My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. She told me about the nykur, a legendary water horse specific to the Nordic countries. She does not personally believe in this legend, but apparently opinion is fairly mixed on whether or not it is real, and belief is higher with children. She believed it as a child, and was told it by her mother possibly in an effort to stop her from wandering near large bodies of water. She agrees that it was a useful way of making her cautious without ruining her innocence about the true dangers of icy cold water.
A.J.: Have you heard of the Nykur?
A: No, what is it?
A.J.: It’s a mythical creature in Icelandic – well, I think they have it in some places in Sweden and Norway and stuff – but it’s mostly Icelandic. It’s the shape of a horse, and grey, but it’s not a physical thing, more like a kind of ghost horse. They live by lakes, or by waterfalls usually. But they’re pretty scary looking – kind of like if you had a Patronus of a horse, a weird version. They have some scary things about them, like I’ve heard that they have backwards hooves, and sharp teeth and that kind of thing.
A: And do people interact with them at all?
A.J: I don’t think you would want to. They’re not peaceful, they’re a bit like sirens in that they lure people to their deaths in the water. They seem really nice and beautiful, and then you go to pet them and if you ride on them they’ll take you into the water and drown you. They seem to take children in particular.
A: Is there any way to prevent them from taking you underwater if you do come across them?
A.J: Yeah, there is. My mom told me about them and that if you recognize that the horse is a Nykur, you can make them go away by saying their name.
A: And do you believe in them?
A.J.: I did when I was a kid, but not anymore. I think it’s a bit like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, you grow out of it when you’ve been to enough waterfalls to know that you’re not going to see any magic horses. But when I was younger I wouldn’t go near the water without someone else with me.
In a phone conversation in which she recounted to me what she knew about the huldufólk, she also told me about this Icelandic mythical creature which I had not heard of before.
This reminds me a lot of the La Llorona myth. Considering she was told about them by her mother, in a landscape with many lakes and waterfalls, this myth seems to serve the same function as warning children about La Llorona, insofar as it discourages them from wandering by themselves near bodies of water where they could potentially drown. By making the horse scary-looking, they emphasize this warning. By connecting this warning story to the landscape, it makes for a more believable tale. Much of Icelandic folklore is connected to the natural landscape as it is so unusual and striking, which also plays into the fact that much of Icelandic folklore is very different from that which we find in the other Nordic countries. Their landscapes are much more snowy and similar to each other, whereas Iceland is a volcanic outlier.
For the La Llorona myth, see here: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/gh-lallorona.html