The Marsh of the Black Water Horses

Yng Nghors y Ceffylau Dwr Du
mae’r esgyrn yn disgleirio cyn wynned â‘r haul newydd-anedig.

In the Marsh of the Black Water Horses
the bones shine white as the new-born sun.

Pray you do not have to cross it. Pray you do. You might see them oozing, plunging, rising, falling like sea monsters, only vaguely horse-shaped, with shaggy tussocks of manes and huge round hooves.

You may have met one (but you do not know it) stepping out of the rain with a horse’s head and two, four, six, eight, countless legs, a charming long-toothed smile, mounted with ease eight feet up.

You may have felt your hands clasped by the mane and your buttocks gripped to the slippery seat.

You may have been taken from your town across farmlands where cattle churn muddily around troughs, across moorlands stirring up grouse, to peat bogs where hooves slip and sink, to a black marsh where black water horses meet: mares and stallions, foals and colts, sons and daughters of Du.

Then down, down, down beneath the reeds, the marsh grass, the flickering will-o-wisps, to where they keep the bones shining white as the new-born sun and caught a glimpse of the ghostly riders.

You might have seen a face, frightened, charmed, in love with something horselike, like your own.

All you might remember is waking up cold and wet in a ditch and blaming it on one too many drinks.

If this is the case you will remember when you get here. You will feel it in your bones, your shiny white bones. You will know that a part of you never left this place and fears and rejoices in its return.

The Marsh of the Black Water Horses Large*With thanks for the translation into Welsh from Greg Hill.

Du y Moroedd

Black horse of wonder
Black horse of terror
Black of the seas
Take me under

Du y Moroedd Devotional Art Benllech Beach

Devotional Art for Du y Moroedd on Benllech beach, Anglesey

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.

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

Morecambe Bay, Lancashire

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.

Benllech beach, Anglesey

Benllech Beach, 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…

Irish Sea from Morecambe

The Irish Sea from Morecambe Bay

When Black Water Horses Meet

Why, once in a lifetime, do black water horses meet?

Why do they come slithering out of the peat bogs,
out of the mires, from lakes, ponds, estuaries, crooked bays,
coated in sphagnum and sundew, purple moorgrass, wild angelica,
tails filled with water-mint and bog asphodel, bog bush crickets between their ears,
covered in duck-weed, dashing with water-lilies, ribbeting with frog-song,
clacking with barnacles, bright with sea-stars, fronds of thongweed,
wireweed, dabberlocks, spiral wrack, in their startling manes?

Are they brought together by a herding instinct in their perilous unbones
by which they shift into the ubiquitous shapes of tall dark men
and seductive women with cotton grass in their lapels
or chewed in a strand between their teeth?
Long teeth… you’ll recognise them
by their hooves…

Do they come together because they hate each other so much?
Because they’re jealous of each other’s riders,
of each other’s prey?

Or are they fearful that black water horses are disappearing
like the large heath and brown hairstreak butterflies and marsh fritillary,
the argent and sable and Haworth’s minor moths and the mire pill beetle,
the tiny ‘bog hog’ black as them and the grasshopper warbler?

What do they fear more, the drains and pumps, or our lack of belief?

When we say “there are no black water horses” it seems fine to drain that bog,
to suck the water from that fifteen-mile lake, fill in that pond,
take every shell-fish from that estuary;

we are like vacuum cleaners sucking
at the unfathomable miles of the deep extinguishing
the three-dimensional flowers with their blossoms and ignoring
the rippling pulsations of sea mice and sea cucumbers,

we are making the world 1D and black water horses
do not want paper cut out riders.

They complain that we do not want to be eaten anymore:
we do not want their sharp teeth gnashing our shoulders,
their constant gnawing where fish slide past our ribcages,
their teachings of how to breath underwater
and anaerobically.

The Black One of the Seas,
the Stallion of the Crooked Bay who is just about in charge
(although the colts raise their upper lips at him)
listens to their complaints and rolls his eyes
like billiard balls and flickers
his radar ears

just like he does at every meeting of black water horses,
nods his handsome head and whinnies
absolutely nothing.

Why do they meet, these fading beings, larger than life?

Why do I speak of them?

Kelpies, 1886, pub dom - Copy

 

Gwyn ap Nudd and Du y Moroedd: Travelling the Old North, Wales and Beyond

In Culhwch and Olwen, Du y Moroedd (‘The Black of the Seas’) is introduced as the only horse who can carry Gwyn ap Nudd on the hunt for Twrch Twryth (‘King of Boars’). Du is a water-horse of celebrated fame in the Brythonic tradition. A study of his stories reveals that, like Gwyn, he is intimately connected with the landscapes and peoples of the Old North and Wales. He is also a traveller between worlds and thus a most fitting mount for Annwn’s ruler on his hunt for the greatest of boars.

The most detailed piece of information we possess about Du appears in The Triads of the Islands of Britain. As one of three ‘horse burdens’ he ‘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.’

The historical basis of this triad is Elidyr’s seaward journey from his home in northern Britain to Wales to seize the throne of Gwynedd from Rhun, Maelgwn’s illegitimate son (Elidyr’s claim was based on his marriage to Eurgain). Elidyr was killed at Aber Mewydd near Arfon. Afterward his fellow Men of the North; Clydno Eidyn, Nudd Hael, Mordaf Hael and Rhydderch Hael took vengeance by burning Arfon. Rhun and all the men of Gwynedd pursued them north to the river Gweryd.

This demonstrates the complex ancestral and political relationships between the people of the north and Wales and exemplifies the internecine strife that eventually led to the fall of the northern Brythonic kingdoms. It also shows that armies travelled between the Old North and Wales by land and sea.

It is of interest the Men of the North who came to avenge Elidyr are all of the ‘Macsen Guledig’ lineage. This places them in the same family as Gwyn’s ally and rival, Gwythyr ap Greidol and his kinsmen who Gwyn battles against and takes captive. Gwyn’s relationship with these northern men as a ruler of Annwn is just as fraught and unstable as relations between human rulers.

That Gwyn rides the same horse as Elidyr strengthens the sense of his familial ties with these Men of the North. That he acts as a psychopomp to several northern warriors suggests he may have been seen as an ancestral god. This is backed up by common usage of the name Nudd: Nudd Hael, Dreon ap Nudd and Nudus (the Latinised form from a memorial stone in Yarrow).

***

I assume Du is named as the only horse who can carry Gwyn due to his capacity to move between worlds. This is supported by analogy with The Pursuit of Giolla Dheachair where a ‘monstrous horse’ carries fifteen and a half of Finn’s (Gwyn’s Irish counterpart) companions to the Otherworld.

In this context it seems possible the triad depicts the surprise arrival of Elidyr and his party from the blackness of the sea on the darkest of nights as if from (or perhaps literally from!) the Otherworld. After Elidyr’s death one can imagine Gwyn appearing aboard this great water-horse on the bank of the Arfon to escort him to Annwn.

Du’s possession of uncanny and even monstrous qualities is echoed in later water-horse legends. In Brigantia: A Mysteriography Guy Ragland Phillips identifies the Black Horse of Bush Howe (a horse-shaped landscape feature of stone on the Howgill Fells in Cumbria) with Du. 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.

Ragland Phillips also claims a ‘dobbie cult’ centres on the Black Horse. ‘Dobbie’ is the ‘Brigantian’ name for a water-horse and he defines it as ‘a big, black misshapen thing that ‘slips about’. Like dobbin (a term still commonly used in the north for horses who are ploddy or woodenheaded) it ‘may have for its first element the Celtic Dhu, ‘black’.’

David Raven records a recent visit to the site, during which he photographed the Black Horse and stood on its back. Afterward he found out from a local historian that in the 1930’s and 40’s school children used to be allowed a day off to maintain the horse. A village elder said this was a practice undertaken by farmers in the pre-war period on an ‘annual Boon Day’.

This is strongly suggestive of cult activity and a longstanding service to the Black Horse. Jack (the village elder) also told David of a legend about Roman legions using the horse as a landmark on their travels ‘up the Lune valley, from Lancaster to Penrith and Carlisle.’ The Black Horse of Bush Howe is associated with travelling the northern landscape too.

The continuity of Du’s fame in Wales is attested by Welsh poetry. He appears in The Song of the Horses, a poem attributed to Taliesin: ‘The Black, from the seas famous, / The steed of Brwyn’. He is frequently used as a standard of comparison. Guto’r Glyn compares a foal with the ‘Son of the Black One of Prydyn’ (Du’s grandson) and Tudur Aled compares another horse with Du saying he is of ‘greater vigour… such was his strength and daring.

Like northern Britain, Wales has a water-horse tradition: the ‘ceffyl dwr’. I haven’t found any water-horse stories connected with Anglesey or Arfon on the internet but this doesn’t eliminate the possibility they exist in Welsh literature or folk memory.

***

Finally I’d like to return to Gwyn’s partnership with Du on the hunt for Twrch Trwyth in Culhwch and Olwen. Ysbaddaden’s statement to Culhwch that the hunt cannot begin until Gwyn is found hints at his role as a divine huntsmen and former leader of the boar hunt. Culhwch’s central task of assembling an array of renowned huntsmen, hounds and horses to hunt the Twrch is founded on an older and deeper myth.

About its details we can only conjecture. It is my guess it featured Gwyn, huntsmen, horses and hounds pursuing the King of Boars. It may have contained clues to the ‘mysteries’ of hunting: the hunt, the kill and ensuing feast as sacred activities based on an earlier shamanistic perspective.

Further insights may be gained by analogy with Odin’s hunting of the boar Saehrimnir (‘Sooty Sea-Beast’). Odin rides a great black eight-legged horse who can travel between worlds called Sleipnir (‘Slippy’ or ‘Slipper’). After the hunt Saehrimnir is cooked every evening but the next day is whole. Odin’s feast in Valhalla is mirrored by Gwyn’s feast in his otherworldy hall (in The Life of St Collen on Glastonbury Tor). Perhaps Gwyn’s hunt also rides each day to slay the Twrch then magically he is reborn and this reflects the sacred acts of hunting and eating and the procreation of the boar.

In Culhwch and Olwen it is not mentioned whether Gwyn or Du are found. They do not appear on Arthur’s hunt. Gwyn only comes when summoned by Arthur, who asks him if he knows the whereabouts of Twrch Twryth after he disappears at Glyn Ystun. It is implicit Arthur is seeking Gwyn’s knowledge because he suspects the Twrch has fled to Annwn. Gwyn claims he does not know anything about Twrch Trwyth. It is my intuition he is lying to protect the King of Boars and perhaps to cause mischief.

Following a chase across Wales and finally to Cornwall, whereby many of Arthur’s men are injured or killed by the Twrch and his piglets, they finally catch him and remove the comb and shears from between his ears. Afterward he is driven into the sea, which is suggestive of his return to Annwn. It is of interest that, unlike other otherworldly animals he confronts, Arthur does not slay Twrch Trwyth.

In later Welsh folklore Gwyn is depicted as a demon huntsman aboard a monstrous black horse who preys on the souls of sinners. This image derives from and parodies his partnership with Du as a divine huntsmen and his role as a guide of the dead. Whereas he was revered as much as feared by the pagan Britons, in this Christianised guise he solely brings terror (a misguided and one-sided view).

Gwyn and Du’s names disappear from the stories of northern Britain completely after the medieval period. It seems possible their myths lie behind some of our stories of spectral huntsmen and dobbies but due to the complex intermingling of local legends with Brythonic and Germanic lore the origins of these tales cannot be ascertained.

Yet our landscape remembers the travels of Gwyn and Du across the Old North, Wales and beyond by land and sea. On the paths of the hunt and at river-estuaries where tides beat the shore to gull-cries and winds of distant longing they are still here.

Ribble EstuarySOURCES
Bartrum, Peter A Welsh Classical Dictionary (National Library of Wales, 1993)
Bromwich, Rachel (ed.) The Triads of the Islands of Britain (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Davies, Sioned (transl.) The Mabinogion (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Ragland Phillips, Guy Brigantia: A Mysteriography (Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd, 1976)
Raven, David http://davidraven-uk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/black-horse-of-bush-howe.html
Rhys, John Studies in the Arthurian Legend (Adamant Media Corporation, 2001)
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales (Forgotten Books 2007)
Sturluson, Snorri The Prose Edda (Penguin Books, 2005)