Come into the water and bathe, my love
Come swim in the swirling pool
Come down in the deep with the rocks and the bones
You'll swim with me now, sweet fool...
Lyrics by Nicole Murray and Cloudstreet
There are many fables and stories surrounding the rivers and waterways of Britain. However, if you go walking by any pool, pond or river at night, be on the look out for Jenny Greenteeth. She is most dangerous for those who are not careful by open water, as she lives beneath the surface on the muddy bottom and feeds upon the unwary. Her lithe form darts back and forth like a fish and with pale green skin and long dark green hair she is no beauty. Yellow frog-like eyes will peer up at you, then her long arms will wrap themselves around you, her foul-green pointed teeth will sink into your flesh and long bony fingers and sharp nails will stroke you into the deepest sleep there is.
Jenny Greenteeth, or the Greentoothed Woman, most probably originated in Central Europe among the many myths and legends of the Slavic peoples. The spirit of lakes and ponds, the rusalka or water nymph, charmed passers-by with her song so that some would drown themselves for her sake, a terrestrial mermaid of sorts. She had kin in Baba Yaga, a witch who took delight in eating children and many stories of evil creatures who drowned their victims can be reminiscent of the tales of Jenny Greenteeth.
Some believe that Jenny was merely an alias for duckweed that could wrap itself around the leg of an individual and trap them under water, a danger to small children if they caught themselves in it. Others explained her away as an allegory that would ensure children and the foolhardy kept away from the edges of pools, ponds, rivers and lakes, otherwise she would come up and drag them in and eat them. Whatever the case, Jenny will always be there under the surface of the water, waiting for her next meal.
Jenny Greenteeth can be found all over the British Isles in many different forms. In Lancashire she is Jinny Greenteeth, in Cheshire and Shropshire she was known as Wicked Jenny, Ginny Greenteeth and Peg o' Nell, while in Durham she was Peg Powler1. Hebden in Yorkshire has Thor's Well (or Thrushkeld), where Jenny haunts waiting to drag small children in if they go too near the edge and in Cornwall she has a close relative in the bucca-boo, a water spirit that haunted moors and ponds. Jenny may even be sister to Black Annis of Leicestershire, a child-eating witch that lives in trees stretching her long arms down to steal her prey, while in Ireland she goes by the name of Bean-Fionn2 and appears as a beautiful woman dressed in a white gown, only to drag children and the unwary into the depths of dark lakes to drown. She has many cousins in water-sprites and nymphs and has also been referred to as a bogeyman, putting fear into both children and adults alike.
Elsewhere in the world other water spirits and legends inform people of the dangers surrounding stretches of water, be they lakes, rivers or wells. In Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany and the Slavic countries, there is a legend of a White Woman. Sometimes described as a water-nymph that is protective of children, she will drown those who displease her or hurt children. She has also been known to give directions to lost travellers, although in some stories the White Woman is often the vengeful spirit of a murdered woman or a portent of death or war. In South America there is La Llorona, a spirit that haunts the edges of lakes looking for lost children and will drag any unwary child into the water to be with her. Other famous water-legends include the Greek Sirens, Beowulf's nemesis Grendel, The Lady of the Lake, the Rhinemaidens of Germany3, the Australian Bunyip and perhaps the most well-known water-myth of all, the Loch Ness Monster.
The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People by Thomas Keightley
Jenny Greenteeth by Mary Downie/Illustrations by Barbara Reid
The Haunting of Nadia by Julia Jarman
Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett