Black horse of wonder
Black horse of terror
Black of the seas
Take me under
Du y Moroedd, ‘Black of the Seas’, is a legendary water-horse in Brythonic tradition. His fame is attested by Taliesin in ‘The Song of the Horses’, ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’.
He is referred to in The Triads of the Islands of Britain in ‘44. Three Horses who carried the Horse Burdens’:
‘Du y Moroedd… horse of Elidyr Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Benllech in the north to Benllech (Elidir) in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidyr Mwynfawr and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naoman his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinifen, his cook who swam with two hands and on the horse’s crupper – and he was the half person.’
This passage shows that Du is not only a sea-going water-horse, as his name suggests, but of supernatural size and strength to be able to carry seven-and-a-half people and swim vast distances. He is intimately associated with the sea-lanes between northern Britain and Wales; perhaps sightings of him off the west coast were once common.
Triad 44 is set in the mid-6th century and has a historical basis. According to The Black Book of Chirk, Elidyr made a voyage from his home in the Old North to Wales to press the claim of his wife, Eurgain, to the throne of Gwynedd following the death of Maelgwn in 547, because Maelgwn’s son, Rhun, was illegitimate. Elidyr was slain at Aber Mewdus in Arfon. An army of northern men, including Clyddno Eiddin, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael, and Rhydderch Hael avenged Elidyr by burning Arfon, then were driven back north by Rhun to the river Gweryd.
In Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips conjectures that Du might be identified with the Black Horse of Bush Howe in the Howgill Fells in Cumbria. He suggests Elidyr’s northern Benllech was Bush Howe and cites an alignment down Long Rigg Beck valley to Morecambe to Anglesey, saying the horse would be within its line of sight. This might have been the route taken by Du and his riders. ‘Benllech in Mon’ is likely to be present-day Benllech on Anglesey.
Elidyr’s voyage aboard Du with seven-and-a-half or eight people was well known by Welsh poets until the early 16th century. Tudur Aled says ‘Of greater vigour than Du’r Moroedd, such was his strength and daring… for a spree with the cold wind, eight men formerly went upon his back’. Guto’r Glyn speaks of a foal whose ‘mother was a daughter to that horse of Mon who went to carry eight men: Du y Moroedd has grandsons – this one, I know was one of them.’
Another renowned rider of Du is Gwyn ap Nudd, a Brythonic hunter-god and ruler of Annwn. In Culhwch and Olwen it is stated ‘No steed with be of any use to Gwyn in hunting Twrch Trwyth, except Du, the steed of Moro Oerfeddog’ (the latter is a jumbling of Du’s name).
Because he fails to recruit Gwyn, Arthur does not manage to kill Twrch Trwyth, ‘King of Boars’, who finally escapes into the sea. Only the otherworldly Gwyn can ride Du to hunt the Twrch into the ocean, which might also be identified with Annwn, ‘the Deep’, ‘the Otherworld’.
Gwyn’s father, Nudd/Nodens, is pictured in a chariot pulled by four water-horses. At Vindolanda Nodens is equated with Neptune. Both Neptune (as Neptune Equester) and his Greek counterpart, Poseidon (as Poseidon Hippios) were associated with sea-horses (hippocampi).
Intriguingly we find a story in Irish mythology called ‘The Pursuit of Giolla Deacair’ featuring Gwyn’s cognate, Fionn, wherein fifteen-and-half of Fionn’s men are abducted into the sea by a water-horse.
Giolla Deacair, ‘the Troublesome Slave’ and his horse are taken in by Fionn. Both are described as monstrous. Giolla has a ‘twisted mouth with long pointed teeth projected from it at all angles’ and ‘eyes like black holes in the skull of a corpse’. He drags a large iron club leaving ‘a deep trench in the ground’.
His horse is described as ‘dirty, shaggy hair covered its long, spiny back and the ribs were sticking out through its sides. Its legs and feet were crooked and splayed and a leg that seemed too large for his body dangled awkwardly from a scrawny neck.’
The horse causes trouble amongst the other horses. Feargus tells Conan to jump on its back and ride it across country to break its spirit. However, it will not move until it carries the weight of its rider, Giolla Deacair, which is equal to fifteen men. This shows Giolla and his horse are gigantic. The men pummel and kick the horse yet still it won’t move.
Infuriated by his horse’s mistreatment, Giolla leaves. His horse follows with the men ‘welded’ to him ‘like a sword to its hilt’. Fionn and his remaining warriors follow, but no matter how fast they pursue the horse goes even faster, like the wind, over mountains, rivers, and valleys until reaching the sea. As it shoots into the waves one of Fionn’s warriors grabs onto its tail.
We are told that, as it journeys through the sea, ‘The waves did not touch it nor the fifteen Fianna on its back, nor the unfortunate man clinging to its tail. Instead, the water parted before the animal, so that it travelled on a path of dry land.’ We might imagine Du travelling similarly.
Fionn and his men sail after Giolla and his horse to where the riders are imprisoned in Tír fo Thuinn, ‘The Land Under the Wave’. Giolla reveals he is a magician called Abartach. Fionn’s marriage to Taise persuades Abartach to release his men. As retribution Goll claims fourteen of Abartach’s women to return on the horse’s back and his wife to cling onto the horse’s tail.
This tale suggests Du also originates from the watery regions of the Otherworld. I wonder whether, like Giolla’s horse, Du had an earlier otherworldly owner whose name and stories have been forgotten. Perhaps there was once a story about how Gwyn came to ride Du between worlds.
Du also shares resemblances with the Welsh ceffyl dwr, the northern British dobbie, and the Scottish kelpie. The latter are notorious for luring humans onto their backs then drowning them. Once a rider has mounted, their hand sticks to the kelpie’s neck and they cannot let go.
Du’s stories have fascinated me since I heard his splashing hoofbeats approaching whilst meditating on the Ribble estuary. When I travel to the west coast his presence is always on the edges of my mind: his great arched neck, his oar-like legs, the multitude of riders he has carried. My fingers are caught in his mane and he is forever drawing me toward the Otherworld…