“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”
The ocean covers seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface, yet over ninety-five percent of it remains unexplored. The thought of a monster, like those portrayed in the sea odysseys of science fiction, is not entirely far-fetched. Consider, then, the water horse, a common creature in Scandinavian folklore. In Iceland, this mythical horse is called Nykur (also Nóni, Nennir, or “takers,” and Vatnaskratti, meaning “water demon”). Little is known about the Nykur’s origin, but the figure has many counterparts in neighboring countries and mythologies. In Orkney, it is known as a Nuggle; in Sweden, Bäckahästen; in Germany, the Nix; and Celtic legend refers to him as Kelpie. The Nykur appears as an ordinary, and rather docile horse, albeit with one peculiarity—backwards hooves. The fabled beast lurks along the shores of oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, and bogs. Some believe that the creature’s loon-like whinny is an omen of a future drowning, and that during winter the sound of breaking ice is actually the neighing of a Nykur.
With its head down and hooves hidden in the water the Nykur appears friendly, and lures people to sit on its back. Said to have sticky skin, the unsuspecting victim—usually a young child or recent mother—cannot free herself as the Nykur gallops into the water and drowns its prey. Like all proper myths, the tale of the Nykur serves as a warning: here, for children to stay away from the water and, thus, the chance of drowning.
While recitations of the Nykur myth conjure morbid images of children cutting their hands off to free themselves from the adhesive hide, there are known talismans against this creature, the greatest of which is simply to say “Nykur” aloud. The water horse cannot stand the sound of its own name, and immediately drops its doomed rider and returns to the water upon hearing it. On occasion, this reversal of spell also entails punishment for the Nykur as it assumes the shape of a normal horse, and is forced to plough the fields.