Sea-horses glisten in summer
As far as Bran has stretched his glance:
Rivers pour forth a stream of honey
In the land of Manannan son of Ler.
⁃ The Voyage of Bran, 7th/8th c
Hay thair muh wee selkies!* Ceridwen Silverhart has written up a series of comprehensive posts on the legends and beliefs about water horses, and this led to a discussion that inspired this post. Ceridwen’s blog can be found here: https://illuminatingthefoolsmirror.wordpress.com/
The Ride of the Water Horse
When asked about the traditions concerning the each-uisge, or water horse, in his native Scottish Highlands, Mr. Kenneth Macleod had the following story to relate, summarized here:
One day while wandering alone in the gloom of the forest, the famous warrior Caoilte came face to face with the water horse, and it was none other than Morc Na Maighe herself. She addressed the valiant huntsman, “Good luck to you, Caoilte, if you don’t betray the Feinn before the sun sets in the ocean tonight.”
“And it would be well for you, you ugly, evil thing” he replied, “if your four legs kept to what your two eyes see before you!”
So with a devastating bellow and burst like lightning the water horse catapulted into a gallop, and as she sped away she called back a challenge on the warrior huntsman’s honor to overtake her. So they went like the bitter winter wind through the valleys and the stretches of dams. “Your speed is great,” Caoilte admitted as they raced. “Do not delay,” cried Morc, and with another tremendous explosion darted ahead. Caoilte, seeing that he would soon lose her, made a daring spring and caught hold of her mane. Terrible was the speed of the creature then as she bounded swifter and swifter over land and over bog, but Caoilte clung fast – and after many hours, overheated by the exertion, Morc was brought to ground at the base of an oak tree. The sun was beginning to set. “Slow is the speed of the weary, my lady,” said Caoilte, rising to his feet. “Do I really see you standing there…” cried Morc. Her breath rose like droughts of mist in the air. “Is it really you, my little one?”
“Yes, for it is I that am better at a race before a spring,” he mused, “and now then, I must be off, for it is a long way still that I am going.”
“As for myself,” said the water horse after a reflective pause, “I wish it were home I went.” With that they bid farewell and so departed from one another in amiability. (1)
This charming Scottish tale has its Cymric equivalents. In the area of Glyn-Neath a man stumbled upon the Ceffyl-dwr as it emerged from the cascade of a waterfall. Unable to resist the wonder of the shimmering white steed, the man mounted her and was immediately carried off. She started at a winsome gallop at first but fear overcame the man as the ceffyl-dwr began to gain and gain in speed. Soon she was going so fast that she rivaled a storm’s lightning strike. The man knew it would be the end of him if he did not act quickly, and so summoning all his bravery he threw himself from the mare’s back and crashed to the earth, battered but alive. He watched as the water horse galloped into the distance, its form growing indistinct, until finally it dissolved into haze in the air. (2)
As Ceridwen notes, beliefs about water horses are ubiquitous to Western Europe, and can be traced as far back as the Ancient Greek hippocampus. With that in mind, let’s look at a few specimens that might be the oldest examples of the Celtic water horse.
The Voyage of Bran (7th-8th c)
The Voyage of Bran has a provenance of seven MS. of varying states of preservation, the earliest found in the Leabhar na hUidhre. In the text an otherworldly woman comes to the court of King Bran. She sings to him quatrains of prophetic verse on the wonders of the otherworld across the sea and urges him to find it. Among the visions she promises him to see:
At sunrise there will come
A fair man illumining level lands;
He rides upon the fair sea-washed plain
[rédid mag find frismbein muir] (3)
Later while sailing Bran encounters Manannán mac Lir “in a chariot coming towards him over the sea”. Another incident in a broadly symmetrical story is found in Acallam na Senórach or Words of the Elders. The hero, sailing for a magical land over the sea, witnesses:
…an óglaech having under him a dark-grey horse reined with a golden bridle; for the space of nine waves he would be submerged in the sea, but would rise on the crest of the tenth, and that without his breast or chest wetted.
Finn and the Phantoms (10th c)
In this text we first find Finn gifted a strange black horse at the conclusion of a festival. He mounts it and is carried off over vast tracts of land at such pace that his companions Caílte (Caoilte) and Oisín can barely pursue. Finally the horse comes to a stop at a hilly yew glen that harbors a mysterious house of otherworldly occupants. (4) The horse does not show any explicit affinity with water, but as the conveyance to the abode of supernatural beings it would seem that the steed too has supernatural origins. It’s worthwhile to compare the inciting incident here with that of the Irish folktale Shawn MacBreogan from Curtin’s Hero-Tales of Ireland. In the tale, Breogan discovers a tiny colt standing in the surge of high tide. He brings the horse back and rears it for a year before showing it off at the local festival. In the end, no one will dare mount it save Breogan himself, but when he does the horse catapults into the sky to eventually land in a magical kingdom. (5) Perhaps these traditions regarding magical horses connected to festivals stem from the practice of horse racing through bodies of water during Lughnasadh. (6)
The Gawain Continuation
The Post Vulgate cycle also contains an incident similar to the Celtic folklore. In the Short Redaction of the Grail Continuation, composed perhaps as early as the end of the 12th c, the Arthurian knight Gawain mounts a mysterious horse at the bequest of a dying knight. The steed gathers incredible speed with such force that Gawain is unable to rein it in, and eventually comes to accept that it will go whichever path it will. After a great while he finds the horse bearing him over a causeway that extends across the ocean. He is so shaken by the sight that he faints; when he awakens he finds himself at the Grail castle as ghostly figures partake in a feast. (7) Professor Carey suggests that this incident may be implied in the earlier text Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette by Chrétien de Troyes, where it is offhandedly mentioned that Gawain entered the sinister kingdom of Gorre by a route that nearly drowned him. (8)
Another quality of the Celtic water horse is that of a shape shifter. As Ceridwen notes:
Young women were targeted by kelpies who took the form of tall young men looking to steal them away.
Campbell notes the Scottish tradition in his great collection:
A servant girl went with the farmer’s herd of cattle to graze them at the side of a loch, and she sat herself down near the bank. There, in a little while, what should she see walking towards her but a man who asked her to “fasg” [braid] his hair. But soon she got a great fright, for, growing amongst the man’s hair, she found a great quantity of “liobhagach an locha,” a certain slimy green weed that abounds in such lochs.
The girl manages to slip away after lulling the creature to sleep. But as she runs home:
she gave a glance behind her, and there she saw her “caraid” (friend) coming after her in the likeness of a horse. (9)
Happily, in the end the girl escapes.
The Irish Triads
In Kuno Meyer’s publication on a selection of writings culled from the Irish triadic tradition, we find an entry on one of the three wonders of Glenn Dallan:
The Beast of Lettir Dallan. The water- horse which lived in the lake by the side of the church cohabited with the daughter of the priest and begot the beast upon her. (10)
While it does not mention the water horse’s power of transformation into a man, it may be suggested in context.
The significance of widespread belief in water horses can only be guessed at. Romano-British household shrines depicting figures suggestive of Mercury with his winged hat, standing atop dolphins and hippocampi and ringed by solar images may point to the antique roots of the modern folklore. (11) It even puts one in mind of the “fair one” at sunrise who “illumines level lands” as he charges over the sea. Yet, for the time being this can only be a suggestion.
*Blatantly stolen catchphrase of YouTube’s own Wee Scottish Lass, check her out! (No affiliation)
(1) Henderson, Survival in Belief Among the Celts, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sbc/sbc06.htm
(2) Trevelyan, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, https://archive.org/details/afl2317.0001.001.umich.edu/page/60/mode/2up
(3) Meyer, The Voyage of Bran, https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/vob/vob02.htm
(4) The poetic version of Finn and the Phantoms can be found here: https://sejh.pagesperso-orange.fr/keltia/fiana/finfantome1-en.html
(5) Curtin, Hero-Tales of Ireland, pg. 335-55 https://archive.org/details/herotalesofirela00curtuoft/page/336/mode/2up
(6) MacNeil, The Festival of Lughnasa.
(7) Carey, Ireland and the Grail, pp. 151-60
(8) The Nature of Devils
Hey there! You’ve found the second secret post! In our first installment we compared the close similarities between the Irish text Finn and the Phantoms with an episode concerning Gwyn in the Buchedd Collin. This post continues the discussion on the parallels between the Gaelic and Brythonic heroes.
Sir Idris Foster of the University of Liverpool makes a pertinent observation on this subject:
Gwynn ap Nudd is so elusive a figure in Welsh tradition and literature that it is extremely difficult to draw a close parallel between him and Finn… indeed references to him are too slight and scanty.
–Daunaire Finn vol III pg 199 https://archive.org/details/duanairefinnbook03murpuoft/page/200/mode/2up
This inherent vagueness of the texts under consideration requires us to take caution when evaluating the case below.
All The Fury of The Devils of Annwfn
Several passages regarding Gwyn occur in the early Welsh Arthurian romance Culhwch ac Olwen (c. 1100). One statement in particular stands out for its dazzling wonder it facilitates:
Gwyn son of Nudd, in whom God put the fury of the demons of Annwfn, lest the world be destroyed.
-Parker trans, White Book of Rhydderich http://www.culhwch.info/index.html#footnote426-ref
Parker translates the Middle Welsh ‘aryal’ here as ‘fury’. It is translated ‘vigour’ by Foster in his previously cited article, and as ‘nature’ by Bromwich in her work Culhwch and Olwen, pg 135. Scholarship has drawn extensively on this tract to create a profile of Gwyn ap Nudd. Bromwich points to these enigmatic lines as a reflection of Gwyn’s mythological origins, while Foster agrees with Nora Chadwick that the reference to ‘dieuyl’ is a Christian substitution for the indigenous conception of the tylwyth teg, themselves counterparts of the Irish síd folk. Very interesting suggestions. To Bromwich’s point on the antiquity of the passage, the belief that an individual’s ‘nature’ or ‘being’ is synonymous with vigor or power appears to be ancient among the Welsh, and possibly the Celts in general. Plutarch relates a story concerning a voyage to Britain by the sailor Demetrius:
Shortly after his arrival there occurred a great tumult in the air and many portents ; violent winds suddenly swept down and lightning-flashes darted to earth. When these abated, the people of the island said that the passing of someone of the mightier souls had befallen… [the passing of great souls] fosters tempests and storms, and often infects the air with pestilential properties.
–De Defectu Oraculorum, book 18 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2008.01.0251%3Asection%3D18
The tale in De Defectu Orac. is also of interest in light of the blustery associations of Welsh ‘awen’ and Irish ‘aí’.
In regards Sir Idris Foster and Chadwick’s assertion linking the ‘dieuyl’ to the tylwyth teg and síd we will turn to another text for comparison.
All The Worth of The Gods of Danu
The Finn Cycle narrative Feis Tighe Chonáin has a provenance in a great number of MS, the oldest being of vellum from the 16th c. Editor Maud Joynt states in Nicholas O’Kearney’s translation that the orthography is difficult; the grammatical forms range from Middle Irish to early Modern. The date of composition is apparently thought to be c. 1400.
The tale itself will be of interest to readers familiar with the framing story of Culhwch ac Olwen. The narrative begins with the discovery of an abode by Finn and his companion. It is the home of Conan. The duo are confronted by the doorguard who harshly refuses them entry, but when called in for questioning by Conan the porter can’t help but lavish pyrotechnic praise on their visitor outside. Conan is wary of guests due to an overprotectiveness towards his marriageable daughter, but ultimately assents to the warriors’ entrance. Some lingering tensions between Conan and Finn is then explained by the revelation that Finn had been tasked long ago to help find a marriage partner for Conan’s daughter. After that the resemblance to Welsh quickly dissipates.
Of chief import to us is the glowing description given Finn in this episode. One line reads:
“…were all the worth of the Tuatha Dedanans concentrated in the body of one man, Fionn would prove a better man than he.”
⁃ O’Kearney trans.
“…dionbhas d’imbert fair, uar da geurtha Tuatha De Danann uile a pearsain ean-duine, is fearr Fiond ina e.”
⁃ Joynt, Feis Tighe Chonáin, pg. 4 https://archive.org/details/feistighechonain07joyn/page/4/mode/2up
This passage echoes the older Welsh text on Gwyn, while situated in a similar narrative context. Though to be clear, they only roughly recall one another, and further, they do not share any linguistic linkage. But to belabor the point, earlier Irish texts also introduce these ideas. Famously in the great war epic Cath Mag Tuired the ‘good god’ An Dagda informs the embattled forces of the Tuatha Dé that he possesses all of their individual powers. https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T300011/
Also in the Middle Irish tale a speaker, presumably the character Cermait, declares:
I am a son of that Dagda, and all the wizardry and magic that he had, I have, and all the knowledge he learned from that host, I have it.
⁃ Osborn, How The Dagda Got His Magic Staff. https://web.archive.org/web/20100327222651/http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/dagda.html
Therefore Sir Idris Foster and Nora Chadwick indeed have some basis for their suggestions that a hero imbued with all the ‘aryal’ of ‘dieuyl’ represents an antique notion, and it’s possible that Feis Tighe Chonáin contains a late development of such authentic Celtic tradition about Finn, similar in scope to early beliefs about Gwyn.
(9) Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, pp. 334,35 https://archive.org/details/populartaleswes01campgoog/page/n358/mode/1up?view=theater&q=bull
(10) Meyer, The Triads of Ireland, p. 31 https://archive.org/details/TheTriadsOfIreland/page/n49/mode/2up
(11) Allison-Jones, A Lead Shrine from Wallsend, Britannia 15, pp. 231-321 https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=Romano+British+mercury+shrine&btnG=#d=gs_qabs&u=%23p%3D4WF_VB3snK8J
10 thoughts on “Water Horses Ride Again”
A very interesting read! Over here, we have a surprisingly large number of legends concerning shapeshifters who most popularly appear in the guise of a horse and always near water. What terrors the nights once held for our ancestors! 😉
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Hey Bon Repos, thanks for reading! I think those horse stories would make a great post for your blog! I should really make a part 2 to accompany this post, as I left out some tales to give my writing some focus. Bayard, some German legends, stuff like that.
I know what you mean about how it must have been terrifying. Reading up on this subject it appears you couldn’t put a step wrong or some dwarf would have you in his shrunken clutches. Lol.
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You are most welcome! It is an enjoyable read! 🙂 Ha, I know what you mean. It is frustrating to realise that ‘x’ could usefully have been included after you’ve uploaded a post. A follow-up could be good or else sneak in a few extra paragraphs here 😉
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A horse galloping between the elements- between the worlds – liminal Epos!
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Hey Greg! I’m very glad to see you again and I’m honored for the wonderful poetic composition. I’m looking forward to all the discussions I’ve been missing out on!
I’m always impressed by your ability to dig up a variety of quality texts and references! The story of Caoilte and Morc Na Maighe is especially striking since I’ve rarely come across female water horses, not to mention ones with names. It’s also nice to see a water horse tale that doesn’t end in bloodshed or terror but an honest contest and respectful parting. The Beast of Lettir Dallan is interesting since there are lots of seduction attempts in water horse stories, but I can’t recall running across any children resulting from water horse/human unions before. I wondered what they might be like…
Thanks for the shout-out, and I loved your second secret post! That is a fascinating observation about the similar descriptions of Gwyn son of Nudd and Finn. I can’t claim to be particularly well-versed in Celtic myth and literature, but from what I can tell, isn’t Gwyn sometimes the king of the tylwyth teg while Finn is pretty much of the Milesian stock? It’s easier to see why Gwyn would be connected with the powers of the tylwyth teg in that case. Then again, perhaps Finn has ties to the Tuatha that I’m not aware of.
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Hi Ceridwen! Thank you for reading my post and for the adroit comment, and also of course for your own inspirational blog!
Thanks! Ya I had the same feeling that ‘Morc Na Maighe’ was something special, which is why I led with it, though I think that that decision caused a bit of disunity in the structure of the post. Lol but I never promised I was a good communicator!
“The Beast of Lettir Dallan is interesting since there are lots of seduction attempts in water horse stories…”
Right? I remember that being the case too but I couldn’t track down any solid examples. The nearest was that Scottish story.
In answer about children of each-uisce unions, in the instance of the triadic tale at least they look ridiculous: a human head with the body of a smith’s bellows. I was like uhh… that’s getting axed. You know me, all business and no foolishness.
Your very welcome for the shout out, I’m pretty confident it won’t be the last.
You found the secret post! Great! Whoa the question you ask is a whopper. You sound like you know Celtic literature just fine. Gwyn is always depicted as a supernatural being as far as I know. Finn meanwhile is always presented as mortal, though with superhuman powers. There’s been a long history of fíanaigecht scholarship arguing about Finn’s origins. Briefly, Gerard Murphy argued thoroughly that the name Umaill of Finn’s patronymic was sometimes swapped for Nuada in genealogies. It’s been shown also that most Leinster genealogies contain early ancestors named Nuada. Skipping onomastics, Nuada appears to be an Irish development of a name cognate with British theonym Nodens and Middle Welsh Nudd. That suggests a divine background for Finn, but of course isn’t conclusive. So then you have to look at traditions of mythological characters named Nuada. This would be a cool post (or two!) to write up sometime, lol.
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Ok, trying to picture the human-bellows combo. Sounds like something from a weird little book called Bewildering Beasties I read as a child. 🤔
Oh, if Finn has a connection to Nuada, that would totally explain the Tuatha reference! I mean, Nuada was a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Interesting! I love seeing how those sorts of things wind and change in different mythologies.
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Ya it’s very bewildering.
There is certainly evidence supporting a Finn/Nuada connection. The difficulty is the inconsistency between texts. Nuada Airgetlám is depicted as a king of the Tuatha Dé, but texts also show a parallel tradition calling Nuada Airgetlám a king of the Milesians, with some rather conflicting information about him.
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Awesome post! This is a legend I never knew about! Thank you for the lesson. 🙂
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