Horses in Celtic History and Folklore

From the beginning of time, horses have played an important role in the lives of humans. Today, we use horses for a variety of things such as farming, jumping, racing and dressage but in history, horses were a vital asset to day to day life. The Celts, particularly, realised early on just how valuable horses could be for them, not only for the likes of hunting and farming, but for war. Once the power of the horse was realised, horses became a vital asset to Celtic culture.

The Importance of Horses in Celtic History

Horses were mostly used in warfare, despite being useful in completing other tasks. A horse didn’t necessarily need to be fast, but strong and stocky in order to carry heavy weights on their backs without tiring. Though ponies met those requirements, the Celts didn’t like riding on them and preferred horses as they were larger with longer strides. With these factors in mind, the Celts began breeding horses to create bigger and stronger steeds.

In fact, when the Romans first encountered the Celtic cavalry in 390 BC when thousands of Celts invaded Rome on horseback, Julius Caeser was highly impressed by their horses and the horsemens’ proficient riding skills and the conditions their horses were kept in.

The Celts originally used chariots in their cavalry but this method became obsolete as their skills in horseback bettered. This method was known was trimarcasia is thought it was most commonly used by Celtic cavalries until it died out.

Because of the great power horses supplied in Celtic life, not only were they highly respected but the horsemen themselves were valued with great esteem in Celtic society. Men would be judged by the conditions they kept their horses in and how well they respected them. Evidence shows horses would be treated with the same honour as other people. When a man died, his horse would be killed sand buried with him to honour their bond. Despite this, horses were never killed unnecessarily by the Celts are were well cared for prized possessions.

Horse Symbolism

Due to the vital roles and power these equines brought upon the Celts, the horse soon became an important and were used as a sign for victory at war. Known for their speed, beauty, vitality, strength, stamina and fertility, it was common to see these worshipped equines aside many of the Celtic gods. They also symbolised healing, revitalisation, development and life in motion.

An image of the Inverurie Horse design

The Inverurie Horses is a design that was copied from the one created by George Bain. Bain was inspired by the horse image he found carved into stone in Inverurie, Scotland. This stone featured three animals in a circular motion. It’s also thought the Inverurie Horses represents the three Celtic horse goddesses: Epona from Gaulish mythology, Rhiannon from Welsh mythology and Macha from Irish mythology.

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White Horses

Not only were cavalry horses widely worshipped and honoured, but the Celts believed white horses were just as symbolic. Many believed white horses were a representation of deities who took on the form of a horse. Whenever Celts saw the appearance of one, they believed it had special powers. For people born June 10th – July 7th, their Celtic Animal Sign is a white horse. The white horse is also the animal symbol for the Celtic Oak Tree Sign.

White horses symbolised spirituality, light, freedom, purity, goodness, power and wealth. They were considered incredibly lucky and holy. Despite their good omens, many Celts feared crossing a white horse in case they angered the deity that had taken its form. Many goddesses and mythical horses were associated with or took on the form of a white equine throughout Celtic mythology.

Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane

Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane is a horse associated with the Celtic sea god Manannán mac Lir, who features in Irish, Manx and Scottish mythology. In Wales, he’s known as Manawydan fab Llŷr and in Manx he’s known as … As a god of the Tuath Dé, he’s mentioned in several Celtic stories.

Manannán was an excellent magician and possessed a number of powers and enchanted items. However, Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane was mightier. This pure white horse could travel over land and sea with great ease, so Manannánlent Aonbharr to Lugh, his foster son, who had been trained in the Isle of Man to be a mighty warrior. When it was time for him to return home, Aonbharr played an important role in his quests. Aonbharr was very precious to Lugh as he became a great Celtic god.

Niamh of the Golden Hair

Oisín was a brave and noble warrior from Éire and the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill who lead and protected the lands of of Fianna. When they were out hunting one day, they were approached by a beautiful, young woman with long, golden hair who rode a snow white horse. Some say this horse was Aonbharr.

The woman declared she was Niamh of the Golden Hair, daughter to King of Tír na nÓg. She had heard of the mighty Oisín and invited him to join her in the Land of Eternal Youth. Oisín immediately fell in love with Niamh and rode on the snow white horse with her. The horse rode over land and sea until it reached the magical shores of Tír na nÓg. Oisín was welcomed by the King and Queen, and lived there for three hundred years until he longed to return to the Emerald Isle.

Niamh agreed for him to go but warned him he may never set foot on Irish land or he wouldn’t be able to return to Tír na nÓg. When Oisín arrived to his homeland, he realised just how long he’d been away for. All his family were dead and the castle he once lived in was crumbling away. Oisín sighted some men in need of help, and got off from the horse to aide them. Once he did, the white horse ran away and Oisín rapidly aged, becoming withered before the men’s very eyes.

White Horse of St Ives

In St Ives, Cornwall, there’s said to be a beach haunted by a white horse. A man would ride his horse to this beach every day, dismount it at the same spot and go for a swim. Tradey struck one day when he was washed out to sea and drowned. The horse remained there, staring out to sea. When the horse died a while later, its ghost haunted the beach, waiting for its master to finally return.

Celtic Gods and Goddesses

In Celtic mythology, Epona was the mighty horse goddess, who protected not only mares and foals, but donkeys, mules and ponies. Her name came from the Gaulish language, translating to “Great Mare” and was worshipped by many Celts, originally the Gauls who were a Scottish tribe. It’s also speculated she and her horses were the leaders of the soul in the ride to the afterlife.

It’s also believed Epona was birthed by a white mare who was impregnated by a human man. She represented fertility and abundance, and is typically portrayed riding or taming horses, sometimes in between them.

She was also the only Celtic deity to also be worshipped by the Romans, who held annual festivals on December 18th to celebrate her. During the Festival of Epona, worshippers would pay tribute to horses, sacrificing animals in her name and erecting shrines and altars in their stables. Those who worshipped Epona or kept equines of their own, had household shrines with statues of her.

Horses were also associated by the Gauls with several deities and were emblems of the sun. The horses were so important to them that they often associated them with the sun god, Belenus, who often took on the form of a horse with a human face. Belenus was also thought to ride the sun in a horse drawn chariot across the sky.

Teutates, a Celtic God, has been known to appear in art as a bearded horse. Etain, the wife of the Midir (god of the otherworld), is sometimes known as “horse-rider” and is believed to have been originally equine. Rhiannon, the Celtic Moon Goddess, is often depicted as a beautiful young woman riding on a white horse. She’s often portrayed as a mare with her son as a foal. There’s also Aine, the Red Horse Goddess from Ireland as well as Macha; a mysterious horse deity who is simultaneously more than one figure.

So with the Celts religious beliefs deeply connected with their respect for horses, it’s clear to see equines in the British Isles were highly adored. But these tales of their trusted steeds evolved into more sinister stories.

Mythical Horses in Celtic Folklore

The Celtic peoples believed in a variety of different spirits and fairies taking on the form of a horse. There are many a theory as to why these (mostly malevolent) creatures appeared in Celtic folklore despite horses being well respected and worshipped beings. Some say the stories originated from past human sacrifices to water gods where the legends lingered even centuries after the practice was no longer continued. Others say the horror stories come from worried mothers to scare their curious children from straying too close to the water’s edge. Over time, the legends of these horse spirits evolved to the several different beings across the British Isles.

Kelpie

Probably the most well known water horse in Celtic folklore, the kelpie is a spirit that lurked within rivers and streams. Taking on the appearance of an approachable wild horse, the kelpie would entice passersby to pet it or ride on its back. Mostly, they would prey on the vulnerable such as women and inquisitive children. When its victim would touch the its coat, their flesh would become melded to the kelpie, unable to break free from its grasp. The kelpie would then return to the depths of the waters, drowning its victim.

Kelpies can shapeshift into human form where they’d still possess their horse’s hooves. In River Spey, the kelpie allegedly is able to sing while in Aberdeenshire, it has a mane of serpents. It’s also said a kelpie’s hooves are facing backwards, and the sound of its tail whipping against the water’s surface mimics thunder.

Despite the evil connotations surrounding this water horse, some say the kelpie is sometimes portrayed as a kind and helpful being that rescues children from drowning and warns women of handsome strangers.

Each Uisge

With a name translated to water-horse, this supernatural creature roamed the Highlands of Scotland, in seas and fresh bodies of water. It’s said to be the most dangerous water-dwelling creature in the British Isles, more vicious than the kelpie. The each uisge could take on the form of a horse, pony, bird or man.

In the form of a human, the each uisge appears as a handsome man. The only telltale sign this man was not what he seems was the dripping wet reeds clinging to his hair.

This carnivorous beast would feed on humans, sheep and cattle by luring them away to the waters to kill them. While in horse form, if a person rode on its back, they would be safe as long as the each uisge was on land. However, if even a glimmer of water could be seen by this shapeshifter, the rider would become stuck to its flesh, unable to get off. After the each uisge has drowned its victim in the water, it tears its prey apart, leaving only the liver which rises to the surface.

Because of the violent nature of the each uisge, Scots became wary of strangers and lone animals in and around the waters of the Highlands, out of fear they’d meet their end.

Shoopiltee

Also known as a shoepultie, nuggle or njuggle, the shoopiltee is a water horse living in streams, lochs and rivers in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Some say the shoopiltee is Shetland and the Nuggle is Orcadian, while others would argue they are the same thing across both islands. They’re always male, nocturnal and possess a wheel-like tail which it would often try to hide behind its back legs. These horses weren’t malicious as such but generally harmless creatures that made mischief and enjoyed playing pranks on humans. Overall, they were friendly to people, often greeting the sailors they met at sea.

Tangie

Also known as tongies, tangies are shapeshifting creatures from the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Usually taking on the form of an old man, merman or a horse, a tangie can be detected by the dripping seaweed that coats its hair and body.

They’re mostly well known for terrorising lone travellers, particularly lone women at night who roam near the lochs, before abducting and drowning them. These horses are also said to cause madness in both humans and animals.

According to Shetland legend, the tongie once had a rider known as Black Eric, who was a sheep rustler. Black Eric would raid nearby farms of Scotland on the tongie’s back, who would aide him with supernatural assistance. When Black Eric died at the hands of a farmer and his body fell to sea, the tongie reigned on to terrorise lone women and farms, now on the loose and without an owner.

Nuckelavee

The nuckelavee was a terrifying being to lay eyes on. This vile spirit possessed the torso of a man adjoined to a horse’s back, along with a single red eye that burned like fire and a wide mouth stretched across its face. Alongside these factors, the flesh of a nuckelavee is skinless like raw flesh, with muscles exposed and black blood visible in its veins. Its human arms were also incredibly long, able to graze the ground from the horse’s back.

But the sight of a nuckelavee wasn’t the most terrifying thing about it. This beast reigned terror on the citizens of the Orkney Islands and would cast droughts that ruined harvests.

Glaistyn

Also known as the glashtyn along with multiple other variants, the glaistyn is a horse-like beast from Manx folklore that’s incredibly muscular in form. It’s said to be a goblin that emerges from its watery habitat to come in contact with citizens of the island. Its shapeshifting form varies from man to horse to bull, while some will say it appears half equine, half bovine. If it appears as a handsome man, it’ll still possess long, horse-like ears that give its disguise away.

The glaistyn typically pursues young women as their prey, tearing off their clothing. In other methods, the water-beast would entice people on its back, where its skin would become adhesive to its prey, before drowning them in the waters. This creature is also known as the cabbyl ushtey, though some claim they are two separate beasts.

Púca

Púcas are mischievous faeries that often take on the shape of a horse, but are also known to appear as goblins, dogs, rabbits, goats and even old men. In horse form, their body will be dark with flowing manes and golden eyes. They’ve also mastered human speech and will trick people with it. While they’re not known to cause any actual harm to humans, they’ll often terrorise villagers by stampeding through the towns, and trampling on fences and crops. If farm animals see a púca, they’ll be too traumatised to lay eggs or produce milk for weeks, damaging farmer’s profits. It’s also said that they’ll play pranks on drunks, by enticing them on their backs so they can get home. Once a drunken victim is on their back, they’ll give them the wildest ride ever: stampeding across the roads and making terrifying leaps, before throwing the rider of its back.

Ceffyl Dŵr

The Welsh ceffyl dŵr are similar to their kelpie cousins, lurking by the water’s edge for their victims to approach them. However, there is some difference in their behaviour depending on the regions. In North Wales, the ceffyl dŵr is a malevolent being looking to cause harm to humans; whereas in South Wales, the creature is friendlier and mostly seen as a mischievous pest.

Unlike other horse spirits in Celtic folklore, the ceffyl dŵr are known to fly. Sometime they grow wings, sometimes they’re able to soar off the ground without them. Once a victim is on a ceffyl dŵr’s back, it flies into the air and evaporates, causing their prey to plummet to their death. They are also almost always white.

Morvarc’h

Statue of the Morvarc’h in Argol, France

Also known as Morvark, the Morvarc’h is a horse from Breton legends from the 19th and 20th centuries. Its name is Breton for “sea horse” and rightly so as it possesses the ability to gallop over the waves. It has a black coat and the ability to breathe flames through its nostrils.

Other Tales

There are a number of other tales throughout Celtic history and beliefs that involve horses. The Irish hero Cúchulainn possessed two horses who pulled along his chariot: Liath Macha (grey of Macha) and Dub Sainglend (black of Saingliu). There’s many a story in Cornish folklore depicting ghostly equines, including one where a carriage drawn by two headless horses was witnessed, as well as stories of phantom coaches disappearing into thin air. In the tale of Ankou in Brittany, Ankou was a reaper of souls who guided the dead into his carriage drawn by black horses.

The Picts featured horses in engravings on stones throughout Scotland. Some of these carvings portray accurate horses, whereas some are similar to the Greek and Roman hippocamps – the half horse, half fish creatures often considered seahorses. It’s unknown whether these engravings were inspired by the Romans, or if these concepts existed long before.

Image of a Pictish horse carving

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