Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Women of the Waters

What do they do in winter, the women of the waters? In our Land of Ten Thousand Iced-In Lakes, do they sleep burrowed deep like turtles or frogs? Do they dream in suspended animation, frozen in ice, like fish? Or do they slowly swim beneath the ice, haunting with their singing the fisherman in his lonely ice-house?

It seems as if everyone knows them: mermaids, nixies, necks, nereids, víly, rusalki, we call them. Every spring, every pond, every lake, has its own, they say, and some lakes many. Old in the land, the Anishinabe—known to the Cree, who spoke a related but unintelligible language, as Chippewa, “mutterers”—call them nebaunaubaequaewuk. Everyone agrees that their beauty is a dangerous beauty.

They take people, and children in particular; in our own day, people are taken. In summer they sing and dance, especially on nights when the full moon floats like a shining lily on every lake. Our attraction is a mutual attraction, and many stories tell of the handsome youth or maid who goes to live with them and is never seen again. Sometimes they marry humans, but such matings rarely end well. Although we reflect one another, in the end, the People of the Land and the People of the Waters are different peoples, other.

They have their own wisdom, the people of the waters. In Wales a man once took a lake woman to wife, the mysterious Lady of Llyn-y-Fan-Fach. In the end, she went back to her own people, but they say that first she gave him a book of herbal medicines, the Red Book of Hergest, now kept in the Bodleian library in Oxford. Their descendants were known for centuries as doctors, the famed Physicians of Myddfai.


They say that a man out fishing on Red Lake here in Minnesota actually hooked one once. I'd tell you the story, but likely you know it already. After all, they tell more or less the same story pretty much everywhere.

Whatever else they may be, these women of the waters live in that subtle zone of the human mind's interaction with non-human reality. Turn loose a man sunk deep in thought, says Herman Melville, and he will invariably lead you to water. The beauty, the danger of the waters, our instinctive attraction: these and more are the truths they tell, these tales of the water-daughters.

For now, perhaps, they sleep beneath their crystalline blankets of ice and snow. But soon enough we will hear their voices and feel the lure of their arms, on nights when the loons call like wolves in winter and the full moon floats like a shining lily on every lake in Lake Land.

For Helga






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Anne Forrester
    Anne Forrester Sunday, 08 February 2015

    LOVE IT!!! Thanks so very much Steve. Bright Blessings, Helga

  • Annwyn Avalon
    Annwyn Avalon Monday, 09 February 2015

    Lovely article, I have done extensive research on the Lady of Llyn Y Fan Vach, and the Gwragedd Annwn. Can you please cite the source that says she gave the Red Book of Hergest to her husband? I have read just about every version of this story and I have never heard this. She is famed with being the mother of the Physicians of Myddfai and therefor associated with the book "The Physicians of Myddvai (1861)" Do you perhaps mean this book? Though there are some remedies recorded in the Red Book associated with Rhiwallon Feddyg (her supposed son) I would love to know where it says she gave the Red book to her husband. Perhaps you meant that some of those remedies are recorded in the Red Book? Thanks in advance for the clarification.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 10 February 2015

    Thanks Annwyn; I'd certainly love to see your research on the subject. I heard this version of the story on a BBC radio article a number of years ago. (Does that count as oral transmission?) My memory is that the Lady herself instructed Rhiwallon in herbal medicine and gave him the Book, although to the best of my recall it was called the Green Book of [Welsh place name]. I'll look back through my notes and see if I can find specifics for you.

    My storyteller's memory for detail is usually pretty good, but at this remove of time I can't vouch for specifics. Let me at least say that this is what I can remember hearing. How much I may have unconsciously shaped it in the meantime, I can't say.

    Ah, the folk process. Stories just want to get better.

  • Annwyn Avalon
    Annwyn Avalon Tuesday, 10 February 2015

    Hi Steven,
    Thanks for the clarification! When I read that I got really excited! I thought you had found a source I had never seen, though BBC radio is a fantastic source! If you are interested you can actually purchase the full book of Physicians of Myddvai on Amazon. Its not an easy read and the remedies are quite interesting and some quite crazy and there is no real mention of the story as it is from 1800's. The rest of the stories I have spent countless hours combing through books to only get a sentence or two and spent sometime meditating on the banks of Llyn y Fan Vach. I think you did a LOVELY job of telling the story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

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