Sleek, lithe and playful, at home on land and in the water, the otter is a well-loved member of the Caledonian Forest. A Scottish name for the otter is the ‘dratsie’, and in Scottish tradition there are tales of ‘Otter Kings’ who were accompanied by seven black otters. When captured, these beasts would grant any wish in exchange for their freedom. But their skins were also prized for their ability to render a warrior invincible, and were thought to provide protection against drowning. Luckily, the Otter Kings were hard to kill, their only vulnerable point being a small point below their chin.
Otters sometimes swim single file as a family group, and it has been suggested that this might account for some of the Loch Ness Monster sightings! In a similar vein, an old Anglo-Saxon name for the otter was the ‘water-snake’.
The otter features in an ancient shamanic Welsh tale. The sorceress Ceridwen left young Gwion to guard her cauldron, but he tasted the draught by accident and gained knowledge of all things. He transformed into a hare to escape her wrath, but she pursued him as a hound. When he plunged into the river as a salmon, Ceridwen became an otter to continue her pursuit. Gwion was eventually reborn as the great bard, Taliesin.
In Celtic and other folklore the otter is often characterised as a friendly and helpful creature, and is given the name ‘water dog’, alluding to these qualities. In the Irish story The Voyage of Maelduin, otters on the Island of Otter bring the sailors salmon to eat, and the Voyage of Brendan tells of how an otter performed this service for a hermit, even collecting firewood for him! St. Cuthbert is the patron saint of otters, and after standing waist-deep in the North Sea during his nightly prayer vigils, two otters would come and warm his feet with their breath and dry them with their fur.
Bizarrely, there was debate among Celtic clerics as to whether otter flesh was fish or meat, determining whether or not it could be eaten at Lent; and the Carthusian monks of Dijon, who were forbidden to eat meat, ate otter as they classed it as a fish!
In Norse mythology, the mischievous god Loki killed the dwarf Otr while the latter was in the form of an otter. The dwarves were furious, and demanded compensation from the gods who gave them the otter skin filled with gold. In ancient Persia the otter (again known as the ‘water dog’), was esteemed above all other animals, and a severe penalty was imposed on anyone who killed one.
This popular mammal also features in more recent literature. Otter in Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows is an affable character, with a particularly adventurous son. The moving tale Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson follows the life of an otter in the rivers of North Devon, and Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water recounts the touching, funny and tragic true story of his friendship with otters, giving a lyrical portrayal of their intelligence and irrepressible playfulness.
Human admiration for this animal is perhaps best expressed in the words of the American naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton: “…the joyful, keen and fearless otter; mild and loving to his own kind, and gentle with his neighbour of the stream; full of play and gladness in his life, full of courage in his stress; ideal in his home, steadfast in death; the noblest little soul that ever went four-footed through the woods.”
Sources & further reading:
Anon, Gantz, J. (translator). 1976. The Mabinogion. Penguin: London.
Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
Carr-Gomm, P. & S. (1994). The Druid Animal Oracle. Fireside: New York.
Sturluson, S. 2006. The Prose Edda – Norse Mythology. Penguin: London.