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Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore
As remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia By J. A. Tett.


The Water-Horse
The Njogel
Beings Half Horse and Half Fish
Sea-People, or Mermen and Mermaids
Seal-People or Selki-Folk
Sea-Trolls or Sea-Trows (Fairies or Elves of the Sea)
The Brigdi
Sjafer, Shaffer, or Shaffer-Whaal
Finner, Finner-Whaal, or Fin-Whaal, etc.
The Sea-Serpent or Kraken
Sea-Serpent that makes the Tides
Floating Monsters
Phantom Island
Phantom Boats and Ships
Sea-Spirits and Sea-Witches
Sea-Language and the Sea-God


It has often been pointed out that two or three generations ago the Shetland Islands would have yielded a rich harvest to the folklorist. This would have proved almost equally true only a generation ago; but all is now fast passing away under modern conditions and the new environment. Although most of the practices have now fallen into disuse, and little or no faith is preserved in the old beliefs, much valuable material is still retained in the memory of the people.

Many writers have in recent years collected and published much of the folk-lore of the Islands,1 but no systematic and adequate efforts have been made In this direction. Thus, no doubt, much has either been lost or remains unrecorded. This is particularly true, I believe, of the traditional narratives and of practices of various kinds. No scientific comparative study of the available printed information as a whole has been undertaken up to the present time, so far as my knowledge goes.

Shetlandic folk-lore, in my opinion, is decidedly Scandinavian in character, as many of the surviving beliefs, practices, and tales are identical with those lately current in the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway. This is, moreover, in accord with the history of the country.

Settlement from Norway was commenced by the Vikings probably late in the sixth or early in the seventh century,2 and was continued, no doubt, throughout the next three centuries. From the ninth century (commencing with the subjugation of the Viking inhabitants by King Harald Harf&gri) to late in the fifteenth century, the country formed part of the kingdom of Norway under Norwegian and Danish sovereignty, being ruled part of the time by the Jarls of Orkney, and for about two hundred years directly from Norway in conjunction with the Faeroe Islands. After the country was mortgaged to Scotland, the Shetlanders still kept up very close relations with Norway until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Shetland folk-lore is also very closely related to that of the Orkney Islands, the history of the two groups of islands being much alike. How far south into Scotland this stream of Scandinavian oral traditions extends, I am unable to say; but certain beliefs and practices along the east and west coasts of Scotland appear to be closely related to those obtaining in the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Nevertheless the folk-lore of these districts may generally differ quite considerably from that of the Shetland Islands.

Whether there are any survivals in Shetland of distinctively Celtic or Finnish folk-lore, is doubtful.1 It is quite unlikely, however, that traditions from these practically prehistoric races in the Islands survived the settlement of the Norsemen and the many centuries of close Norwegian connection.

Increasing contact with Scotland since about the beginning of the seventeenth century has brought in new elements from the south. When the Scottish or English language became generally understood, this increment seems to have consisted almost entirely of ballads, folk-songs, and certain sayings and proverbs. Probably little in the nature of practices, beliefs, and folk-tales has been added from this source; and therefore the general folk-lore of the country is not likely to have been much altered since pre-Scottish times. As the ancient Norse language gradually fell into disuse, during the eighteenth century, the popular old Norse Sagas, ballads, and songs were superseded almost entirely by those of Lowland Scottish and English origin. Only fragments in partly corrupted forms of the Norse language2 have been handed down to the present day, while some others with native Norse themes appear in English garb.

In the following notes I have confined myself to the description of the beliefs in water-beings until recently current in Shetland. These beliefs are, on the whole, well known to most Shetlanders, and much has already been printed thereon. I do not claim, therefore, to offer very much new material in these notes. A part of the information here given is based on what I remember having heard in Shetland when I was young; and perhaps quite as much is derived from discussions with elderly Shetlanders residing in America, particularly in British Columbia.

It may be noted that there is practically no such thing as a Shetland-Canadian folk-lore, or a Scandinavian-Canadian folk-lore, in the sense, for instance, of French-Canadian, or even German- and Scotch-Canadian folk-lore, as Scandinavian settlement in Canada is as a whole quite recent and until lately has never been compact enough to allow the homeland lore to take root. For this reason the Canadian of Scandinavian descent, when born in Canada, retains generally little or nothing of the lore of his ancestral land. Only the immigrant of European birth and raising retains some knowledge of the traditions of his native country, but very little of it is transferred to the succeeding generation.


The Njogel. A being or spirit formerly believed in was the water-horse, generally known in Shetland as the njogel, njuggel, njogli, or water-njogel, and also sometimes called nikker, sjopeltin, or sjupilti. The last term is confined chiefly to North Shetland. This being is described as similar in size and shape to a horse or pony of the Shetland type, well proportioned, and of great strength and fleetness. Generally he was4 fat and sleek, and of handsome appearance; but occasionally he appeared as a very thin, worn-out, old horse. His color was gray, usually rather dark gray, but sometimes lighter or darker, and approximating to white or black. He differed from ordinary horses in that his hair grew and lay in the opposite direction to the hair of other horses; his fetlocks grew upwards instead of downwards; his mane was stiff and erect; his hoofs were also reversed and pointed backwards; and his tail was shaped like the rim of a wheel. Why the tail was so peculiar in form seems to be unknown; but the people say that it must have, been of special utility to him in some way, perhaps used for propulsion in the water or to accelerate his speed on land, or perhaps to stop water-mills in aome way. Some claim that his naturally very long tail was dragged behind, and occasionally rolled up like a hoop or the rim of a wheel, between his legs, or on his back. He could roll it up at will.

Partly because of these peculiarities, by which he could be detected, the water-horse was rarely seen in the day-time, but appeared generally at dusk or at night. When out of the water, he usually frequented the edge of lakes and streams, or paths in lonely dales near the water. The njogel was mischievous and fond of playing pranks. According to some, he was evil and revengeful, and sometimes intentionally tried to harm or even to kill people.

Perhaps his most common trick consisted in lying in wait for foot-travellers in the dusk of the evening, when he would stand meekly close to some trail, with his tail hidden between his legs. When the weary traveller would mount him to ride some distance, the horse would first go slowly, but soon he quickened his pace; and before long the astonished rider would find out that he was being carried at an ever-increasing break-neck speed towards some lake. As the horse’s speed increased, a haze rose around him, lighting up the darkness. Streaks of fire or blue flames burst from his feet, and fiery smoke or blue flames issued from his nostrils and mouth. His distended eyes became fierce and flashed fire. Paralyzed with fright, the luckless rider was finally plunged into the lake, where the horse disappeared from under him, and he was left to drown. The horse continued to the opposite side of the lake, and vanished in a blue light.

Sometimes the njogel approached men as if he were a very tame horse; at other times, when a man had passed by without attempting to catch him or mount him, unobserved he would run ahead and wait for him again at some other part of the trail, trying thus again to entice him. He would occasionally change his appearance, the better to deceive, first showing himself as a young fat horse, and then as an old, lean or bony horse.

Although the njogel generally carried people into lakes, he also took them sometimes to the middle of streams, into dams, over waterfalls, or into rough, swift water. As a rule, he ran a straight course to the nearest deep water, occasionally taking people into the sea or to the mouths of streams, and even jumping with them off cliffs into the sea, presumably causing them to be drowned, although no stories actually relate such an occurrence. The njogel never seems to have attacked people, although he frightened them or tried to drown them, as stated above.

He had the power at will to make anything that touched him stick to him. Thus any one who mounted him could not escape, unless he had the presence of mind to call on God’s name or call the njogel by his own name. In either case the njogel at once vanished from under the rider.

I have known at least three or four people who thoroughly believed in the existence of the njogel. One of these, an old man, had seen him on several occasions. Once in South Shetland, while he was travelling in the dusk of evening, on nearing a lake, he saw a horse emerging from the water at the far end of the lake, and running swiftly over a hill which ended in a precipice over the sea. The horse passed over the top, and disappeared in a blue light. The same informant relates, that on another occasion, on a dark night while passing a lonely lake in West Shetland, a peculiar creepy feeling came over him. Thinking that “trolls” might be near, he said aloud, “God be near me!” Immediately something dimly visible, in the form of a horse, started from his side, and rushed away towards the lake. He heard a great splash in the water, and soon afterwards a blue light passed over the hill on the opposite side of the lake. He then knew that the utterance of God's name had made the njogel run away. The calling of the njogel by his own name would have had the same effect, as his identity was thus exposed. He was also afraid of iron, it appears, and particularly of a knife.

Another old man who had once ridden the njogel told his experience as follows (I have now forgotten a few details of the narrative): “One night, when (the narrator was) a young man, he was going west through a lonely part of the district of Tingwal. At that time there were no roads; and, not being well acquainted with the country, he was cutting across the hills, trying to reach his destination. While skirting some mossy-boggy ground in a little dale, he ran against a horse apparently grazing there. As it was somewhat dark, he did not see him until rather close to him. The horse seemed to be rather old and very gentle, and made no effort to move away when he went to catch him. After rigging up some kind of rope bridle or halter 1 on the horse, he mounted him, intending to ride a few miles. Soon after, the njogel became alert, and began to act like a young horse. Without any urging he quickened his pace, and soon developed a high rate of speed. Becoming suspicious, the man felt of the horse's back with one hand, and noted that the hair grew the wrong way. Upon detecting that it was the water-horse, he at once thought of a Whalsey man who, in a like predicament, had stabbed him. The horse was now going so fast that he seemed to be travelling in the air. Blue sparks were emitted from his feet, and the sound of rushing water could be heard ahead. Seizing his knife, he stabbed the horse in the side between the right ribs. Immediately he fell in a heap on the ground, in a soft marshy place, in which he stuck fast. The horse continued on his course, and disappeared in the direction of the water, bright streaks marking his path. Dazed as he was, the man took some time to extricate himself and get on firm ground; and he could not reach his destination until after daylight. He then made up his mind never again to attempt riding a horse in the dark without first feeling of his tail, or ascertaining by some other means that it was not the njogel

Another common prank of the water-horse was to ascend streams and stop water-mills. This was generally done when milling was going on at night; but it is known to have been done in the evening or even in the day-time, when the horse was seen, and driven away by the miller, who came out, and said, “God be here, and the Devil take the njogel!” At night, fire was generally used to drive him away, a burning peat or torch being thrown down the shaft-hole of the mill. According to some, a knife thrown down had the same effect. On some occasions (probably when neither fire nor knife was at hand) the horse would not let the mill-wheel go until an offering of meal had been made. When milling, some people always gave small offerings of meal in order to avoid trouble or interference from him. These offerings were placed inside the mill or just outside, or thrown from the mill into the water below.

It is said that whenever fire or sparks struck the water in which the njogel happened to be, he at once ran out to the nearest stream or lake, or to the sea.

Very many stories were formerly current relating to the njogel stopping mills or deceiving people in various ways.

Unlike trolls, mermen, etc., this being was always spoken of in the singular; so it seems that in the popular mind there was just the one njogel, or njogel-spirit, which could appear at any time in many places widely apart, much in the same way as the Devil. Some people believed the njogel was one of the fallen angels doomed to inhabit the water in the form of the water-horse, either for all time or for a long period of probation. Somewhat similar ideas, however, were held to account for the origin of nearly all the supernatural beings commonly believed in.

Tangi. Another kind of water-horse or water-spirit is called “Tangi.” In Shetland folk-lore, “Tangi” and the njogel are generally considered as different. The latter is more of a fresh-water being, while the former is usually connected with the sea. There are some, however, who declare that the two are one, and that “Tangi” is merely another name for “the njogel.” Although the characteristics of the two are on the whole much alike, they differ in some important points, and it is clear that in the minds of some people they are quite distinct. Inquiry in different parts of Shetland might perhaps clear up this point.

I have heard the following characteristics ascribed to Tangi. He is described as generally appearing in the shape of a small and beautiful horse of a dark gray or black color. In size and outward appearance he was almost the same as the njogel, but usually darker in color (sometimes pure black). He apparently did not possess the wheellike appendage of the latter. Although usually seen in horse-form, Tangi not infrequently appeared as a man; and, according to some, he could also assume the form of a cow or other animals. When he assumed a human form, he generally appeared as a good-looking young man. When in this guise, he often had amorous propensities towards young women, and tried to deceive them as to his true character.

His usual haunts were the seashores, where he was sometimes seen in daylight ascending and descending the “banks” overlooking the sea. He also frequented the mouths of streams, and often went inland, along the stream, into the lakes. Some claim that his real abode was in heljers (“caves into which the sea flows”) and below the sea underneath high cliffs. He seems to have had a preference for wild and lonely parts of the coast. Crews of boats approaching the land at night, and others fishing offshore under high slopes and cliffs, have frequently seen Tangi moving rapidly up and down, or along these steeps, in the shape of a small fire or blue light. As in the case of the njogel, flames darted out from his feet when he travelled rapidly; and at times he seemed to be wholly enveloped in a kind of vivid halo, which could be seen at a considerable distance on a dark night. At closer range, the figure of a dark horse could often be observed within this halo. One person once told me that Tangi had wings of some kind; but no doubt this was merely a personal notion, based upon Tangi*s rapid movements on land and his ability to jump over high cliffs. According to the same informant, he could prevent anything thrown over a cliff from reaching the sea; and he could find anything thrown into the sea, no matter how deep. Such information has not so far been substantiated by others.

Tangi had the power of casting a spell over people and animals, which made them insane and led them to drown themselves by jumping over diffs into the sea. This spell, I have been told, was especially potent if he ran in circles around people. This caused them to become insensible. On awaking, they would be in a dazed condition, which lasted sometimes for days.

Although harmful (probably even in greater degree than the njogel), there seems to be not as many tales about Tangi as about the njogel. Like him, he was afraid of fire, a knife (or iron?), the naming of God (and his own name).

Once a man, at the Ness (or at the Westin) in the hills, met a black horse at dusk. The horse started to run around him in circles and with increasing speed. The man struck him with a knife, or some iron instrument that he was carrying, thus saving himself from becoming spellbound. The horse then ran off, and, enveloped in a blue light, disappeared over the edge of a high cliff.

Another story, very similar to the one just related, is told of a man alone in the hills who had some kind of encounter with Tangi in human form. I have now forgotten the details; but somehow or other the man beat Tangi, who thereupon became transformed into a horse, and ran off.

Beings Half Horse and Half Fish. — I have heard stories of beings half horse and half fish occasionally caught by fishermen on lines in deep water. Their upper parts, it seems, were formed like those of a horse; and their lower parts, like those of a fish. They were rather small, and not all exactly alike. One was caught in North or East Shetland Waters, I am told, some time in the seventies or eighties. This was probably the last one taken. I have forgotten the exact notions held regarding these beings; but I think that (in North Shetland) they were supposed to have some connection with the sjupelti (or Tangi?), possibly being its offspring. These creatures had a special name, which I do not remember. A Norwegian told me that such beings were occasionally caught by Norwegian fishermen off the northwest coast of Norway. I was told by another Norwegian that in some Norwegian tales of the water-horse or water-man, who is generally called “Nok,” he is described as playing sweet music in the water, which has the effect of making all those listening to it lose their senses and become crazy. In Shetland folk-lore this is true, it seems, only of mermaids and trolls.


It was believed that a light and beautiful land, underneath the watery wastes of the ocean, was inhabited by war-men or war-folk, who lived in beautiful halls and spacious caves of coral, amidst groves of aquatic trees and plants.

These beings were like people when in their homes; but when they were travelling through the sea, they became half man and half fish; their upper parts remaining man-like, while their nether parts became fish-like, or were enveloped in a fish-like covering. Without this fish-like covering, these people could not travel the seas; but, as it was of no use to them in other elements, they immediately discarded it upon arriving home, and also when they came ashore in the upper world.

They were about the size of the smallest people among us, and very well proportioned. Of a mild disposition, they were much attached to one another. They are known to have been fond of music, singing, dancing, and story-telling, when at home; and some of them played flutes and harp-like instruments.

The men were darker in complexion than the women, and had hair and beards of various colors; for instance, brown, black, gray, and reddish. Their beards and hair were generally rather long. The women had fine features, light skins, and very long yellow hair, which floated around them when they were in the water. They sometimes came ashore in fine moonlight nights and sat on the rocks, combing their hair. They could sing very sweetly, and their singing enchanted men, and perhaps Other beings. If a man heard her song and saw her, he became spell-bound. It is said that men became so insanely in love with mermaids, that they followed them into the sea, and were drowned. When a mermaid sang, seals also came crowding around, and remained listening as if spell-bound. Mermen, unlike mermaids, very rarely came ashore.

These sea-people occasionally played tricks on fishermen (especially when lines were set over their abodes) by fastening their hooks to the bottom or to seaweeds, or by taking the bait and sometimes the fish also off the hooks.

To see mermen at sea generally meant some kind of bad luck, bad weather, or danger. In fair weather, fishermen have seen what at first appeared to be a large seal rise out of the water and look intently at their boat. On further observing the creature, they would see that it had human features and long hair. Then they realized that it was one of the sea-people watching them; and this always foreboded a storm. If they were not noticed by the sea-being, no evil result need be predicted.

Stories are told of these people having been caught on hooks and hauled up to the surface or into boats. When thus caught, they begged to be released, and offered good luck or a reward for their release. Captors who had released them have afterwards been lucky, while those who retained them or harmed them have been drowned or have experienced bad luck. A story relates how a Norden man (North Shetlander), one of the crew of a boat engaged in &a/-fishing (deep-sea fishing), found, when hauling in the lines, a mermaid (caught by the hand?) on one of the hooks. As she was brought alongside the boat, she begged not to be harmed, and prayed to be released; but before releasing her from the hook, the man stabbed her in the breast and she sank out of sight, moaning piteously. A severe storm came on shortly afterwards, and the boat barely made the land. The man was afterwards haunted, and eventually he was drowned.

It was believed that these people could foretell the future. Thus, when one was caught at sea, he (or she) was asked before being released to tell the fortunes of the men. The mar-folk according to some, could not live long ashore or in the sea, the atmosphere of their own element beneath the sea being different from either. Others say that they could live a long time ashore, but that they were always unhappy, and sooner or later died of grief, if not returned to the sea. There seems to be some confusion in Shetland folk-lore between these sea-people, or mar-folk, and the selki-folk as some people say of the former that they could assume seal-form as well as fish-form when travelling in the sea, or that they could more frequently assume the shape of a seal than that of a fish. In both cases real transformations were not involved, but mere coverings were adjusted to enable them to roam the seas. To travel under water they enveloped themselves entirely in these contrivances; but on the surface of the sea their heads, necks, shoulders, and breast were uncovered, being out of water, and only the lower parts of necessity retained their fish or seal envelope. When they came ashore, they entirely discarded them, but never went very far; and in the case of alarm or some one approaching, they at once resumed their sea-forms and jumped into the sea. The loss of these possessions meant that they could no longer travel in the sea.

Some people even say that all had seal coverings, and that their body ended in hind flippers and that these have probably been mistaken for fish-tails. Stories are told of mermaids having married Shetlanders, and these narratives do not differ materially from similar ones referring to seal-folk. Sometimes the same narrative, in fact, refers to both kinds, the woman being a mermaid in one version, and a seal-woman in another. It seems, however, that most people differentiate them quite clearly.


There was a current belief that seals, under certain circumstances (or at will?), could assume human form. This they accomplished at their homes or chief haunts, such as distant rocks and breeding-places, and also where they basked in the sun. It would generally happen on definite days or nights in the year, at certain tides, and during certain kinds of weather. Many stories were told of seals coming ashore, divesting themselves of their skins, and then dancing, gamboling, and enjoying themselves in human form. On the approach of man, they rushed for their skins and ran to the sea. There are narratives also about naked seal-women captured by men, who, unobserved, had obtained possession of their skins; without these, the women were unable to return to the sea, and were doomed to remain on land until they could recover them. As seal-folk were very comely and well-proportioned, whoever saw them in human form was almost invariably enamoured of them. In certain accounts, seal-men are described as having had children by daughters of men, and men are said to have mamed seal-women. Several of these stories differ only in minor details, and relate how a man hid a seal-woman’s skin, and compelled her to marry him. After having had a number of children, one day she discovered the skin when her husband was away (or one of her children told her where it was concealed), whereupon she deserted her home and children, and returned to the sea. Her husband went to the seashore and entreated her to return, but without avail. The husband, in one story, committed suicide by throwing himself into the sea.

The following story belonging to this type was related to me. Once an unmarried man went to a place where the flat rocks on the shore were a haunt for seals. As he wanted to see the seals in their human form, he hid himself and waited until evening, when he saw a number of seals come ashore, throw off their seal coverings, and play and dance in human form. A pretty young woman disrobed near his hiding-place, and left her skin near by neatly folded up. He managed to seize the skin unobserved by any of the seal-people, and sat down on it. The woman danced with a young seal-man who, he thought, must be her lover. At daybreak a great clamor of gulls alarmed the seals, who ran for their skins and made for the sea. The young woman, unable to find her skin and return to the sea with her friends, began to cry bitterly. A single seal, no doubt the lover with whom she had danced, remained near the shore in the sea, waiting for her after all the others had disappeared. Soon the man came up and tried to comfort her, saying that she would be better off on the land, and in him would find a better lover than she could find in the sea. Seeing that he had possession of her skin, she begged him to give it back to her, offering to do anything for him in return. He refused, and went off carrying the skin. She followed him, and at last had to consent to remain with him as his wife. He kept her seal-skin in his trunk, and always concealed the key or carried it on his person. When he was absent, she often looked for the skin, but could never find it. Many years she lived with him, and bore a number of children. Often her lover, the lone seal, came to the shore, looking for her, and the woman was seen going there and talking with him. Some neighbors (or her children) reported this to her husband. One day the man went fishing, and forgot the key in his trunk. The woman (or one of her children) noticed this, and opened the trunk. There she found the skin; and when the man came home, his wife was gone. He went down to the shore, and found her in the water: with a seal at her side. She called to him, 4 Good-by V and told him to look well after their children. She also asked him not to kill any seals, because by doing so he might kill her, her seal-husband, or her seal-children. If he heeded not this request, he would have bad luck. After she had departed in seal-form with her companion, he saw her no more.”

Stories about men making journeys across channels of the sea on the backs of seals were also current. Some of these from the west of Shetland, already in print, relate how a party of seal-hunters, owing to a sudden storm, had to leave one of their number on the rocky reef where they had been clubbing seals. One of the seals, having only been stunned, came to consciousness again after his skin had been removed, and finding himself skinless, lamented his wretched state. His mother (or mate, according to one version), seeing the deserted hunter, offered him a passage across the sound on her back if he would promise to obtain the skin of her son. The man made hand-holds in her skin with his knife, and crossed on her back. He found the skin, and returned it to her for her son.

Offsprings of the seal-folk with human beings are just like other people, except that some of them may have their hands slightly bent in somewhat the same way as seals' flippers, and others may have rather large and hard webs of skin between their fingers (and toes?). According to some, the descendants of these unions usually have a darker complexion, and many of them have some defect of the skin, such as rough, dark, hard spots of varying size, on some part of their body (sometimes the neck and face). Persons descended from mermaids also usually had rough patches of skin — sometimes more or less completely covered with scales — on some part of the body. I remember that when I was a boy, two or three persons were pointed out as being affected with these skin-blemishes, which, it was said, proved their descent. Transmitted through a number of generations, these characteristics did not appear in all individuals.

Selki-folk, it is believed, nearly always appeared in groups when they came ashore to take human form, while war-folk and Finn-folk generally appeared singly. Some kind of bond was supposed to exist between sea-gulls, seal-people, and sea-people or mermaids, etc. Thus gulls watched over the welfare of the seals when they were ashore, and warned them of the approach of danger; and seals did the same for mermaids.

It was also believed that seals were fallen angels doomed to continue their existence in the sea. This belief, however, also refers to trolls and other supernatural beings. Mermen or mermaids and seal-people, as well as seal-people and Fiww-people, are confused in the minds of some informants. Seals of the larger kinds, called “haf-fish,” were credited with the power of doing people harm or bewitching them. In some cases they were Finn-men in seal-form (see under "Finn-folk”).


In the minds of some people, Finn-folk were large seals that took on human form, rather than men (or Finns) who could transform themselves into seals; while the small seals were the real seal or selki-folk. It seems, however that the great majority of people hold the reverse to be true; i. e., that the Finn-folk were real people who had the power of assuming seal-form.

Many stories were known about these Finns, who were great magicians and wizards, who could make themselves visible or invisible as they chose, or transform themselves into seals, particularly the large varieties called uhaaf or haf-fish”. The seal-form was assumed by these people at will, especially when they wanted to go fishing, to travel rapidly from island to island, or to journey to and fro from Norway and elsewhere.

Some claim that each Finn possessed a seal-skin garment, covering, or envelope wherewith he clothed or enclosed himself when he went into the sea. If he lost this skin, he could no longer go into the water. I have heard of Finns having journeyed to or from Norway in only a few hours, and of long journeys between islands occupying only a few minutes. While these journeys were made in seal-form, it seems that Finns could also travel rapidly in boats, for it is stated that in rowing these were skin boats; and the Shetland and Orkney traditions of Finn-people casting off their skins on coming ashore, it is thought, they advanced nine miles at a stroke. According to Spence, they were the only people*who could ride the njogel or water-horse, and they sometimes utilized him in their rapid movements.

The Finn-iolk were secretive, wise, and gifted with magical powers. They understood the languages of birds and animals; and, besides enjoying the power of assuming seal-form, they (or at least some of them) could also transform themselves into porpoises, ravens, dogs, beetles, etc. These powers, however, were also ascribed to some wizards and witches who were not Finns. The Finn-io\k could to a great extent control the weather, making it fine or stormy as they wished: therefore they were good weather-prophets. They also knew the future, and could foretell calamities,—what was to happen to people, animals, boats or ships, when people were to die or be sick, and so forth. They were acquainted with all kinds of charms to ward off trouble, obtain good luck, prevent sickness, cure diseases of men and cattle, bring about the recovery of cattle that had been “elf-shot” (i. e., bewitched or hurt by fairies or elves), and drive away trous or trolls (fairies) or elfs (elves), etc., or counteract their evil deeds. They could find objects lost in the ocean or on land, and indicate where stolen goods were. Payment was often offered them for services rendered in some of these matters Acknowledged as lucky fishermen, they could catch fish whenever they wanted, as they could tell where and how many fish were to be caught. On the whole, it seems that they seldom used their powers to do people harm, although some have been known to cause storms which overturned boats. Partly on account of a belief that they were not exactly human, but were in some way related to seals, they — like wizards and witches — were feared, and to some extent shunned, or at least looked upon with suspicion.

Some Finn-folk were well known as such, because of their open practice of magic. They, moreover, never tried to deny their identity. Others were known to be Finns only on account of certain peculiarities, physical or other, such as their rather small stature, dark complexion, odd appearance, and the blemishes of their skin resembling that of the descendants of selki-folk.

All these peculiarities do not seem to have prevented intermarriage between them and other people. Some Finn-io\k, moreover, were so much like other people in physique and behavior, that they lived all their lives among them without betraying their identity. Some stories relate the harpooning, shooting, or wounding of Finn-io\k by men who had mistaken them for large seals, the external appearance of which they had temporarily assumed. The true character and race of certain men hitherto quite unsuspected of being Finns have thus been discovered. I shall now give as an example what I can remember of such a story: "Somewhere in the east of Shetland, a man came upon a large seal lying asleep among some rocks on a beach, and stabbed him with his tolli ["large knife”]. The seal managed to get away to the sea with the knife sticking in him. When at Bergen (or some other part in the west of Norway) some time afterwards, this man called on an old friend there whom he had known well for years. In the course of conversation, the old man inquired as to whether he had lost a knife at such a date and place. Answering in the affirmative, the Shetlander then related how the seal had escaped with it. The old man then showed his visitor a knife, which was at once recognized as the one he had lost, with the remark, 'It would not have been so bad if you had not twisted the knife when you put it in.’ It was thus made clear that the old man was a Finn who had been stabbed while he was disguised as a seal.”

In another story a man wounded a large seal, which succeeded in escaping. Shortly afterwards it was discovered that a man living in a neighboring district had been wounded in some mysterious way in the very part of the body where the seal had been hit. The wounded man was thus discovered to be a Finn. For this reason some men had an aversion to killing the large seals or haf-fish, for fear that they might kill some Finn in seal-form.

In stories about men hunting large seals with guns, it is said that each time a certain seal was aimed at, the gun missed fire; this was considered a sure sign that a Finn in seal guise had by his magic prevented the gun from going off; no further attempt was then made to shoot at him. It was said to be very unlucky to shoot or wound a Finn in disguise.

In order better to conceal their identity, some Finn people from Norway, when visiting Shetland, would say that they were from Orkney or from Faeroe; likewise others in Norway asserted that they were from Shetland. In this connection, I have heard it said that Dr. Westermark, when on his way to visit Shetland some years ago, disclosed to a Shetlander aboard the steamer that he was a Finn (i.e., a native of Finland). The Shetlander at once advised him not to call himself a Finn when in Shetland, as some of the people there might look upon him with suspicion on account of the old ideas entertained regarding Finns, adding that it would be all right if he called himself a Swede or a Scandinavian.

Shetland tales and traditions seem to point to Norway as the original home of the Finns; they show that intercourse was kept up between Finn-folk there and in Shetland until comparatively recent times.1 According to some informants, Finns versed in magic were still living in western Norway at the end of the eighteenth century, or even later. Shetlanders going there to buy boats sometimes consulted them as to the future, and had their fortunes told. In the “Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute”, there is an article by David McRitchie on the kayak in northwestern Europe, which is of much interest in this connection. The beliefs of the Shetlanders and others in Finn-men are there discussed with the questions of the probable survival until lately of Finns 2 (or Lapps), in southwestern Norway, Shetland, etc.; and of the possible former use of the seal-skin kayak by these people.


This term, as a rule, it seems, is applied to no particular kind of being or beings, but is rather a loose designation for sea-beings of any or all kinds. Some, however, appear to apply the term more particularly to mermen and selki-folk, who were believed to be fallen angels inhabiting the sea, while the real trolls or trows8 were fallen angels frequenting the land. Whales, etc., that went through nets and spoiled them were considered by some as sea-trolls, or agents of the Devil in whale-shape. I have also heard people speak of “da mokkl sea-trow” (“the big sea-troll), a kind of evil spirit that haunted the deep, and apparently sometimes made storms and brought bad luck for fishermen. An old man once told me of a kind of sea-trow in the form of a woman, who uttered wailing cries which were heard on the sea by fishermen, both near and far from shore. To hear the wailing usually portended sorrow or distress to those hearing it (see under “sea-spirits ”).


Many strange and awful monsters, it was believed, dwelled in the deep sea. About these beings I have heard many stories.

The Brigdi. — The brigdi was a kind of whale or “fish” of large size, frequently seen in fine weather, especially off the north and east coasts of Shetland. It generally appeared when travelling around with its fin above water. This fin was of about the size and shape of a boat’s sail, and could be seen from a considerable distance. Upon noticing a boat, the brigdi attacked it by rushing at it and cutting it in two with its large and sharp fin. Sometimes it would hit the boat with its fin sideways, thus crushing it or flattening it down on the water. Some of the larger and stronger boats have escaped with only the gunwales or upper boards smashed on one side. Fishermen were much afraid of this “fish,” and they claim it to be the most dangerous creature of the deep.

Formerly offerings (of coins) seem to have been made, and pieces of iron thrown to it in the water.

At the present day the brigdi is generally recognized as a kind of large shark, called “basking shark” in English; and many of the stories about it are in all likelihood based on actual experiences of fishermen.

Sjafer, Shaffer, or Shaffer-Whaal.— Another kind of “fish” or whale was the sjafer or shaffer. It destroyed boats by diving and coming up under them, thus smashing or capsizing them with its head. To escape them, fishermen took to their oars and rowed a zigzag course. Formerly, when they saw one near, they prayed to it to leave them alone, throwing small silver coins to it as an offering or payment for immunity from attack. At the present day the sjafer is identified by some with the grampus or the thrasher.

Finner, Finner-Whaal, or Fin-Whaal, etc. — Various stories are told of finners (round-lipped or herring-whales) occasionally harming boats. Nearly all the stories told about the finner and other whales and fish occasionally attacking boats seem to be founded on fact. That whales and fish of some kinds are at times a source of danger to fishermen, is undoubtedly true; and several cases of this on record are instanced by small boats broken up, and their crews lost, in fine weather, within a few miles of land. In one instance, relatives of my own were thus lost.

The Sea-Serpent or Kraken. — According to tradition, the sea-serpent was occasionally seen, especially off the coast of Norway. It had its home at the bottom of the sea, and it rarely came to the surface. An old man once told me that it was not seen once in a lifetime, and, when seen, usually portended bad luck or some calamity.

There was just one sea-serpent, according to some; while others believed that there were several that bred under the ocean. Thus large or small ones were seen. Large ones were from one to two hundred feet long. When travelling on the surface of the sea, the sea-serpent’s body stuck out of the water here and there, and its head reared thirty or forty feet above the surface. It had a serpent-like head, large eyes, and a long mane similar to masses of seaweed. Smaller sea-serpents of from eighty to a hundred feet long are said to have been seen. Their bodies looked like a line of skin bows (“buoys for floating nets or lines”) set a little distance apart, and their heads were low in the water.

Sea-serpents, it seems, never attacked any boats; but they were fearful to behold, and people dreaded to see them. When travelling on the surface of the water, they could go at high speed; and they would soon disappear from view. They were seen only in fine or calm weather. Some people believe that large trees drifting in the sea from the Norwegian coast have sometimes been mistaken for sea-serpents.

Once a large serpent was cast ashore dead somewhere (in North Shetland), and its body for months blocked the mouth of a gjo,—a short, narrow inlet of the sea surrounded by steep banks or cliffs Some of its bones could be seen in the water there for many years.

Sea-Serpent that makes the Tides. — Blind1 mentions a belief accounting for the rise and fall of the tides, which has been retained until recently: “Away far out in the sea, near the edge of the world, there lived a monstrous sea-serpent that took about six hours to draw in his breath, and six hours to let it out,” thus causing the rise and fall of the waters.

Floating Monsters. — Several kinds of shapeless monsters have at various times been seen in the sea. One of these was occasionally seen in fine weather. Something like a small floating islet, partly covered with barnacles and seaweed, was supposed to be the back of a huge sea-monster that appeared above water. It was usually very flat, but sometimes humped, or higher in the middle. An uncle of mine told me of once having seen something of this kind when becalmed in a smack somewhere in the northeast waters of Shetland. He and his companions observed a very large and flat object in the water some distance off. It was apparently floating, and resembled a flat islet or rock, of perhaps an acre in extent, almost covered with water. Not being able to make out clearly through the glasses the shape and nature of the object, they lowered their small boat, and, taking a gun, three of them rowed up fairly close to it. They did not dare to go too close, but they could ascertain that the monster (or object) was of great bulk and mostly submerged. The names of two of the men in the boat, if I remember well, w£re Magnus Hughson and Magnus Robertson; and, before they returned, one of them shot a bullet into the object, which shortly afterwards sank quietly out of sight. None of the men ever knew exactly what they had seen. As nothing untoward happened to any of the crew, it was judged that the sight of this creature did not portend evil in any way. Some people argue that these things may be partly submerged wrecks or derelicts grown over with barnacles and seaweed.


Phantom Island. — I have heard stories of a phantom island which is sometimes seen, but disappears when people row or sail close to it.

Phantom Boats and Ships. — Phantom boats and ships have often been seen, to judge from popular narratives. These are considered as visions of real vessels or the doubles of boats and ships which in many cases are known to the person seeing them. They may occur to persons on the sea or on land, in the day-time or at night, and they generally forebode evil to the vessel seen. The nature of the danger or disaster may be detected in the vision itself. Sometimes the apparition simply portends that the event may be expected within some indefinite, although short, time; but it is usually supposed actually to be happening. A vision, phantom, or apparition of this kind is called a feiness.

Phantoms of boats and their crews may be repeatedly seen at the same place on the sea, particularly in stormy Weather. These phantoms are supposed to be wraiths or ghosts of boats and their crews, lost at these places, and which occasionally may be recognized.


In the belief of some people, the sea was possessed of a powerful being or witch-like spirit capable of doing harm. As it could hear what was said, it was pleased with sincere praise, but resented insincere praise and mockery. One could not, without incurring danger, speak disparagingly of, or mock at, the sea. It could bewitch people and cause their destruction. It claimed certain people as victims, who were therefore doomed to be drowned. For this reason, it seems, there was formerly an aversion among some to save people who were drowning in the sea, as the sea would before long avenge itself on the rescuer for being cheated of its prey. Stories are told of men who rescued others, and invariably were themselves drowned within the next twelve months. Probably for the same reason some people were averse to helping shipwrecked men, and it is said that in some cases obstacles were* actually put in the way of their being saved.

I have also heard of a certain witch living in the sea who made winds and storms, and wrecked ships and boats, and of another witch or being, also living in the sea, who ground salt to keep the ocean salt. One of these witches, I have forgotten which one, was probably called Grua (or Groa?).


It may be well here to make some mention of the sea-language of the Shetland fishermen, as this language seems to indicate some connection with the old beliefs in the sea-god and sea-spirits. I cannot do better in this respect than introduce here some remarks of Dr. Jakobsen, who has made a special study of the subject:

“As is well known to all Shetlanders, the Shetland fishermen before this day, like the fishermen in Faeroe and Norway, had a great number of lucky words, woids that they would use only at the haaf or deep-sea fishing [haf is the old Norn word for “ocean”]. The origin of this custom is not easily explained; but the custom itself is certainly very, very old, and deeply rooted in the Pagan time. The most likely explanation seems this, that before the introduction and spread of Christianity, and also long after that period, the people, and especially the fishermen, believed themselves surrounded by sea-spirits, whom they could not see, and who watched what they were doing. In the Pagan time, people believed in the sea-god (Egir (Egir), whose kingdom was the mysterious ocean, and he had as his attendants minor spirits who watched intruders upon his element. The feeling which came to prevail among the fishermen towards the sea-spirits was one of mysterious dread. They considered the sea a foreign element, on which they were intruders, and the sea-spirits in consequence hostile to them. They had therefore, when at the fishing, to take great care what they said; and it became very important to them to have a number of mystic names, to a great extent agreed upon among themselves, although derived from words which were common in the Norn language. But there is a certain number of haaf-words, doubtlessly forming the oldest portion, which seem to have been originally worship words. An original worship of the sea-spirits is rendered probable by the fact that the fishermen's haaf-terms were not at all confined to things in immediate connection with the fishing, but extended much further. All the domestic animals, for instance, got separate names at the haaf. Some of these words are now obsolete in Scandinavia; but we find them used in the old Icelandic literature, chiefly as poetical terms. . . . A sufficient proof that the custom of using lucky words at the haaf was rooted in the Pagan time, is to be found in the fact that the minister and the church were on no account to be mentioned by their right names at sea. The minister and the church represented the new conquering faith, which aimed at doing away with the old gods, and consequently at disputing the sea-god's dominion of the sea; . . . The nature of the haaf-terms will be seen from this. They were not nonsensical, merely coined words, as some think; nor were they the real Norn words for the persons, animals, and things they were applied to. They are words of a more or less poetic nature, and mostly figurative terms; that is to say, persons, animals, and things are named according to some striking characteristic about them. This accounts for the great variety of names used for one and the same person, animal, and thing. Each animate and inanimate being had always many characteristics that would readily afford a basis for the many names applied.”

I may add that the sea-language was also much used ashore when telling sea-stories, fishing-tales, and adventures of the sea; and certain places ashore (such as mountains) had taboo or sea names, by which they were called by fishermen when at sea.

Spences Bridge, B.C.

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