NECKS, MERMEN AND MERMAIDS
El Necken mer i flodens vågor quäder,
Och ingen Hafsfru bleker sina kläder
Pas böljans rygg i milda solars glans.
The Neck no more upon the river sings,
And no Mermaid to bleach her linen flings
Upon the waves in the mild solar ray.
IT is a prevalent opinion in the North that all the various beings of the popular creed were once worsted in a conflict with superior powers, and condemned to remain till doomsday in certain assigned abodes. The Dwarfs, or Hill (Berg) trolls, were appointed the hills; the Elves the groves and leafy trees; the Hill-people (Högfolk [a]) the caves and caverns; the Mermen, Mermaids, and Necks, the sea, lakes, and rivers; the River-man (Strömkarl) the small waterfalls. Both the Catholic and Protestant clergy have endeavoured to excite an aversion to these beings, but in vain. They are regarded as possessing considerable power over man and nature, and it is believed that though now unhappy, they will be eventually saved, or faa förlossning (get salvation), as it is expressed.
The NECK (in Danish Nökke [b]) is the river-spirit. The ideas respecting him are various. Sometimes he is represented as sitting, of summer nights, on the surface of the water, like a pretty little boy, with golden hair hanging in ringlets, and a red cap on his head; sometimes as above the water, like a handsome young man, but beneath like a horse; [c] at other times, as an old man with a long beard, out of which he wrings the water as he sits on the cliffs. In this last form, Odin, according to the Icelandic sagas, has sometimes revealed himself.
The Neck is very severe against any haughty maiden who makes an ill return to the love of her wooer; but should he himself fall in love with a maid of human kind, he is the most polite and attentive suitor in the world.
Though he is thus severe only against those who deserve it, yet country people when they are upon the water use certain precautions against his power. Metals, particularly steel, are believed "to bind the Neck," (binda Necken); and when going on the open sea, they usually put a knife in the bottom of the boat, or set a nail in a reed. In Norway the following charm is considered effectual against the Neck:--
Nyk, nyk, naal i vatn!
Jomfru Maria kastet staal i vatn
Du sök, äk flyt!
Neck, neck, nail in water!
The virgin Mary casteth steel in water!
Do you sink, I flit!
The Neck is a great musician. He sits on the water and plays on his gold harp, the harmony of which operates on all nature. To learn music of him, a person must present him with a black lamb, and also promise him resurrection and redemption.
The following story is told in all parts of Sweden:-
"Two boys were one time playing near a river that ran by their father's house. The Neck rose and sat on the surface of the water, and played on his harp; but one of the children said to him, 'What is the use, Neck, of your sitting there and playing? you will never be saved.' The Neck then began to weep bitterly, flung away his harp, and sank down to the bottom. The children went home, and told the whole story to their father, who was the parish priest. He said they were wrong to say so to the Neck, and desired them to go immediately back to the river, and console him with the promise of salvation. They did so; and when they came down to the river the Neck was sitting on the water, weeping and lamenting. They then said to him, 'Neck, do not grieve so; our father says that your Redeemer liveth also.' The Neck then took his harp and played most sweetly, until long after the sun was gone down."
This legend is also found in Denmark, but in a less agreeable form. A clergyman, it is said, was journeying one night to Roeskilde in Zealand. His way led by a hill in which there was music and dancing and great merriment going forward. Some dwarfs jumped suddenly out of it, stopped the carriage, and asked him whither he was going. He replied to the synod of the church. They asked him if he thought they could be saved. To that, he replied, he could not give an immediate answer. They then begged that he would give them a reply by next year. When he next passed, and they made the same demand, be replied, "No, you are all damned." Scarcely had be spoken the word, when the whole hill appeared in flames.
In another form of this legend, a priest says to the Neck, "Sooner will this cane which I hold in my hand grow green flowers than thou shalt attain salvation." The Neck in grief flung away his harp and wept, and the priest rode on. But soon his cane began to put forth leaves and blossoms, and he then went back to communicate the glad tidings to the Neck who now joyously played on all the entire night. [d]
[a] Berg signifies a larger eminence, mountain, hill; Hög, a height, hillock. The Hög-folk are Elves and musicians.
[b] The Danish peasantry in Wormius' time described the Nökke (Nikke) as a monster with a human head, that dwells both in fresh and salt water. When any one was drowned, they said, Nökken tog ham bort (the Nökke took him away); and when any drowned person was found with the nose red, they said the Nikke has sucked him: Nikken har suet ham.--Magnusen, Eddalaere. Denmark being a country without any streams of magnitude, we meet in the Danske Folkesagn no legends of the Nökke; and in ballads, such as a The Power of the Harp," what in Sweden is ascribed to the Neck, is in Denmark imputed to the Havmand or Merman.
[c] The Neck is also believed to appear in the form of a complete horse, and can be made to work at the plough, if a bridle of a particular description be employed.--Kalm's Vestgötha Resa.
[d] Afzelius, Sago.bäfdar,ii. 156.