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Death by Water - Rivers and Sacrifice

By Jeremy Harte
Published at Lughnasa 1998

There is something irresistably poetic about drowning, as long as you are not personally involved. Ophelia drifting through the meadows, chanting snatches of old tunes, is a touching thought: so is Hylas, slipping softly into the nymphs’ embrace. Where would literature be if the remorseless deep had not closed over the head of Lycidas? or if Orpheus had not floated down the swift Hebrus, dismembered by the rout that made the hideous roar, but singing still.

Orpheus, admittedly, was both a myth and a foreigner, but we have no shortage of real victims dismembered by the rout and laid in our native waters. In his glass tank at the British Museum, Lindow Man looks out with anguished eyes to meet the vacant stares of school parties doing projects on the Celts. And he is only the latest, and the best preserved, of some forty bog bodies known to have been uncovered in Britain - most of them nine day wonders like the man found in the bogs near Doncaster in 1645. He was lying stretched out, his head on his arm, as if asleep (1). To drown in the dark, sour water of the peat is to preserve the image of life, while the rushing current of the river both kills and destroys the body.

But the river’s broken victims are not forgotten by tradition. People living beside it quote the old rhyme:-

‘The shelving, slimy river Dun,
Each year a daughter or a son’ (2).

Like most traditional wisdom, this summarises bitter experience; the Don is a dangerous river, and at least one fatality could be expected each year. But the curt rhyme implies something more - that someone must drown every year; that the river requires a victim. There are about a dozen life-demanding rivers of this kind in Britain. Sometimes they are contrasted with a milder neighbour, like the Aberdeenshire Dee and Don -

‘Bloodthirsty Dee
Each year needs three;
But bonny Don
She needs none’ (3).

Sometimes the two rivers compete in malice. On the Scottish border, the Tweed takes a life every year (4), but though fast, it is a shallow river and easily forded; its English tributary, the Till, is deeper and has fewer safe crossings. Hence the sombre rhyme, a favourite of Sir Walter Scott -

‘Tweed said to Till
‘What gars ye rin sae still?’
Till said to Tweed:
‘Though ye rin wi’ speed,
And I rin slaw,
Yet where ye droun ae man,
I droun twa’.’ (5)

As soon as someone was drowned, it was felt that the river had had enough for the time being. In the late nineteenth century, after a boy from Ross had been drowned in the Wye, it was taken for granted that his brothers could play on the slippery banks with impunity. ‘Let ’em go’, people said, ‘let ’em go, no one else’ll be drowned this year, the river has had its due’ (6). The Dean in Forfarshire, another slow river, is more modest, claiming only one life in seven years (7). The Inverness-shire Spey must have a victim annually; the river is spoken of as ‘she’, a person who requires lives (8). This personification takes the further form of a kelpie, a beautiful white horse which walks alongside tired travellers until they yield to temptation and climb onto its back. Then the creature gallops off at breakneck speed and plunges into one of the deep pools in the river, drowning its hapless rider (9). Another kelpie wanders along the banks of the Ure at Middleham with similar intent - although, as Yorkshire is a long way south for kelpies, one suspects some literary embellishment here. At all events, the Ure claims a life each year (10). There is a white horse seen on another Yorkshire river: it appears from the foam of the Strid, just below Bolton Abbey, where the Wharfe is at its strongest and most threatening. The horse is seen on May Day before a fatal accident (11). The rhyme says:-

‘Wharfe is clear, and Aire is lithe;
Where Aire kills one, Wharfe kills five’ (12).

Like the Spey, the river has a female personality. ‘In Wetherby and Collingham, downstream from Ilkley, people still say, during the summer months, that ‘she’ll be hungry’, as they wait for news of the first drowning of the year’ (13).

This vague sense of the river being female is sometimes developed further into perceptions of a tutelary spirit. Rivers and stagnant pools in the north-west were haunted by Jenny Greenteeth, who hid under the green surface and stretched out witch’s claws to pull down her victims. Jenny belongs to stories told for children, and is to some extent a personification of duckweed (14), but there were other female figures, like Peg Powler of the Tees, whose desire for life was feared and respected by the adult community (15).

Peg o’ Nell, the spirit of the Ribble, is the best known of these figures. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, she built up what amounts to a new mythology. Her principal haunt was a swirling ford where the Clitheroe road crosses the river near Waddow Hall. Peg claimed a life in the river every seven years: people might live securely in the meantime, but they knew that the night would inevitably come when she demanded a victim. There was a young man, a stranger, who rode into Waddow Hall on his journey across the cold fells. The maidservant pulled him to one side and whispered that it was Peg o’ Nell’s Night, but he would go on to brave the rain-swollen ford: and next morning there he was, bobbing on the water, and his horse beside him. (16). It became customary to appease Peg with something drowned on her night - a bird, a cat or a dog - to stave off her hunger for life. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. There were men drowned in the Ribble in 1894, 1901 and 1908 - a seven-year cycle (17).

All sorts of things have gone into the making of Peg o’ Nell - poltergeists, mediaeval statuary, severed heads and holy wells. Discovering ancient beliefs in folklore of this kind is a hopeless quest, and besides, people have tried the game before and got it wrong. The Midland Trent is a life-demanding river - three victims a year - largely in consequence of the Eagre, a tidal bore that sweeps past the river steps backing onto Gainsborough warehouses. ‘I was told in that town that children are often swept from these steps as they play there, and that the Ægir always takes his toll in some way’ (18). But it is mistaken to derive the Lincolnshire word in this way from the Norse sea-god. To start off with, the -r in Ægir is simply a grammatical ending, like the -us in Oceanus, wheras the -re in Eagre is integral: it derives from Old English hygre. And this word was originally applied , not just to the Trent, but to other tidal bores in areas away from Norse influence, notably the Severn.

It is proverbial that ‘Severn always gets her man’ (19), and although this does not specify the number of victims in the usual way, it has the same combination of female personification and pitilessness. The Welsh Dee ‘was the home of the war goddess Aerfen, who was said to need three human sacrifices each year in order to ensure success in battle’ (20). This sounds very much as if genuine tradition has got mixed up with antiquarian speculation. Either the Tamar or its tributary the Tavy demands a life each year (21) - though there are only recent accounts of this tradition. There is a report that the Parrett takes a man, a woman and a child in successive years (22), but this cannot be trusted, since it comes from the fertile pen of Ruth Tongue, as does a grim little rhyme about the river Dart. The authentic couplet about this stream runs:-

‘River of Dart, oh, river of Dart!
Every year thou claimest a heart’.

William Crossing, who knew Dartmoor well, reckoned that one death a year was about right: the river is very swift, and floods suddenly without warning (23). Dart (not ‘the Dart’) is a person - a masculine one, this time - and he cries for victims in a strange wailing and shrieking call which can be heard at Huccaby Bridge when the wind is right (24). Sometimes the cry of the river is more articulate. At Rowbrook, under Sharp Tor, the farmhands heard a voice calling one of their number, a lad named Jan Coo. If they answered it, the voice would fall silent. This went on through the winter, until a day came when Jan was working with a companion above Langamarsh Pit. The voice called again, and when Jan answered it himself, it did not fall silent but grew more insistent. He wrenched himself out of the grip of his companion and hurried down to the call of the water. Then silence: and he was not seen again (25).

Classenwell pool on the moor lies at the foot of a steep outcrop, so that on one side the rock rises about a hundred feet above the black water. Sometimes a voice from the pool calls out the name of someone living in nearby Walkhampton, and they have to obey the summons and come to their death (26). But it is possible, even on Dartmoor, to break the thread of tragedy. In the 1950s a man saw his neighbour looking down mesmerised at the East Okement, and as he hurried down to pull his friend away, he heard the river say ‘The hour has come but not the man’ (27). Normally, however, these words signify that the water is ready and that the victim is about to arrive. In this way, two Merionethshire lakes - Llyn Gwernan and Llyn Cynwch - call for a life each year. At the end of that year, if their appetite has not been met, a voice will call ‘The hour is come but the man is not’, and someone will be seen rushing headlong to the water’s edge (28).

The words are the same in English and Welsh, as they also are in Norse and Danish versions of the story. They may be spoken by the river, or by its guardian. During harvest-time in Ross-shire, men were cutting corn in the fields above the river Conan when they heard a disturbance in the water. The kelpie had risen above a treacherous ford, and was shouting ‘The hour but not the man has come’.. Looking up the hill, they saw a man rising furiously down to the river; and, finding they could not persuade him of the danger, they took hold of him and locked him in the church. An hour went by, and they flung the door open triumphantly, but to no avail. He had fallen and drowned in the font, the only water in the place (29).

As this shows, you don’t need much water to be dangerous. The moat around the old farm at Much Hadham is small enough, but it is haunted by a ghostly lady who, in the usual way, claims a life each year. Like Peg o’ Nell, the moat lady of Hertfordshire has her Night, on which she pulls in a victim; this is the 13th February, the eve of St. Valentines Day. Maybe she was crossed in love (30).

Compared to the mighty Severn or Trent, a muddy ditch in the Home Counties seems somehow... undignified. It is hard to believe in the moat lady as an ancient Celtic goddess, given the recent origins of her environment. But according to the standard interpretation of the tale, that is exactly what we sould do. ‘These drowning legends are undoubtedly dim memories of a time when the rivers ‘needed’ victims, in other words, when such victims were ceremonially sacrificed to them’. (31) A chilling thought, if true. But is it true?

‘Undoubtedly’ - to borrow that useful word - people were once sacrificed in Britain, and their corpses were laid in water. The bog bodies are evidence for that. But whether these people were sacrificed to the water is not so obvious. Perhaps significantly, Lindow Man and his kind were not drowned - they were clubbed hanged, garotted or slit across the throat. And these things need not have happened at the water’s edge. Maybe these pitiful bodies are the residue of ritual practices carried out elsewhere, for other reasons, which ended in their being banished to the lonely fens, and there was no intention of doing honour to those places. The bog bodies are those of nobly born people, not accustomed to hard labour, and this is unusual: normally human offerings are slaves. It is possible that elsewhere, perhaps in rivers, slaves were thrown in to drown. But rivers are not kind to their victims: bodies float downstream until the fish and birds have done their work, and the clean bones break up as they clatter along the gravel. It is hard to tell ritual from accidental death, let alone speculate on the nature of that ritual (32).

Bones are not the only evidence of ritual to be dredged out of the river mud. There are the famous swords, spears, cauldrons and ornaments which must have been thrown in as part of ceremonies, if not actual offerings, at the water’s edge. Here, where we might expect to find archaeology dovetailing with modern folklore, geography steps in to complicate things. The most heartfelt devotion, as witnessed by the number and value of things found, was paid to those rivers which drain the Midlands, and which issue in the estuaries of the Thames and the Wash (33). But these are not the life-demanding rivers of tradition.

The topography of the sinister rivers is fairly consistent. They are all fast, clear streams, spilling through a steep countryside of impervious rock. After heavy rain, they do not breach their banks, like the meandering rivers of the lowlands, but carry down a sudden gush of water instead. It is this power of the river to rise in spate which overwhelms the unwary. This is particularly true of the Pennine catchment - the Wharfe, the Ure and the Ribble, as well as the Swale and the Tees which have an ominous reputation even though they are not said to demand lives. Further south, this is also the way that the Tavy and the Dart run off Dartmoor. It is not the same with the Trent or the Severn, but here lives are taken by the tidal bore - also a sudden gush of water, but one which comes from the unexpected direction.

This is not a new conclusion. The primary sources for beliefs in these rivers all make the same point, one usually ignored by their folklorist interpreters. The sinister rivers do indeed claim as many lives - exactly as many lives, in the case of the Ribble - as local people have said. There is no need to bring in ideas about people ever having appeased these streams with human sacrifice. They always took their own sacrifices, and they are still doing it today.

Superstition is not some kind of flotsam left by the ebbing tide of paganism. Religion and superstition are equally old, equally rooted in the human relation with the landscape. We know that Belisama was the pagan goddess of the Ribble two thousand years ago, and that Peg o’ Nell was the folk guardian of its waters in the last century - if indeed she is not still there today. But Peg has her own history: she is not a survival of Belisama. It is the river, not the tradition, which runs on through the centuries. Half the world away, in India, we stand on ground where paganism was never suppressed or transformed, and yet we meet with exactly the same beliefs as in Christian Lancashire. Here is a river whose floods demand people every three years (34); there is a reservoir haunted by a vengeful ghost, who drowns a victim every third year, unless she is thwarted by a kindlier spirit (35). These stories cannot be a survival of the pagan veneration of rivers, because that veneration is still going on within a stone’s throw of them. Within the tangled web of Hindu worship, there is room for both religious and superstitious responses to water. The stories about life-demanding rivers are not echoes of an ancient faith, but the active response of story-tellers to the tragedies of the present.

Quite so: but why the stories? Someone has used their art to translate the language of statistics - on average, one person every year drowns in the Dart - into that of myth. Dart must have a life each year. Perhaps the historical claims of folklorists, the idea of these stories being no more than folk-memories of horrid things long ago, have blunted our realisation that the river is taking sacrifice now. It is not some naked barbarian ina fox-fur tippet who bobs on the waters, but people we know - tramps, campers, children. And we wonder what is happening, what is meant by this sacrifice.

Rivers have received a great many things over the years as offerings - swords, flowers, blood, lamps, bullocks and girls in bridal costume. Few if any of these things are necessary to the comfort and wellbeing of a river, but they get thrown in nonetheless. Sacrifice is about the moment at which something which has been offered up passes from the realm of the human to that of the divine. It is about opening a passage between the worlds, through which for a moment the light of the otherworld gleams on the maker of the sacrifice. The victim must have been made holy, or there can be no communion between worlds. Inanimate things show this purification through a rite of consecration; animals, though the calmness with which they go to their end; people, by being willing. There must be a secret bond between sacrificer and victim. There must be close attention to the right time and place (36).

When the river calls ‘the hour is come, but not the man’, when a victim betrays this secret affinity with the water, when he walks unafraid to the riverbank, then the conditions of sacrifice have been met. It is this that turns what might have been random, meaningless death into a powerful ritual. People drown, and the thought that they died needlessly is a cruel one, but through the story-teller’s healing art their death is woven into a pattern, an everlasting cycle which comes round every three years, every seven years. The meeting with destiny is not so lonely or so random when it is revealed as an encounter on the chosen night with Jenny or Peg. We take the pitiful drowned body and clothe it in the words of tragedy and sacrifice, until our magic art has overwhelmed the brutality of things, and death itself is only an incident...

...‘Now Lycidas the shepherds weep no more;
Henceforth thou art the genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shall be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood’.


1. David Clarke, Strange South Yorkshire, Sigma 1994, p51
2. Ibid. p47
3. W. Gregor, ‘Guardian spirits of wells and lochs’, Folk-Lore 3 (1892) pp67-73
4. Edwin and Mona Radford, Encyclopaedia of Superstitions - ed. Christina Hole, Hutchinson 1961, p219
5. Robert Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland, Chambers 1870, p207
6. Ella Leather, The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, Sidgwick & Jackson 1912, p10
7. Radford & Hole, op. cit.
8. Gregor, op. cit.
9. Janet and Colin Bord, The Enchanted Land, Thorsons 1995, p32
10. Thomas Parkinson, Yorkshire Legends and Traditions, Elliot Stock 1889, 2p106
11. David Clarke and Andy Roberts, Twilight of the Celtic Gods, Blandford 1996, p95
12. Henry Bett, English Myths and Traditions, Batsford 1952, p121
13. ‘Gyrus’, ‘Verbeia: goddess of Wharfedale’, Earthed 3 (1998) pp11-15
14. Roy Vickery, ‘Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth’, Folklore 94 (1983) pp247-250
15. Michael Denham, The Denham Tracts, FLS 1891, 2p42
16. Jennifer Westwood, Albion, Granada 1985, p391, and Parkinson op.cit.
17. John Billingsley, ‘The lady of the dark waters’, Northern Earth 54 (1993) p13
18. Christina Hole, English Folklore, Batsford 1940, p98
19. Roy Palmer, The Folklore of Gloucestershire, Westcountry Books 1994, p26
20. Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Waters, Granada 1985, p124
21. Mary Coombs, ‘Plymouth’s ancient trackways’, Wisht Maen 3 (1994) pp10-13
22. Ruth Tongue, Somerset Folklore, FLS 1965, p21
23. William Crossing, Folk Rhymes of Devon, Chatto & Windus 1911, p27
24. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of Folklore, Praxis 1993 [1913] p69, and Westwood op. cit. p21
25. William Crossing, Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies, W.H. Hood 1890, pp74-79
26. Baring-Gould, op. cit. p71
27. Ruth St. Leger-Gordon, The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, Robert Hale 1965, p88
28. Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Waters, Granada 1985, p125
29. Katherine Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1971, B1p208
30. Doris Jones-Baker, The Folklore of Hertfordshire, Batsford 1977, p125
31. Hole op. cit. p98
32. C.J. Knüsel and G.C. Carr, ‘Crania from the River Thames’, Antiquity 69 (1995) pp162-169
33. Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the British Isles, Blackwell 1991, p185
34. James Hastings, ed, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Clarke 1917, 12p718
35. R.P. Masani, Folklore of Wells, Taraporevala (Bombay) 1918, p77
36. Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice, Cohen & West 1964 [1898]