Considering that over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, it’s no wonder that many of the world’s mythologies have stories that deal with watery beings. However, whether or not these beings intend us any harm tends to be a little murky.
Some water beings simply want to shed their form and walk on land for a little while before returning to their aquatic homes. Others are malicious beings, intent on either taking humankind prisoner, or worse—making a meal of them. These beings are said to live in lakes, oceans, ponds, and rivers all over the world.
Previously, The Portalist has explored fascinating sea monsters from mythology and fantasy fiction. Now, we're dipping our toes further into the deep with these mythical water creatures.
Common to Celtic and Norse mythology, these ‘seal folk’ are shapeshifters. They’re able to transform into humans and walk on land by shedding their coats.
Once free of their fur, they’re considered irresistible to humankind. Many myths surrounding the selkie speculate that if you steal their coat, you bind them to you and can then keep them on land.
A facet of Celtic folklore, kelpies are shapeshifting water spirits commonly residing in lakes or rivers. They’re often described as black horses, but are able to take on a human form. In some myths, while in human form, they still have their hooves.
These deviant water spirits are said to enjoy drowning humans before devouring them, leaving only trace remains on the banks of the river or the lakeshore.
Mermaids are said to have the head and torso of a human while the lower half of their body is that of a fish. Mermaids are commonly considered to be ocean-dwellers, though there are stories of them living in lakes and rivers as well.
Whether or not mermaids intend humans any harm varies from story to story. They’re typically depicted lounging on rocks, combing shipwrecks, or aiding lost or wounded sailors.
Mermaids are often seen in film, literature, and television. The most well-known mermaid tail—or tale—is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which went on to be adapted into a Disney film.
Mermaids have also appeared in works such as Aquamarine, Harry Potter, Peter Pan, and The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Famous for their role in Homer’s The Odyssey, the siren is sort of considered the mermaid's evil cousin. This mythical being is known to lure sailors and ships to the rocks to drown them. These creatures are described as half-bird, half-women, and were said by Homer to be the children of a sea or river god, and one of the muses.
Despite their supposed bird-like features, sirens have been depicted as more frightful forms of mermaids in media such as Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, and Supernatural.
In Italian myth, this blindfolded witch-like creature is said to appear on foggy days. She commonly dwells in swamps, bogs, and marshes. Adults have been known to invoke this water witch’s image to frighten children away from dangerous areas.
An old verse warns children that The Borda will "bind them with rope" and "kill them." A lovely thought to drift off to sleep with!
This storied creature from Aztec mythology is a water dog. Don’t go chasing after these puppies to pet them, however—they’re been known to entice the most unsuspecting people to their death.
They’re said to have small bodies and waterproof fur. The ahuizotl also has the hands of a monkey, not only on its arms, but on its tail.
This being was even adopted as the symbol of an Aztec ruler who bore the same name.
These water demons are believed to live in bogs, marshes, and ponds in Yorkshire and Lancashire. They’re said to have horrifyingly sharp teeth, pale green or brown skin, long arms, and lengthy fingernails. In some depictions, they’re given horns as well.
While these beings are small in size, they are not friendly, as previously seen with the ahuizotl. Also like the ahuizotl, grindylows often drown children.
Whether the children were eaten or taken captive in underwater villages varies from myth to myth.
This subject of Hebrew mythology is depicted as a sea serpent living near Hellmouth, or the ‘jaws of Hell.'
The Leviathan appears throughout the Old Testament. Most notably, in the the Book of Psalms, God is said to have “shattered the heads of the sea monsters," and to have “crushed the heads of the Leviathan” and given it to the Hebrews as food.
The Leviathan reappears as a symbol of God’s power, of creation, and as the enemy of Israel.
Loch Ness Monster
Also commonly known as “Nessie”, this mythical being dwells in Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. There are a multitude of theories as to what Nessie may actually be—a giant eel, a brontosaurus taking a long bath (that’s my personal theory), or a plesiosaur. Tales of this beast date back to the 6th century. A stone carving done by the local Pict people warned of a beast with flippers.
The legend of Nessie grew in prominence in the 1930s, with several accounts coming to light. In April of 1933, one couple claimed to have seen an enormous animal comparable to “a dragon or a prehistoric monster” cross their car’s path before it slipped out of sight, into the lake. Multiple hoaxes would emerge following this sighting, including the well-known “surgeon’s photograph," pictured above.
Whether or not this being really exists remains a mystery, though there have been alleged recent sightings.
This undead water demon is a facet of Slavic mythology.
These lake-dwelling lost souls are commonly considered to be those who died before they were baptized, or a virgin that died by drowning.
The personalities of the rusalki vary depending on the region in which they’re found. However, all rusalki have one thing in common: they delight in ambushing and luring human men.
Whether or not these men are harmed depends on which of the rusalka they’ve been lured by.
The Yacumama, or “Mother of water” comes from Peruvian mythology. It’s said to be an enormous sea serpent dwelling in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest.
According to the legend, this anaconda-like creature is 100 feet long and six feet wide. The yacumama appears to prey on fishermen that become trapped when their boats are impeded by rain. It’s said that no one who disturbs her waters will live to tell the story.
Sometimes referred to as a djinn, this blind, deadly water spirit comes from the Songhai people of West Africa.
It’s said to lurk in the Niger River, and has the ability to command fish.
This creature from Greek mythology is one of the less frightening of the mythical sea beings. Similar to mermaids, they have the upper body of a being that is known to be a land-dweller and the body of a fish. However, unlike mermaids, which are half-human and half-fish, a hippocamp has the torso of a horse and a tail in place of its lower half.
The hippocamp is referred to as the mount of sea nymphs. Poseidon’s chariot is also said to have been drawn by these beings.
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Depending on the telling, this Brazilian mythical creature is sometimes depicted as a nymph, a siren, or a mermaid. Her appearance varies from story to story—she’s sometimes described as having blonde hair and green eyes; other tellings say that she has green hair and brown eyes. She often is said to have light brown or copper skin. Regardless, Iara is said to be incredibly beautiful.
Tales of Iara date back to the 16th century. She’s said to have been the daughter of an Indigenous tribe, and a strong warrior. Her brothers grew jealous of her skill, and plotted to murder her. Learning of their plan, Iara tried to defend herself against them, and killed them by accident.
When she was found out for this, her father punished her by throwing her into the river—but she didn’t drown. Iara was saved by the fish living in the river, and transformed into a mermaid. Now, she takes revenge on all men by seducing and drowning them.
These Germanic water spirits are half-human, half-fish beings. They live in underwater palaces, the likes of which humans have never seen. They also possess the ability to shapeshift, often taking on the likeness of an old or young woman.
However, even in human guises, they’re said to have hints of the otherworldly. Their skin may take on a green or blue hue, and their eyes and ears may appear pointed.
The nature of a nix is said to vary. They’re not always malevolent, but when they are, they can be quite dangerous. Unlike a selkie, it’s difficult to bind a nix to land. They can’t stay away from the water forever, and will need to return to their home despite a fondness for land, or for those who reside there.
These Japanese water monsters are hardly friendly. Considered vampire-like, they’re thought to be as intelligent as they are deadly. Throughout mythology, they act as troublemakers. They're often depicted as the size of a young child, with yellow or green scales, and with features that resemble a monkey’s.
These creatures are said to have an indent filled with water from where they live. If the water is spilled, it’s believed that kappa is eternally bound to serve the person who refills it.
Considered to be one of the most fearsome sea creatures in Bahamanian mythology, the form of this frightful sea being is as contested as Nessie’s.
Some locals claim that the Lusca has the form of a giant octopus; others claim that the being is half-octopus, half-shark. It’s agreed, however, that the Lusca is incredibly large—between 75 and 200 feet.
The Lusca is said to dwell around blue holes in the water, or underwater caverns or sinkholes. There are claims that ships have been pulled into blue holes by this being, only to have a few bits of wreckage float to the surface not long afterward.
While saratan is Arabic for crab, the Zaratan is a colossal sea turtle. It's said that this sea turtle is so large that the habitat found on its back is often mistaken for a small island. The oldest account of the Zaratan was written in the 9th century by Al-Jahiz, an Arab prose writer and zoologist. The story is found in his Kitāb al-Hayawān, or The Book of Animals.
Al-Jahiz describes the Zaratan as having vegetation on its back. Sailors will land on its back, hoping for a place to rest or explore. This awakens the Zaratan, and the animal dives, drowning those who have taken refuge.
The legend of this creature come from the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. This merman is said to be shark-finned, and malicious. It also has gills behind its ears, and a swordfish-like spear growing from its head.
The Adaro is said to be the physical manifestation of the dark part of a man’s spirit. It’s been known to kill people by firing poisonous fish from a bow.