Kelpies: Mystical Celtic WATER Horse Legends & Sightings
A shrill neigh fills the air around you. A thick green mist envelopes you and blurs your vision of the path before you. You only had to make it down to the water and back home with a bucket full. But now it’s too late. The dangerous creature your mother and grandmother warned you about is within mere feet of you. You never believed it…until now. Come with us on a (safe) journey to the water’s edge, where we’ll peer into the life and legend of the Kelpies, mythical Celtic water horses. We’ll also hear tales of actual kelpie sightings, not only in the British Isles but worldwide.
What Are These Mystical, Illusive Kelpies, Exactly?
To put it simply, kelpies are mythical water creatures from the Celtic lands that typically manifest as white or black phantom horses near bodies of water. Some sources claim the kelpies haunt running bodies of water like rivers and streams, while others claim they also haunt lakes. There are multiple names for kelpies, depending on the country and region. In the Orkney and Shetney Islands, they’re called nuggies (I think this is my favorite name for them). You’ll also hear them referred to as Uisges and Fuath in Scotland and Ireland.
The Kelpie or Shoney and the Goddess Sjofn?
In Cornwall, England the kelpie is called a shoney. Potentially echoing an old pagan goddess of the sea called Sjofn, brought to the Isles by the Norse Vikings. Sjofn is one of the goddess Frigg’s handmaidens and is specifically known for her domain over affection. She watches over children and stirs up affection between two individuals, including between children and parents, people and animals, and others. She is a peacemaker and aids in relationship bonds. Her powers seem to be in direct opposition to what the kelpie’s legend states. Unless, like so many other fairies and mythical creatures, the kelpie was once a benevolent creature who was demonized by the church over time.
Odin and the Neck or Nickur, Icelandic Water Horse
Another interesting connection between the Kelpie and Norse/Germanic beliefs is the water-horse spirit called the Neck, also Nickur, Ninnir, and Hnikur. These are apparently names for Odin, the Allfather, mentioned in the Eddas. “He appears always in the form of a fine apple-grey horse on the sea-shore; but he may be distinguished from ordinary horses by the circumstance of his hoofs being reversed. If any one is so foolish as to mount him, he gallops off and plunges into the sea with his burden. He can, however, be caught in a particular manner, tamed, and made to work.” (Grimm, Teutonic Mythology)
The word kelpie is believed to translate to “heifer” or “colt”, but no one knows the true origins of the word. I can’t help but notice the correlation between the word Kelpie and the word kelp, referring to a brown algae seaweed that is pervasive in waters throughout the world. Interestingly, scholars aren’t sure where the word kelp originates, but speculate it has something to do with the seaweed being burnt into ash in the sixteenth century for its sodium, iodine and potassium components. And have you ever noticed how the water kelpie in Fantastic Beasts is depicted…like it’s literally made of kelp?
What Do Water Kelpies Look Like?
When kelpies manifest, they are typically either white or black horses with dripping wet manes and tails. Sometimes their hooves are backwards and sometimes they have a greenish glow or tint to their fur. Kelpies are almost always seen at the water’s edge or very close to the water. They’re temperament, at least as far as the Medieval Age onward, is malevolent and cannibalistic. Kelpies use their magic and shapeshifting abilities to lure animals, humans, and other fairies towards them. Then kidnap, drown and eat their prey in their watery homes. When they’re in human form, they wear green clothing and their wet hair typically gives them away. Sometimes you’ll even see seaweed stuck in their hair. Or wet footprints behind them.
What Do Kelpies Do?
It’s generally known that kelpies are solitary creatures, haunting lakes, rivers, and streams alone. But they tend to exert the same qualities. This is what we know that kelpies do:
- manifest as horses near bodies of water
- shapeshift into attractive young men or women
- act docile to lure in their prey
- kidnap humans, animals and other fairies
- drown and eat their prey
- sometimes sing or talk to lure in their victims
- sometimes capture humans and take them as their husbands/wives
- kidnap young women as midwives and wetnurses
- summon floods to use in capturing prey
Are Kelpies a Type of Elemental or Fairy?
Most people are inclined to believe the kelpie is a type of fairy or elemental. A guardian of ancient waterways, particularly in the British Isles and Ireland. However, it’s interesting to note water horses and creatures similar to the kelpie are found all over Europe and were even reportedly seen in the New World (settlers in Maryland claimed there were kelpies in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries).
Their shapeshifting abilities point towards their affinity with the fairy folk. All mythical water creatures have this ability – to change form from horse or other creature into a beautiful young maiden or strapping young man. With a mission of luring their prey ever closer – sometimes to eat them, sometimes to marry them and take them to the Otherworld. When we think of the kelpie in a human-shifted form, we see clear resemblance to the Germanic nixie and the Faroese nykur. The Nykur particularly, as it’s a water entity that typically appears as a white horse. All of these beings are referred to as “water sprites” by folklorists and so we can also apply this train of thought to the Celtic water kelpies.
From haunted spring and grassy ring
Troop goblin, elf and fairy,
And the kelpie must flit from the black bog-pit,
And the brownie must not tarry.The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by WY Evans-Wentz
OR Are Kelpies Actually Guides to the Afterlife?
As I was researching, I had a big epiphany. Since the ancient Celts believed the Otherworld (afterlife) and land of the fae was located under the sea, it’s not far fetched to think the kelpie was originally a psychopomp. A psychopomp being a spiritual guide that leads souls to the other side upon death. Horses, especially white horses, are intricately woven into Celtic mythology and lore. They’re considered otherworldly creatures and appear in the mythos time and time again accompanying a hero or god or being the embodiment of a goddess.
Ancient Horse Cults and Deities
According to blogger Eric W. Edwards, there were prevalent horse cults stretching across the ancient world including in Europe with the Greeks, Celts, Germanic, and Slavic tribes. As well as in India and Mongolia. Horses were sacred animals with divine powers. And they were often linked to deities who ruled over polar domains like life and death, day and night, the sun and moon.
In ancient Ireland, Macha was a horse goddess who presided over the sun, fertility, motherhood but also over war and death. To the ancient Slavs, their gods Chernobog and Belobog were the personification of night and day, as well as life and death. And they were frequently depicted as riding a black horse and a white horse, respectively. The goddess Rhiannon, a fairy princess from the Welsh Otherworld, rides a white horse in the Mabinogion. The Norse psychopomps called Valkyries ride horses made of white clouds.
It’s even said that Poseidon was originally a white horse emerging from the ocean waves. Even if he wasn’t a water horse himself, he fathered two divine horses: Pegasus and Arion. Sailors were known to drown horses as sacrifice to Poseidon before long journeys across the sea. This was to appease the powerful sea god. Some even believe water kelpies might be the ghosts of these sacrificed horses from ancient times. There’s evidence that horses were sacrificed all over Europe including in Northern Denmark in an ancient bog. The Valmose bodies were found preserved in a bog along with horses and oxen.
Demonized Guides to the Afterlife
Water kelpies are typically seen as one of two colors: black or white. So the question is – are water kelpies a misunderstood and misconstrued remnant of ancient horse cults and deities? The fact that most legends tell of kelpies dragging people underwater to their deaths points to an earlier belief in otherworldly guides who symbolically protected souls on their way to the afterlife. Perhaps twisting and demonizing the mythos of ancient horse gods into human-devouring kelpies made it easier for the church to convert pagans.
The Kelpie of Loch Ness
I’m sure you’ve heard of Loch Ness (Lake Ness) in Scotland before. But you’ve likely heard of it because of an ages-old legend of a cryptid named Nessie, a.k.a. the Loch Ness Monster. Fascinatingly, the famous lake has also been the haunt of a water kelpie in older times. This is a story I discovered in a book called Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin.
Once a father, mother, and son lived near Loch Ness. The winter had been harsh, the father found himself weak, and they had no livestock. One night, the man spotted a large horse grazing near Loch Ness. And he decided to try to mount the horse and bring it home to aid in plowing the fields. His wife warned against it, saying the horse was no horse but a water kelpie. And that no man could tame a kelpie with a plain rope.
The man ignored his wife’s desperate pleas, and mounted the kelpie. The water horse grew two times in size, sparks shot out from under its gigantic hooves, and it suddenly breathed fire. Its mane turned into green snakes and grasped the man’s hands firmly. Sadly, the man tried to fight his way off when the kelpie took off towards the water, but to no avail.
The mother and the boy grew hungrier and weaker by the day. Three times the boy meets a spaewife (a wise woman) who gives him three magical items and three pertinent pieces of advice. When he attempts to catch the kelpie, he is successful using the spaewife’s charms: a shawl to use as a saddle over the kelpie’s back, salt that killed the serpents on the kelpie’s mane, and an iron horse’s bridle.
The MacGregor Clan’s Kelpie Bridle
The MacGregor Clan claims to have (or had) a kelpie’s bridle in their possession for at least a century or two. I particularly love this story because I descend from a branch of MacGregors. Anyway, a MacGregor ancestor named James learned that if he could steal a kelpie’s bridle away, he’d have possession of great magical powers. For a kelpie’s power lie in its bridle, similar to how a red cap’s shapeshifting and magical powers were in his red cap. So one day, he approached a kelpie near Loch Ness, jumped towards it, cut it’s bridle and took off running.
Apparently, as soon as the magical bridle had been pulled off the kelpie’s neck, the kelpie shrank into the form of an old man. A very angry old man who chased James all the way home, trying to either coax or frighten him into returning his bridle. James refused and for many years the MacGregors have claimed to still have the kelpie’s bridle in their possession (along with a magical mermaid stone!)
How to Defeat Or Catch Kelpies
If you’ve ever seen a kelpie, you’re fortunate (or not so fortunate) because they’ve supposedly not been seen for many years. Let’s say you’re being tormented by a kelpie who haunts the pond in your backyard or the creek on your property. According to lore, here’s how you catch and/or defeat a bothersome kelpie:
- Similar to werewolves, a silver bullet will defeat a kelpie
- An iron spear will also kill a kelpie
- If you can steal a kelpie’s bridle, you will have power over it and magical powers
- Salt will ward off a kelpie and prevent its mane from turning into snakes
- Separating your hand from its mane will allow you to dismount the kelpie (some use salt, one little boy actually cut off his finger to escape!)
- A bridle made of iron slipped over a kelpie’s head will give you control over the water horse
- If you want to ride a kelpie, put something between you and its skin, else you’ll get stuck and the kelpie will kidnap or drown you
- Wear a bag of salt around your neck if going near a kelpie’s watery home
- Keep a piece if iron on you near mysterious bodies of water or known kelpie haunts
The BEST Way to Stay Safe Near A Kelpie’s Home
Here’s my advice when it comes to the mystical, dangerous kelpie – just stay away from them. If you see a lone horse, wandering near a body of water by itself, it might be best to leave it be. PARTICULARLY if the horse has a wet tail or mane, a green tint to it, reversed hooves or a wild look in its eye. Unless you have an iron bridle with you, search for a potential owner but don’t approach it. I believe even though these creatures may be benevolent, there’s too many legends that tell of their cannibalistic ways. So it’s best to leave them be.
More Mystical Creatures:
- The Fae Folk: Your ULTIMATE Guide to Everything Fairy
- Types of Mermaids Worldwide: 25+ Selkies, Merrows and More
- Elementals: What is an Elemental And the Guardians of the Watchtowers