June 9, 2023

An Introduction to Shapeshifting Water Demons, or: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drown you

You can hear the sound of moving water through the trees, and it gets louder as you get closer. Finally, you reach the bank, and your body goes heavy with disappointment. It’s wider than you expected. Crossing will not be so easy.

The crunch of twigs and leaves draws your attention, and you turn to see a large horse grazing peacefully downstream. It does not seem to notice you. You creep toward it, moving slowly to keep from startling what could be your ride across the river. It seems unfazed as you get closer, and you cautiously put a hand on its neck to steady it. 

Your hand will not move from the spot. You try to pull away but you cannot. And that’s when you realize this is not a horse. 

Water horses are almost always bad news. 

There are several variations depending on which culture’s folklore you’re looking at–tangies, necks, nuggles, nøkks, or, most famously, kelpies–but each myth basically refers to the same type of creature. Water horses are shapeshifting demons and they are not interested in helping you. 

Nordic cultures tend to describe a white horse that drowns anyone who climbs on its back, especially kids and young women. They especially liked drowning groups of people, and it’s said that the nøkk’s back got longer to make sure everyone could fit. So, if you ever find a horse that your entire party can ride, that’s a big red flag. 

Once you touch or climb onto the nøkk, you can’t free yourself. At least, you can’t free yourself by force. Scandinavian folklore is all about tricking and outsmarting the devil, and the same strategy works on the nøkk. If you call it out for being a nøkk and not a horse, it’s likely to disappear or run into the nearest body of water without you. There are also stories of beating the nøkk by putting it to work. If you throw a bridle and a bit on them, or hook one up to a plow, it will behave like a horse until it has the chance to escape. 

The same holds for the kelpie, but if you come for the kelpie you’d better not miss. While the nøkk drowns its victims, there are stories that say the kelpie eats theirs and leaves the entrails as a warning. Unlike the nøkk, kelpies are described as big black horses, and have an extra tell to their supernatural status: their hooves tend to be backwards. It’s a recurring European theme that the devil and demons just can’t get feet right. 

The bunyip is the Aboriginal Australian version of the water demon myth, though the bunyip doesn’t look like a horse because horses aren’t native to Australia. This shapeshifter tends to look like a dog or seal, and some stories share a lot of characteristics with the platypus, including giant claws and laying eggs. Like its European counterparts, the bunyip has a reputation for luring children and young women to the water, sometimes drowning them, sometimes eating them. Without the lens of Christianity, the bunyip doesn’t have the same ties to the devil, and European settlers interpreted Aboriginal stories as a creature they hadn’t seen yet. 

If you do encounter a shapeshifter that may want to drag you to a watery death, start by calling that sucker out for what it is. If you want to live dangerously, you can try getting a bridle over its head and put that demon to work. No matter what, it’s best to approach any horses hanging around bodies of water with extra caution. Be wary of dogs while you’re at it. 


Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, edited by Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf

Cryptozoology A to Z by Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark

Dex Dylan is the founder and acting president of the International Society of Astrocryptozoology. For decades, Dex has scoured the skies and seas (and sometimes the land, but honestly it’s so crowded) for hints of unusual life forms, and has done extensive research into the possible existence of chupacabras on Mars.