This Week’s Prompt: 125. Man abandon’d by ship—swimming in sea—pickt up hours later with strange story of undersea region he has visited—mad??
The Resulting Story: The Sea Dane
This week’s prompt returns us to familiar waters for the Undead Author Society: Strange and terrifying sights beneath the sea. We’ve touched on undersea creatrues, regions, and even peoples before. We talked about the most famous, Atlantis, here. We discussed undersea bishops and mermaids here.
Now, this recalled to my mind another flooded ancient city of Northern Europe—specifically, Ys. When I first heard the story of Ys, I was traveling in Ireland. The tour guide told a version that said Ys was sunk by druids to protect it—and if anyone found the golden keys to the city, they would inherit its power and it would rise again. The key was under an unmarked grave in Ireland, and hadn’t been found yet!
The version I was able to find more documentation of is slightly different. Ys is found off the coast of Brittany. The King of Is or Ys is Gradlon, with his daughter Dahut. The city is built on reclaimed land, with the golden keys to the dykes holding it fast during the day. Gradlon’s daughter Dahut takes the keys, in most versions, and opens the dykes to flood the city. The reason she does so varies—in many versions, she is impressing a flatterer or lover, and drunkenly mistakes the dykes for her palace. In others, a man with a red cane and beard has come to the city and stolen the keys to flood the city. As the city floods, a saint or holy man comes and tells the King to flee—offering his horse to escape with. As he flees, his daughter jumps on the horses back, and the horse stops. And only be throwing her off does he escape.
Some versions suggest she in turn became a mermaid, bringing us to a full circle of our story from the Netherlands. To this day, at low tide, the ruins of the city can still be somewhat seen. The ruins are again attributed to Roman builders at times, at others to ancient sources. At least one suggests the devil danced on the dykes, mocking the king with his keys. A source I couldn’t confirm (it is in French) has Dahut build the city with korrigan aid and command sea serpents to serve every citizen of the city, building wealth with raids and oceanic diving. This wealth made them cruel, and soon they drove beggars and others out of their homes and streets. And so they were buried by the sea. It is said, in some versions, that that Is or Ys will rise again, and the first to hear its bell toll will become king.
A comparable Welsh tale modifies things somewhat. The drunkard is now the steward, and there are references to an overflowing well instead of the sea that creates a lake around the city. Still, the King escapes and is the sole survivor.
Bomere pool was likewise formed from a flood. The village that once stood there turned back to idolatry and the worship of Norse gods, only mocking the Christian faith. When the priest warned them of God’s wrath, fish bones were sewn to his cassock and children pelted him with stones. This did little to dissuade the priest, and his endurance won over a few back to the faith. However, in December the rains began to fall.
The priest, walking one day, saw that the dykes were about to burst. He ran down to warn the feasting pagan people, but was dismissed for his kill-joy croaking. One might expect, when the flood came on Christmas Eve, he and his followers would be safe on their hill. But no—the waters hit them first, rising over the altar, and washing away the entire village. You can still, they say, hear the ringing of the Sanctus bell over the pool.
A variant of this story exists, however. It was placed back in the Roman Empire’s reign. In this version, the warning comes from a Roman soldier, sent by God to the town. However, only the daughter of the governor will listen to him. The rest of the town beat him and mock him, as they did the priest in the other story. The soldier would have married the Governor’s daughter, but it was not to be. On Easter, devastation came to the city—a flood so massive it wipe the city out entirely. It is said the Sun rejoiced and the cattle prayed to God in thanksgiving. The solider was spared, but his love was not. He can be seen when the church bells ring, rowing a boat looking for his lady love to this day.
Amusingly to me, one version of the story sets an even pettier reason for the flood—that a farmer was harvesting grain on Sunday.
There are stories in Shropeshire where greed is the ultimate cause: Ellesmere was once a great meadow, with a well of pure water in the center. People came from all around for the drink, until a churlish man purchased the land and demanded payment for the water. The next day, his wife found the meadow turned into a vast, worthless pool. And the price the man had to pay was kept high, for his poor conduct.
Donegal Bay has a number of tales of sunken and undersea cities as well. A castle, with fields of cattle, is said to be visible in the morning—and that its inhabitants dress in old and strange clothing. When a marquis went to reclaim some land, he found the sight and ceased all work on the project—if it was due to the beauty of the city or something else we don’t know.
Another nearby castle emerged for reasons that are by now familiar. The local chief was holding a feast and advised by a saint to invite the poor as well as the rich into his hall. When he refused, the saint cursed him and the waters flowed up from the well and over the city, drowning it—in another case, the wicked chief held the saint prisoner and the well water rose up to over take them.
Another Donegal Bay story tells of a visit to the undersea, but not how it came to be. A man was riding at sunset towards a lake, when he found himself on a mirrored surface. He continued until he came to an underground room, and was asked by many hosts there to eat and drink. However, for once, our hero remembers his folklore and flees—seizing a bottle as proof. He emerged onto shore and was so frightened by what he had experienced he died within the year—but he had proof.
Another hero did not listen, however, when he pursued his sheep into an undersea kingdom. Here he married a red headed woman and lived a happy life—before deciding after three days to return and tell his family. Sadly, he learned that time is different under the sea—and he had been gone three thousand years.
Moving away from the British Isles, we can find underwater kingdoms farther abroad in Nubia. Here we have the Aman Naltah, river inhabitants who live in castles beneath the Nile. They will regularly, reportedly, drag persons down into their world and gift them with divining powers upon returning them. They also cause halluncinations or amnesia by dragging people beneath the river, aid in exorcisms, and so on. But they are not the only inhabitants of the Nile.
There is also the Aman Doger. These creatures also inhabit the Nile, but are much more tangibile. They have donkey like legs, log tails, big ears, and burning vertical eyes that are the only visible sign of them during sun rise and sunset. They do attack people, particularly women, to acquire gold for their taxes in their home country or to gain food. Robbery is not their only trick—they will lure people to the shore by calling their name, and then suck breath and blood from their nostrils, draining their strength. Being nocturnal and terrifying creatures, they prey on children of course. And most terrible of all, they will break vehicles and steal dates.
The more fascinating part for our purposes is the purported origin of the creatures. In one instance, a travelling sufi was rejected by pagan peoples. He cursed them to a terrible form as punishment, in a way familiar to the above. In some cases, this was the fate of all the original inhabitants of Nubia. Another, more modern-set origin says that when the British colonized Sudan, one tribe would not pay their taxes and rebelled. Sadly, they lacked gold and guns—so they made use of their sorcery to become river beings. Tragically, their sorecery was their undoing—they lost not only their wits and appearance, but became forever hungry and in need of wealth to pay their new overlords beneath the waves.
At least one story has such a spell lifted by a sword being cast through the Aman Doger, who afterwards retursn to Sudan to take up work as a merchant. It should be noted that, as a bewitched tribe, the sorcerers of the region have power over them. And as monstrous creatures, the appropriate verses of the Koran will disperse them.
Further from the Isles still is a tale from Micronesia. The handsome son of the chief of the Lugenfanu on Losap was on a boat to Truk when they came to a group of whales. However, these whales were actually girls in disguise and one of them, taking a fancy to the boy, knocked him overboard. The men on the boat did not notice, and so he was left swimming.
He preformed some diviniation magic to learn which direction was preferable for him to travel. When it favors none, he asks if diving down would be best—and the magic says it is. So he dives down beneath the waves. There he found a clean and wonderful island, with a large pool in the middle, deep and wide. He hid in nearby bushes to see if anyone would come to the pool and bath. And soon the whales came, and each leaped into the pool from the salt water and removed their skin, revealing themselves to be beautiful girls.
Now, this story being an animal bride story (in a way), the boy finds the skin of the prettiest and steals it, for he is intent on making the prettiest of these whale women his wife. Unlike many such thieves, however, he quickly reveals he has the skin and that he hid it so the two of them could talk. After learning his story, she invites him home—sorry that she was the whale to knock him overboard.
At the home, her sisters arrive. The woman hides the boy, promising to keep him safe. The whale girl in turn ask why they can smell a foreign human in their home—with some agreeing to be his friend if he is a boy, others saying they will hate them regardless of boy or girl, and others promising to beat and murder him. At least the first time—the second time they ask, they agree to be friends or even marry him.
So they all marry him, and agree that one will stay with him at all times while they are about. And in this time, the boy teaches them cooking for they did not know how to cook meals and hade been eating raw fruits. AT last, the prettiest girl’s turn comes again and the boy asks to be taken home again. The sisters are deeply unhappy, but they hold a feast to send him off and teach him how to revive dead whales, should they awash on his shore.
The undersea realms are thus places of many wonderous magics, where one can drift without being entirely aware. It is not surprising that shipwrecked sailors might dream of them—we have comparable cities in stories of the Flat Earth, where lineages of magicians have dwelt beneath the sea.
Our story would then follow the mad sailors story, their descent downward into this realm of magic and wonder, and their eventual return to the surface. Would it be a land of fish men, sorcerers, fae, or even the dead? What world will he return to? What treasure or proof will he steal? Come and see next time!
Doan, James. “The Legend of the Sunken City in Welsh and Breton Tradition” Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1981), pp. 77-83. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.
Kennedy, John G. “Aman Doger: Nubian Monster of the Nile.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 83, no. 330, 1970, pp. 438–445. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/539665. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.
Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.
Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
Meehan, Helen. “Underwater Worlds of the Donegal Bay Area.” Béaloideas, vol. 71, 2003, pp. 1–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20520823. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.
Mitchell, Roger E. “The Folktales of Micronesia.” Asian Folklore Studies, vol. 32, 1973, pp. 1–276. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1177461. Accessed 2 Feb. 2021.