Imagine this: its early evening and you’re heading home from a long day at work. You’re drained, and craving an hour on the sofa watching some bad telly. Your feet are heavy and every step hits the pavement with a resounding smack! Your eyes burn with tiredness. The sky is grey and lowering; there’s no rain dripping down onto your head yet, but it’s pending. On an impulse your feet find a dirt path that leads to a short cut that runs alongside the river.
It’s narrow, overhung with brambles and nettles and dotted with beer cans and takeaway wrappings, but it takes a good five minutes off your journey. The river pulses along sluggishly beside its banks, grey and leaden apart from the weeds drifting greenly at intervals and the debris suburban rivers collect: cans, polystyrene containers, abandoned bikes.
You’ve only gone a short way when a particular clump of weed catches your eye. Maybe it’s your overtired eyes misreading the waters, but you fancy that a particularly large, dense clump of green strands is following you. That’s all it is, of course, a fancy. Your over-active imagination. It’s just some water plant drifting in the current.
Then it occurs to you that the weed is moving against the current.
You pause, staring at the weed, and remarkably, it pauses too. Against your better judgement, you step off the path, down the weed and rubbish strewn bank, attempting to discern what exactly is down there in the water.
The water erupts. Droplets fly in all directions and you catch a panicked glimpse of something lunging at you. It’s all shades of green mingled together like the trees in a forest, it has long hair dripping down over its skull and it’s got two long arms reaching up for you. And you espy teeth – slimy, sharp gnashing teeth…
You throw yourself backwards and scramble up the bank on all fours, adrenaline lending you speed. You scurry back up the path, and lie there, gasping, terror-stricken, arms and legs trembling. You see the green thing, lurking down there, snarling with frustration, before it slowly, sullenly slips beneath the surface and is lost to view.
You’ve been lucky. You’ve just met Jenny Greenteeth, and there aren’t many who live to tell the tale.
Jenny Greenteeth is a figure from English folklore. She’s also a type of pondweed. The name ‘Jenny Greenteeth’ is used sometimes to describe duckweed, which is regarded as a nuisance plant in the UK because it grows so fast. It can cover an entire pond within a matter of days, choking off other growth. It’s a pain to remove, too.
But the Jenny Greenteeth this blog is concerned with is even more dangerous that her vegetal namesake. She’s a river being, similar to a grindylow or the Japanese kappa. She lurks in lakes and rivers, ready to snatch at unsuspecting people and drag them under the water. She was probably created in order to frighten children away from treacherous waters. It’s uncertain how the duckweed came to be associated with Jenny, but duckweed can be hazardous as a thick coating prevents you from judging how deep a body of water is.
However she came into being, one thing that is very interesting about Jenny is the number of regional variations she has. Around Liverpool and South Lancashire she’s known as Jenny Greenteeth, but my Mum, who was born and bred a stone’s throw from this area, knew her as Jinny Greenteeth (thanks Mum!) She’s also referred to as Ginny Greenteeth, Wicked Jenny and Jeannie Greenteeth. There are other versions of a river hag, called Peg Powler and Nelly Longarms, in different areas of the country. The former inhabits the River Tees in Yorkshire, the latter doesn’t appear to be tied to any geographical region but is recorded by folklorists such as Katharine Briggs.
Regardless of where she originated, Jenny Greenteeth has inspired plenty of popular culture. One of the most prominent examples is the lake monster, Meg Mucklebones, in the 1985 dark fantasy film Legend. Meg is a fabulously grotesque creation, and looks very like I imagine Jenny Greenteeth. Just look at her – an ugly hag, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West. (Unfortunately for Meg, she’s easily disarmed by flattery…)
There’s also a very intriguing legend about Jenny Greenteeth, which is linked to St James Cemetery in Liverpool. Previously known as St James Mount, it was used as a quarry until 1825. Subsequently, it was turned into a cemetery and was used for this purpose until 1936. It’s alleged to be haunted by the ghost of a witch named Jenna Green, who existed prior to the cemetery’s construction. The connection with Jenny Greenteeth is obvious, especially since this ghost is rumoured to drown stragglers who lurk in the cemetery. A vampire-like entity has been rumoured to haunt the graveyard since the 1960s, which may or may not be connected to Jenny Greenteeth…
Even more spookily, a tourist recently photographed a strange spectre in the cemetery, which she believes to be the ghost of Jenny Greenteeth herself… It’s tall, dark and apparently wearing a hooded cloak.[i] What do you think?
Despite her close links to the North-West of England and the numerous regional variations dotted around the UK, Jenny Greenteeth is also an inheritor of a much longer tradition of water spirits, particularly female ones. There are legends about female water spirits and demons in virtually every country in the world, from the Lorelei in the river Rhine in Germany, the Naiads of Greek mythology and the Rusalka of Russian folklore. Even, arguably, the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend. They are nearly always malicious towards human beings, perhaps reflecting the danger large bodies of water posed to a population (most of whom probably couldn’t swim). Jenny herself is remarkably similar to many of these creations – a reflection of Jung’s collective unconscious perhaps?
Despite the photographs, there’s no concrete proof of Jenny Greenteeth’s existence and the legend, sadly, seems to be fading. I had no idea of Jenny’s connection to my local area until my Mum told me. Nonetheless, she’s a strong presence in St James Cemetery. Unlike her unhappy victims, Jenny is a survivor. As Sylvia Plath commented in her stunning poem Lorelai, ‘it is no night to drown in…’
Till next time, dear readers.
Don’t go out alone.