For my last Quarterly Bestiary, I took a deep dive into the kelpie with a brief dip into the each uisge. Originally, I wanted to cover more water horses to give the kelpie context, but it turns out the kelpie was more than enough to tackle at one time. I promised I’d cover those other water horses, though, so today I’d like to start off a list of water horses from around the globe. The list is lengthy enough that I’ll split it into two, starting with the ones cut from the same mythical cloth as the kelpie.
These water horses all share a similar pattern. Approaching humans in the form of a horse, they tempt their victim to ride. If the human takes the bait, the water horse runs off to drown them in the nearest body of water. For this reason, I call them tempt-and-drown water horses. Many have what I call “flytrap skin” because humans who touch it cannot pull away. The horse may release their prey if someone yells a word similar to the water horse’s name or names of the Christian God. Most of the time such names are spoken accidentally rather than in an incantation or prayer.
Tempt-and-drowners form probably the largest category of water horses, appearing throughout Western Europe. There are several possible explanations for the tempt-and-drown pattern. Some say it developed from traditions of sacrificing humans to water gods.1 The each uisge may specifically represent a violent aspect of the sea Cailleach, Muileartach.2 On a more general level, myth scholars have argued that horses symbolically cross many boundaries, especially “the boundary between the wild and the tame.”3 I find the last idea most promising. Water provided livelihoods for sailors and fishers, and labor for farms with water wheels, yet in the wild it often turned dangerous. Likewise, even a supposedly tame horse can bolt under a rider, which is nearly as terrifying as realizing a river undercurrent has you in its grip.
Now, let’s get to that list. Some of these water horses make frequent media appearances and some stick to haunting the old tales. Where I’ve found media featuring these creatures, I’ve included examples under “Media Sighting.”
Nykur: Also “kumb,” or “noni” and “nennir” meaning “takers.”4 Living primarily in lakes, the nykur looks like a gray horse with backward ears and hooves. It has a bladder under its “left haunch,” but good luck checking that. Though able to take any form besides lamb wool or peeled barley, they prefer the horse shape to lure humans. Sometimes they even produced offspring with mortal horses. They could be repelled by the sign of the cross or words resembling their name. The nykur also haunts ice; the sound of ice cracking is said to be the nykur neighing.
Eich Uisce: Also Anglicized as “aughisky” or “anghisky.” This is the Irish version of the each uisge of Scotland. The Irish and Scottish versions are very similar. Both are shape-shifting water predators with fly-trap skin, tempting humans to ride them but then plunging into the sea to devour all but the liver of their rider. Some tales claim those riding an eich uisce will be fine as long as the horse does not catch sight of salt water.5 The biggest differences are that eich uisce are most active during the month of Samain, roughly equivalent to November, and they sometimes eat cows as well as humans.
Media Sighting: The capaill uisce in Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater are based on eich uisce.
Manx (Isle of Man)
Cabbyl-Ushtey: This literally means “water horse,” and they are also called “Cabbyl-ny-hoie” meaning “night horse.”6 They approach lone travelers on the roads at night, bolting to water if the traveler gets on their backs. They are sometimes considered the Manx version of the each-uisge or another name for the glashtyn.
Media Sighting: The Kobold’s Cave, by Kieran Metcalfe.
Glashtyn: Also “glashan,” “glaistiyn,” “glastyn,” and “glashtin.” Not to be confused with the Scottish “glaistig,” a half-goat, half-woman water spirit.7 Some describe this creature as merely a hairy water spirit, but others describe it as looking and behaving as a typical tempt-and drown water horse.8 Fly-trap skin is also hinted at as riders cannot leap from their backs even if they recognize the danger. They are particularly known for wailing at the approach of storms, leading to another name: “howlers.” Glashtyn fear fire, and can also be harnessed for work by magical means.
Media Sighting: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente. The short story “Girls Who Do Not Drown” by A.C. Buchanan also features a glashtyn, through the term cabbyl-ushtey is also used.
Shetlander (Shetland Islands)
Njogel: Alternate names include “njuggel, njogli, neugle, or water-njogel,” and “sjopeltin, or sjupilti.”9 The njogel resembles a Shetland pony ranging from white through gray and black but with upside-down fetlocks, a mane standing on end, reversed hooves and a tail shaped like a wheel rim that could be rolled up and hidden. This tempt-and-drown water horse with flytrap skin doesn’t eat its victims. Instead, it flashes fire from eyes and mouth to scare them stiff and then disappears when they reach the water, leaving them to drown. The njogel hunted mainly at night and could be warded off with fire, throwing knives, or by calling out “God’s name” or that of the njogel. Some left offerings of meal to appease the njogel ahead of time, and it’s suggested there was only one njogel.
Media Sighting: Under “njuggel,” Book One of Peter Stride’s The Islands of Death murder mystery series. A puppet opera also uses the name Njogel.
Shoopiltie: This water horse also takes the form of a Shetland pony, as well as occasionally a young man with horse ears.10 It tempts humans to ride and eats them after plunging into the sea. “Shoopiltie” is a Northmavine name meaning “sea boy.”11 Other parts of Shetland use “de njuggle.”
Media Sighting: Da Peesterleeties an da Curse o da Njuggle by Valerie Watts.
Orcadian (Orkney Islands)
Nuggle: Also “nuggie,” “noggelvi” or “neugle.” This is the Orkney version of the shoopiltie. Instead of waiting by the sea, this creature tended to linger around “lochs, pools, and streams.”12
Tangie: Also “tangi” or “tongie.” In Shetland mythology, tangies take the form of a horse or an old man, usually covered in seaweed or glowing with phosphorescence.13 In horse form they were dark gray to black.14 They usually appear near the sea but might also be found near streams and lakes. Tangies had a special interest in courting human women. Instead of having flytrap skin, they cause mortals to drown themselves through a spell invoked by running circles around the victim. They also fear fire, knives, and names of the Christian God or their own name. Ironically, fire is said to shoot from their hooves when they run.15 Perhaps it’s a ghostly fire rather than a natural one.
Media Sighting: The RPG Final Fantasy III uses the tangie as an enemy, though the image looks more fish-like than the mythical tangie.
Each-Uisge: A shape-shifting water horse with fly-trap-skin living mostly in seas and lochs that lures human riders and then rushes them into the water, eating all but the liver. For more information, see Quarterly Bestiary: Kelpies.
Kelpie: Mostly the standard tempt-and-drown pattern with fly-trap skin, though in some stories they are used for labor by humans or actually fall in love with humans. For more information, see Quarterly Bestiary: Kelpies.
Ceffyl Dŵr: Though often treated as the Welsh kelpie, the ceffyl-dŵr has a number of differences including a coat that can be chestnut piebald, “sand colored,” or dapple gray as well as the standard white, gray, and black.16 Descriptions vary between North and South Wales. The Northern version has flaming eyes and backward hooves, appearing along the coastline to snare riders. The Southern version is a bit gentler, taking off with riders and then bucking them off into a river. Some winged versions might drop riders from a great height instead. In most locations, the ceffyl-dŵr’s appearance heralded storms, their coats turning white during the most tempestuous season.
Media Sighting: The Haunting of Sunshine Girl season 11, episode 10, “I am Ceffly Dwr Incarnate?”
I wasn’t quite sure whether to include these creatures since their main form is often not a horse. However, they follow the same tempt-and-drown strategy and can appear as horses, so I decided to include them as a special sub-group. They are often listed as if interchangeable, but as you can see they have plenty of distinctions.
Nøkk: Also “nøkken.” The shape-shifting nøkk typically appears as a male humanoid playing a violin, though his name comes from “nykr” meaning “river horse” in Old Norse.17 Nøkk were not always malevolent and even bargained their music skills for blood on occasion, but in horse form they often followed the tempt-and-drown script. The nøkk will release humans from his flytrap skin that if they say something resembling his name or that of the Christian God.18
Media Sighting: Frozen II, released 2019. This nøkk, a horse literally made of water, briefly tries to drown Elsa before she tames it.
Näkki: One of several water spirits related to the nøkk, nixie, näck, etc, the näkki lived in ponds, lake, and whirlpools where it lured humans, especially children, to drown.19 It could be warded off with certain incantations. Though often considered shapeless or made of seaweed, in Lithuania it sometimes appeared as a horse.20
Media Sighting: Big Game by Daniel Smith. It’s definitely referenced in the book, possibly in the movie as well.
Näck: Also “näcken.” Since “näck” also means “nude,” this being is specifically described as a naked man playing a violin in streams and rivers to lure humans to water (note: this results in some Google Translate gaffs).21 However, he also takes the form of a horse and may be captured for work like the kelpie.23
Media Sighting: Tjärnen Näck, released 2016.
Bäckahäst: Also “bækhest” or “bäckahästen,” meaning “brook horse.”24 This is often treated as the horse form of the näck or other nøkk-nixie relatives. However, the bäckahäst specifically appears on foggy days. It also had fly-trap skin.25
Media Sighting: Bäckahäst, second book of Geoff Hill’s Gunnhild Lashtongue series.
Damhest: A typical tempt-and-drown water horse with fly-trap skin that seems to target children and flee from names of the Christian God.19 At least one story describes it as having a black coat. I’m not sure if this is the same creature as the “nøkke,” “nøkker,” or “åmand,” since I couldn’t find any sources discussing those names except as nøkk-nixie relatives.
Nekker: Also “nikker,” but that term has pejorative connotations. The early Teutonic version “nicor” appears as a horse.26 However, it has since changed to a more humanoid black-colored water demon that drinks the blood of its human victims.27
Media Sighting: Nekkers are a common monster in The Witcher RPG.
Nixie: Though their name derives from a word for “crocodile,” the nixie’s most common form is a female humanoid with green skin and sometimes a fish-like tail.28 They may also take the form of a gray horse.29 Regardless of form, they tempt humans to watery death. “Nixie” specifically refers to females while “nix” is used for the males.
Media Sighting: Switezianka, or The Nixie, released 2018.
Näkk: This is mostly translated as “mermaid,” but I have seen hints that the näkk also appears as a horse or money pouch for their tempt-and-drown traps.30
Media Sighting: Näkilugu, released 2010.
And that’s about it for the tempt-and-drown water horses! I tried to be close to exhaustive, but if you know of one I missed, please share in comments! For Part 2, I’ll cover some of the more variable types around the world. I’ll wait until after my next post for that list, though, in case anyone is getting water horse-d out.
- Sedgwick, Icy, “Why Are Kelpies So Feared in Scottish Folklore?,” Icy Sedgwick, posted Mar. 29, 2018, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, http://www.icysedgwick.com/kelpies-folklore/.
- Edwards, Eric, “The Water-horse and the Kelpie,” posted Apr. 11, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/the-waterhorse-and-the-kelpie/.
- Doniger, Wendy, quoted in Harkavy, Victoria, “Horse Motifs in Folk Narrative of the Spiritual,” MA diss., George Mason University, Fairfax, 2014, http://mars.gmu.edu/bitstream/handle/1920/9033/Harkavy_thesis_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 15.
- Towrie, Sigurd, “The Icelandic Nykur,” Orkneyjar, last modified Aug. 24, 2015, accessed Mar. 14, 2020, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/nokk2.htm.
- “Eich Uisce,” A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology in Oxford Reference, accessed Apr. 9, 2020, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095738411.
- Moore, Arthur William, Sophia Morrison, Edmund Evans, and Greaves Goodwin, ed., A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect (University of Michigan: Milford, 1924), 27. Accessed through Google Books, Apr. 9, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Vocabulary_of_the_Anglo_Manx_Dialect.html?id=ZGUOAAAAMAAJ.
- “Glaistig,” A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology in Oxford Reference, accessed Apr. 10, 2020, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095854205.
- Weyde, Bernadette, “The Glashtyn (or Glashtin),” As Manx as the Hills, posted Apr.11, 2014, accessed Apr. 10, 2020, https://asmanxasthehills.com/the-glashtyn-or-glashtin/.
- “Njogel,” Encyclopedia Mythica, last modified Feb. 17, 2019, accessed Apr. 7, 2020, https://pantheon.org/articles/n/njogel.html.
- Rose, Carol, Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 2001), 333. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 10, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Giants_Monsters_and_Dragons.html?id=GKrACS_n86wC.
- Jakobsen, Jakob, The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland: Two Popular Lectures (T. & J. Manson: Lerwick, 1897), 42. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 10, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Dialect_and_Place_Names_of_Shetland.html?id=dRkuAAAAYAAJ.
- Towrie, Sigurd, “The Nuggle – the Orcadian Water Horse,” last modified Aug. 24, 2015, accessed Apr. 10, 2020, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/nokk.htm.
- Dictionary of the Scots Language, s.v. “Tang,” accessed Apr. 10, 2020, https://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/tang_n1.
- Teit, J. A., “Water-Beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as Remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia,” The Journal of American Folklore 31, no. 120 (Apr. – Jun., 1918):180-201. JSTOR (534874), 187. Open access Apr. 10, 2020, https://www.jstor.org/stable/534874?seq=8#metadata_info_tab_contents.
- Teit, 188.
- Bane, 79.
- Rose, Julie K., “The Supernatural in Norwegian Folklife,” Julie K. Rose, posted Oct. 30, 2012, accessed Apr. 11, 2020, http://juliekrose.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-supernatural-in-norwegian-folklife.html.
- Harkavy, 50.
- Niina, “Water Spirits In Finnish Folklore,” Fairychamber.com, posted Aug. 8, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2020, https://www.fairychamber.com/blog/water-spirits-in-finnish-folklore.
- Ishida, Eiichiro, and Kenichi Yoshida, “The ‘Kappa’ Legend. A Comparative Ethnological Study on the Japanese Water-Spirit ‘Kappa’ and Its Habit of Trying to Lure Horses into the Water,” Folklore Studies 9 (1950): i-vi+1-152+1-11. JSTOR: 1177401, 29.
- “Näcken Som Spelar i Bäcken,” Odens Bortbyting, posted Oct. 1, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2020, https://odensbortbyting.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/nacken-som-spelar-i-backen/.
- Lindow, John, Swedish Legends and Folktales (University of California Press: Berkley and Los Angeles, 1978), 119. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 28, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Swedish_Legends_and_Folktales.html?id=bjUMNdG2rSoC.
- Enzler, S.M., “Water Mythology,” Lenntech, accessed Apr. 4, 2020, https://www.lenntech.com/water-mythology.htm.
- Bane, 50.
- “Chapter XIII. Inferior Demons,” from “A Few Chapters on Astrology and Magic” in The London Journal, and Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art 5-6 (1847): 247-248. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 10, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_London_Journal_and_Weekly_Record_of.html?id=XRRLAQAAMAAJ, 247.
- Chamber’s Encyclopædia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge (Lippincott: London and Edinburgh, 1912), vol. 7: 496. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 28, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Chambers_s_Encyclopa%EF%B8%A0e%EF%B8%A1dia.html?id=9ZZAAAAAYAAJ.
- “Nikker,” Dutch Folklore Wikia, last modified Dec. 6, 2019, accessed Apr. 28, 2020, https://dutch-folklore.fandom.com/wiki/Nikker.
- Rose, 268.
- Buckles, Nifty, “Nixe and Nøkk Sea Sprites,” Nifty Buckles, posted Apr. 5, 2018, accessed Apr. 28, 2020, https://niftybuckles.wordpress.com/2018/04/05/nixe-and-nokk-sea-sprites/.
- Description on “Näkk Photographic Print” from Redbubble, accessed Apr. 28, 2020, https://www.redbubble.com/i/photographic-print/N%C3%A4kk-by-Afaerae/41845267.6Q0TX.