by Charles Reis
On my recent trip to Wales, I learned it’s a region not only rich with history and natural beauty, but also with folklore. Tales such as the lake monster Afanc and the ghostly dog Gwyllgi were told throughout the countryside, but the most fascinating tale concerned the Ceffyl Dwr, or the Water Horse.
These magical steeds were believed to inhabit mountain pools and the seaside, but it seemed that their favorite spots were waterfalls. Considering the geography of Wales, this made for a lot of places for the Ceffyl Dwr to be found. Their descriptions and attributes varied depending on the region, such as some areas portraying them as being dark colored with fiery eyes, while other areas had them as being luminous with wings. However, the most common physical trait was that their hooves were facing in the opposite direction. Being that they were magical creatures, they had the ability to transform themselves into other things, such as frogs, mist, or even a human.
Many of stories about the Ceffyl Dwr portrayed them as simple pranksters. In one such tale, a tired traveler in the Vale of Neath (which is located in south Wales) was resting by a waterfall when one of these horses emerged from it. As it snorted and tossed it’s mane, the traveler was tempted to ride it, so he approach the horse. The creature didn’t run, but instead it let the traveler mounted him, and they rode off. Initially, the traveler enjoyed the ride. However, by observing passing landmarks he started to notice that they were traveling at a very fast speed. When he looked down, he saw that the horse was floating in the air. As he panicked, the horse vanished and the traveler was sent crashing to the ground. When he regained his composure, the traveler discovered he was in a town called Llanddewi Brefi, which was miles away from where he was originally.
On the other hand, some stories portrayed them as being violent, which was especially true in stories from North Wales. In one such tale from 19th-century Rhondda in southern Wales, a man came across a Ceffyl Dwr who had just transformed into a squirrel. It then jumped onto the man’s back and started squeezing his throat, causing the man to gasp for air. Though the creature let go and disappeared, the man was never the same. He contracted an illness that he never recovered from, suffering with it for two years before he died.
Though the horses were often found near fresh water, some stories had them living near salt water. While both versions were generally the same, the salt water versions had different colors, being either brown or gray. In one story concerning this type of Ceffyl Dwr, a farmer on the shores of Ceredigion in central Wales had captured one of these horses by using a well-crafted bridal. According to legend, using a bridal on the horse allowed a person to control it. Once he succeeded in doing so, he started using it as a cart horse. For a long time, he successfully used the horse for his personal gain until one day, the bridal came undone. This resulted in the horse running free and it headed right into the sea, dragging the farmer and his cart into the water. They were never to be seen again.
So, do these mystical water horses exist? During my journey throughout Wales, I paid a visit to several waterfalls, including Swallow Falls and The Devil’s Bridge Falls. I quickly discovered that staring at these natural wonders can be very hypnotic. The longer I stared at the falling water, the more I started seeing various images (pareidolia), including horses. This is especially true when staring at the plunge pool. So, this made me wonder if the origins of the Ceffyl Dwr was good old fashion pareidolia, and that overtime it grew into mythology.
Whether it’s fact or fiction, the Ceffyl Dwr is a part of Welsh culture and history. If you go on a trip to Wales, do enjoy the natural wonders, ancient castles, and great seafood of this land. But, you should also keep a look out through the corner of your eye… you never know what you might see!