England's Dreaming: Water Witches & Raging Rivers

As winter rain rushes in, it's time to remember the spirits stalking the dark folklore of Britain's waterways..

England's Dreaming: Water Witches & Raging Rivers

As winter rain rushes in, it's time to remember the spirits stalking the dark folklore of Britain's waterways..

October chill is shivering through the country’s bones; rain is hammering the streets grey. The water ways of the country are rising. The malignant spirits that prowl British water ways are stirring in the depths.

A quick dip into the ever reliable Encyclopaedia of Superstition (EoS) reveals a superbly macabre roll call of murderous water spirits – those boggits ‘round the land that seek to snatch a toll of human life every year. These vengeful forces take one of two forms – they are either rivers anthropomorphised, or vicious spirits that take human form and lurk, hungry in bodies of water.

The most notorious of these river spirits is Jenny Greenteeth, a malignant hag haunting the waters of Lancashire, Cheshire and Shropshire. Green skinned with sharp teeth, bony arms and lank, green hair, Jenny – also known as Ginny, Jenny Wicked o'Nell or Peg o’Nell – lies in wait in stagnant pools, concealing her form with duck weed, thick algae and pond scum. Should any child be foolish enough to venture too close to the pond, she’ll reach out, quick as a shot, and drag them into the murk, to either drown them or suck the meat from their bones. As late as the 1960s a 68 year old women recalled she had been told Jenny had “pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with a pointed chin and very big eyes-” Other tellings hold that Jenny has no known face at all – at least, no one who has seen it has lived to tell the tale…

Jenny is an enduring spirit, manifesting in a variety of ways – not all nakedly malignant. A trawl through Jenny Greenteeth mentions on the Internet Archive Machine has a reference to sailors remembering here in a slightly more benign form than the child snatcher of Lancashire-

“In these accounts she uses her long bony arms to embrace her victims, stroking them with her sharp fingernails until they fall into a deep sleep whereupon she devours them. Sailors of the past called Jenny Greenteeth the Sea Hag and believed that she sang as she neared her victims:

"Come into the water, love,

Dance beneath the waves,

Where dwell the bones of sailor-lads

Inside my saffron cave."

In more modern times (relatively modern at any rate) Greenteeth was the inspiration for the witch Meg Mucklebones who terrified a generation (by which I mean; me) in Ridley Scott’s 80s fantasy Legend. Mucklebones is also drawn from the myth of Peg Powler, another green skinned water witch who is supposed to inhabit the River Tees, grabbing errant children by their ankles and pulling them in to the water to drown.  The EoS notes that Powler was most often found lurking near the Pierse Bridge, a location that has since disappeared from the map. Is it wrong to feel sad that it might have taken Powler with it?

When Peg O’Nell is not being conflated with Jenny Greenteeth, she has a story of her own. Based in the River Ribble, running through North Yorkshire and Lancashire, O’Nell rises every 7 years. If she is not appeased by an animal sacrifice – say a dog or cat being drowned in the Ribble on ‘Peg’s Night’ - she will claim a human life.

According to local legend, O’Nell dates back to the Middle Ages. In life she was a maid working at Waddow Hall “for the Starkie family. She used to quarrel frequently with her employers. One night Peg grumbled about being sent to fetch some water from the well, Starkie shouted at her "I hope you fall and break your neck." Unfortunately she did just that. For years after that sad event anything that went wrong in the Ribble Valley and especially at Waddow Hall was blamed on Peg. Years later Starkie was so fed up of Pegs curse she got an axe and went out and severed the head off the statue that had been erected were Peg had died.” source

Later writers claimed that O’Nell’s curse had been lifted – “the curse was broken when a traveller crossed the Brungerley Stepping Stones when the river was high. Though an innkeeper warned him that it was Peg's night, the traveller laughed and said that if he died he'd make sure she never bothered the locals again. The sacrifice was, of course, accepted...” source

Interestingly it seems that O’Nell is a syncretic spirit – her legend has been papered over a far older spirituality centred around the Ribble. EoS has it that in Roman times the river was sacred to the Goddess Minerva - also identified as Belisama, a Celtic Goddess associated with light. There are tales of a temple to Belisama sitting in the Ribble valley, long since washed away. I haven’t, however, been able to find much to support the assertion that Minerva was generally associated with human sacrifice. The internet being what it is there is this genius who claims that the plane crash caused earlier in 2015 by the suicidal Andreas Lubitz was actually a complex sacrifice to Minerva. But I fear we’ve rolled off topic.

Perhaps the most otherworldly of the British water spirits are those who make no attempt to manifest in human form. Implacable and elemental, they take life as a tithe – there is no vengeance in their actions, just nature’s immobile, effortless cruelty.  The river Tweed (running from Scotland to Northumberland) is said to take one life a year – but it tributary, the slow running river Till has a far greedier appetite, as this folk rhyme explains:

“Tweed said to Till,

What gars ye rin so still?

Till said to Tweed,

Though ye rin wi’ speed,

And I rin slaw,

For ae man that ye droon,

I droon twa.”

Surprisingly – and thankfully for this city dweller – the Thames seems to have no hungry spirits roaming its banks. Despite a history of death intertwined with the river- rogues have hung over it, witches have been dunked in it, and Masonic murder victims have been concealed deep in its greasy depths – it seems that no one wants to hang around after they expire. Having seen the amount of grot floating under Tower Bridge I can’t say I blame them.  

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