Nixie in the mill pond

     Ali Shaw's Nixie in the pond


Ali Shaw's Nixie in the pond

Hello dear listeners and readers after a long absence! This is a really juicy story, full of existential meanings of life situations and wonderfully deep and ancient symbols that nurture the soul. I have had such fun researching the annotations so do check out the annotations page on my website. This is a story about what happens when men lose their connectedness and make bad bargains, and how, in the next generation, reconnections are made and balance is restored. The wife saves her husband and in so doing integrates the Nixie and the wise old woman into their relationship. She is a strong woman, a true heroine.



Miller – historically millers had high standing in their community, providing a necessary service to grind corn to make flour for people to make their bread. But the one in the story has fallen on hard times and is despondent, disconnected and depressed. He is in such debt he hardly owns his mill any more, and if he knows at all that his wife is pregnant, he certainly has no idea when she is due to give birth. How devastated she would have been at his lack of enthusiasm at the birth of a son. But she is not mentioned again, as so many wives aren’t in patriarchal culture.

Mill – if there is a mill there must be a surrounding community to supply it with grain to be ground into flour. The town might be foundedwhere there is a good site for a mill, which needs water to drive the wheel (circular) that turns the mill stones – usually circular (unless it was a windmill). High technology is involved, like the spinning wheel, using circles.

Mill-pond – the one in the story is both “the reservoir for the miller’s power” and the home of the Nixie. Water is essential to run the mill, and also represents the unconscious, essential for individuation.

Before daybreak – dawn, the aurora, the time between night and day, a numinous, threshold time between conscious and unconscious, Aurora is the Goddess of dawn.

Nixie – a female water sprite, similar to kelpies, usually unfriendly to humans and treacherous to men. She is an in-between creature who belongs to two realms, the human and the underworld, who elicits fear (Kast). Some commentators refer to the Nixie as the anima archetype who lives in the water, the unconscious. Everyone knew about her and the miller’s story; the relatives who visited when the child was born, the miller made sure the boy knew about the dangers, and the huntsman told his wife the story many times.

The Nixie says ‘be easy’, and promises wealth in exchange for the miller’s son, and how precious are sons? The wise old woman says ‘be comforted’ and gives the woman three gifts and instructions that give her back the miller’s son, her husband (Shalit). The Nixie’s claim on the new-born cuts out any hope of rejuvenation or revitalisation in the miller’s life (Kast), because the miller learns nothing from the encounter; life goes on as before. “Ultimately, this fairy tale deals with the problem of how to integrate the realm of passion with every day life” (Kast).

You must promise… - Promises and bargains must be kept, we must not think we can wriggle out of them and live in peace. Fairy tales are riddled with bad bargains: - The Handless Maiden, Rapunzel, Beauty and the Beast. The Nixie kept her end of the bargain, and bided her time, waiting until the boy became a man.

The huntsman – He is more connected to the nature and wildness of forest and animals than his father who is connected to commerce. He would certainly never follow in his father’s footsteps as a miller. “One does not have to worry about nixies in a forest”. He develops protective qualities and avoidance strategies (Kast). He is terrified of the water after his father’s dire warnings – so he is also averse to exploring his unconscious and has to be dragged under the water.

The huntsman’s wife – ‘a beautiful and true-hearted maiden’ and a happy wife whose role in the story is only activated when her husband disappears. Her grief, anguish and anger are commensurate with her tremendous efforts to get him back. It takes all her feminine intuition, her love, and her persistence to rescue and redeem the huntsman.

Circumambulation – according to Jung is ‘the exclusive concentration on the centre, the place of creative change’. “The circumambulation wakes up the inner psychic depths, reached only when away from conscious wakefulness” (Shalit). The wife walks right around the pond in a circle, almost as a ritual, she circumambulates it. Only the walking does not comfort her but exhausts her and she falls into a deep sleep at the end of the day and dreams a big dream.

The Dream – In the dream

  • thorns rain and wind assail her as she climbs, the physical metaphor for how her body is feeling inside in her grief and anxiety,
  • the summit is the culmination of her exertion,
  • blue sky, soft air, the gently sloping ground, the green meadow filled with flowers and the pretty cottage signify hope, trust and optimism.
  • The old woman with white hair who beckons her in is wise and helpful, she is an archetype of the Good Mother; two more visits and patience will be required. Follow instructions and ‘then you will see what will happen’ – no quick fixes here – ‘all is not yet fulfilled’.
  • The dream recurred three times, invoking the sacredness of three.

She resolved to act – the wife listened to her intuition and acted on it; in this way she is “connected to the conscious and the unconscious” (Picard).

The wise old woman – it is as if she is expecting the wife to visit her. The wise old woman is at once our inner wise woman and The Goddess. She appears in fairy tales when the protagonist is really up against a wall, as in the giant’s wife in Jack and the Beanstalk and the devil’s grandmother in The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs. “She is wise because she knows how the world works” (Kast), and she wants nothing in return for her help. She restores the relationship between the wife and husband in all its aspects, especially the nixie-problem of repressed passions. 

Tarry till the full moon has risen – it was a crescent when the Nixie claimed the husband, so she had to wait two weeks. The moon is a very feminine symbol, ‘of constant metamorphosis’ (Kast). The phases of the moon are associated with birth, death and rebirth, and also with the threefold goddess: as young girl, as mature woman, and as wise old woman. The wife needs to be mature to deal with the Nixie.

Golden Comb – The mother figure is teaching her to care for herself.  Hair is traditionally a woman’s crowning glory, there is something erotic about it. The comb is used on the head and it is the husband’s head only that appears and he looks at her sorrowfully. The head is where ‘being’ resides (Picard).

Golden Flute – Golden (indestructible) in fairy tales often connotes a magical or sacred quality to the object. The flute is played with the hands – where ‘doing’ resides (Picard) – with the arms held high, that’s why the husband’s torso comes out of the water and he reaches out his arms to his wife. The flute is emotional, expressing longing and desire - feelings that come from the heart, in the middle of the torso.

Golden Spinning Wheel – here we have another circle. “All is not yet fulfilled”. The spinning wheel brings order out of chaos, a useful thread from a bundle of tangled wool or flax, a thread of meaning one can follow; the thread of fate. The rhythmic turning of the wheel and spindle creates a state or reverie conducive to dreams and fantasies. It is as if the couple is embroiled in a drama bigger than the two of them, an underworld drama of a battle between the Nixie and the old woman, “until the spool was filled with threads”. Spinning a yarn can also mean telling a story, perhaps the story of feminine history which is suppressed by the patriarchy. Each golden object is bigger than the last, and this time the husband managed to spring to the shore. The spinning wheel signifies work and produce – traditionally done by women, just as the milling was done by men. The comb, flute and spinning wheel are all ancient artefacts in use for thousands of years.

Flood – The Nixie wasn’t going to give up the huntsman without a fight – but the wife had formed a strong relationship with the wise old woman who intervened so that they were not utterly destroyed but transformed, shape-shifted.

He into a frog and she into a toad – These are amphibian, able to live on land and in water. Being changed thus enabled the couple to survive the flood, though they lost their identities and memories. Frogs and toads are traditionally lunar animals; the toad is associated with death and evil, the frog with resurrection and rebirth (Antony Stevens). Because of their developmental phases they are also seen as transformational animals, and because they breed so profusely they are associated with fertility. It is hard to tell the difference between frog and toad in Neolithic pottery, such as the one found in Hacilar, Anatolia, “combining a toad-like trunk with a woman’s chest, head and coif” and representing the Great Goddess (Marija Gimbutas).

They regained their human form – but found themselves in a very different space, place and circumstance, obtaining work as shepherds. Because of the involvement of the Nixie they could not just re-unite as if nothing had happened. They both needed a time of self-reflection and grieving, and transformation.

Shepherds – live close to nature out in the pasture with their flocks. The miller is important in the community by making flour from his clients’ grain, but the shepherd, even though tending the community’s sheep, is solitary, isolated and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Both are ancient professions, both are involved in nutrition.

They drove their flocks through field and forest: shepherds lead a solitary life keeping their sheep together and keeping body and soul together in simplicity and reflection - with lots of time to process their thoughts and memories and feelings. The couple is able to concentrate on centring themselves instead of the untrammelled chaos of emotions and sexual feelings connected to the Nixie and the pond. Just as the wife encircled the pond, so both of them must now encircle their sheep as a symbol of focusing on themselves, contemplating their life from all angles, and their feelings of grief and longing. In their loneliness and self-sufficiency they think about what it means to be an independent individual (Kast). It is notable that the two are employed in equal occupations – perhaps denoting a more equal balance in masculinity and femininity in each of them, unlike the miller’s wife who seems to be in a patriarchal relationship. They met in a valley – a yin place of receptivity, femininity and fecundity.

The flute was the only object to survive the flood and it was instrumental in the couple recognising each other again at last, the sorrowful tune restoring their memory.

Happy – because they had found their other half, having each done their own inner work; balance is restored and they are fully conscious of each other in their masculinity and femininity.

Circles appear frequently in this story; the mill wheel, the mill stones, the ‘wheel of fortune’ that changes for the miller, the wife circumambulating the pond, and the spinning wheel. The circle has inexhaustible meanings and connotations in many cultures.


Marija Gimbutas: The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe.

Verena Kast: The Mermaid in the Pond

Caroline Picard, A Jungian Interpretation: The Nixie in the Mill-Pond

Erel Shalit: Enemy Cripple & Beggar

Anthony Stevens: Ariadne’s Clue

Reflection Questions

These questions are for your own personal reflections on the story. Perhaps you don’t relate to the whole story, but parts of it do resonate with aspects of your experience. Those are the parts you can work with. And if you find a question disturbing, do seek out a wise and trusted friend or therapist to talk it over with. I would encourage you as you reflect on these questions to have your favourite creativity materials or a visual journal nearby. Be open to any images that may come to you and concretize your reflections in some sort of art-making.

  • How much trust do you have in the power of life – in your capacity to deal with whatever life throws at you? How can you strengthen that trust and lessen your fears?
  • What do you do when you fall on hard times? Who do you turn to? How do you care for yourself? How do you stay connected?
  • What is your standing in your community?
  • What part of the day do you like best?
  • What promises have you made? Have you kept them? Have you made some bad bargains? How have they turned out? Or have you been betrayed by someone else not keeping their promises?
  • How much do you try to ‘control the future by holding on to the present’? Are you so wary that nothing new can enter your life?
  • Children often have to deal with problems left by their parents or previous generations. Have you inherited a problem? Or are you leaving a problem for your children to solve?
  • Do you listen to your intuition and your dreams? And then act on them?
  • Where in your life are you striving against the elements of wind, rain, thorns and rocks? What do these elements stand for in your life?
  • You might like to visit the wise old woman in your imagination and tell her all that is going on for you. You might like to journal the dialogue you have with her.
  • How patient are you at waiting and following instructions?
  • “It is not complete yet” – things have to be done in a certain way, not rushed. How good are you at waiting and acting at the right time?
  • How closely are you connected to nature? As much as you would like?
  • How much time do you give yourself to process your thoughts and memories and feelings?
  • How equal or patriarchal are your relationships? How satisfied are you with the status quo?