Ponds, springs and pools were gateways to the underworld for the former inhabitants of the southern Campine region in Flanders (Mechelen, Lier…). The Nekker is a black water spirit and lives in in particular in black, silent water. The Nekkerspoel in Mechelen refers to this mythical creature. During the walk last May in that nature area, I was still staring at the dark pools there and felt that there was a story there. Only a few days later I “accidentally” read about the Nekker. In the past months I have found other toponyms in Belgium that refer to the ‘nekker’ or the ‘black creature’. And it’s not the first time I hear about a black water spirit. In the first winter days of 2019, a Norwegian friend told me about Nøkken.
Nekker comes from the Indo-Germanic nigw which speaks wax. WHY IT is also called a water devil, IS because of the Church.
Some years ago I heard from a good friend about the Norwegian male water spirit nøkken – a black spirit that lurks in dark waters. We then stayed in the middle of the Norwegian winter in a cabin near a misty lake, far from most villages. He showed me one image by Norwegian artist Kittelsen that was hanging in the cabin.
For the Disney fans: in the 2019 film Frozen II, Queen Elsa of Arendelle encounters and tames the Nøkk, the Water spirit who guards the sea to the mythical river Ahtohallan. I think the nøkken is a black spirit in Norwegian folklore and would not be portrayed easily as horse (probably because Kittelsen’s imaginations are popular), but the horse shape is typical for the stories of the Faroe Islands. And yes, the nøkken is a shapeshifter. In Scotland, you have also the kelpie, a water spirit that takes the shape of a horse.
The word Nøkken does look hard like Nekker, but I never made that connection until last spring. Thanks to an old saga book I learned that we also have a similar mythical creature in Belgium. In the 15th century there were already Flemish folkstories about black shapeshifters with “Old Red Eyes”.
Imagination and fearscapes
In my latest novel, “the white dream”, there are also ‘black shadow spirits’ with red eyes. But those creatures were already in my imagination before I heard about the Norwegian Nøkken or the Flemish Nekker. Or did I catch it as a child (via my grandfather, a true storyteller from the Campine)? Or is there something universal in how we translate fears of dark pools into images? Many people, including me, are afraid for drowning. The late floodings in Europe, and east-Belgium, that killed hundreds of people (July 2021), reminded us to the destructive, ‘black’ power of water. A brook that looks calm and small can suddenly become a monstrous power. When I was a toddler, I almost drown in the swimming pole and have been struggling with (jumping and surrendering to) water a lot. It took me a while before I got my ‘swimming diploma’ (4 years longer than the average Belgian kid). I looked in the ‘red eyes’ when I learned diving in 2011. I got the PADI diploma, but I am not doing much with it. Even today when I enter a kayak, canoe or paddle raft, there is always one second where Anxiety wants to join me in that boat. Depending on the river, anxiety falls out the boat very soon, or not at all.
Some geography researchers (in subfields like psychogeography) investigate ‘fearscapes’. I am sure nikkers and nøkken would not work anymore to create fear about certain landscape elements, but perhaps working with these old stories could initiate interesting debates about water and dark nature. In the Celtic tradition, darkness was not seen as something evil or bad, because it was part of life, part of nature. Perhaps these stories create less eco-anxiety than talking about the direct impacts of floodings and the wicked problems that humans created in the first place that lead to these events and increase the risk for more of this. I plan to write more blogs about ‘river time’, water – nature folklore, because in the past half year I dug into Celtic heritage and Flemish stories about women, and it’s a recurring treat.
Connecting Norway and Flanders
In the fourteenth century, a basilica was built in Halle, a municipality near Brussels, but it had been a place of worship before that. In opening in the floor of a crypt you can see a well-preserved tree stump; it was found during restoration work. This basilica also faces northeast, where the sun rises on June 21. Strange, because in that construction period, churches faced east. The church is also full of symbols, such as hundreds of green men (nature spirits from the Celtic tradition) and oak leaves. Even Odin with his two ravens Hugin and Munin are depicted here.
Most significant is the worship of a black madonna. Black madonnas were the representation of the black mother goddess in the Celtic period and referred to nature. There is also a processional route connected to this church and it is said to be involved around the Germanic goddess of death ‘Hella’ and the water spirits, the nikers, who lived around the Hallen ‘nikkenberg’ in Halle. Hella and Halle also resemble each other.
A small personal coincidence: there is a statue of a child which would bring luck if you touch it. The name of that child is the name of this Norwegian friend that told me as first about nokken. I have not visited the place, but it’s on my list for next time. I am not in Belgium anymore, but moved back to Norway and will be there for at least a year.
Another ‘forest’ recommendation: It’s also close to Hallerbos, one of the old beech forests in Flanders, known for its instagramable carpets of bluebells that appear in April/May.