Tides in Folklore and Literature

23 03 2016

I just came across this lovely essay about the tidal Thames; “Tale of a city: Secrets of a River”; Richard Hollis; 2012;  NewStatesman online

“Slack-tide is the river’s most hypnotic moment, an occurrence of such serenity that even the terns become temporarily becalmed. The cormorants and great crested grebes thrive in the still water and will dive for half a minute or more in search of breakfast. But the leggy herons must wait for the waters to drop, and today, a dozen of them linger on the bird-boats below Fulham Rail Bridge, as if queuing for a restaurant to open.”

Full text here


(Pre 2016)


As a short cut we are pasting a draft peice of writing for another project here

At some point this will be edired and updated

So please note the below is very much work in progress


(Opening) The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down to the river, the only thing to do was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide (5).

(Close). Marlow ceased, and sat apart [ ] in the pose of a meditating Buddha. Nobody moved for a time. “We have lost the first of the ebb”, said the Director, suddenly. I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of cloud, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness (   ) . Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness[i]

The above passages open and close one of the quintessential novels (and works of art more wifely of the 20th century. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. This is just one of many very striking examples of the use of tides in literature, where they are used as symbols of beginning and ends of narratives and of departure, climax and resolution.

Given the great power and spectacle of many tides, their mysterious nature, and the way they influence day to day life and landscape so significantly, it is no surprise that tides feature heavily in a range of cultural manifestations which include folklore, myth, literature, poetry and art.

The way tides are used as a metaphor, and are built into a range of narratives, varies from them and their significant moments being a symbol of renewal , to being a symbol of threat, loss and dread. There is inevitably a huge variation in how this plays out in differing cultures around the world. Here I draw out just some of the most interesting and important examples (as I see them) of tides in this way from what are inevitably my own cultural location.


Of course folklore in some senses precedes ‘literature’ or forms the earliest manifestations of literature so best start there. As mentioned in chapter 2 tides were deeply mysterious things to ancient and even medieval cultures. Lacking an understanding of gravity, there was no clearly graspable reason why the seas rose and fell. The many cultures who observed the passing of the seasons and phases of the moon had some sense that tides were part of a divine cosmic order but only in some complex obscure sense given their great variation in form and rhythm.

In the vacuum of a scientific, or at least practical grasp of ebb and flow various cultures derived their own tide creation myths. One notable example of tidal genesis comes from the Norse tales. In one collection of stories, The Prose Edda, there is a tale of the god Thor being challenged to a drinking contest by the giant Utgarda-Loki. Thor drinks from his horn with gusto, but despite his best efforts cannot drain the horn. He had been tricked; the giant has connected the horn to the oceans, so Thor was in fact trying to “drink the seas dry”. The giant mocked Thor for his weakness. But from then on, so the legend goes, the seas rose and fell each day in an echo of the valiant efforts of Thor to complete an impossible task.


 Thor is tricked into trying to drink the sea and thus creates the tides.

Sir James Frazer, in the famous twelve volume work The Golden Bough which recorded folklore, religious beliefs across cultures, summarized a number of folkloric attitudes to the tides.

Dwellers by the sea cannot fail to be impressed by the sight of its ceaseless ebb and flow, and are apt, on the principles of that rude philosophy of sympathy and resemblance which here engages our attention, to trace a subtle relation, a secret harmony, between its tides and the life of man, of animals, and of plants. In the flowing tide they see not merely a symbol, but a cause of exuberance, of prosperity, and of life, while in the ebbing tide they discern a real agent as well as a melancholy emblem of failure, of weakness, and of death. The Breton peasant fancies that clover sown when the tide is coming in will grow well, but that if the plant be sown at low water or when the tide is going out, it will never reach maturity, and that the cows which feed on it will burst. His wife believes that the best butter is made when the tide has just turned and is beginning to flow, that milk which foams in the churn will go on foaming till the hour of high water is past, and that water drawn from the well or milk extracted from the cow while the tide is rising will boil up in the pot or saucepan and overflow into the fire. According to some of the ancients, the skins of seals, even after they had been parted from their bodies, remained in secret sympathy with the sea, and were observed to ruffle when the tide was on the ebb.[ii]


As this quote indicates whether the tide was ebbing or flooding was a given great significance and the turn of the tide was a threshold between states. At slack water (the pause that sometimes happens at the turn) a lacuna in the flow of fate or fortune or physic energy might occur, almost like a pause in time itself. The famed fictional vampire Dracula, in Bram Stoker’s original novel, was only said to be able to pass running water at the slack or flood of the tide!   Indeed

Tides were seen dictators of the timings of life and death itself. Frazer again;

Another ancient belief, attributed to Aristotle, was that no creature can die except at ebb tide. The belief, if we can trust Pliny, was confirmed by experience, so far as regards human beings, on the coast of France. Philostratus also assures us that at Cadiz dying people never yielded up the ghost while the water was high. A like fancy still lingers in some parts of Europe. On the Cantabrian coast they think that persons who die of chronic or acute disease expire at the moment when the tide begins to recede. In Portugal, all along the coast of Wales, and on some parts of the coast of Brittany, a belief is said to prevail that people are born when the tide comes in, and die when it goes out.[iii]

From Shakespeare to Dickens, such beliefs cropped up in dramatic narratives, as in the death scene of Mr Barkis in Dickens’s David Copperfield. Barkis, an old seafaring man, lingering on his death bed in a house built of old ships planks (check), located on a beach on the South coast of England, finally dies when the tide is on the ebb.


“People can’t die, along the coast,” said Mr. Peggotty, “except when the tide’s pretty nigh out. They can’t be born, unless it’s   pretty nigh in – not properly born, till flood. He’s a going out with the tide. It’s ebb at half-arter three, slack water half an   hour. If he lives till it turns, he’ll hold his own till past the   flood, and go out with the next tide”.[iv]

dickens tide


 “I find Mr. Barkis “going out with the tide” by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne). February 1850. Steel etching. Illustration for chapter 30, “A Loss,” in Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Source: Centenary Edition (1911), volume two.

Frazer continues

The belief that most deaths happen at ebb tide is said to be held along the east coast of England from Northumberland to Kent. Shakespeare must have been familiar with it, for he makes Falstaff die “even just between twelve and one, e’en at the turning o’ the tide.” We meet the belief again on the Pacific coast of North America among the Haidas. Whenever a good Haida is about to die he sees a canoe manned by some of his dead friends, who come with the tide to bid him welcome to the spirit land. “Come with us now,” they say, “for the tide is about to ebb and we must depart.” At Port Stephens, in New South Wales, the natives always buried their dead at flood tide, never at ebb, lest the retiring water should bear the soul of the departed to some distant country.

Now of course all this seems very fanciful (as Frazer suggests), but as discussed in chapter 6 tides do seem to have palpable effects on living bodies. Could there be something going on here? Some effect the tide is having on the brain and/or body and the energies therein? The great American poet Walt Whitman, when visiting American Civil War hospitals in Washington (US), in the 19th century, felt that the wards, and the seriously wounded in them, became calmer, “and died ‘easier’”, in harmony with the tides (see Raban, 1992: 474).

Other writers have referred to how the gender of livestock can be influenced by timings of animal copulation in relationship to the moon and tides (e.g. Ticknell, 1951).


One of the disadvantages in researching this subject is that tides are used as a metaphor very commonly in journalism and other writing. Thus on-line searches throw up millions of spurious hits when seeking out how people have written about tides themselves. The tide as metaphor can be applied to just about anything going through a significant turn of course, and also anything ‘flowing’ steadfastly in one direction. Economic, political, military even sporting fortunes are commonly described with tidal methphors . The turn of the tide is an alluring expression of change – the flood – fortune/power on the rise; the ebb – fortune/power in decline. Shakespeare, as usual, set the standard in such metaphors


Brutus: Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

The implication is that you have to ‘seize the moment’ in politics, war and other endeavours, just as those seeking to set sail from tidal harbours (or entering them) have to catch the rising tide or otherwise wait for another opportunity. (In terms of sea-bound trading – missing the tide could be costly in both the short and long term).


The ancient Irish poem The Hag of Beara focuses much more on the ebb as a metaphor for dwindling power and vitality. On the Beara Peninsula in the far southwestern part of Ireland, there is a strange outcrop of rock which appears to be shaped like a woman’s face gazing out to the sea. This is the Caelleach Bhearra, The Hag of Beara, whom local tradition calls the “Shaper of the Land.”

The poem opens


Ebb tide has come to me as the sea;

old age makes me yellow;

though I may grieve thereat,

it approaches its food joyfully.

The last four verses are

It is wholly sad

(man is the basest of creatures)

that ebb was not seen

as the flood had been.

It is well for an island of the great sea:

flood comes to it after its ebb;

as for me,

I expect no flood after ebb to come to me

Today there is scarcely

a dwelling-place I could recognize;

what was in flood

is all ebbing.


One of the great powers the tides have symbolically is the sense that they are a restless, tides is the sense that they are a ceaseless, endless cycle. They, for sure, will continue on past any human aspiration of moments of life As in this poem, this there is not only a comparison with the waning of youth, beauty, vitality and sexuality with the ebb of the tide but also a sense that the human ebb is a final one – not to be repeated of the brevity and finitude of human fortunes.

That the power of the seas and their tides were often considered to be way beyond the fortunes of ‘men’ is illustrated by the common mythical story in British culture of the ancient king Canute who, depending on which version is in play, sought to prove the limitation of his powers to his deluded minions by t seating himself in the margins of the sea and letting the tide rise over him. Although some versions of the story have it that he was trying to prove him power over the sea itself.


King Canute

Literature: tide, time and narrative

From the classic literature of Shakespeare and Dickens to seminal 20th century writers such as Conrad to today’s leading novelists such as John Banville – tides feature in literature about peoples’ relationships with place and landscape. I new offer some examples user a series of thematic heading


Beginning, ends / climaxes

The opening quotes at the top of this chapter shows that the telling of the dark tale that forms Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness takes place on yacht in the Thames Estuary and is set between the turn of two tides. The liminal margins and spaces between the land and the sea, as articulated by the time-space rhythms of the tides area key motif in Conrad’s form of psychological realism; two sets of his short stories being entitled Twixt Land and Sea and Within the Tides.

A number of other novels open, and even also close with, a reference to the tide. Examples being The Mill on the Floss, George Elliot; Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier; The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch; The Highest Tide; Jim Lynch; The Sea, John Banville. Our Mutual Friend- Charles Dickens; Glister – John Burnside; The Snow Goose – Paul Gallico; and in travel/place writing The Kingdom by the Sea – Paul Theroux; Coasting – Jonathan Raban. I am sure there are many more.

In such literature, high and low water are used as symbols of beginnings and ends in narratives. The turn of the tide is used to locate ‘us’ and our stories in time – to mark a point where things can start, and things can end. This reflects a need (perhaps) not only for human stories to embed themselves in (patterns of) space and place, but also in patterns (rhythms) of time. Just as landmarks and objects can be significant in terms of places (e.g. prominent trees – see Harrison, 1991) then moments and periods such as low tide, high tide, rising and falling tide, can become markers of the lived flow of time. The turn of the tide act as dramatic pauses, even lacunae, in which the weight of the narrative itself can be felt as a piece.

Beyond the obvious (anti)climax of death, novelists use tides, particularly the Spring tides as psychogeographical moments of narrative climax. Two examples are John Banville’s The Sea, and David Lynch’s , The Highest Tide. In The Sea the narrative as memoir takes an elliptical form where the dramatic, tragic denouement of the story, which takes place at an exceptionally high tide, is anticipated in the opening lines.

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights…” (Burnside, 2005: 3)

In Lynch’s The Highest Tide the opening of the narrative is a discovery made by a boy while exploring intertidal land at a very low tide. The ebbing and flowing of the tide is woven into the following story. And like Burnside, but in a more optimistic note, Lynch uses an exceptionally high tide to mark, and contribute to, the resolution of various strands of the story in the denouement. In a sense the use of tides in such works about life beside the sea is unsurprising, this is precisely because it is such a monumental force!

Renewal and hope – loss and dread

There is a very obvious and literal way in which intertidal space feels new after the inundation of the last high tide. On the sandy seaside beaches of Tenby and so many other resorts, the footprints, the sand graffiti, the sandcastles, even the litter of one day are obliterated by the tide to leave the beach pristine again on the morrow.

This cleaning of the marks of past occupation, and the knowledge that for a while at least this space was aquatic and deeply non-human, can make intertidal space fee l fresh, new and spaces of rejuvenation and even euphoria. This feeling is captured in the novel Angus Grey by Anne Bronte

My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands; nothing before me had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left it fair even, except where the subsiding water had left behind it the traces of dimpled pools and little running streams. [ ] Refreshed, delighted, invigorated, I walked along, forgetting all my cares, feeling as if I had wings on my feet [ ] and experienced a sense of exhilaration to which I had been an entire stranger since the days of early youth ( )

The glisten and gleam of intertidal mud on the Thames was similarly a joy to behold for the hero of Joyce Carey’s novel The Horse’s Mouth;

I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop. All bright below. Low tide. [ ] Thames mud turned into a bank of nine carat gold rough from the fire [ ] I swam in it. I could not take my eyes of the clouds, the water, the mud.

Senses of place-time

The rhythms of tides get folded into affective practices/experiences of places/landscapes. On remote beaches, urban seaways and in vast estuarine landscapes, intertidal spaces and their land margins become highly potent, affective spaces of becoming which are generated and experienced in multiple ways. The impact of these landscapes has been remarked upon by the UK geographer Bill Adams:

these places seem to have a very particular power. This lies in the sense of freedom that beaches offer, their sheer openness, and the novelty of the life they support… They are places that literally have a life of their own, where rhythms of tides and seasons set an agenda that seems to stand outside human time (1996: 2/3).

Bloom, in James Joyce’s: Ulysses, considers the swirling waters of the tide and the ‘writhing weeds’ within it as the ‘loom of the moon’ (55). Masefield in the poem Sea-Fever states that the ‘call of the running tide, is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied’. Many other writers have explored the very distinctive senses of place and time of tidal beaches

And they have also used the beach and the flotsam and Jetsam the tide delivered on ‘the tide line’ a recent notable example being . Jean Sprackland’s book . Strands A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which spins out a number of interweaving narratives which start with a discovery on the beach encountered on her walks.

A series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool, Strands is about what is lost and buried then discovered, about all the things you find on a beach, dead or alive, about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.

Loss and dread

But tidal areas can be dark (haunted) landscapes – perhaps reflecting and amplifying the psychological states of whatever protagonist is driving the narrative . Peter Grimes by George Crabb; poems by Silvia Plath e.g. Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour; The Women in Black by Susan Hill, all make tidal spaces darker spaces.

The draining and creping tide, and the unknowableness and openness of often vast intertidal landscapes can be a spatio-material medium for feelings of angst, threat, fear and dread. In Crabbes’ narrative tragic poem Peter Grimes the tidal marshes become a place of isolation and desolation.


Thus by himself compelled to live each day,

To wait for certain hours the tide’s delay;

At the same times the same dull views to see,


The water only, when the tides were high,

When low, the mud-half covered and half-dry;


There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,

There hang his head, and view the lazy tide

In its hot slimy channel slowly glide (cited in Drabble, 1979: 73).


Sylvia Plath turned her melancholic gaze on intertidal land as in the poem

Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbour, and found raw, visceral space.

Dawn tide stood dead low. I smelt

Mud stench, shell guts, gulls leavings.

Beyond such dal landscapes have featured in novel about foreign threats to British sovereignty as in The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers and The 39 Steps by John Buchan. (In the latter the key to the mystery is a flight of dock stairs which at a certain high tide has 39 steps exposed).

[i] Conrad

[ii] Frazer

[iii] Frazer

[iv] Dickens

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