Horses played a big role in many myths from all over the world. And in some of them, they are heavily associated with water and the sea. But why are horses associated with water or even represent water? I dug into some ancient myths to find out more.
Horses are associated with water in myths because they were seen as a form of transportation through the element of water and often represented the “galloping” of waves and their whitecaps. In some myths, they furthermore represented the dangers of the water that people had to cross.
In the following I will look at where the connection between water and horses probably came from in regards to the myths.
Why are horses associated with water in myths and folklore?
The ancient Greek hippocampi who pull Poseidon’s chariot through the ocean, the Celtic enbarr who can travel on land and sea, and the Scottish kelpies who lure people into the water are three more well-known horses from myths that have a strong connection to water.
More recently such a water horse called Nokk was also displayed in the movie Frozen 2, making many people wonder about where the association between horses and water came from and what it really symbolizes.
During my research, I found three associations that most of these myths seem to go back to:
- Horses were the first way of transportation on land and that thought was adopted for the sky and sea
- Horses can be wild and tame like the ocean waves
- Crossing water can be dangerous like riding a wild and stubborn horse
So let’s have a look at where they came from.
Horses as transportation over land and sea
In many myths from around the world, horses appear as symbols of power, speed and vitality and were commonly seen as the gods’ means of transportation.
This association mostly stems from the fact that horses were one of the main forms of transportation during the time when most myths started. It was believed that they had the supernatural gift to carry its riders through all spaces.
Besides the land, there are generally two elements that horses are strongly associated with within mythology and in connection to the gods: The wind and the water.
For example, in Scandinavian/Norse mythology horses pull the sun and moon gods’ (Sol and Mani) chariot through the sky while in India it is the chariot of the storm gods (the Maruts). And in ancient Greece, the horses pulled the chariots of the sun god Apollo and the ocean god Poseidon.
In Scandinavia, ships were even called horses sometimes because of the strong association of the horse as a way of transportation. Because of this association, their name was then applied to the ships on the water. The ships thus symbolized a ride over the sea.
Accordingly, horses were also often associated with being able to carry people across water barriers that they could not cross on their own.
White horses in the waves
There are two myths in particular that connect horses with the looks as well as the dangers of ocean waves. The horses of the Celtic sea god Manannán and the ancient Greek sea god Poseidon both had a strong connection to the waves of the ocean.
|Origin||Horses that are associated with waves|
|Celtic||Horses of Manannán|
|Greek||Horses of Poseidon|
The white horses of Manannán were said to rise from the depth of the ocean during tempests and could be seen in the waves.
And Poseidon is said to actually have created the horses out of ocean waves.
When he was young, Poseidon fell in love with Demeter, the goddess of harvest, grain, and fertility. She however did not like him that much and asked him for a special favor that he might not be able to ever do her: to create the most beautiful animal on earth.
After trying without success for some time, Poseidon finally created horses out of waves. His interest in Demeter waned soon but from then on he was not only known as the god of the ocean and earthquakes but also as the god of horses. A special form of his horses are the hippocampi, which have fish tails.
The association with waves probably stems from the observation that horses could spring up so quickly and forcefully like waves in the open ocean. If you look at the crests or the white foam on top of breaking waves it often gives the impression of galloping horses that lead the waves.
In fact, the whitecaps of waves are even called “white horses” in British English.
So the sea gods riding their horses across the water can be understood as a metaphor for them riding the upspringing ocean waves.
The dangers of riding wild horses
Horses in the water also indicated danger in some myths like the tale of the Kelpie (and its counterparts) and similar creatures like the Nøkken (or Nokk).
|Origin||Horses that are associated with the danger of crossing water|
|Norway||Nøkken (Nokk from Frozen 2)|
In these myths, the water horses can get very dangerous because they like to trick people. They are actually shapeshifters who mostly take on the form of a horse and live in rivers or lakes.
There they wait for humans to come close so they can offer them a ride to the other side of the water. But if the human agrees and mounts the horse, it quickly and forcefully jumps into the depths of the water and eats the person.
Like in the other myths the horse represents a way to cross the water. But this time, there is a catch. It is believed that this association of a dangerous horse with a source of water came about as a way to scare children so they would stay away from the water.
This means the horse represented the dangers of the water, like unpredictable currents, that would lead to the death of children who fell into rivers and lakes. This was probably tied to the wildness and force of the horses that could be seen in turbulent water just like in the waves.
Another possible reason why the dangerous waters and the deaths that happened there were associated with horses might have been the Scandinavian belief that horses were able to not only move across the land, sky and sea but also between worlds.
Like this, they were said to be able to enter the underworld which is also sometimes connected to water, like for example the six rivers of the underworld in Greek mythology.
In ancient Scandinavia, this connection was also often acknowledged by conducting sacrifices of the sacred horses to the gods of death to appease them in the underworld.
Another association is that both the sea and horses are wild and in order to ride the horses or the waves it is necessary to tame them. Such an interpretation was actually taken in Frozen 2 where the mythologcial roots of the Nokk were presented in s slightly different light. I wrote an article about the horse in Forzen 2 here.