In general, the creature is a bit like a centaur in that a man’s torso is joined to a horse. But the man is legless and the horse is rotting. Neither have any skin to speak of, so white tendons, red muscles, and yellow blood vessels are all plainly visible.
This version depicts the traditional form of the Nuckelavee, where the manlike half features a head with a single over-sized blood-red eye and elongated arms that can easily reach the ground and snatch up a hapless human.
Its overall red coloring is inaccurate, however, as the blood of the Nuckelavee is black, and the muscles therefore darker than what is shown here. Nor does this image convey the pulsations of those blood vessels, which are sickening in their own right. The nuckelavee is more a fae zombie than anything else.
The equine portion shown here is also poorly done as to musculature, though the fin-like extensions at the horse’s leg joints are fairly true to form. There are some, in fact, who consider the creature a hybrid of the Scottish water-horse or kelpie and a demonic rider who may well hail from the Wild Hunt.
This more modern version, though, is clearly wrong, deriving more from ancient Greek mythology than the traditional lore of the Orkneys.
Known for its hatred of humankind, there are those to this day who will not even speak its name for fear of summoning one of them. The nuckelavee is particularly offended by those who burn seaweed on the beach in order to produce mounds of what was called kelp in the 1700s. It is actually soda ash, an alkaline material used to ‘sweeten’ acidic soil, and to manufacture soap and glass.
Here, a kelpwife tends a fiery kelp pit at the Ness o’ Brough in Sanday.
The pungent smoke smells nearly as bad as the nuckelavee‘s own toxic breath, and the creature is apt to respond by using its bad breath to set off epidemics and/or droughts, killing horses and cattle and crops in addition to humans. One disease in particular is blamed on the angry fae – mortasheen, also known as glanders. It kills horses by infecting the respiratory tract and causing ulcers that will not heal, and it can spread to men as well as other domesticated animals.
This depiction renders the horse half far too hound-like, in my opinion, but the attitude shown is true to life.
Once found only among the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the northern tip of Scotland, the nuckelavee have been displaced by war, by industrial development, by the spread of cold iron and human machines, and now, by the Fall itself. Having largely retreated from this world into Faerie, some of them were then flung back through the doors between the worlds and landed in places where they’ve never been seen before. That would include the coast of California, which is now in it’s 5th year of drought and where a peculiar wasting disease is afflicting the starfish in coastal waters.
A coincidence? I think not!
There is, however, a way to escape the nuckelavee, should it attack. For reasons I’ve always assumed are related to its lack of skin, the creature is repulsed by fresh water. If you can splash it with the contents of your water bottle, it will flee. If you can skip across to the other side of a freshwater stream, or jump into a lake, it will not continue its pursuit.
I do not recommend using this approach unless you too have a Fist From Hell. Nor does gunfire seem to have much effect on the beast, perhaps because the creature is already dead and therefore cannot be killed.
In the Orkneys, it was the Mither o’ the Sea who kept a leash on the nuckelavee, confining him during the summer months while she worked to undo the harm wrought by Teran, the Orcadian spirit of winter. Likewise, during the coldest parts of the year, the beast is kept in check by rainfall, which it abhors in equal measure.
The Mither has much in common with the Greek deity Circe. However, She has not been seen since the Fall, and may have been trapped in Faerie, or lost to us altogether.
One thing is certain. Global warming is rapidly increasing the severity and frequency of droughts in many parts of the world. Reduced freshwater flow is shutting down municipal wells along the California seashore in places like Monterey. In the San Francisco Bay and Delta, it is resulting in ever more salt water intrusion upriver from the bay. This is exactly opposite what is needed to keep the nuckelavee at bay.