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Updated on June 15, 2017

Malevolent Water Spirits

In Northern Europe there is a type of supernatural creature generally known by the name Nicker. Not very frightening perhaps, but this word was the origin of the term ‘Old Nick’ for the Devil, because it was considered to be so malevolent. It is considered: “the most terrible and the most feared of all the supernatural beings which the Gael has to contend with.”

Originally derived from the old Teutonic word nikwiz/nikuz (from the root nig = to wash), It is a water spirit which often takes the form of a horse to try to lure people to their deaths in the waters of lakes, lochs, rivers (or even the sea) where they are said to live. They are shape-shifting entities who can take on other forms, as well. There are, also, creatures of similar types in other parts of the world.

There is a strong folk tradition of the Nicker in oral tales (Grimm talks of them) and also of people who have encountered them. They are considered, by scholars of folklore, to be the embodiment of the dangerous and unpredictable nature of water.

Technically, they come under the heading of fairy-folk (they are known as fairy-horses in Scotland), though they are by no means cute or twee. In some senses, they are even considered synonymous with ancient gods of water Neptune/ Poseidon, and their Celtic equivalents (including Odin, who often took on the characteristics of a sea god).

The creatures are mentioned in the epic Beowulf on several occasions, once where the hero fights “a gang on nicors.” And, again, when he passes by “nicor-houses” (whatever they may be), as well as in other passages. The term is usually translated as sea-beasts. However these are a very particular kind.

Names of the Beast - Etymology

Other Names for Water-Horses


Whereas the Nicker usually appears in the form of a grey/white or dappled horse, the Kelpie/Each-Uisge appears in the form of a black or dark horse. It has also been claimed that the Nicker is the freshwater variant of the beast, where the Kelpie (through living in the kelp/seaweed) is the ocean-dwelling variety. Although this definition is reversed in some accounts.

The Nix or Nixie is the female variety, who appears as a beautiful woman to beguile unwary hunters and fishermen to enjoy her embrace, then pulls them under the sea to drown. She is sometimes confused with the mermaid in this context. What sets her apart, however, is her evil intent and her fishes teeth.


The creature is always connected to death by drowning. Tales of the Nicker were probably told to children to instil caution into them when they went to wash in a river, to prevent them becoming careless and falling in. Or there might be a sinister truth in the stories.

It was said of those found dead on the shore, that the redness of the corpses’ bloated face was a sign the blood had been sucked out of them by the Nicker – through the victim’s nostrils!

Belief in this creature is very ancient, and may also be connected to the worship of sea-gods. For example, it was recorded by the Romans that the worship of Neptune required sacrifices to be thrown into the water, to appease the angry god.

Considering that the creature is most often seen in the form of a horse, the name is suggestive. It evokes the onomatopoeic ‘nicker’ sound a horse makes. Every loch or lake was said to have a water horse to guard it. The creatures could also be found in wells.

Other forms the beast can take

Mostly seen as a horse or a human (which sometimes speaks), it changes its shape to suit the viewer, usually taking on the shape most appealing and alluring to whoever finds it. Here are some of the weird and wonderful shapes the creature has assumed

  • A dapple grey horse with hooves pointing the wrong way (Norway)
  • A black horse with a silver harness (The Black Steed of Loch Pityoulish)
  • Horse which elongates to fit several riders (Sweden)
  • A horse with cloven hooves (Tangie of Shetland)
  • A Shetland pony (Shetland)
  • A very handsome horse (usually)
  • A worn-out, broken-down, old horse (Shetland)
  • A horse with hair growing in the opposite direction, fetlocks growing up instead of down and hooves pointing the wrong way. (Shetland)
  • Half a horse lying in the water (Norway)
  • A man with the legs of a horse (Finland)
  • An old man with a long beard, green hat and green teeth (Denmark)
  • A wild boy with shaggy yellow curls under a red cap, with fishes’ teeth (Denmark)
  • A beautiful woman with fishes’ teeth (Germany)
  • Gold or precious things (Norway)
  • An old man (Strichen Burn, Aberdeenshire)
  • Lightning (The White Horse of Spey)
  • A huge black monster (Ireland)
  • A handsome youth (Scotland)
  • Half-man, half-horse. With the head of a man and a body of a horse (Orkneys)
  • A monster with a gigantic head, a single red eye, fins and with no skin on its body – only muscle (Orkneys)
  • Small grey men who steal children and replace them with changelings (Germany/Bavaria/Hungary)
  • A man with horses’ ears (Ireland)
  • A king (Ireland)
  • Half a boat lying in the water (Norway)
  • A dog with a long beard (Finland)
  • A billy goat with netting between its horns (Finland)
  • A tree trunk with a single big eye and a mane down its back (Finland)
  • A tree floating in the water (Finland)

Water-Horses on ancient maps


Particular Water-Horses

The White Horse of Spey loved storms. Its whinnying could be heard in the thunder and its shape be seen in the lightening. He would sing: “and ride weel, Davie/And by this night at ten o’clock/Ye’ll be in Pot Cravie [the bottom of the Spey]”

Tangie was the personal demon of Black Eric, an infamous worker of black magic who lived in Shetland. Tangie would carry the magician from the top of Fitful Cliff to his cave below, and sailors attested to seeing the blue lights flashing up and down the rock-face, which denoted the evil pair’s journey. The creature’s name was derived from the Gaelic word Tang (= seaweed), which it was covered in.

One explanation for the blue lights in this instance could have been wreckers on the cliff. However blue lights have been seen in connection with other sightings of water horses (when they appear and disappear). This phenomenon has been noted in other supernatural encounters, as well as close encounters of the second kind with UFO’s, particularly where they have been seen near or in water (or when ‘taking on water,’ as UFO’S have been known to do on occasion). Considering that water-horses can take on any form (a form most suited to the viewer) could UFO’s, in this instance, be an updated version of the same creature’s appearance?

The Kelpie of Loch Ness basis for the reported sightings of the Loch Ness Monster which continue to this day. Also an updated version of the same creature, metamorphosed into what we wish it to be?

Protection Against The Devil

Water-horses were said to be afraid of iron, and a charm against them was to throw iron into the water before you entered it. In Finland when you do this there is a rhyme to go with it “The Nakki is as heavy as iron; I am as light as a leaf,” to ensure that you float whilst the sea-beast sinks.

There is also reported to be a creature called a water-bull (or Tarbb-Uisge). It was said to be afraid of silver and could be killed by a silver bullet. However it was a much more harmless creature than the water-horse. The water-bull was a very shy fairy creature and usually avoided humans. Strangely enough, there is no way to kill the water-horse in the folk tales, only ward it off…


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