A painting of the Derwent river
In my most recent work regarding Traditional Witchcraft, The Toad Bone Treatise, I present an "occult bestiary" of types, outlining some of the many strange experiences and even stranger sentient beings one may run across when engaged in explorations of this world through different modes of perception. Those "fire-sighted" people will often discover that the "ordinary" things of this world- including the features of the landscape- reveal themselves in a non-ordinary fashion, sometimes as entities every bit as sentient and self-willed as they believe themselves to be.
One such category of non-human sentient beings is connected to the natural phenomena we call "bodies of water"- and they are attested to in faery-mythology and folklore to an extreme degree, looming large over the entire folk animistic tradition. Bodies of water- so sacred to ancient peoples from all over the world- are the common folkloric homes of water spirits or water weirds as I prefer to group them. Sometimes, there are many overlaps between the ruling forces of bodies of water and even greater powers, but in most cases, the inhabitants of watery places appear to be local to that area, and desirous of offerings from human beings- going so far as to take living beings as their due, if they are ignored. Needless to say, most are quite ignored now, whereas in ancient times they may have been worshiped and given regular offerings or sacrifices.
In The Toad Bone Treatise I write, under my entry for water weirds:
"The spirits of streams, pools, springs, rivers, lakes, and even the vast oceans- these weirds are sometimes (though not often) encountered alone, and other times in communal groupings, just like Land-weirds or land-spirits. Water weirds of great age often take on a feminine appearance, and can be very alluring. They despise people polluting their homes, and are more often than not dangerous- they will drown unsuspecting people of any age, and I suspect this is more of a function of their frustration with mankind than anything else- though they are also pictured as “vampiric”- they can feast on the released life-force of a drowned victim.
Water weirds were often given regular sacrifices and gifts- cast directlty into their homes- by ancient people, and some, especially the weirds of wells and thermal springs, were elevated to the status of Goddesses, due to their great involvement with giving human beings life-preserving water and healing therapy. They deserved to be thanked, then and now. These ancients may be dangerous, too- especially the spirits of old rivers and springs that were the centers of cults in Pagan times; they are starved for attention and offerings.
The fastest way to become protected by their benevolence is to make large offerings to them, but don’t ever become fooled into thinking that they will never be harmful to you- always keep a measure of respect and wariness. All natural bodies of water can be used as gateways into the Underworld by the dead, or by sorcerers who wish to lower their consciousness into that deep place- but guardian water weirds can block this passage, if not appeased. All water weirds have a beguiling power."
Mother Briggs gives several striking descriptions of these powers and related powers in her collection of works. She makes mention of the Scottish "water wraith", described as a "female water spirit, dressed in green, withered, meagre, and scowling." The story of her haunting of a local body of water is typical in folklore; it is said
"...She was ever distorted, with a malignant scowl. I knew all the various fords- always dangerous ones- where of old she used to start, it was said, out of the river, before the terrified traveler, to point at him, as in derision, with her skinny finger, or to beckon him invitingly on; and I was shown the very tree to which a poor Highlander had clung, when, in crossing the river by night, he was seized by the goblin, and from which, despite of his utmost exertions, though assisted by a young lad (his companion) he was dragged into the middle of the current where he perished."
-Briggs, The Encyclopedia of Fairies, pg. 429
There are lessons to be gathered from these accounts- beyond the typical lesson one would imagine regarding safety around bodies of water. Bodies of water are natural entry-points into the deep places of the unseen world, and interaction-points between the worlds of the living and the dead, and as such are sacred places. Bodies of water have also provided sustenance to human beings since the dawn of our time, and the powers of these places were rightly thanked in the past with recognition and offering.
Part of the new "spiritual ecology" that I am always writing about involves recognizing the forgotten or neglected powers of such places in the landscape, and re-building relationships of good tiding. It is more than just a way of re-connecting with the land that is our common home; it is about entering into friendships with other orders of sentient life. The vampiric or malevolent water-weirds can be transformed (with luck) into helpful, friendly powers if people will recreate the bonds of recognition and respect that are owed.
The "twisted" aspect of the water-weird, the "distortion" captured in the folklore is a reflection, I believe, of the alienation that has arisen between humans and the powers of their natural environment due to human abandonment of their duties to the Otherworld. I also believe it is a reflection of the unbalanced fear of the unseen world that has crept into the minds of human beings over centuries of Christian influence.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't have some caution with the unseen world; certainly we should have a caution not unlike that which we have with stranger humans, given our situation, location, history, and context for interaction- but the unqualified belief, so hammered into people's heads by Christian priests, that all of the inhabitants of the traditional unseen world are harmful, wicked, or even "demons" is unwarranted; it is a part of Christianity's propagandistic war on animistic world-views which began quite a long time ago, and which continues to this day.
In the annals of folklore, one water-weird has attained a legendary status for being a dangerous power, neglected and hostile- Crooker of the Derwent River. I have here a tale, told from a traditional source, of Crooker's activity. It is a fitting way to end this letter on the spirits of bodies of water and the need to be both cautious and to re-establish relationships with them.
Crooker of the Derwent
"One day a traveller, a pedlar, was journeying to visit his mother who lived in Cromford. His journey was to take him along the valley of the River Derwent, by a road which he had travelled several times before though he did not know it well. He stopped for a while at an inn and had some lunch and a few beers and set off again on his journey towards the end of the afternoon just as the sun was beginning to set.
He had been walking for a while along the road which led through Derwentdale when suddenly he saw an old woman sitting on a stone beside the road and she was watching him intently as he approached. "Good evening, sir. Are you a stranger in these parts?" she asked.
The pedlar stopped and set down his pack for a moment and replied "Not entirely, for I have been here a few times before though I do not know the area well". "Well," she said, "This is not a road which a wise man travels after dark. You would be well advised to break your journey and turn back and find a bed in the village a mile back". "I can't do that" replied the pedlar. "I must get to Cromford tonight to see my mother. I've heard that she is very ill, so I must press on."
"Well," said the old woman, "You are braver than wise. But I fancy I know you - you once rescued a hare from a snare. I knew that hare and for her sake I will help you. Take this posy," she said, handing him a small bunch of rosemary. "Whatever you do, you must reach the Cromford bridge before the moon is fully risen, and when you reach the place where the road runs alongside the river, keep as far from the water as you can. And when you meet Crooker, you must give him this rosemary and you may, if you are blessed, pass safely".
Well, the pedlar didn't know what to say. The old woman seemed quite mad but he didn't like to be rude so he took the posy of rosemary and thanked her. Then he shouldered his pack and continued on his way, and when he glanced back the old woman had vanished.
By now the shadows were lengthening and dusk was falling across the bottom of the valley. All seemed silent and lonely and the pedlar began to be a little afraid, though he was not sure why. He started to whistle to keep up his spirits, but all the same every so often he stopped to glance over his shoulder as if he were afraid he was being followed.
He walked on up the valley a mile or two and then, as he rounded a corner, he suddenly noticed another old woman, sitting on a bank beside the road in the gathering gloom. As he came up to her she called to him, saying: "Good evening, sir. This is not a road which a wise man travels after dark. You would be well advised to break your journey and turn back and find a bed in the village".
"I can't do that" replied the pedlar. "I must get to Cromford tonight to see my mother. I've heard that she is very ill, so I must press on." "
Well," said the old woman, "You are braver than wise. But I fancy I know you - you once saved a vixen and her cub from dogs. I knew that vixen and for her sake I will help you. Take this posy," she said, handing him a small bunch of rowan twigs. "Whatever you do, you must reach the Cromford bridge before the moon is fully risen, and when you reach the place where the road runs alongside the river, keep as far from the water as you can. And when you meet Crooker, you must give him this rowan and you may, if you are blessed, pass safely". "But who is Crooker?" asked the pedlar, "and why should I beware of him?"
But as he asked the question the old woman seemed to melt into the shadows and was gone. The pedlar was becoming uneasy but remembered his mother waiting for him and shouldered his pack and continued along the road. By now it was almost dark and the moon was just rising above the hills on the opposite side of the valley. The pedlar remembered the advice that he must be across the Cromford bridge by the time that the moon was fully risen and lengthened his stride.
Growing ever more apprehensive, the pedlar continued his journey. Every so often he stopped and looked around, glancing over his shoulder back down the road, fearful of being followed.
He was suddenly startled by a voice from the shadows by the side of the road. "Good evening, sir" said the voice and he leapt backwards with fear. He looked over to where the voice came from and could just discern in the gloom the figure of an old woman sitting on a stone under a tree.
"This is not a road which a wise man travels after dark. You would be well advised to break your journey and turn back and find a bed in the village". "I can't do that" replied the pedlar. "I must get to Cromford tonight to see my mother. I've heard that she is very ill, so I must press on."
"Well," said the old woman, "You are braver than wise. But I fancy I know you - you once released a badger from a trap. I knew that badger and for his sake I will help you. Take this posy," she said, handing him a small bunch of St John's Wort. "Whatever you do, you must reach the Cromford bridge before the moon is fully risen, and when you reach the place where the road runs alongside the river, keep as far from the water as you can. And when you meet Crooker, you must give him this posy and you may, if you are blessed, pass safely". "But who is Crooker?" asked the pedlar, his voice rising in fear, "and why should I beware of him?"
But the old woman had melted into the darkness and the pedlar was alone again on the lonely road. In the distance he could hear the rushing of the waters of the Derwent and shuddered as he hoisted his pack up on to his shoulder again and set off down the road towards the Cromrford bridge.
Before long, he came the point where the road ran alongside the river and he looked down at the swirling waters. They seemed to be whispering to him "Come, come ...." and he felt a sudden terrible urge to leap into the dark waters. Terrified, he leapt back and found himself at the other side of the road, under the sheltering branches of a huge tree which overhung the road. Looking up, he could make out the dark shape of the bridge, perhaps 200 or so yards ahead of him at a turn in the valley and suddenly felt relieved.
Just then, he glanced down at the road, his eye caught by movement there. He saw that the moon was casting the shadows of the gnarled and twisted branches on the road like huge fingers reaching out for him, and the very air about him was filled with a moaning and sighing which seemed to say "Give, give, come, come ...". Letting out a cry of fear "Crooker!" he began to run down the road towards the bridge, throwing the posy of rosemary over his shoulder. As he did so, the moaning of the river seemed to become a roaring and the waters became turbulent and more violently swirling as if the river were trying to engulf the road.
As he ran, stricken with panic, he saw another great tree ahead, the shadows of its gnarled and grasping branches covering the whole of the road beneath it and realised that he would have to pass beneath it and within its grasp. Running as fast as he could, burdened down by his pack, he ran headlong beneath the shadows of the tossing branches. As he passed beneath it, he again heard the the sighing and moaning of the river and without looking back he hurled the second posy, the rowan twigs, over his shoulder. Again, the river seemed to roar and swirl even more menacingly, but the pedlar kept on running.
Ahead of him, he could see a third huge tree, bigger and more shadowy than the others and choking back his panic and keeping his eyes on the bridge now just a few yards ahead, he summoned up his remaining strength and ran beneath the outstretched branches and over the swaying shadows on the road. As he did so, the river seemed to scream with fury and the tree swayed violently as if trying to reach down to him. Weak with fear, he hurled the last posy, the St John's Wort, back over his shoulder towards the tree and staggered onto the bridge just as the moon reached its highest point in the sky. At the centre he finally collapsed, overcome with exhaustion and terror, and fell into a faint.
In the village of Cromford, meanwhile, local people were awakened from their beds by the sound of the river roaring and moaning - a sound they knew all too well as being the sound of Crooker claiming his dues. And they knew that in the morning there would be a body to retrieve and bury. But come the morning, when they ventured out at first light to scour the river bank, they were astonished to find the pedlar still sleeping on the centre of the bridge and they carried him into the village.
In time, a chapel was built beside the bridge, paid for by the grateful pedlar, at which prayers were said for those who had lost their lives in the river over the years and where travelers could give thanks for passing safely through the valley. The chapel is now gone, but it is still widely believed by local people that every so often the river demands sacrifice."
Notes from the Tale of Crooker
Crooker, like most water weirds, has a strange and hidden relationship with the trees that grow on the banks of his river. The tree-weirds attempt to snare travelers for him. I discuss this connection between bodies of water and the trees that grow near them in The Toad Bone Treatise. This fine tale presents wise-women, or witches, who appear to help our protagonist pedlar through this dangerous time. That they should appear is not surprising; witch-folk from all times and places have acted as knowers of the inner realities of the land upon which they dwell. The more kindly disposed of them will help people from time to time- especially those deserving of that help, as this Pedlar was.
Their best advice is "don't go there tonight"- but he seems rather bent on traveling. They provide him with Rowan, St. John's Wort, and Rosemary- three powerful protective plant-weirds- and all as offerings for Crooker. This piece of local lore is very valuable; Crooker accepts these plants (on some level) as a replacement offering for whatever he was given before- and it is easy to see that Crooker wants more- his precise words in the tale. That human beings have a deep mythical relationship with plants and trees is important here; plant-bodies and tree-parts can take the place of human offerings.
The protagonist was helped by the witches because of his good deeds; he had spared the lives of animals that they knew. This too, is a powerful lesson for all of the wise.