Ride the Wave or Run?: A World of Water Horses Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of my exploration of mythical creatures known as water horses. In Part 1, I shared a list of kelpie-like water horses in Europe. It’s amazing how many variations on the tempt-and-drown water horse exist, but they are far from the only kind of aquatic equines out there. This time, I’ll range a little farther and cover the water horses that don’t fit the tempt-and-drown mold as well as some “near misses.” In both appearance and habits, these water horses show a great deal of variety. They may look nearly horse-like or only have horse parts. Some are demonic and some are divine. Some are shy and some are deadly. So approach with caution; these water horses may bite.

Reflections on the Water/Horse Connection

Many cultures symbolically link horses and water. Sometimes this connection is through a water deity. For instance, Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea as well as horses,1 and horses were once sacrificed to the Hindu god Varuna, who ruled the ocean said to be the birthplace of horses.2 A Japanese text claims that horses become dragons in the heavenly realm,3 suggesting all horses have a mythical water spirit hidden within. Please note, however, that almost no culture associates the horse only with water. Norse mythology contains horses capable of carrying riders across “earth, sky, fire, and water.”4 The flying Pegasus of Greek mythology hardly seems a watery being, and the Vedas include fiery horses drawing the chariot of the sun.5 Water is just one element that is used to explore the complex relationship between humans and horses.

Water horses are also not an entirely global phenomenon. You may notice few if any creatures on this list come from Australia, North America, or Africa. The absence in Australia and the Americas is easy to brush off as stemming from horses being a relatively recent addition to the landscape. However, that doesn’t explain the South American water horses, and many cultures from the African continent bred and valued horses, including breeds such as the Dongola of Nigeria and the Fulani from Cameroon.6 People just don’t seem to have seen horses in the water in these regions. This may be partly because there was already a “river horse” existing in legend and reality throughout the African continent,7 though that name for the hippopotamus is clearly European in origin.

Even if they aren’t everywhere, there are still plenty of water horses to explore, so let’s start in South America and work our way east.

Miskito (Honduras, Nicaragua, West Carribean)

Wihwin: Appearing as a fanged horse, this carnivorous creature haunts the seas during the cooler months.8 In the dry season, they took to the land and hunted humans in the hills and forests. Certain “mountain-ridges” were reported as their most active territory by Chas S. Bell in 1862.9 I found several sources that mention the wihwin, but not much detail besides what I’ve shared above.

Chilote (Chile)

Caballo Marino Chilote: Featuring in tales of the Caleuche ghost ship from the southern tip of Chilé, these water horses were invisible to anyone without special powers, specifically bruja or witches.10 Ranging greatly in size, they had golden manes, dark yellow-green coats, a fish tail and fin-like legs. Without them, bruja could not reach the ghost ship. However, these creatures tended to live only four years before melting into a jelly-like substance and washing away.11 Please note I’m working from sources in Spanish run through internet translation, as almost nothing in English has much detail.

Orcadian (Orkney Islands)

Nuckelavee: Said to haunt the sea around the Orkney Islands, this nightmarish creature is thought to have formed from a combination of Scottish kelpie lore and “a dark Norse legend.”12 It looks a bit like a horse with the upper body of a man attached to the back, except the man part has a single red eye, an elongated face, and very long arms. Also, it has no skin, meaning its black veins and “pulsating muscles” are exposed. Kept in check only by the Mither of the Sea in summer and fresh water, its poisonous breath killed humans, livestock, and crops, particularly horses through a respiratory disease called “mortasheen.”13 Some suggest the nuggle helped inspire the nuckelavee, but it certainly didn’t contribute much to the gruesome appearance.

Illustration from the Scottish fairy tale “Nuckelavee,” James  Torrance 1859-1916, illustrator / Public domain

Media sighting: The Boggart Fights Back! by Susan Cooper.

Greek (Greece)

Hippocampus: Also “hippokampos,” “hippocampe (ἱπποκάμμπή),” or “hippocamp,” meaning roughly “horse sea monster.”14 They looked like horses with fish or serpentine tails instead of hindquarters. Rather than eating mortals, they were said to draw the chariot of Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean and of horses.

Media Sighting: Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief, book by Rick Riordan and movie released 2010.

Hindu (India)

Farasi Bahari: These green water horses occasionally surface from the depths of the ocean to graze on land.15 Their lack of lungs is actually said to make them stronger than ordinary horses. Similar to the hippocampus, they are described with fish tails, though some images also suggest four legs. They are so skittish that the slightest whiff of human scent will send them running. Humans would leave their mares close to where the Farasi Bahari surfaced in hopes of gaining hybrid green foals with the strengths of their aquatic sires.

Media Sighting: Mythic Summer, an illustrated fiction blog.

Turkic (Turkey)

Deniz kulunu: Meaning “sea colt,”16 the deniz kulunu may be the root of other dragon horses in Asian mythologies. Generally only stallions are mentioned, living sometimes in caves or in bodies of wild water.17 Horse breeders would tether their mares near mineral springs in hopes of gaining deniz kulunu hybrids called “ṭâgī” or “mountain horses.”18 Tâgī had a dun coloring and short, upright manes, very similar to some species of real wild horses. The Tcheou-you breed with a dappled coat was also considered to be a dragon horse.

Przewalski’s Wild Horse. This coloring is very similar to the ṭâgī. Photo by Dana Sacchetti/ IAEA Imagebank / CC BY-SA

Han (China)

Long Ma (龍馬): Literally a “dragon horse,” this creature is described as “eight ch’ih five ts’un” (about eight feet) tall, covered in scales with wings on its “shanks.”19 This river spirit had a nine-tone voice, could walk on water, and tended to appear during the reigns of especially note-worthy emperors. The most famous example came out of the Ho River bearing a map on its back. Artwork of long ma usually show them as having a head and mane similar to that of the more standard Chinese dragon.20 Long ma are often born from ordinary mares who mate with dragons transformed into horses. Mares may also bear long ma after drinking from water where a river spirit dwells.21

Classic long ma. Artist unknown, reproduced in Laurence Austine Waddell, “The Buddhism of Tibet: Or Lamaism, with Its Mystic Cults, Symbolism and Mythology, …”/Public domain

Media Sighting: Works inspired by the Chinese classic Journey to the West may feature a character known as Bai Longma or White Dragon Horse. Examples include the 1986 series Journey to the West (look for the horse the monk rides) and The Dragon Warrior by Katie Zhao.

Filipino, especially Tagalog (Phillipines)

Tikbalang: Also “tigbalan,” “tigbalang,” “tikbalan,” and possibly “tuwung” or “tulung.”22 Always noticeably male, tikbalangs are towering humanoids with the horse heads, spiny manes, and horse-like legs so long their knees are higher than their heads when sitting. They can shape-shift and generate illusions, and they are often associated with the smell of tobacco smoke.23 Interpretations of the tikbalang vary. Some claim they are relatively benign tricksters who “only pull mischievous tricks for their entertainment,” yet they are also said to rape human women for reproduction.24 Tikbalangs can be warded off by wearing clothing inside out or brought under human control by plucking three golden hairs from their manes. Though they are primarily forest spirits, tikbalang also sometimes live under bridges or in hot springs.25 In addition, rain on a sunny day is considered a sign of a tikbalang wedding.

Media Sighting: The Skyworld graphic novels, by Mervin Ignacio and Ian Sta. Maria, feature a Tikbalang prince as a main character.

Japanese (Japan)

Ryūma (龍馬): Also “tatsu no uma” or “ryū-me,” or “temma” meaning “divine horse.” The Japanese dragon horse takes several cues from the Chinese long ma, such as walking on water and appearing during the reigns of special emperors.26 Scales aren’t a key feature, though they may have wings and the ability to turn invisible. Ryūma are generally born from ordinary mares tethered near lakes and rivers who encounter dragons transformed into stallions, though at least one horse transformed into “an extremely fine horse” by drinking from a dragon’s pond.27

Media Sighting: Though it never mentions ryūma directly, the anime Inuyasha includes a yokai called A-Un who looks like a two-headed, scaled dragon horse. “Ryūma” also shows up as a name in some anime including Prince of Tennis and One Piece.

Near Misses

This list covers creatures I found while looking for water horses that I decided did not quite fit. However, since this is my personal opinion, I’ve included them and my reasons for excluding them so you can draw your own conclusions.

Central American (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica)

La Sihuanaba, Ciguanaba, Cigua, or Cegua, respectively:28 Once an extreme femme fatale named Sihuehuet, she became “La Sihuanaba” or “ugly woman” after poisoning her husband for power led the Nahuatl sun god to curse her.29 Since then she is said to lure men, particularly unfaithful ones, by appearing as a beautiful woman from behind only to turn and scare them to death with a grotesque skull- or horse-face.30 This is a very near miss as she is almost always found near water,31 but I decided not to count her as a water horse because she is a unique individual rather than a species.

Scottish (Scotland)

Boobrie: Though it can take the form of a water horse, this is primarily a giant predatory bird.32 Like the water horses it copies, it lives near lochs where it eats cattle, humans, and just about anything else it can catch. Its other forms include a giant insect and a water bull. It may look a bit like the extinct great auk and has a distinctive roaring cry.

Great Auks by John Gerrard Keulemans and commissioned by the 19th century ornithological writer H.E. Dresser. Public domain

English (England)

Buckland Shag: Hailing from near the Shag Brook in Devon, England, this creature’s legend actually centers on a stone. It arose after the stone was stained with the blood of a lover who shocked his fiancé to death with naughty ideas.33 The stone was removed and exorcised in the 1800s, but before then people claimed to encounter a shaggy ape- or horse-like creature that stomped victims to death on the stone.34 Because it isn’t consistently a horse and none of the stories involve water directly, I don’t count it as a water horse.

Greek (Greece)

Ichthyocentaur: The percentage of horse varies in this aquatic centaur. Some describe it as having a human torso, horse forelegs, and a fish tail.35 Another variation has it as mostly human and fish with horse hooves instead of hands.36 Finally, there are ichthyocentaurs with lion legs and dolphin tails,37 no horse parts at all. For this reason, I consider them more chimeras than water horses.

Zulu and Xhosa (South Africa)

Inkanyamba: This serpentine water spirit is said to live in the pool of Howick Falls, sometimes flying through the air in summer.38 Though it has been described as having a horse-like head, cave art thought to depict the inkanyamba appears entirely snake-like.39 Modern sightings also tend to compare it to the Loch Ness Monster, so I suspect the “horse-like” thing is a hold-over from European beast catalogers who tended to compare the heads of dragons and snakes to those of horses.

Australian (Australia)

Bunyip: This creature is fascinating in its own right, but I’m not sure why it shows up with water horses when at most it has a “horse-like tail.”40 Even that isn’t consistent as the features of the bunyip change drastically across different times and cultures, from deadly to cute, carnivorous to vegetarian. Similarly, it goes by many names. Most point to the South-Eastern Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language as the origin for the modern term “bunyip.”41 It is also considered a cryptid today.

One of the stranger bunyip images. Unknown author/ Public domain.

There are likely “near misses” out there that I haven’t included here. If you know of one or of a definite water horse I skipped, please share in comments. Also, now that we’ve come to the end of our water horse tour, which ones are your favorites? Are there any you wish you could meet in real life?

  1. “Poseidon,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed Apr. 2, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Poseidon.
  2. Doniger, Wendy, On Hinduism (Oxford University Press: New York, 2014), 461. Accessed through Google Books, Apr. 2, 2020, https://books.google.com/books?id=c8vRAgAAQBAJ&dq=horses+water+symbolism+In+Hinduism&source=gbs_navlinks_s.
  3. Visser, Marinus Williams de, The Dragon in China and Japan (Ithica: Cornell University Library: 1913), 150, https://archive.org/details/cu31924021444728/page/n71/mode/2up.
  4. Einarsdóttir, Katrín Sif, “The Role of Horses in the Old Norse Sources,” MA diss., University of Iceland, Reykjavík, 2013. Accessed through Skemman, Apr. 2, 2020, https://skemman.is/bitstream/1946/16675/1/Horses%20in%20the%20norse%20sources%20MIS%20thesis.pdf, 23.
  5. Doniger, 461.
  6. Naish, Darren, “Domestic Horses of Africa,” Tetrapod Zoology under The Scientific American, posted May 10, 2015, accessed May 27, 2020, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/domestic-horses-of-africa/.
  7. Herbison, Lory, and George W. Frame, “Hippopotamus,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 27, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/animal/hippopotamus-mammal-species.
  8. Bane, Theresa, Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore (McFarland and Co.: Jefferson, 2016), 336. Accessed through Google Books, Apr. 7, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Encyclopedia_of_Beasts_and_Monsters_in_M.html?id=7PYWDAAAQBAJ.
  9. Bell, Chas. N., “Remarks on the Mosquito Territory, its Climate, People, Productions, &c., &c., with a Map,” The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 32 (1862): 242-268. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 7, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Journal_of_the_Royal_Geographical_So.html?id=Npuay7cDYe4C, 254.
  10. “Caballo Marino Chilote,” Leyendas de Chiloé, last modified Mar. 1, 2020, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, http://leyendaschilotas.blogspot.com/2014/08/caballo-marino-chilote.html.
  11. “Bestiario: Caballos Marinos,” La Cueva de Terciopelo, posted Sep. 3, 2018, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, http://cuevadeterciopelo.blogspot.com/2018/09/bestiario-caballos-marinos.html.
  12. MacQueen, Douglas, “Nuckelavee – the Malevolent Creature that Terrorised Scotland’s Northern Isles,” Transceltic, Mar. 8, 2018, accessed Mar. 21, 2020, https://www.transceltic.com/scottish/nuckelavee-malevolent-creature-terrorised-scotlands-northern-isles.
  13. “A Modern Bestiary – N is for Nuckelavee,” Fae Forensics, posted Oct. 17, 2016, accessed Mar. 21, 2020, https://patmacewen.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/a-modern-bestiary-n-is-for-nuckelavee/.
  14. “Hippocampus,” Encyclopedia Mythica, accessed Apr. 11, 2020, https://pantheon.org/articles/h/hippocampus.html.
  15. Gavankar, Anusha, “Legendary Mythical Creatures & Hindu Mythology – A Collective Analysis,” Post-grad. thesis, University of Mumbai, Mumbai, Jan 25, 2014. Accessed through Academia.edu Apr. 6, 2020, https://www.academia.edu/8246228/LEGENDARY_MYTHICAL_CREATURES_and_HINDU_MYTHOLOGY_A_Collective_Analysis, 17.
  16. Sümer, Faruk, Ahmet E. Uysal,  and Warren S. Walker, ed. and trans., The Book of Dede Korkut: A Turkish Epic (University of Texas Press: Austin, 2013), 189. Accessed through Google Books Apr. 11, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Book_of_Dede_Korkut.html?id=mRPbAAAAQBAJ.
  17. Esin, Emel, “The Horse in Turkic Art,” Central Asiatic Journal 10, no. 3/4, PROCEEDINGS OF THE VIITH MEETINGOF THE PERMANENT INTERNATIONAL ALTAISTIC CONFERENCE: 29 Augustus-3 September1964 (December 1965), 167-227. JSTOR (41926732), 192.
  18. Esin, 193.
  19. Visser, 57.
  20. Fry, Leah, “In Which I am Drawn to Antiquity and the Dragon Horse in Chinese Mythology,” Barn Door Tagz, posted Sept. 25, 2010, accessed Apr. 11, 2020, http://barndoortagz.blogspot.com/2010/09/in-which-i-am-drawn-to-antiquity-and.html.
  21. Visser, 59.
  22. Bane, Theresa, Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures (McFarland and Co.: Jefferson, 2014), 314. Accessed through Google Books May 23, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Encyclopedia_of_Demons_in_World_Religion.html?id=njDRfG6YVb8C.
  23. zteve t evans, “The Tikbalang in Philippine Folklore: A Shapeshifting Trickster,” Under the Influence!, posted Apr. 25, 2017, accessed May 23, 2020, https://ztevetevans.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/the-tikbalang-in-philippine-folklore-a-shape-shifting-trickster/.
  24. “BLOG POST 1: Demon Horse,” Phillipine Creatures of the Night!, posted Oct. 8, 2013, accessed May 23, 2020,http://raymundokim.blogspot.com/2013/10/blogpost-1-philippine-mythical-creatures.html.
  25. Bane, Encyclopedia of Demons, 314.
  26. Visser, 147.
  27. 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, 2.
  28. Interiano, Mauricio, “Centro Americano Legends and Folklore,” Arthur Newspaper, Nov. 1, 2016, http://www.trentarthur.ca/centro-americano-legends-and-folklore/.
  29. Henriquez, Cesar, “La Siguanaba Character,” USC Digital Folklore Archives, uploaded May 12, 2016, accessed May 23, 2020, http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=33702.
  30. “Myths & Legends of El Salvador,” AST, posted Sep. 14, 2015, accessed May 23, 2020, https://www.astadventures.com/blogs/blog-ast/myths-legends-of-el-salvador.
  31. Henriquez.
  32. McIntyre, Kirsty, “Folklore Thursday: The Boobrie,” CLAN by Scotweb, accessed May 26, 2020, https://clan.com/blog/folklore-thursday-the-boobrie.
  33. CharlieNo4, Sept. 18, 2005 answer on the question, “Local myths and legends – tell us yours” on ilXor.com. Accessed Apr. 10, 2020, https://www.ilxor.com/ILX/ThreadSelectedControllerServlet?showall=true&bookmarkedmessageid=1&boardid=40&threadid=43134.
  34. Rose, Carol, 59.
  35. “THE IKHTHYOKENTAUROI,” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, https://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Ikhthyokentauroi.html.
  36. “Ichthyocentaur,” Encyclopedia Mythica, last modified Mar. 9, 2007, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, https://pantheon.org/articles/i/ichthyocentaur.html.
  37. Phoenix, Liza, “Creatures by Type : Horses (fabulous),” The Phoenixian Book of Creatures, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, http://www.lizaphoenix.com/encyclopedia/horses.shtml.
  38. Duncan, Keira, “Myths and Legends – Inkanyamba,” Keira Duncan: Follow Your Dreams, posted May 4th 2015, accessed Apr. 5, 2020, https://keiraduncan1.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/myths-and-legends-inkanyamba/.
  39. AnimalXTV, “Howick Falls Monster,” YouTube video, 10:42, posted Aug. 14, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbNEuehQLaU.
  40. Bane, Theresa, Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology (McFarland and Co.: Jefferson, 2013), 71. Accessed through Google Books May 27, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Encyclopedia_of_Fairies_in_World_Folklor.html?id=nSuXAAAAQBAJ.
  41. “The Great Bunyip Hunt of 2017,” Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, last modified June 8, 2017, accessed May 27, 2020, https://abbeymuseum.com.au/great-bunyip-hunt-2017/.


17 thoughts on “Ride the Wave or Run?: A World of Water Horses Part 2

  1. Great work again! A very expertly crafted piece, and I envy your way with words! The introduction was well written and the questions you raise throughout are thoughtful reflections on the subject. Perhaps “water horse” like creatures appear in South American folklore is also due to Spanish/Portuguese influence? That question would be hard to unravel, as conquistadors would have been the ones to introduce horses there.

    The Long Ma is cool, I once read a legend a long time ago, and from your description I think it must of had to do with the Long Ma, that a group of Chinese sailors got ahold of a giraffe and toured around presenting it as the Long Ma, revealing itself due to the emperor’s good rule. The emperor had to step in and say that the giraffe wasn’t a Long Ma and he wasn’t a good ruler, haha!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! I do think the South American water horses are mostly from conquistador influence, but that still makes me wonder why the same thing didn’t happen in North America. There were a lot of Irish and Scottish settlers, and I noticed lake monsters like Ogopogo have been described as having “horse-like” heads. However, there are no out-right horsey legends or even cryptids. I did find a Blackfoot legend where the hero brings the first horses to his people from under a lake, but that seems a little different.

      Ha, that sounds like a fun legend! Though if the emperor was willing to admit the giraffe wasn’t a sign of his mandate from heaven, he must have been an honest ruler at least. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes the emperor is great, 😂 I’m not too conversant in Chinese myths and legends, but I like them and have noticed several that begin seriously and reverse at the end with surprise punchlines!

        If I took a stab in the dark I’d say maybe there’s a lack of analogous North American stories because there was less integration between cultures as there was in South America? I know Gerard Murphy had done a survey on the Celtic (but in fact also Germanic) mytheme of the “hand down the chimney/through the window” type story which appears almost exactly the same in Native American folktales.

        Looking forward to more monsters!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Super thorough and informative post! It’s so difficult to choose a favorite. I’m torn between the Japanese and Greek versions. Amazing how so many different cultures have their own version of the water horse!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahhh I’m late but amazing post as always ❤️ Horses are indeed a favorite mythological inspiration! They’re everywhere. I watched a bit of Inu Yasha when I was young and I don’t remember the horse creature there so great research!!

    (Also I’m highkey amazed by your research skills and patience ahhh)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve always liked horses, so it’s fun to see how many mythical variations on them are out there. And these are just the watery ones!

      Aw, thanks! 🥰 I did a lot of research papers in college and I enjoyed the search for answers, just not the deadlines and grading. This blog has been great for letting me explore again on my own terms.

      Liked by 1 person

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