more neighbourly troll. The last painting of this dangerous creature in this article is by the not less tragic Swedish painter Niels Dardel and is simply called "Näcken" (1930):