Today we usually associate fairies with gardens and flowers, however there is considerable folklore concerning water fairies. This fits with the fairy as a creature of nature and bounty – many communities used to (and still do) rely on the sea for a living. However the sea could also be treacherous and this is also reflected in the fairy folklore.
What Are Water Fairies?
As with most fairies, those of the water are usually depicted as beautiful with long, flowing hair reminiscent of seaweed. However whilst all fairies tend to be mischievous, water fairies can be positively cruel. They have been known to lure ships into dangerous seas and innocent men to a watery end.
This would seem to be an extension of the Greek Siren tale. In earlier times seas were extremely dangerous and the life of a sailor or fisherman a lonely and hazardous one.
Water fairies are also often vain and enjoy looking at their reflection in the water. In some traditions they like to leave the water to visit local humans, sometimes to join in a party, at others to ensnare a new victim. It is said that they can be recognised by their clothing which will remain damp.
There are also frequent references to sea and river fairies in Celtic myth. As with so many of the Celtic fey, they were rarely the diminutive winged creatures we imagine as fairies today. Perhaps the most well known were the Welsh Gwragedd Annwn, the Lake Maidens. Unlike many of the water fairies these were generally benevolent to humans.
An interesting variety of water fairy is the Asrai. These are delicate creatures that can only exist in the water. If exposed to air – for example when caught in a fishing net – they turn into a pool of water and slip away. It’s easy to imagine a fisherman seeing something glittering beneath the surface of the water, only to find nothing there when the net is pulled up.
Water fairies have also been associated with the changeling legend, stealing human children and taking them into the depths. This idea is perhaps echoed in Charles Kingsley’s famous 1963 story “The Water Babies”.
Water fairies are, of course, not the same as mermaids. Mermaids are corporeal creatures, half human and half fish, with none of the other-wordliness of fairies. However it’s possible that both share a common folklore tradition somewhere along the line.