The Horse and the Water-Horse

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Horses may be the most important animal in Irish mythology, rivaled only by cows. They had major socio-economic importance in ancient and medieval Ireland – people’s livelihood depended on good, strong horses, and the relationship between a human and their horse was mythologised as something of a magical union. Irish folklore says that horses have a human ancestor, which accounts for good horse-and-rider alliances.

The semi-wild horses in the New Forest

The semi-wild horses in the New Forest

Folklore and folk practices about horses abound(ed) in Ireland. There were horse whisperers in Ireland in the 19th century, long before the well-known book featuring a modern one. The Fair Folk were said to steal horses, hence the folk magical practice of tying red ribbon or a piece of hazel on the horse. The evil eye was also a threat to a fine horse. Who wouldn’t be envious of their neighbour’s beautiful horse?

I especially love the story of the Water Horse. This is an old, old tale of a horse-like shape-shifter from the water. The Irish name for this creature is Each Uisge, anglicised to ‘aughisky’. Like the kelpie, it lures people into the water and tears them apart, but it also appears as a beautiful man, seducing local women before it can destroy them. My favourite modern Irish poet, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, has a beautiful poem called ‘The Water Horse’ (in a fantastic collection of poetry by the same name):

And after that
He came to her again and again.
At first his clothes seemed so strange to her:
The breastplate, the fishbone greaves and the casque,
The long gloves made from the skin of eels,
His whole style recalling
The sub-human creatures from B movies:
The Creature from Sheep Cove, or an Irish cousin of King Kong.
But when he took the helmet from his head
And his fine horse’s mane loosened on his shoulders
She saw clearly that he was a young man.

In his book on Proto-Indo-European religion and mythology, Ceisiwr Serith says that the PIEs had two main categories of goddesses: cow goddesses and mare goddesses. While the cow goddesses are motherly and protective, associated with hearth and home, the mare goddesses are dangerous: associated with sexuality, fertility, war and magic. A euhemerised version is Queen Mebh from the Táin. Macha, the horse goddess, may be another.

The Cauldron messageboard has set up a Kiva loan group, The Emboatening Crew, where we’re making loans to small business owners overseas. It began with the Kemetics making boat-related loans for the Opet boat festival. Some of us Celtic-inspired types have been donating cow-related loans recently, too. But I also want to honour the noble horse, so important to the ancient Irish tribes and their gods, and still a vital means of prosperity and subsistence in many developing countries today. I’ve just made my latest Kiva loan (from refunded previous loans) to a horse-related cause.

Hail, Macha, mare-goddess and Queen of the land.

Bibliography

O hOgain, 1991, Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition
Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, The Water Horse
Ceisiwr Serith, 2007, Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.

2 thoughts on “The Horse and the Water-Horse

  1. In Lancashire there is a kind of spirit called a dobbie who can take the form of a water horse, but also appears as a white rabbit. The term still exists amongst horsey people as ‘dobbin’- ie. ‘a right dobbin’ for a horse that isn’t much good.

    I particularly liked the poem, reflecting the capacity of the folk of the otherworld to shift shape as they please. Alot of Lancs legends where boggarts, dobbies etc. appear as horses, cows, dogs, cats, and phantom men and women reflect that.

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