Mythical Creatures

Mythical creatures, legendary beasts, supernatural, and mystical beings have fascinated us since ancient times. They have filled folk tales, songs, and works of art. Sometimes living animals or fossils have inspired these mythological creatures. Some, such as the Eachy of Bassenthwaite or the Woodwose, continue to be witnessed and sought out. While the origins of fabulous creatures are varied, and often disputed, they have played significant roles in human society, and have served to stimulate the imagination and desire that is ingrained in human nature to experience more than this physical world. Whether they truly exist in physical form is indeed secondary to their existence in the minds of so many people.

Cockatrice of Renwick

William Hutchinson’s History of the County of Cumberland, published in 1794, which contains footnotes written by a surveyor called John Housman, is the earliest known record of this legend. Housman wrote that John Tallentire of Scalehouses “ derived from a circumstance which happened about 200 years ago, almost too ridiculous to be credited […] an ancient possessor being said to have slain a noxious, cockatrice”. The legend states that the inhabitants of Renwick were pulling down the village church when a large winged creature emerged from the ruin, they thought it was a cockatrice and fled in panic. But John Tallentire took a rowan branch, stabbed the creature through it’s heart, and killed it.

A cockatrice is essentially a two-legged dragon or serpent-like creature with a rooster’s head. It has the reputed ability to kill people by either looking at them – “the death-darting eye of Cockatrice”, or breathing on them. In the late-medieval bestiaries it is stated that a weasel is the only animal that is immune to the glance of a cockatrice. It was also thought that a cockatrice would die instantly upon hearing a rooster’s crow, or having a cockatrice look at itself in a mirror is one of the few sure-fire ways to kill it.

Dragons

The village of Dragley Beck, Ulverston, is the birthplace of Sir John Barrow, civil servant, geographer, linguist and writer, takes it’s name from the dragon, that legend would have it, sleeps beneath it.

Eachy of Bassenthwaite

Sightings of an Eachy was reported at Lake Windermere from 1873, Wast Water since 1980s, and Bassenthwaite Lake as late as 1973. Described as “a large humanoid being of gruesome and slimy appearance” seen to occasionally emerge from the lake. An eye-witness at the time is reported saying: “Resting near to Bassenthwaite Lake I saw something that made me both exited and intrigued at the same time. Something strange was swimming in the lake. It ducked below the surface and reappeared some distance away. The speed that the animal moved was amazing. I have never been able to find out what it was I saw, and my story has been met with some ridicule.”

The Eachy or each-uisge  is a water sprite in Celtic folklore, known as the each-uisce in Ireland, and the cabyll-ushtey on the Isle of Man. It usually takes the form of a horse, is similar to the kelpie, but far more vicious. This supernatural water-horse and has been described as “perhaps the fiercest and most dangerous of all the water-horses”. The each-uisge is a shape-shifter, disguising itself as a fine horse, pony, or a handsome man recognized by the water weeds or profuse sand and mud in its hair.

Bownessie

Bownessie is the name given to the elusive creature that some think lives in Lake Windermere. For many, the creature resembles the Loch Ness Monster Nessie, the Cumbrian version named after the nearby town of Bowness although apparently there is a lesser-known name of Winnie.

“Its skin was like a seal’s but it’s shape was completely abnormal – it’s not like any animal I’ve ever seen before” Of the eye-witness testimony: In 2006, journalism lecturer, Steve Burnip reported a “30ft creature with humps”; “20ft ripples” were left behind by Bownessie, claimed Lakes TV director in 2009, about the Bownessie-sized disturbance of the water caught on video as he was filming for a Bownessie documentary; “the length of three cars”, is the size of the mythical Bownessie, according to Tom Pickles and Sarah Harrington who were out kayaking on Windermere in 2011.

In 1980 Swedish naturalist and author Bengt Sjögren wrote that present beliefs in lake monsters are associated with kelpie legends. Accounts of these monsters have changed over time, originally describing horse-like creatures, they were intended to keep children away from bodies of water, and have developed into descriptions reflecting a modern awareness of the plesiosaur.

The Age, 1961

Wurm of Wast Water

Wast Water is deepest lake in England at 79 metres. Since the mid 1900s there have been numerous sightings of a long-necked creature lurking in the depths, including a diver witnessing “something the size and shape of a giraffe head off into the deep”. A wurm/ worm in folklore is generally attributed to a dragon with no legs or wings, such as the Lambton Worm legend in County Durham.

Sea Wives

Curiously, given Cumbria’s extensive coastline, there appears a lack of merfolk tales. There is the tale however of the Sea Wives. Women of wonderous beauty, and even just a glance from a Sea Wife’s eyes is enough to enslave mortal man. She passes between her own world and that of mortal man by means of a magic cloak of seal skin. If betrayed by her mortal husband she will thereafter return to take his children from his mortal union, and she is capable of creating great havoc: the wrecking of boats and the devastating crops. On an island “off the coast of Cumberland” an elderly fisherman would recount the tale of his lost love, his Sea Wife.

The Sea Wife may be more Selkie than Mermaid. One tale is that the Selkie or Seal Folk can only assume human form once every seven years because they are either humans who had committed sinful wrong doing, or are fallen angels.

Mermaids

The Naga, (Sanskrit: ‘serpent’) in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism is a semi-divine serpent race that can assume human form, or assume the form of a human with a serpent’s tail. Despite their mythology being of eastern origin, they are said to exist around the world, in trees and in bodies of open water. Could the Naga be the source of the mermaid myth?

Mermaids have been described as able to swim up rivers to freshwater lakes and pools, and this maybe be the origin of the Jenny Greenteeth tale, the “river hag”, often described as green-skinned, with long hair, and sharp teeth, who lures children and the elderly to the water’s edge, to drown them. There is the tale of Jenny Greenteeth inhabiting the flooded mine works in Plumpton Woods, Ulverston.

Mermaid from Carlisle Cathedral
courtesy of Claire Heron

Here’s a tale from the Solway Firth, so we can claim half ownership of the story. The Barnhourie Mermaid: folklore suggests that Barnhourie Sands is home to a mermaid who fell in love with a young sailor whom she rescued when his ship ran aground on the shifting sands.

“At Ambleside, in the Lake district, a curious swindle was recently perpetrated. A showman set up a booth, and when he had gathered a crowd, called out, ‘Walk up, walk up, and inspect this curious phenomenon—a real live woman fish, the only one existence The place was crammed, the curtain rose, and a young woman, dressed all black, appeared on the stage and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am the woman fish. There’s my marriage certificate. My husband’s name was Fish. He was killed last summer through the fall of a scaffolding, and as has left me with four children unprovided for, I will take the liberty to go round and make collection on their behalf.” Tam Her, 4 Aug 1894

Tizzie-Whizie

This shy, water-loving creature has the body of a hedgehog, the tail of a squirrel, and the antenna and wings of a bee, the Tizzie Whizie was first observed by a Bowness boatman in 1900. It’s diet of moss and lichen produces a great deal of flatulence, allowing the creature to travel at great speeds across Lake Windermere.

Girt Dog of Ennerdale

Also known as the ‘Vampire Dog of Ennerdale’ this mysterious creature that killed between 300 and 400 sheep over six months. Even from the first attack, it was believed that the killings had not been done by an ordinary dog. The slain sheep had only several of its organs removed and eaten, and was drained of its blood. Local farmers left their normal duties to track down and kill the creature, but the mystery animal eluded them. The only evidence of its presence was an increasing number of dead livestock. One farmers caught a glimpse of the creature, it was described as very large, sandy brown in colour with dark stripes running down its back, and as having the qualities of both a large feline and a large dog. A man by the name of Jonathan Patrickson got close enough to the beast to get a shot off at it, spraying the Girt Dog with pellets. The creature now wounded, the hounds chased the creature for many miles down to the River Ehen where exhausted, the it plunged into the water. John Steel, got within range and mortally wounded the Girt Dog. Weakened and weary, the animal was no match for the pursuing hounds and the creature was finally killed. The carcass was paraded about the area and when weighed it tipped the scale at 51 kg. It was sent to Keswick Museum and stuffed for all to see.

One explanation is that the Girt Dog of Ennerdale might have been a thylacine (a Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf). Travelling circuses and menageries of the time were known to contain what were described as “tiger wolves” – a description that fits the eyewitness testimony. However, study published in the Zoological Society of London’s Journal of Zoology in 2011 found that the Tasmanian Tiger had such weak jaws that its prey was probably no larger than a possum.

Picture: TMAG Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Beast of Cumbria

The Beast of Cumbria is part of the ‘big cat phenomena’ that has become increasingly accepted amongst the British public, large predatory cats – puma or panther – that can successfully breed in our countryside.

Drigg, 2005: out walking her dog, a woman spotted what she thought was an adult puma standing on the roadside. It ran off through a hedgerow after a few seconds

Allithwaite, 2009: the witness watched a large black panther-like cat in one of the fields, heading towards a nearby patch of woodland. Comparing the height of the creatures to nearby cows, the witness estimating the cat was 90cm high at the shoulder.

Thirlmere Forest, 2018: supervising a group of teenagers on a Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition, the group leader reached a 15 metre clearing and on the other side stood a tan coloured Mountain Lion. Man and cat stood and stared at each other for around a minute before the lion turned and slowly walked into the trees.

There have been more than 40 reports of a ‘panther’ in the southern Lake District since 2003.

Bowness-on-Windermere
Mail Online 2020

The Beast of Leece

While driving through the village in late 1990s, a married couple spotted a large black creature in the middle of the road. They were forced to stop the car, as the beast did not move. It was about two metres high and just under a metre tall, covered in black bristly hair and yellow-coloured eyes. One of the witnesses reported that the beast resembled a large cat, but was neither feline nor dog. The creature eventually moved slowly from the road and stood on the grass verge, enabling the witnesses to drive off. A number of sighting have occurred since, interestingly, all near the infamous Boggart Bridge.

Cappel of Beetham

A tale from the early 1800s, this creature is said to be able to transform into any four-legged animal, though it prefers the form of a dog. A local vicar is said to have banished it into the River Bela, from where it will occasionally emerge to help some locals drive their sheep. There are also the local tales of The Headless Hound and Black Dog of Thirlmere, Shap Shuck and Capelthwaite which would suggest they exist as part of Barghest folklore. A monstrous ‘black dog’ with huge teeth and claws, appears generally at night. It was believed that those who saw one clearly would die soon after, while those who caught only a glimpse of the beast would live on, but only for some months.

Hagg Worm

A curious tale of giant flying worms/ flying serpents that lived in the woodland around Arnside. They were described as hairy, and large enough to swallow even the largest bird, whole. One tale is of a young boy who witnessed the serpent flying into a tree whereupon the locals set alight the tree killing the serpent.

52 miles as the Hagg Worm flies, and there is the similar tale of the Flying Beast of Beckermet, a large serpent witnessed flying around the woodland there. It is described as similar to the ‘Bradford Big Bird’.

Was the Hagg Worm and the Flying Beast a type of Pterosaur? They existed 228 to 66 million years ago, and were the earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight. Their wings stretching from the ankles to a dramatically lengthened fourth finger, and from recent evidence, may have been feathered giving this ‘hairy’ appearance.

Ginger Beast of Beckermet

“While walking my dog on the evening of Sunday, January 25 on the road out of Beckermet towards the A595, I passed Nursery woods. The time was approximately 16.45. It was starting to get dark, but as I walked past the woods, I heard a snapping of branches. Thinking it was a deer or another animal, I stopped to try and see what it was. Looking through the trees I noticed a large creature covered in a sort of ginger brown hair that seemed to be drinking from a pond about 150 metres into the woods. As the lighting was getting bad I was straining to make to make out what the animal was but as I stopped and stared it appeared to see me, at which point it reared up on to its hind legs and made off slowly further into the woods. I would estimate its height when upright to be approximately six feet and six inches and its weight to be about 14 stone.” – eyewitness.

Is the Ginger Beast a Woodwose? A wildman, or wildman of the woods defining characteristic is it’s wildness, depicted in verse and art as being covered with hair. The 9th-century Irish tale Buile Shuibhne describes how Shuibhne (Sweeney), the pagan king of Ulster assaults the Christian bishop Ronan Finn and is cursed with madness as a result. He begins to grow feathers and talons as the curse runs its full course. He flies like a bird and spends many years travelling naked through the woods, composing verses among other madmen.

Wild men support coats of arms in the side panels of a portrait by Albrecht Dürer, 1499

Giants

Giant’s Cave, near Eden Hall is associated with the giants Tarquin and Isir. The pair lived on a diet of human flesh, a practice that probably lost its appeal when Sir Lancelot slew Tarquin in battle. The Giants Grave in Penrith is the resting place of Sir Ewain Caesarius “in old time, a famous warrior of great strength and stature” said to be 17 feet tall.

Girt Will o the Tarns is a tragic tale from the mid 18th Century. Will was a ‘gentle giant’ of 9 feet tall who fell in love with the daughter of the Laird of Coniston Hall. This love not reciprocated, he abducted the girl. The Flemings of Coniston Hall gave chase, and caught up with the pair at Kernel Dub at Yewdale Beck. Tragically the girl fell into the water and was swept away to her death. They caught up with Will, he was killed, and was buried where he fell. The long, narrow mound beside the beck has thereafter been called The Giants Grave.

In folklore, giants are beings of human appearance, but are at times enormous in size and strength. The word giant derived from the Gigantes of Greek mythology. Giants often evoke terror and remind humans of their body’s frailty and mortality, they are often portrayed as monsters and antagonists, but there are exceptions, some giants intermingle with humans in friendly way, and can even be part of human families, with their offspring appearing as regular humans.

Belle Sheephead

Date unknown, but somewhat of an urban legend, the story of the young girl who finds her pet lamb killed by a fox. Rather than mourning her beloved pet, she drank it’s blood. By the next full moon she was transformed into a were-sheep, stalking unsuspecting travellers on Dunnerdale Fell.

image by Smugraptor, 2015

Dobhar-chú

In 1910, the Captain of HMS Caesar whilst sailing between the Cumbrian coast and Isle of Man reported seeing a repilitian creature with a dog’s head, leaping out of the water.
Was it a dobhar-chú? The Dobhar-chú or water dog / water hound is a creature of Irish and British folklore. It is described as half dog, half fish, or even as a giant otter. 10 to 15 feet in length. Dobhar may derive from the Welsh, ‘dwr’ meaning ‘water’, and ‘cú’ meaning ‘hound’ in Irish.

Hobthrust

In Cumberland and Northumberland, the hobthrust (hob) resided. It was lost from memory in this world due to our kindness towards it, not our fear of it. Similar to a Brownie, they were generally helpful and worked in farmyards. However, if offended could become somewhat of a nuisance. To get rid of a hobthrust in an act of kindness, one would give them a set of new clothing.

Tree-spirits

In 1881, Druids, angered by the Duke of Suffolk’s plan to build a railway line through the Forest of Ipswich, informed local tree-spirits of his dastardly plan. This caused the entire 370 acres of woodland to relocate itself to Cumbria.

A tree deity or tree-spirit is a nature- deity related to a tree. Such deities are present in many cultures, often connected to ancient fertility and tree worship, and vary from that of a local faerie, sprite or nymph, or that of a goddess. Druantia, is the hypothetical Celtic tree goddess proposed by Robert Graves in his 1948 study The White Goddess.

References:

Gillan, J. 2019 Ten Mythological Creatures in Ancient Folklore

Cumbria County History Trust, The Renwick Cockatrice

Heller, L. G. Humez, A. Dror, M. 1984 The private lives of English words

Night, C. 1854 The English cyclopedia: a new dictionary of universal knowledge

Breiner, L. A. 1979 The Career of the Cockatrice

Langstone, A. 2016 Folklore of Bassenthwaite

Briggs, K. 1976 An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures

Grice, F. 1944 Folk Tales of the North Country

Varner, G. R. 2007 Creatures in the mist: Little People, Wild Men, and Spirit Beings around the World

MacPhail, M. 1896 Folklore of the Hebrides

Lakelovers org. 2018 Windermere’s Bownessie

Collins, N. 2011 New photo of English Nessie hailed as best yet

Sjögren, B. 1980 Berömda vidunder

Ivison, H.C. 2010 Supernatural Cumbria

Clarke, Capt. K. 1884 Wild Sport in the Orkney Isles

Hiestand, E. 1992  South of the Ultima Thule The Georgia Review

Vickery, R. 1983 Lemna Minor and Jenny Greenteeth

Combing, B. 2015 The Mermaid Con

Rabbie 2018 The Tizzie-Whizie: A Legend of the Lake District

Marsh, T. 2010 A Northern Coast to Coast Walk: From St Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay

Holman, T. 2007 Lake District Miscellany

Attard, M.R.G. Chamoli, U. Ferrara, T.L. Rogers, T. L. Wroe, S. 2011 Skull mechanics and implications for feeding behaviour in a large marsupial carnivore guild: the thylacine, Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll  Journal of Zoology

Bromwich, R. 2006 Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain

Davis, J. 2020 Mystery of the Beast of Bowness: Motorist captures images of ‘muscular big cat’ thought to be a puma roaming the British countryside before leaving it a chicken sandwich and driving off Mail Online

Paranormal Database – Black Shuck, Hellhounds, and Other Black Dog Reports; Cumbria

Rodriguez, E. 2018 Bargest Encyclopaedia Britannia  

Pipe, B. 2019 Fabulous folklore from the Lake District

Topham, I. 2018 Mysterious Britain and Ireland

McGrath, A. 2017 Beasts of Britain

Elgin R.A. Hone D.W. Frey E. 2011 The Extent of the Pterosaur Flight Membrane

Didsbury, N. 2005 Giants Grave, Penrith

Weinstock, J.A. 2016 The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters

Bowker, J. 1878 Goblin Tales of Lancashire

Atkinson, P. 2017 Folk Tales of North East England

Trees in Mythology – Myth Encyclopaedia – Greek, god, story, names, ancient, animal, norse, Japanese, world, Roman, creation