The Children of Epona: Horses in Cornish Legend by Craig Weatherhill

An article written in 1993 for Cornwall Today by Craig Weatherhill who sadly died in July 2020.
Craig was himself a Cornish Legend
, his books were read Worldwide.

Like all good Celts, the sheer beauty and nobility of horses have captivated me from an early age and I am inseparable from my own horse Larnie, now pushing 24 but as fit, agile and supple as she’s always been. One glance from the most beautiful eyes in the animal kingdom is enough to totally enslave anyone (women used to have that effect on me until I learned a series of hard lessons about their inbuilt deceit and reptilian cold-bloodedness. Horses are incapable of either, so for me, they’re much safer company – unless any compatible ladies out there are willing to prove me wrong. Offers – invited!)

From the earliest times, horse have woven their spell on the human race and, in tune with their Indo-European precursors, the Celts revered the horse as a powerfully sacred animal, a solar symbol. Their goddess of horses, Epona (“divine horse” and from which we derive the word “pony”), honoured throughout Gaul and Britain, became the only Celtic deity to be worshipped in Rome where her festival, December 18th, is not only close to the winter solstice but also within the equine star-sign of Sagittarius.

The aspects of the horse goddess and the ancient association of horses with sexual virility and fertility was prominent in the ritual of Celtic king-making. As late as the 12th century, the crowning of a king in Donegal involved the king-elect appearing naked before the people on all fours, declaring himself a stallion and then publicly and actually copulating with a white mare (some books gloss this over as “simulated” – the original account, written by the horrified priest Gerald of Wales, is clear that the act was real enough, though how it was managed without the king-elect being kicked into the middle of next week was a wonder in itself!). This part of the ritual represented the marriage of the king with the goddess. Next, the unfortunate mare was killed, her flesh being prepared in a broth which the king-elect both bathed in and drank, thus imbuing himself inside and out with the essence of the goddess. This deviant ceremony also affirmed the king’s virility on which the future fruitfulness and prosperity of his people was believed to depend. An Indo-European parallel was found in India where in the asamvedha king-making ceremony, his queen was expected to perform the awesomely eye-watering act of copulating with a stallion which was then sacrificed.

The horse, as would expect of a sacred animal, plays a major part in Celtic mythology and belief and, as the Celts were famous as superb horsemen, horses were central to their welfare and prestige. Epona herself occurs in Irish and Welsh myth under other names: Rhiannon in Wales: Macha and Edain Echraidhe in Ireland. A number of Welsh triads are reserved for horses whose legendary courage is well represented in tales of such heroes as Cu Chulainn where his fatally wounded chariot horse Laith Macha fiercely defends his dying master. Horses of a more supernatural kind also appear, such as the Kelpie or water-horse, and horses capable of treading water and air. White-capped sea-waves – still called “white horses” – were formerly called “The Horses of Manannan” (Manannan MacLir, the Celtic sea-god).

Cornish legends and tradition carry echoes of a past but now fragmented mythology, but man’s noblest companion still features strongly. Of many Obby Osses which once existed in Cornwall, we still have the Padstow Oss, with its overtones of fertility and hints of a water-horse, in a strongly pagan ceremony still observed at the Celtic festival of Beltaine (“fire of Belenos” – the sun-god). Cornish Christmases, held close to the winter solstice and the festival of Epona, once saw the appearance of the Pedn Glaze (“grey head”), a figure closely resembling the Welsh Mari Llwyd. a benevolent yet sinister-looking affair featuring a horse’s skull with working jaw, also a Christmas figure. When the Spaniards burned Paul church in 1595, Captain de Amezola reported that the church contained an effigy of a horse “carved in wood, greatly embellished and serving as an idol worshipped by the people-. Was this an Obby Oss or a Pedn Glaze?

If, as in Ireland, Cornwall’s Small People represented a diminished form of the ancient gods, it might go some way towards explaining their love of horses as sacred and defied creatures. South East Cornwall retains many tales of night-ridden horses, their manes plaited into a dozen to more tiny stirrups. In the wilds of West Penwith, the elemental Piskey himself rides a yearling colt, his toes twisted into its mane. Other legends claim that the Small People can transform themselves into horses.

Further echoes of the water-horse can be found in the legends of lords escaping from the inundation of Lyonesse. Both the Trevelyan and Vyvyan families claim an ancestor fleeing the flood on a white horse which becomes the family symbol just as, in Brittany, a fleet horse carried King Gradlon from the similar of Caer Ys.

In the legend of The Hooting Carn, Cam Kenidjack near St. Just, a seemingly recent setting disguises a more ancient origin. Here the devil rides a bony black horse which, by day, works the whim at a local mine but late Christian influence has recast the ancient gods of what was, to prehistoric people, a sacred peak, as demons and devils, and the link between gods and horses appears yet again. At Polperro, the devil, driving a chariot pulled by a huge black horse, burst out of the cliff and a hoof-shaped pool preserves the place where it planted its foot.

Near Goss Moor, the horse of King Arthur also left his hoofprint in a rock, thought to be the recently rediscovered capstone of the Devil’s Coyt.

A curious legend of West Penwith is Jacky’s Night Ride to Scilly, where Jacky comes across a black horse late at night and decides it ride it home. To his horror, it transports him into the air, passing over Scilly before returning him safely. To prove his tale, Jacky, who has never seen a map, draws an accurate picture of the islands from his aerial viewpoint. Even more curiously, his take-off and landing place is now the Land’s End airport!

Another black horse famous in Cornish legend was the Arabian mare owned by the magician Lord of Pengersick, unmanageable to all except the magician himself. She was held to be a demon cast into horse-shape to serve as the magician’s familiar and her uncanny instincts detected an attempt by the Witch of Fraddam to destroy him. When finally defeated by Jack of the Hammer (the Cornish equivalent of the Celtic god Lugh), the demon-mare shrinks into a horned and clawed shape before slinking away in the form of a black adder.

Black horses also pull spectral coaches like that at Blackadon which came to the attention of the noted ghost-layer, Parson Dodge of Talland. These were headless – not decapitated, their necks faded so that the heads became invisible.

The courage and devotion of the horse is well represented by Hector, the faithful steed of the ghost-layer Parson Polikinghorne of Lelant. After capturing the ghost of Wild Harris of Kenegie, Polkinghome, astride Hector, leads the restless phantom up the hill to Castle-an-dinas to bind it to a task, beset all the way by storms raised by howling demons and elementals. Although trembling with fear, Hector braves the fearful onslaught until Polkinghorne takes pity on him and dismounts to lead the ghost the rest of the way on foot. Hector’s relief on seeing the safe return of his master further shows the bond between man and horse.

Another devoted steed is the ghost of a white horse which, for more than a century, has waited on Porthgwidden beach, St. Ives for the return of his drowned master from his daily swim. Ill luck has dogged other legendary horses, too. In the Gothic horror tale of The Spectre Bridegroom, Frank Lanyon’s horse, once released from its ghostly rider, is so maddened with fear that it bolts through St. Buryan and is found dead from its terror on Burnewhall Cliff. On the island of St. Martin’s, a woman whose sheep were dying from a mysterious disease was told by a male Penzance witch that their deaths were due to an evil spirit residing within an old mare sharing the same field. The mare was burned to death to break the curse. The super-natural forces said to protect ancient monuments took it out on the wrong target when young, healthy horses employed to drag stone from Kerris Roundago inexplicably died. Those who chose that site as a quarry escaped unscathed.

Majestic, intelligent, yet willing to be our companions and servants, the Children of Epona continue to hold us in their power – a gentle yet irresistible influence and magic which has endured for centuries. To merely be in the company of horses is enough to give instant understanding why they were held in such reverence by our distant ancestors – and by ourselves, for although we kid ourselves that we are their masters, it is they who hold power over us.

And, if my dear old mare is anything to go by, don’t they know it

Like all good Celts, the sheer beauty and nobility of horses have captivated me from an early age and I am inseparable from my own horse Larnie, now pushing 24 but as fit, agile and supple as she’s always been. One glance from the most beautiful eyes in the animal kingdom is enough to totally enslave anyone (women used to have that effect on me until I learned a series of hard lessons about their inbuilt deceit and reptilian cold-bloodedness. Horses are incapable of either, so for me, they’re much safer company – unless any compatible ladies out there are willing to prove me wrong. Offers – invited!)

From the earliest times, horse have woven their spell on the human race and, in tune with their Indo-European precursors, the Celts revered the horse as a powerfully sacred animal, a solar symbol. Their goddess of horses, Epona (“divine horse” and from which we derive the word “pony”), honoured throughout Gaul and Britain, became the only Celtic deity to be worshipped in Rome where her festival, December 18th, is not only close to the winter solstice but also within the equine star-sign of Sagittarius.

The aspects of the horse goddess and the ancient association of horses with sexual virility and fertility was prominent in the ritual of Celtic king-making. As late as the 12th century, the crowning of a king in Donegal involved the king-elect appearing naked before the people on all fours, declaring himself a stallion and then publicly and actually copulating with a white mare (some books gloss this over as “simulated” – the original account, written by the horrified priest Gerald of Wales, is clear that the act was real enough, though how it was managed without the king-elect being kicked into the middle of next week was a wonder in itself!). This part of the ritual represented the marriage of the king with the goddess. Next, the unfortunate mare was killed, her flesh being prepared in a broth which the king-elect both bathed in and drank, thus imbuing himself inside and out with the essence of the goddess. This deviant ceremony also affirmed the king’s virility on which the future fruitfulness and prosperity of his people was believed to depend. An Indo-European parallel was found in India where in the asamvedha king-making ceremony, his queen was expected to perform the awesomely eye-watering act of copulating with a stallion which was then sacrificed.

The horse, as would expect of a sacred animal, plays a major part in Celtic mythology and belief and, as the Celts were famous as superb horsemen, horses were central to their welfare and prestige. Epona herself occurs in Irish and Welsh myth under other names: Rhiannon in Wales: Macha and Edain Echraidhe in Ireland. A number of Welsh triads are reserved for horses whose legendary courage is well represented in tales of such heroes as Cu Chulainn where his fatally wounded chariot horse Laith Macha fiercely defends his dying master. Horses of a more supernatural kind also appear, such as the Kelpie or water-horse, and horses capable of treading water and air. White-capped sea-waves – still called “white horses” – were formerly called “The Horses of Manannan” (Manannan MacLir, the Celtic sea-god).

Cornish legends and tradition carry echoes of a past but now fragmented mythology, but man’s noblest companion still features strongly. Of many Obby Osses which once existed in Cornwall, we still have the Padstow Oss, with its overtones of fertility and hints of a water-horse, in a strongly pagan ceremony still observed at the Celtic festival of Beltaine (“fire of Belenos” – the sun-god). Cornish Christmases, held close to the winter solstice and the festival of Epona, once saw the appearance of the Pedn Glaze (“grey head”), a figure closely resembling the Welsh Mari Llwyd. a benevolent yet sinister-looking affair featuring a horse’s skull with working jaw, also a Christmas figure. When the Spaniards burned Paul church in 1595, Captain de Amezola reported that the church contained an effigy of a horse “carved in wood, greatly embellished and serving as an idol worshipped by the people-. Was this an Obby Oss or a Pedn Glaze?

If, as in Ireland, Cornwall’s Small People represented a diminished form of the ancient gods, it might go some way towards explaining their love of horses as sacred and defied creatures. South East Cornwall retains many tales of night-ridden horses, their manes plaited into a dozen to more tiny stirrups. In the wilds of West Penwith, the elemental Piskey himself rides a yearling colt, his toes twisted into its mane. Other legends claim that the Small People can transform themselves into horses.

Further echoes of the water-horse can be found in the legends of lords escaping from the inundation of Lyonesse. Both the Trevelyan and Vyvyan families claim an ancestor fleeing the flood on a white horse which becomes the family symbol just as, in Brittany, a fleet horse carried King Gradlon from the similar of Caer Ys.

In the legend of The Hooting Carn, Cam Kenidjack near St. Just, a seemingly recent setting disguises a more ancient origin. Here the devil rides a bony black horse which, by day, works the whim at a local mine but late Christian influence has recast the ancient gods of what was, to prehistoric people, a sacred peak, as demons and devils, and the link between gods and horses appears yet again. At Polperro, the devil, driving a chariot pulled by a huge black horse, burst out of the cliff and a hoof-shaped pool preserves the place where it planted its foot.

Near Goss Moor, the horse of King Arthur also left his hoofprint in a rock, thought to be the recently rediscovered capstone of the Devil’s Coyt.

A curious legend of West Penwith is Jacky’s Night Ride to Scilly, where Jacky comes across a black horse late at night and decides it ride it home. To his horror, it transports him into the air, passing over Scilly before returning him safely. To prove his tale, Jacky, who has never seen a map, draws an accurate picture of the islands from his aerial viewpoint. Even more curiously, his take-off and landing place is now the Land’s End airport!

Another black horse famous in Cornish legend was the Arabian mare owned by the magician Lord of Pengersick, unmanageable to all except the magician himself. She was held to be a demon cast into horse-shape to serve as the magician’s familiar and her uncanny instincts detected an attempt by the Witch of Fraddam to destroy him. When finally defeated by Jack of the Hammer (the Cornish equivalent of the Celtic god Lugh), the demon-mare shrinks into a horned and clawed shape before slinking away in the form of a black adder.

Black horses also pull spectral coaches like that at Blackadon which came to the attention of the noted ghost-layer, Parson Dodge of Talland. These were headless – not decapitated, their necks faded so that the heads became invisible.

The courage and devotion of the horse is well represented by Hector, the faithful steed of the ghost-layer Parson Polikinghorne of Lelant. After capturing the ghost of Wild Harris of Kenegie, Polkinghome, astride Hector, leads the restless phantom up the hill to Castle-an-dinas to bind it to a task, beset all the way by storms raised by howling demons and elementals. Although trembling with fear, Hector braves the fearful onslaught until Polkinghorne takes pity on him and dismounts to lead the ghost the rest of the way on foot. Hector’s relief on seeing the safe return of his master further shows the bond between man and horse.

Another devoted steed is the ghost of a white horse which, for more than a century, has waited on Porthgwidden beach, St. Ives for the return of his drowned master from his daily swim. Ill luck has dogged other legendary horses, too. In the Gothic horror tale of The Spectre Bridegroom, Frank Lanyon’s horse, once released from its ghostly rider, is so maddened with fear that it bolts through St. Buryan and is found dead from its terror on Burnewhall Cliff. On the island of St. Martin’s, a woman whose sheep were dying from a mysterious disease was told by a male Penzance witch that their deaths were due to an evil spirit residing within an old mare sharing the same field. The mare was burned to death to break the curse. The super-natural forces said to protect ancient monuments took it out on the wrong target when young, healthy horses employed to drag stone from Kerris Roundago inexplicably died. Those who chose that site as a quarry escaped unscathed.

Majestic, intelligent, yet willing to be our companions and servants, the Children of Epona continue to hold us in their power – a gentle yet irresistible influence and magic which has endured for centuries. To merely be in the company of horses is enough to give instant understanding why they were held in such reverence by our distant ancestors – and by ourselves, for although we kid ourselves that we are their masters, it is they who hold power over us.

And, if my dear old mare is anything to go by, don’t they know it

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.