Over at the Dutch artist Isabella's gallery, Land of the Dreamers, I ran into this depiction today - of Stromkarl, the Scandinavian water spirit, "riverman." Isabella says this of him:
It is said he knows how to play eleven different musical compositions, ten of them he plays often and anyone is free to listen. The eleventh he only plays at night as it could be dangerous for any living soul to hear it. It's said that when he plays the tune all things start to move from their places....
In fact, according to Brewer's Dictionary of folklore and fable, if anyone hears or plays the eleventh melody, "tables and benches, cups and cans, old men and women, blind and lame, babies in their cradles, and the sick in their beds, begin to dance."
What a beautiful and perilous folk figure Stromkarl must be! As wild as Orpheus with his lute. This is actually my first encounter with Stromkarl, and information on him is surprisingly scarce. Is he not well known in the West? Finding material on him is proving as tricky as carrying water in one's hands up a hill. I intend to begin raiding several local libraries and universities to learn more. I know a top-notch scholar of Scandinavian folklore whom I will have to interview shortly. I have located references both to Stromkarl as a character and to stromkarl as a plural of water spirits, a term analogous to naiad or selkie, rather than a name for an individual. Of depictions in art, so far I have only found Isabella's - even deviantart, that massive online catalogue of contemporary photos, paintings, and sketches, has no Stromkarl. If not for Brewer and a few other references, I might almost think Isabella had made him up. (I would be delighted by that.)
I have found one folktale that refers to stromkarl, actually while I was writing this very post. The written variant is very brief, and to be found in a truly ancient little piece of anthropology, a volume from 1841 entitled Fragments from German Prose Writers, translated in the UK by one Sarah Austin. As the fragment is brief, I will offer it in its entirety here:
Two little boys were playing by the side of the river, and they saw the Stromkarl, or water-spirit sitting on the shore and playing his harp. Then the children called out to him and said, "Stromkarl, why are you playing? There is no salvation for you." Thereupon the Stromkarl fell to weeping bitterly, threw his harp away, and sank in the deep waters. When the boys returned home they related to their father, who was a godly man, what had befallen them. The father said, "You have sinned against the Stromkarl,--go back and comfort him, and tell him that he too shall be saved." When they went back to the river, the Stromkarl sat on the shore weeping and lamenting. And the children said, "Weep not so, Stromkarl, our father says that thy Redeemer also liveth." Then the Stromkarl joyfully took his harp and played sweetly till the sunset.
Jacob Grimm. (Deutsche Mythologie.)
This is a curious version of the Norwegian, made the more so because it has been translated at least twice - once into German, again into English, and probably many more times as it circulated through German villages - and so this version probably suffers from outrageous replica failure - like the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a print of some painting. And where does this odd tale find its theme and its origin? In the conflict between Christianity and paganism? In the nostalgia of a people for forgotten tales and old rites? Or in the joy of finding compatibility in two traditions? A very curious tale.
I wish I could find more on this stromkarl and his history. If anyone knows anything of him, drop us a comment here!