Twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Iceland and to learn about Icelandic folklore. There’s a strong Catholic presence in many of the stories, intertwined with otherworldly creatures. (Icelandic folk tales are full of elves and trolls as well as bishops and nuns!)
For today’s challenge, I decided to take some of the typical elements of Irish folk lore and combine that with the Scandinavian idea of the Strömkarl or water spirit who plays a violin or harp to lure travellers to their deaths. I also used the German kobold and the figure of Saint Aidan to show how good and evil impact upon the microcosm of village life in rural Ireland centuries ago.
Saint Aidan and the Strömkarl
As the mournful sound of a violin floated across the water, Brigid turned to her sweetheart. “Will you hear that?” she asked him.
Donal looked at her blankly.
“Sure, and isn’t that the most lovely music!” she replied, letting go of his hand and following the haunting strain.
Mist descended over the lake, a fine, grey, cobwebby thing that hid the shadowy figure with the violin. Thin, bony fingers clutched the bow and stroked the strings until they moaned; and as each note rose into the air, the wind grew colder until the lake began to freeze.
Brigid’s eyes glazed over and she moved as one in a dream, not knowing where she was going, only that she needed to follow the notes as they called to her. As she reached the water’s edge, she stepped out onto the frozen surface of the lake and began walking towards the melody.
“Brigid!” Donal’s voice was sharp with fear. “Come back! The lake’s not safe!”
But still she walked on.
For a moment, the mist parted and pale moonlight shone upon the malevolent creature and its demonic fiddle. Brigid had no time to scream as the ice beneath her feet gave way and she sank down, down, down into the depths of the Strömkarl’s lair. And then the ice closed over and the lake was silent once more.
Donal looked over the expanse of frozen water, his eyes desperately searching for any signs of life. It was only as he turned to go that his ears caught the faint strain of music; and when he heard it, his blood ran cold for it was the sound of death.
Sunlight dappled the forest floor as Aidan sat on a fallen tree, enjoying his communion with nature. Squirrels scampered around his feet; now and then, one of them was bold enough to leap onto his shoulder or to sniff the interesting pouch he carried at his side. Above him, birds chattered and tweeted and Aidan smiled to hear them arguing over territory. Moments later, his face grew suddenly grave, so that he was not at all surprised when a figure appeared in front of him, looking somewhat out of breath.
“Are you Saint Aidan?” the lad gasped. “We have need of your help in Killannach.”
“That’ll be the Strömkarl, then,” Aidan said reflectively.
The boy’s eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“The birds told me,” Aidan said as if this were an everyday occurrence. Perhaps for him it was.
“Will you come now?” the boy asked. “There are horses waiting for us at the edge of the forest.”
“I prefer to walk,” Aidan said, standing up so that the squirrels scattered. “There may be others on our way who need my help. Besides,” he smiled at the boy, “if we walk, we will appreciate the true beauty of God’s world around us.”
As they walked, the boy noticed that Aidan was aware of everything around them.
“Look at that wonderful field of wheat!” he said, pointing out the rippling yellow stalks.
The boy was sure it had ripened as Aidan smiled on it.
Another time, he pointed out scarlet poppies growing in the hedgerows, telling the boy that the seeds and oil were good for bread and cakes, and that several medicines might be distilled from it that would relieve pain. Every so often, he stopped and listened more closely to the birds, a joyous expression on his face.
“Can you hear the different sounds they make?” he asked more than once. “That happy sound is a chaffinch – it’s like a little stream bubbling over. And the thrush makes a shorter, sharper sound.”
“Do you understand what they’re saying?” the boy wanted to know.
Aidan chuckled. “The males tend to warn each other not to get too close to their patch; and the females let the males know they’re ready to be courted. When you hear the tiny cheeping sounds like that –” he paused and let the boy listen – “that’s usually a baby crying for its mother because she’s left the nest and he doesn’t know where she is.”
They had been walking for some time now and the boy was growing tired. Spotting a farmhouse in the distance, he tugged at Aidan’s sleeve. “Do you think they would give us a bed for the night?”
“We can ask,” Aidan replied.
A little later, they were knocking on the door just as twilight began falling. From within, they could hear angry barking and the fractious crying of a baby. Aidan looked at the boy. “We arrived at just the right time,” he said.
A harried woman opened the door to them, leaking anxiety.
“What do you want?” she asked, trying to make her voice heard over the screaming child in her arms.
“We are simple travellers on our way to Killannach,” Aidan told her. “Would you let us shelter in your barn or stable overnight?”
At the sound of his voice, the dogs quietened down and the baby stopped crying. Aidan held out his arms. “May I?” Taking the now tranquil child from its mother, he stroked its downy head and tickled its cheek. The baby gurgled contentedly. “He’s a grand little chap,” said Aidan as the chubby fingers wrapped themselves around his own much larger one.
“He likes you.” The woman sounded perplexed. “What did you do to make him stop crying?”
Aidan shrugged. “I just let him know he was safe.”
He stepped into the farmhouse, joggling the child, and the woman followed him in, too surprised to do anything else.
“Will you have a bite to eat?” she asked at last, regarding him and the boy. “Your lad looks like the hungry type.”
“All boys are hungry,” said Aidan, smiling. “He’s no relation, though – just someone keeping me company on my journey.”
He sat and played with the baby while the woman bustled about, finding bread and cheese and telling the boy to set out wooden plates. Presently, the farmer came in, a grim expression on his face.
“The milk’s turned again,” he said. “It doesn’t matter when I go to the cows – morning or evening, it’s just the same.”
“Is there a problem in the dairy?” Aidan asked.
The farmer glanced at the stranger sitting by the fire and nodded. “This place seems cursed with bad luck,” he said bitterly. “The milk’s sour five minutes after being in the pail; the chickens don’t lay anymore; and the harvest has failed for the past three years.”
Aidan stood up. “This little one’s almost asleep,” he said. “Let me put him in his cradle and then I’ll see what I can do about your troubles.”
The farmer took Aidan all over his farm that evening, pointing out everything that had gone wrong. Aidan was thoughtful.
“May I sleep in your cowshed tonight?” he asked.
“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the house?” the farmer asked. He liked this quietly spoken young man. There was something about him, although he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
Aidan shook his head. “I think I know what’s causing your problems,” he said. “If I sleep in the cowshed, I’ll be able to see if I’m right.”
The next morning, Aidan opened his eyes before the rooster crowed. Some of the cows were fidgeting in their stalls. He fetched the milking stool and a pail and set to work. Once he had filled the bucket with the warm, foamy liquid, he set it down on the ground and waited. Almost instantly, a wizened, black creature sidled into the cowshed, heading for the pail of fresh milk. Dipping a long, skinny finger into the liquid, it began stirring it round and round.
“I thought as much,” said Aidan.
The creature gave a start. “You can see me?” it said wonderingly.
“I can,” said Aidan, “and unless I’m very much mistaken, you’re a kobold: a mischief-maker. I’ll warrant you’ve been stealing the eggs too – that’s why the farmer thinks his hens have stopped laying.”
The imp grinned evilly. “Just because you can see me doesn’t mean you can stop me.”
“No?” queried Aidan. “I have a bottle of holy water here that thinks differently.” And with that, he pulled the stopper from the little bottle he had hidden in his hand and sprinkled a few drops on the creature’s head.
The kobold squealed as steam rose from its scorched skin. “Have mercy!” it begged as Aidan advanced.
“I will grant you your life,” Aidan said sternly, “on condition that you leave this farm and never return.”
“I promise,” wailed the tormented thing. “Now let me leave!”
It slithered out the way it had come and Aidan looked at the milk. “Soured already,” he said, “but we can sort that out.” And he placed his own finger in the pail and began stirring in the opposite direction to the creature until the milk was pure once more.
Carrying the pail to the farmhouse, he rapped on the door and presented the startled farmer with the milk.
“I was just coming out to the cows now,” said he.
“No need,” said Aidan. “They’re milked already and there are eggs aplenty in the henhouse.”
The farmer’s eyes filled with tears as he realised his run of bad luck was over, and they all sat down to breakfast feeling merry hearted indeed.
It was not long before Aidan and the boy had to leave. Before they departed, Aidan sprinkled holy water around the cow shed and the hen house to ensure that the place would not be visited by another sprite, and then they set off, with Aidan whistling and the boy joining in as best he could. It was sometime after they had gone when the farmer turned to his wife and said, “What did that stranger look like? I can’t for the life of me recall his face.”
His wife thought that his eyes had been blue – or perhaps green – or brown. “And his hair was dark,” she added, “or was it red, or golden?”
But they both agreed that – whatever he looked like – his smile was honest and his heart was pure; and the baby laughed contentedly in its cradle.
“So, when did your village realise that it had a Strömkarl?” Aidan asked as they walked along.
The boy considered. “We’ve had a lot of drownings in the past few months,” he said at last. “People have said they heard music and they’ve run towards it, over the ice –“
“Ice in the summer?” Aidan queried.
The boy nodded. “For some reason, the lake freezes over every night. And people run across it to reach the music – but they never come back.”
“That’s a Strömkarl, all right,” Aidan told him. “They’re evil spirits from the northlands who lure their victims to a watery grave. It’s strange to see one in these parts, though – perhaps one stowed away on a Viking ship.”
“Can you defeat it?” the boy asked next.
Aidan smiled gently. “Light always defeats darkness. That is God’s way.”
And they said no more on the matter for the rest of the day.
The boy soon noticed that Aidan was loved wherever he went. Children followed him down the street; animals came to him to be stroked or petted; and flowers seemed to bloom wherever his foot touched the earth. He felt proud to be accompanying this holy man back to his village; but his heart was troubled for he knew that the Strömkarl’s music was hard to resist – not that he’d heard it himself, you understand, but he had watched his friend Liam struggling to escape his father’s grip and follow the tune that called to him. Ever since then, Liam had been tied to his bed with ropes to prevent him from running after the evil spirit.
After several days, they came to Killannach and he noticed the respect in people’s eyes when they stared at Aidan. The saint, meanwhile, was unaware of this hero worship, conversing with the grandmothers, playing bowls with the grandfathers and entertaining the children with his stories of the woodland creatures he lived amongst. Finally, as evening drew in, he looked at the village council and said, “It is time. Show me the lake where the Strömkarl plays his fiddle.”
The people would have followed him in a winding procession right up to the water’s edge for such was the way he had about him that all who spoke with him or even received one of his smiles felt instantly as if he knew them best of all, but he chided them gently, telling them to stay at home where they would be safe in their beds and he took with him only the boy and the boy’s grandmother who was a wise woman, well versed in herb lore.
The grey mist had descended once more as they reached the lake, and a fine, grey, cobwebby thing it was too but it could not hide the shadowy figure with the violin. Thin, bony fingers clutched the bow as they had done every night since the last full moon and the and Strömkarl stroked the strings as before until they moaned and groaned; and as each note rose into the air, the wind grew colder until the lake began to freeze.
Aidan turned to the boy and his grandmother, and the smile he gave them both now was the smile of an angel. “Stuff your ears with rosemary,” he said for he knew without being told that the grandmother always carried a bunch of that herb at her waist; and he knew too that rosemary is a herb of remembrance and that it would protect them both so they would not forget their loved ones to follow the music.
And the Strömkarl played his song and the music was terrible to hear for it spoke of death and disease and despair, and the grass at the water’s edge now withered and became lifeless, but Aidan strode on, walking across the surface of the lake until he came to the spot where the Strömkarl stood, calling to any who would hear.
“Enough,” said Aidan, and making the sign of the cross, he let himself sink through the ice and into the water, down, down, down towards the depths of the Strömkarl’s lair and the Strömkarl followed him. And then the ice closed over and the lake was silent once more.
Beneath the surface of the lake, the water was as cold as death and as murky as sin, but a pure white light gleamed around Aidan and the Strömkarl gritted its teeth with rage for evil always hates the sight of light. Down and down and down they sank until they finally reached the creature’s larder and the bodies of all who had been seduced by its music – and Aidan saw that these people were still alive although their skin was grey and their eyes were empty, and he knew that they must be released and returned to their loved ones.
And the Strömkarl reached once more for its fiddle and as it played, weeds wrapped themselves around Aidan’s arms and legs, binding them to his sides, and the hideous beetles and crustaceans that dwelt on the bed of the lake scuttled from their nests and began to crawl over his body.
Then Aidan opened his mouth and began to sing, and despite the fact that they were under water, every note was pure and true and the weeds that bound him melted into nothingness and the creepy crawlies crept and crawled away.
“What do you want?” asked the Strömkarl, and its voice was harsh and full of anger and bitterness.
“I want those you have stolen,” replied Aidan. “They are not yours – they belong to the good people of Killannach and there are fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and grandparents and sweethearts who mourn those they have lost.”
“And what will you give me in return?” the creature asked craftily although it knew already what the answer would be for good always sacrifices itself for others.
“I will give you myself,” answered Aidan, and the Strömkarl shuddered with delight for although the taste of human blood was sweet and the creature drank nightly from the victims in its larder, it knew that the taste of a holy man is sweetest of all and that one single drop of Aidan’s life force would sustain it for a week.
And so the Strömkarl sank its long, pointed teeth into Aidan’s neck and tasted his blood and it was like liquid light, sweet and strong and full of power. The Strömkarl grinned maliciously for it knew that Aidan was now bound to the underwater lair and that that he would remain here with all the others in the larder, for there was only one way to set free those the Strömkarl had fed from and that was a secret that no one knew save the Strömkarl itself.
“Your sacrifice was for nought,” the Strömkarl said, enjoying its torment of Aidan, “for you are now my prisoner and I will continue to play my fiddle and add to my larder until the whole village lies beneath the water.” It regarded Aidan’s face, searching to see if his skin was as grey and his eyes as empty as the others who surrounded him; and it was true that the white light no longer gleamed around Aidan for the creature had fed so greedily that it had taken almost every drop of blood he had.
With his last breath, Aidan closed his eyes and prayed for strength to defeat this deceitful creature. “I do not ask for my own life,” he prayed, “only let me rescue these others that they may return to their loved ones.”
As he prayed, life returned to his body and he saw that the creature was looking at him, its eyes now full of terror.
“Listen to me, Strömkarl,” Aidan said in ringing tones. “My blood is in your body – my blood which is full of light and goodness. You are a creature of the dark but the light defeats you.”
And it was true that the Strömkarl could already feel itself being destroyed from the inside out.
With a cry of rage, the Strömkarl reached for its fiddle, but Aidan stretched out his hands and broke the fiddle in two, and as the Strömkarl exploded in a burst of light and goodness, Aidan and the others found that they were standing once more at the edge of the lake and the water was clear and there was no ice in sight and the fog had disappeared.
The boy ran over to Aidan and hugged him and Aidan ruffled the lad’s hair. Then he plucked the rosemary from the grandmother’s ears and told her that they were returning to the village. Meanwhile, those who had been imprisoned in the larder blinked with surprise to find themselves on dry land once more and already their skin was losing the greyish tinge and their eyes were sparkling with life and hope.
And so they returned to the village, and a merry procession it was too. Donal wept with joy to see his Brigid once more and there was feasting and celebration all night long as children were restored to parents and brothers to sisters and sweethearts to each other.
In the morning, the boy noticed that Aidan was ready to leave.
“Won’t you stay with us?” he asked, but the saint shook his head.
“There are other people in need of my help now,” he said. “The Strömkarl is gone and will trouble you no further, but there are other villages in Ireland where evil has taken a hold and I must be on my way.”
The boy sadly watched him leave; and then his grandmother called and so the boy ran off to help her.