Last week I talked about the tragic love stories embedded in Selkie mythology. In keeping with my current water creature theme, let’s explore the dark side, shall we?
I’m a fan of “monsters” in myth, particularly those whose natures reflect the darker aspects of nature. One of my favorites is the Kelpie. Sometimes called the Waterhorse.
There are two pretty distinct version of kelpie myths: the benign version is what you’d recognize in current pop culture, as the most famous waterhorse is found in the deep Loch of Scotland. Yes, that’d be Loch Ness. If you’re going the Nessie route, the waterhorse looks exactly…well…like Nessie: horse-like head, long neck, flippers, whale-like tail. A waterhorse compares pretty closely to the Greco-Roman Hippocamp, for those of you looking for a Greek myth reference, and (as you’d expect) tends to live in the Lochs or in the deep ocean off the coast. Is this version of the waterhorse a throwback of prehistoric man who encountered whales, or even a plesiosaur? I suppose it could be. After all, we all know that off any sailors’ map there be monsters. What I can say is that most of the Nessie-type waterhorse myths depict her as a shy, reticent creature that has absolutely no interest in messing about with people.
I suppose that’s exactly why I prefer the more volatile, older kelpie myths. These are the horse-like creatures which inhabit both the deep pools and the rushing, violent waterfalls. These are the creatures which are generally not big fans of humanity.
Well, except as snacks.
In the worst versions, kelpies appear on land as gorgeous, powerful black horses and lure the unsuspecting (particularly children) onto their backs for a ride. And once the rider is on, they’re magically trapped for the duration of the ride, unable to jump off the waterhorse’s back as the he gallops directly to the depths of his nearby pool.
It’s said the only parts a kelpie doesn’t eat is the heart and liver of it’s drowned prey.
Their power to change shape resides in the magic bridle, which looks like a silver necklace. A kelpie in equine form is stronger and faster than ten horses: worth the trouble to attempt to catch them. Enslaving a kelpie requires stealing the bridle, but unlike hiding the selkie’s skin, controlling a kelpie’s bridle controls the kelpie itself. Perhaps the kelpies’ general dislike of humans as anything but prey is because humans only saw them as a useful tool?
Interestingly, there’s a Welsh version of the myth that diverges from the scary-child-eating-monster. In it, a lonely kelpie boy decides he loves a local girl, and changes from his natural shape into a hot young man. Unfortunately for him, she discovers he’s a kelpie by removing his silver necklace (bridle) while he sleeps (well, hello thief), and forces him into serving her father as a beast of burden on the farm for a year (remember, he who holds the bridle holds power over the kelpie). But when the year is done, a local wiseman tells her she should give the bridle back. She does, and when the horse turns into a man again she asks him which he’d rather be: a kelpie or a man? He chooses man and marries her, giving up his lonely former existence for human companionship. I take this story, one of the latest written, post-Christian conversion ideas of the kelpie folk tale, to be a signal that the kelpie of the Celtic past had completed it’s transformation from demonic eater-of-people to human-dominated-mythological critter.
I don’t have a good conclusion to this post, because I think it’s quite sad that humanity has lost this particular monster. If you look up kelpie or waterhorse you’ll mostly get the Nessie story, not the older cautionary tales. The kelpie has been defanged by technology, by the idea that boats and life jackets can protect us from the raging rivers and deep lakes, by humanity thinking we have power over nature.
Maybe they just need to figure out how to change into sleek black sports cars?