Monday, April 14, 2014

Nightmare of Nightmares

#12 in the April 2014 A to Z Blog Challenge

N: Nuin, Ash in the Scottish Gaelic alphabet.

The ash tree has been symbolically important for many cultures; in Scotland, with oak and (haw)thorn, it was one of three important trees often invoked in time of danger. Stand in the shadow of an ash, and the faery folk could not harm you; put ash berries in or over a baby’s cradle, and the bairn was safe from being taken for a changeling. Medicinally, it was used as a diuretic and a tea made from it was used to regulate rheumatic arthritis and kidney disease. Its roots are said to strangle those of other trees, and sour the soil. Some called it “the widow-maker,” because weapons (spears and arrow shafts) were made from its wood, which was also used for wands, witch’s besoms (brooms) and farm implements.

Ash Tree
I met a man today who told me that his Irish father enjoyed telling him gruesome Irish tales and recited Poe’s poetry and tales to him just before bedtime. Like me, he grew up skeptical of the sort of cute little fairy with gauzy wings and star-tipped wands; the faery folk familiar to us were as often terrifying as helpful. You interacted with them at your peril, because they are Other—although there was always the possibility that they will show their good side!

The most fearsome one I ever heard of from my granny was from the Orkneys, those island north of the Hebrides. This creature really did give me nightmares! Imagine meeting a figure along a dark country road near the sea, immense, shaped like a man astride a horse (but actually one and the same), but with a head ten times the size of a man’s, rolling from side to side of his shoulders, with a  wide mouth and a single eye glowing like a red flame of hate. His breath is death—blight to plants, plague to humans, killing to all creatures. 

You can easily recognize him, for besides the huge head and mouth, he has no skin; you can see his bare, oozing red flesh, with black viscous blood surging in his veins, his muscles held in place by yellow tendons and the white of cartilage, dripping with salty water of the sea from which he came onto land. Drought he can cause as well. Only a few things can overcome him—fresh water or rain, or the Mither o’ the Sea, the gentle spirit who brings the spring, warmth and new growth. In the spring, her battles to overcome Teren, the god of winter, result in fierce storms, but she always wins—until autumn, when she is weary and he succeeds in banishing her back to the sea to grow strong under the water during the winter, emerging every spring to re-engage him yet again. The Mither and Teren are forces of nature, but the Nuckelevee, that dire creature who knows only hate and destruction, is spawned of darkness.

In this case, it isn’t Oak, Ash and Thorn that will protect you from him but courage—and being fleet of foot across a stream of fresh water!

Mither o' the Sea


  1. What creepy Orkney story! Nuin, however, is such a beautiful word... so beautiful

    1. Tdita, You're right, this IS creepy! I've never been able to find more than one story about him, and only really one version (copied by several sites/books). Since i usually don't tell a folktale unless I can blend together more than one, I don't tell it, even in this post. Do a search on Nuckelevee, and you're bound to find it. And you're right about nuin. There's a meditation center not far from me that uses the word in its name.

  2. Oak and Ash and Thorn :) I know Rudyard Kipling is problematic, but his poem is very lovely about these three!

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    1. Admittedly, Kipling bought into the jingoism of his time and country, really not surprising given his background. Yet because of that, much of his other writing is ignored. I love that poem and both his Puck books, as well as some of his spookier short fiction. Have you visited his home in Sussex? It's one of the best memories of my trip to Britain years ago. If you do, be sure to go look at the front doorbell--it's the one his uncle had; as soon as Ruddy rang it in the holidays of the period he depicted in "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," he knew he was safe from that cruel woman--and he asked for it, hoping that other children would find that sense of safety at his home.

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