Nuckelavee: The Skinless, Horse-like Devil of the Sea

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By: Alex Postrado

The Sea Demon of Orcadian Lore

In folklore, the sea is believed to be home to countless supernatural creatures.

We have sirens, mermaids, and the Kraken — to name a few of the most popular ones.

But there is a sea-dwelling monster that is — by far — considered “the nastiest” among them all.

It is the Nuckelavee.

A horse-like demon said to terrorize the people of the Northern Scottish Isles.

Once described in a passage as “the most cruel and malignant of all uncanny beings that trouble mankind“, the Nuckelavee was — no doubt — a beast of abject horror.

So much so that merely mentioning its name draws fear to the believers of the lore.

Would you dare say it?

The Monstrosity that is the Nuckelavee

Known to be the worst of all the worst, the Nuckelavee is a demonic creature — sometimes considered to be a malevolent type of fairy — said to be living in the depths of the North Sea, particularly, near the Orkney Islands.

It got its name from Orcadian knoggelvi, a variant of the word nuggle, njuggle, or neugle — meaning, “a mythical water spirit, assuming the form of a horse”.

And indeed, the Nuckelavee is notorious for its somewhat horse-like appearance!

The only catch is, it has a human-shaped “rider” fused to its horse body. And that humanoid has an inordinately large head that looks like it’s going to fall off.

The horse part of it also has a single giant eye and legs with fins — like that of a fish.

And oh — have I mentioned that it has no skin?

So much for having all of that as the only catch!

The Nuckelavee is believed to roam the land in this form. With its skinless body that underlies with black blood, flowing through its yellow veins, and its flesh and muscles, visibly pulsating as it goes.

In the water, no one knows for sure what the Nuckelavee looks like. It seems pretty safe to assume, though, that it’s not any better.

But if you think that the Nuckelavee is already terrifying enough just because of its appearance, then you’re in for a surprise!

As Orkney Folklorist Walter Traill Dennison indicatively puts it: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

If anything, the Nuckelavee’s exterior — or in this case, its lack thereof — marks only the beginning of the terror.

The Spine-Chilling Lore of the Nuckelavee

According to Orcadian folklore, during summertime, the Nuckelavee remains in thrall to powers of the Mither o’ the Sea — the only entity that is able to control the horse-like demon.

The Mither o’ the Sea — or Mother of the Sea, if you’d prefer — is Orcadian myth’s granter of life.

She is believed to protect the islands from evil creatures and hush storms that could trouble many Orkney families.

Every autumn, Mither’s archenemy, Teran — also known as the mythical spirit of winter — battles her for dominance. But, drained, after months of keeping all evils confined, Mither loses.

And that’s when the Nuckelavee breaks free.

The Nuckelavee is said to be a solitary being of sheer atrocity.

It uses its extensive evil powers to plague the islands and torture its inhabitants.

Just as the lore describes, the Nuckelavee kills any person it bumps into.

The animals and livestock are not any safer, either, as the demonic supernatural brute has the ability to tear them to shreds or infect them with diseases that they can then pass on to humans in no time.

Still, that’s not the only havoc the Nuckelavee could wreak.

People also fear this monster for its habit of tormenting the islands — not just with epidemics — but also with droughts and famine.

You see, the Nuckelavee has a breath that can effortlessly wilt and destroy crops the people have tended to, the whole year.

What’s worse is that this demon appears to be doing all of these for no other reason than its innate propensity for wickedness.

nuckelavee artist rendition
Nuckelavee by: Daimera courtesy of Bogleech

No wonder ancient Arcadians extremely dreaded the Nuckelavee, to the extent where some of them would not even dare mention its name without immediately saying a prayer!

However, for an utmost sinister creature, would a solemn call for help be enough?

Does this Being of Pure Evil have a Weakness?

Because of the Nuckelavee’s horrific nature — and of course, appearance — people in these modern days tend to leave its fae narrative in the past, as much as possible.

However, we can’t always deny the fact that its origins as a water spirit would still come out from time to time to remind us of its elemental and fae-related roots.

Ironically, for the Nuckelavee, though, water also becomes its weakness.

Though this skinless fiend is a creature of the sea, it is also widely known to be unable to tolerate freshwater.

A flaw that presents itself to be a way bigger deal since the Nuckelavee would be forced to back down and hide in the sea whenever it’s raining.

Yet, for us humans, this weakness offers a window to escape if we ever get into the unfortunate situation of being face to face with the malicious demon — a run-in allegedly survived by a peasant from the Orkney islands, named Tammas.

According to the account given by Tammas, himself, the close encounter almost cost him his life had he failed to cross the nearby loch.

With his foot splashing in the water, and the foreleg of the fearsome Nuckelavee getting wet, the horse-demon had no other option, but to angrily retreat.

Is the Nuckelavee Real?

While the story told by Tammas was as detailed as it could be — as recorded by folklorist Dennison — many people, nowadays, remain skeptical about it.

And so, the existence of the dreaded Nuckelavee endures only in myths and folklore at this time.

But if that’s the case, how come it was once feared by Orcadians — as if real — to the point where they can’t even say its name aloud without utter worry?

Well, that could be explained — paradoxically — by human’s natural fear of the unexplained.

People from centuries ago, generally, don’t have much understanding of what possibly causes things — like famine, droughts, and plagues — to happen.

And this, most of the time, leads them to resort to their existing belief in the supernatural because what else is there to reckon with?

This is what brought the Nuckelavee to life — of course, only metaphorically!

And had it not been for science, as well as the advancements we are implementing in this current pandemic-stricken world, who knows — we may still be blaming the Nuckelavee in some parts of the globe.


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