Apart from the fact that his puns are terrible and he has an obsession with the more surreal side of Internet culture, Oll Lewis hasn't put a foot wrong since we started this bloggo-thing. Because of his interest in things aquatic he has been co-ordinating the lake and sea monster news for the CFZ for some years now, and as regular readers of this bloggo will already know he is letting this obsession spill over online. However, he also has an obsession with Wales - no, not the big, spouting, there-she-blows type, but the principality..
Creatures called water-horses pop up in many different mythologies around the world. The Scottish form is probably the most well known and is also known as the kelpie. Kelpie are often described as being of similar appearance to a horse but with a constantly moist and dripping mane and occasionally seal or elephant like skin instead of fur. This skin is cold and clammy to the touch and should one be foolish enough to attempt to ride a kelpie the skin becomes adhesive making the rider stick to the beast before it invariably runs into water to drown its rider.
The Welsh form of the water-horse is known as ‘ceffyl dŵr’ to avoid confusion with the kelpie and other forms of water horse. The ceffyl dŵr looks exactly like a normal horse according to folklore and the only clue that it is anything different is that it is seen near water. These water horses are usually depicted as being a lot less dangerous than their Scottish counterparts, some are even helpful to men.
One such helpful horse was seen late one night by an old man in Flemingston, Glamorgan. The creature was luminous and took the form of a horse of average size being rode by a very long legged man. The water horse guided the man across the marshland near the river Thaw, showing him the quickest route out of the marsh where it was safe to tread. Not long after the man had made it to safe ground a freak tide washed in flooding the marsh, and the whole valley. Were it not be for the horse, guiding him quickly and safely out of the marsh, the man claimed, he would certainly have been drowned.
This may not be a genuine traditional story though because Flemingston was, for a long time, the home of Iolo Morganog. Anyone familiar with my writings on afanc, gwibers and other Welsh mystery animals will be aware of just how often his name crops up. Iolo was a genius, responsible for many aspects of the revival of Welsh culture and wrote some of the best poetry ever written in Welsh. The problem was that he just couldn’t take criticism so often presented his poems as new finds from past masters, often these forgeries were so perfect in style and prose that they were only discovered to be fakes after Iolo’s death. As well as forging poetry he also forged folklore, inventing many tales himself, and it takes quite some dedication to separate Iolo’s stories from genuine folklore. Anyway, I digress, back to the subject of water horses.
As well as benevolent ceffyl dŵr there are stories about some that acted as pranksters. One such creature was witnessed in the Glyn Neath area near Swansea, by waterfalls where the rivers Perddyn, Little Neath, Mellte, and Hepste meet a traveller happened upon a magnificent white stallion. Weary from a long journey, after checking that there were no other people in the immediate area, the traveller decided to take the animal so he would be able to undertake the rest of his journey in relative comfort.
Nothing could have prepared him for what was said to have happened next. The horse rose into the air and carried the hapless traveller miles away from his destination, as far as Llandewi Brevi, before dissipating into mist. The traveller was quite shaken by all this and finally arrived at his destination a great deal later than he would have done, which probably served him right for being willing to take a horse that wasn’t his in the first place.
Another tale told about a ceffyl dŵr is much more like a kelpie myth and is one of the few stories in Welsh folklore that features a horse intent on causeing harm. The Horse was said to have inhabited the area around Carmarthan Bay. This grey horse seemed, like most water horses, indistinguishable from any normal horse apart from the fact that it did not appear to have an owner and it was said to wait for any victim gullible enough to fall for its innocent appearance. One such person came in the form of a cocky English carter who scoffed at the local’s wariness of the animal. Not believing a word of the local’s suspicions and presumably not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth the man decided that he would use the horse to drive his cart and thereby claim ownership of the beast. The plan worked well, until the man led the horse to the spot on the shore where he had found it. The horse ran off into the sea, cart and its driver along with it and neither was ever seen again.
The water-horse is probably among the least likely of all strange creatures in European folklore to actually exist, given their fantastical attributes like flying or glowing in the dark for example, but some accounts of the kelpie might be loosely based on misadventures with seals. The real purpose of water horse myths however was likely just to make people think twice before taking a horse when its owner might not be around.