From Nøkk to Nix

Words about words


Photos: Wikipedia / public domain
“Nøkken som hvit hest” (The Nøkk as a white horse), by Theodor Kittelsen, 1907, signed Th. Kittelsen.


Midtsommer is approaching—that magical evening—and it’s time to beware for all kinds of spirits, especially the alluring water sprite, the Nøkk (nynorsk Nykk) in Norway, otherwise known as the Nix or Nixie in English.

Under a variety of names, s/he is known to all the Germanic peoples, but the belief is especially strong in the Scandinavian folklore. In Norway, Sweden (Näck), and Denmark (Nøkke), he is a fair and beautiful male water spirit, who plays enchanted songs on the violin, luring women and children to drown in lakes or streams. The enthralling music of the Nøkk was most dangerous for  women and children, especially pregnant women and unbaptized children. He was thought to be very active during Midsummer’s Night and on Christmas Eve, and sometimes on Thursdays. The only way to avoid the terrible fate of being carried off to drown was to call out the Nøkk’s name, believed by many to cause his death.

In Norway, the Nøkk is also related to the Fossegrim, and he is not always malevolent. The Fossegrim is a fiddler so skillful that he can teach a musician to play so adeptly that the trees will dance and waterfalls stop at his music. Some even believed that if you offered the Fossegrim three drops of blood, a black animal, or some alcoholic spirits  or snuff in the water where he lived, he would become your devoted music teacher.

There are even stories of the Fossegrim agreeing to live with humans who had fallen in love with him, although he often returned to his home, usually a nearby waterfall, river, or brook.

The Nordic Nøkk is also shapeshifter, and sometimes he appears as a beautiful white horse near the water’s edge. It was the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen (1857–1914), known for his depictions of Norwegian trolls, who has shaped our image of the nøkk as a white horse, a motif explored by other artists, including Elling Reitan, whose work is also featured in this issue.

Notably, the related Icelandic and Faroese nykur are also horselike creatures.

But where did the word or the name for this mysterious creature originate? Linguists maintain that the name Nøkk derives from Common Germanic nikwus or nikwis(i), derived from Proto-Indo-European neig, meaning “to wash.” These words are related to Sanskrit nḗnēkti, Greek νίζω nízō and νίπτω níptō, and Irish nig, all meaning to wash or be washed, thus the association with water.

The Old High German form nihhus also meant “crocodile,” while the Old English nicor could mean both a “water monster” like those encountered by Beowulf, and “hippotamus,” a creature still known to us today.

In both German and English, the word evolved into Nix, and the belief in him exists in those cultures as well. In Germany, you also find Nix’s female counterpart, Nixie. All are alluring figures, mermen and mermaids, who will draw you down into the river’s deep with their enchanting music.

The Nøkk has survived in fiction throughout the ages and has even crept into the video games of modern pop culture. Some may recall how Queen Elsa encounters and tames the Nøkk in the form of a horse in the Disney film Frozen II from 2019.

Beautiful and alluring, the Nøkk still captivates our imagination, but we no longer need to be afraid on Midsummer’s Eve.


Compiled from Wikipedia and other sources.

This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.