Horses In Irish Mythology

Like many cultures, the Celts are steeped in history and mythology, their lore taking the imagination to a higher level. This includes mythical horses and the tales they carry.

According to a USA government census, there are 31.5 million Americans of Irish descent, a result of immigrants coming to America seeking a better life.  While we are all products of immigration (unless you are a Native American),  the American-Irish population is seven times larger than the population of their origins, Ireland.  

Our Irish ancestry contributes to the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day on March 17.  While Ireland considers it a religious holiday honoring their beloved St. Patrick, Americans celebrate the holiday with green beer, parades, shamrocks, and corned beef cabbage.  It signifies the coming of spring and with it the greening of the earth – and if you aren’t wearing green on March 17th, you might get pinched! (Whether that is an Irish thing or solely an American tradition, I don’t know.)  

If you are of Irish ancestry, you are also of Celtic origins. Celts are a people of Indo-European descent and include the Gauls, Celtiberians, Galatians, Britons, and Gaels.  They can be traced back to the 15th and 16th BC Centuries, the Middle Bronze Age which leads to the definition of the word Celt – a prehistoric stone or metal implement having a beveled edge for cutting,  most likely used as a weapon. 

Most of us are more familiar with the Celts being associated with the Gaelic countries Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man, Cornwall, France, and southern parts of Germany. Like many cultures, the Celts are steeped in history and mythology, their lore taking the imagination to a higher level.  

This includes mythical horses and the tales they carry.  Equines (mythical or otherwise) have indeed carried man throughout history, and Celts were no exception.  Of course, that applies to most of the world when you consider transportation was once mostly by horseback, horse drawn carriages, etc. Agriculture was certainly developed with horses along the way. 

Enbarr of Manannan, a mythological horse whose name is defined as “imagination”,  and one such character of Celtic lore.  A pure white horse with a flowing mane, Enbarr is said to have risen from the lake of Kylemore Abby.  It is also said that a white horse continues to rise from that same lake every 7 years.  In 2011, the staff at the Abbey claimed to have seen a white horse emerge from the lake. 

This fabled equine is said to carry Oisin a human and his bride from the Otherworld, Niamh across the sea to Tir na nOg, the Celtic “otherworld”.  According to Wikipedia,  though elusive, the Otherworld is similar to the parallel universe, with mythical heroes visiting by chance or by invitation of a resident.  It is a realm of deities and a supernatural world of everlasting youth, beauty, health, and abundance. 

Sounds like a great place to visit.

There are similar versions of this tale, with Manannan being a warrior god and the ruler of the Otherworld, and the owner of Enbarr.  

Like all stories passed down through hundreds if not thousands of years, the story depends on who is telling it and what native language is used.  Enbarr is also known as Finbarr but can be found in Celtic lore bearing other names as well.  Oral history is complicated and most of the time holds no other documentation.  

Though fantastical in Celtic lore, this horse’s tale is just one of many mythological horses to grace their oral history.

White horses dominate mythology as they were considered symbols of sovereignty and symbols of fertility in both genders.  Most are spoken of with flowing manes and tales sending a message of beauty and purity. (Image by rihaij from Pixabay)

White horses dominate mythology as they were considered symbols of sovereignty and symbols of fertility in both genders.  Most are spoken of with flowing manes and tales sending a message of beauty and purity. Being pure white was the sign of fertility.

Then there is Epona, the goddess of equine fertility, and protector of horses, mules, and donkeys.  She was the end result of a man who is said to have hated women (Fulvius Stellus) who procreated by the means of coupling with a mare.  

Epona was worshipped far and wide with Rome who was not part of the Celtic nation, embracing her as one of their own.  Horses were as important to the Romans as they were to the Celts.  So if Epona protected them, well it made sense to add her to their list of who’s who in their list of gods and goddesses. 

Gods and goddesses were considered sovereign, which is defined as having extreme power of authority (the reign in sovereign).  So associating with them gave Kings the right to rule.  The rituals of becoming a king were said to involve a land goddess, which had them mating with mares according to some oral history. 

Though there is written documentation from Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) who wrote Topographia Hibernica  (Hibernia) which is Latin for Topography of Ireland in 1188, not long after the Norman Invasion to depict the land and culture of Ireland. This is an excerpt:

“There are some things which, if the exigencies of my account did not demand it, shame would discountenance their being described. But the austere discipline of history spares neither truth nor modesty. There is in the northern and farther part of Ulster, namely Kenelcunill [Tyrconnell], a certain people which is accustomed to consecrate its king with a rite altogether outlandish and abominable. When the whole people of that land has been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as chief, but as a beast, not as a king, but as an outlaw, embraces the animal before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards in the same water. He sits in the bath surrounded by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, or using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it round about him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his kingship and dominion has been conferred…”

…Okay, I guess “embrace” has more than one meaning in the Latin language, in which the documentation was originally written and later translated.  Here is another interesting excerpt:

Duvenald, king of Limerick, had a woman with a beard down to her navel, and also, a crest like a colt of a year old, which reached from the top of her neck down her backbone, and was covered with hair. The woman, thus remarkable for two monstrous deformities, was, however, not an hermaphrodite, but in other respects had the parts of a woman; and she constantly attended the court, an object of ridicule as well as of wonder. The fact of her spine being covered with hair, neither determined her gender to be male or female; and in wearing a long beard she followed the customs of her country, though it was unnatural in her. Also, within our time, a woman was seen attending the court in Connaught, who partook of the nature of both sexes, and was an hermaphrodite. On the right side of her face she had a long and thick beard, which covered both sides of her lips to the middle of her chin, like a man; on the left, her lips and chin were smooth and hairless, like a woman”

 Sounds kind of mare-ish to me.

 There are many horses who rein – or rather who reign – in Celtic history, including the Shetland Pony.  Thought to be derived from the Celtic ponies, they were brought by settlers to the Shetland Islands northeast of the coast of Scotland during the Bronze Age. 

But the mythological horses of Celtic lore are most definitely “wild horses” in my mind as well as in the imaginations of others. Online role-playing games which are popular today, incorporate these fantastical beasts into another world of make-believe. 

 After all, what would life be without horses?

Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

Barb currently resides in Central Florida with her three horses; when she’s not writing or riding for HRL, she loves to read and travel.