Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

Bottomless lakes and the world-ocean

Bodensee (Lake Constance)

My recent post on the folklore of 'bottomless lakes' such as the Bodensee (Lake Constance – above) brought an extremely interesting email from an old friend, the Dutch historian Dr Henk Looijesteijn. The Dutch being a people whose history is inextricably bound up with water – both as a trading nation and a country literally built on land reclaimed from the sea – Henk's own research has often put him in contact with local folklore, and his comments are pretty revealing. They strike me as well worth posting here.

'Your blog on bottomless lakes brought something to memory,' Henk writes,

from the time – almost eight to seven years ago now – when I was working on a book on Beemster [the first Dutch polder – land reclaimed from the sea by a huge drainage project in the years 1609-1612]. I was then much interested in folklore connected to the sea, for obvious reasons, and I took notes from a dictionary on German superstition (Hanns Bächkold-Stäubli (ed.), Handwörterbuch der Deutschen Aberglaubens (Berlin/Leipzig 1927-1940) which might throw fresh light on stories of bottomless lakes.

In Germany, lakes so deep they were deemed immeasurable were apparently called 'Meerauge', Eyes of the Sea, and were regarded as being directly connected to the ocean. Interestingly, people often believed that these lakes were haunted by evil sprites or even by the Devil himself [Handwörterbuch VI, 70 (1934/35)], which in my opinion is not so far off from the idea that bottomless lakes were home to monsters.

The origin of this belief may be that ever since classical times (if not earlier), many peoples believed that the ocean was the source of all water, even that welling up from the ground, and was also the source of rivers. In the Iliad, Homer, for example, names ‘deep-flowing Oceanus’ as the source of all rivers. It was widely believed by the ancient Greeks that the waters of the ocean flowed under the earth, and all great lakes and interior seas were thought to be connected to the ocean by underground channels or passages [Handwörterbuch VI, 65-69]. Hence such places would be expected to have been brimming with monsters, just like the sea itself, and unlike – perhaps – more shallow lakes.

This throws a different light, then, on 'bottomless lakes', which can be seen more as a feature of things rooted deep in man’s subconscious. Of course, this leaves unanswered the question why even shallow lakes and small ponds were thought to have been bottomless. Perhaps some irony was involved. But it may also be that these shallow lakes had a bottom which was difficult to stand on. Take for example peat lakes – their bottoms were often obscured by a layer of floating peat, and difficult to stand on, so that they might give the impression of not having a stable bottom – or even of having no bottom at all.

As an illustration of this belief that all waters were subterraneously connected, consider an anecdote of the Italian Ludovico Guicciardini (1521-1589), who spent the greater part of his life in the Netherlands and wrote a best-selling Description of all the Netherlands [Description de touts les Pays-Bas, 1609]. In describing Holland, Guicciardini took position in a debate about the origin of the name of the province: according to some scholars the name was derived from 'Holtland', meaning literally Woodland – an interpretation which has been vindicated recently, and shown to have stemmed from the name given to the wooded heartland of the province).  'Others (with whom I agree),' Guicciardini writes, 'assure that this name is an amalgam of these two Dutch words, hol (hollow) and land: which means hollowed out or empty land. Because if one drives here in a wagon or on a horse, so one sees the earth markedly trembling in many places, as if floating on the water. And that this is so, as one sees clearly from a marvellous case, which happened near Haarlem about two years ago. A cow grazing about half a mile from the city suffered an accident and sank down in a deep pit, and the same animal was found dead three days later in the open water eastwards, not far from there: from which one can see, that the cow sunk through the earth, into the water, and had been brought up by the water. But though it sounds strange and sheer impossible, that so large a land would be founded on water, nevertheless one sees manifestly, that a whole part of the earth (possibly through the natural connecting of the earth with the water) has no other foundation than the water.' [Guicciardini pp.191-192]

This raises the question how seriously the notion was taken by the Dutch themselves, but the story was never contradicted and Guicciardini’s book also became popular in the Netherlands itself.

Thanks, Henk. Aside from revealing the serious gaps in my own classical education (even now, the ancient concept of the world-ocean rings only the faintest of bells), this old folklore not only helps us understand much of what has been written about bottomless lakes – it also it goes a long way to explaining how tales of monsters in landlocked lakes, even tiny expanses high in the mountains, appeared entirely credible to our ancestors.

Thinking about all this reminds me that there are also some very interesting things to be said about Scandinavian lake folkore and monster legends, and this is a subject I plan to return to a little later in the year.

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