Ceffyl Y Dwf The Water Horse

: Welsh Folk-lore

The superstition respecting the water-horse, in one form or other, is

common to the Celtic race. He was supposed to intimate by preternatural

lights and noises the death of those about to perish by water, and it was

vulgarly believed that he even assisted in drowning his victims. The

water-horse was thought to be an evil spirit, who, assuming the shape of

a horse, tried to allure the unwary to mount him, and then soaring into
the clouds, or rushing over mountain, and water, would suddenly vanish

into air or mist, and precipitate his rider to destruction.

The Welsh water-horse resembles the Kelpie of the Scotch. Jamieson,

under the word Kelpie, in his Scottish Dictionary, quoting from

various authors, as is his custom, says:--

This is described as an aquatic demon, who drowns not only men but

ships. The ancient Northern nations believed that he had the form of a

horse; and the same opinion is still held by the vulgar in Iceland.

Loccenius informs us that in Sweden the vulgar are still afraid of his

power, and that swimmers are on their guard against his attacks; being

persuaded that he suffocates and carries off those whom he catches under

water. Therefore, adds this writer, it would seem that ferry-men

warn those who are crossing dangerous places in some rivers not so much

as to mention his name; lest, as they say, they should meet with a storm

and be in danger of losing their lives. Hence, doubtless, has this

superstition originated; that, in these places formerly, during the time

of paganism, those who worshipped their sea-deity Nekr, did so, as it

were with a sacred silence, for the reason already given.

The Scotch Kelpie closely resembled the Irish Phoocah, or Poocah, a

mischievous being, who was particularly dreaded on the night of All

Hallow E'en, when it was thought he had especial power; he delighted to

assume the form of a black horse, and should any luckless wight bestride

the fiendish steed, he was carried through brake and mire, over water and

land at a bewildering pace. Woe-betide the timid rider, for the Poocah

made short work of such an one, and soon made him kiss the ground. But

to the bold fearless rider the Poocah submitted willingly, and became his

obedient beast of burden.

The following quotation from the Tales of the Cymry, p. 151, which is

itself an extract from Mrs. S. C. Hall's Ireland, graphically describes

the Irish water fiend:--

The great object of the Poocah seems to be to obtain a rider, and

then he is in all his most malignant glory. Headlong he dashes

through briar and brake, through flood and fall, over mountain,

valley, moor, and river indiscriminately; up and down precipice is

alike to him, provided he gratifies the malevolence that seems to

inspire him. He bounds and flies over and beyond them, gratified by

the distress, and utterly reckless and ruthless of the cries, and

danger, and suffering of the luckless wight who bestrides him.

Sometimes the Poocah assumed the form of a goat, an eagle, or of some

other animal, and leaped upon the shoulders of the unwary traveller, and

clung to him, however frantic were the exertions to get rid of the


Allied to the water-horse were the horses upon which magicians in various

lands were supposed to perform their aerial journeys.

It was believed in Wales that the clergy could, without danger, ride the

water-horse, and the writer has heard a tale of a clergyman, who, when

bestride one of these horses, had compassion on his parish clerk, who was

trudging by his side, and permitted him to mount behind him, on condition

that he should keep silence when upon the horse's back. For awhile the

loquacious parish clerk said no word, but ere long the wondrous pace of

the horse caused him to utter a pious ejaculation, and no sooner were the

words uttered than he was thrown to the ground; his master kept his seat,

and, on parting with the fallen parish official, shouted out, Serve you

right, why did you not keep your noisy tongue quiet?

The weird legends and gloomy creations of the Celt assume a mild and

frolicsome feature when interpreted by the Saxon mind. The malevolent

Poocah becomes in England the fun-loving Puck, who delights in playing

his pranks on village maidens, and who says:--

I am that merry wanderer of the night;

Jest to Oberon, and make him smile,

When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,

Neighing in likeness of a filly foal;

And sometimes lurk I in a gossip's bowl,

In very likeness of a roasted crab;

And when she drinks against her lips I bob,

And on her withered dew-lap pour the ale.

Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Sc. I.

The Ceffyl-y-Dwfr was very different to Chaucer's wonderful brass

horse, which could be ridden, without harm, by a sleeping rider:--

This steed of brasse, and easilie and well

Can in the space of a day naturel,

This is to say, in foure and twenty houres,

Where so ye lists, in drought or elles showers,

Baren yours bodie into everie place,

In which your hearte willeth for to pace,

Withouten wemme of you through foul or fair,

Or if you liste to flee as high in th' aire

As doth an eagle when him liste to soare,

This same steed shall bear you evermore,

Withouten harm, till ye be there you leste,

Though that ye sleepen on his back or reste;

And turn againe with writhing of a pinne,

He that it wroughte he coulde many a gin,

He waited many a constellation,

Ere he had done this operation.

Chaucer's Squire's Tale, 137-152.

The rider of the magic horse was made acquainted with the charm that

secured its obedience, for otherwise he took an aerial ride at his peril.

This kind of invention is oriental, but it is sufficiently like the

Celtic in outline to indicate that all figments of the kind had

undoubtedly a common origin.

I have seen it somewhere stated, but where I cannot recall to mind, that,

the Water Horses did, in olden times, sport, on the Welsh mountains, with

the puny native ponies, before they became a mixed breed.

It was believed that the initiated could conjure up the River Horse by

shaking a magic bridle over the pool wherein it dwelt.

There is much curious information respecting this mythic animal in the

Tales of the Cymry and from this work I have culled many thoughts.