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31 October, 2016

Where Fantasy Horses Come From

Hello there! I'm HareTrinity and this is my very first time writing for this site. The plan is for me to start posting reviews of non-Filly animated series, episodes, and films featuring prominent fantasy equines, but this first article will instead be about legendary horses.

Now, you're likely familiar with today's fantasy equines having horns and/or wings, but how much do you know about the mythology and folklore behind these creatures? Do you want to know about the gory origin of Pegasus or man-eating equines of legend?

Thank you, Magicas!

Join me after the page break for a brief overview of a few striking examples of legendary equines and, as I'm posting on Halloween night, expect some unfriendly horse beasts!

Let's start with one of the more benevolent equine characters in this list...


Pegasus is a winged horse from Greek mythology. He is not the only winged horse from mythology around the world (there is even the flightless example of the Turkic Tulpars), but Pegasus is by far the most famous. In fact, he's famous to the point that his name is regularly used to refer to winged horses as whole! From this we can sometimes see 'pegasi' being used (as a plural of Pegasus) to describe winged horses as a whole, a trend that may have started in the 1st century: Pliny the Elder mentions 'Pegasi', however he described these as horse-headed birds rather than bird-winged horses, so they may be different creatures entirely.1

Pegasus' name is also significant as named mythological horses tend to be ones that were used as mounts by legendary humanoids, and Pegasus is no exception, in some stories serving as a mount for the gods as well as the hero Bellerophon as he fought and defeated the chimera.

Those of you familiar with film adaptations of Greek myth are probably wondering where Hercules and Perseus are in this. Well, Hercules/Heracles is a famous Greek hero and gets paired with the iconic Pegasus simply because they're two well-known symbols of Greek mythology: in the actual myths, they do not meet. Perseus, on the other hand, while not someone who rode Pegasus in the myths, played a major part in the birth of Pegasus: when Perseus slew the Gorgon Medusa, Pegasus resulted from her blood (either springing from her severed neck or from the mingling of her blood on the ground).

There is more to be said of Pegasus, such as how Poseidon (god of the sea and horses) was his 'father' in an unclear and confusing manner that's particularly common in family trees of Greek myth, but we have other mythological horses to get to!

A flock of Zofi?


Unicorns! Pretty, single-horned, horses (sometimes especially deer-like horses) with strong associations with young women. These pointy-headed equines appear regularly in modern fantasy settings and are often portrayed as elegant and passive. It may be some surprise, then, to know that the unicorns first appear in 5th century accounts of natural history, not myths, and may well be strongly-influenced by rhinos.

Ancient bestiaries included a lot of strange creatures and many of their accounts of real animals were inaccurate. Add in other facts of 5th century bestiary history (e.g. illustrators who had never seen the animals and the strong influence of religious beliefs), and ancient bestiaries become bizarre lenses through which we can see even now-familiar creatures as alien. In the case of the unicorn, part of the confusion over its true form is its association with another entry in ancient bestiaries: the 'monocerus', a creature that most certainly is an old interpretation of a rhinoceros. If you go to this page you can see an old illustration of a distinctly unicorn-like 'monocerus' (rhino) and this description:

In those that consider them as different, the monocerus is usually described as having the head of a stag, the body of a horse, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single very long black horn growing from the forehead. It makes deep lowing sounds. It is the enemy of the elephant and when fighting it aims at the belly of its opponent.

However, as it says, not all sources treated the monocerus and unicorn as being the same beast, leaving the door open for alternative theories about what other real-life ungulates may have inspired the myth.

Rhinos or not, the legendary unicorns started off as strong, fierce, beasts: immensely difficult to kill or capture despite being regularly depicted as quite small animals (closer in size range to deers than horses). This steadfast reputation has made them popular as symbols, representing Scotland (in heraldry) and sometimes being used as an allegory for Jesus.

Some legends include that the unicorn can be temporarily tamed, and thus trapped or killed, with the help of a young woman, as the unicorn would be calm in their presence.2

One particular aspect of the unicorn is surrounded with myths of its own: the horn itself. The horn, made of a substance called 'alicorn', was associated with purification and other disease-preventing properties. Of course, many of the 'unicorn horns' actually bought were in fact narwhal tusks, including a Danish throne. Nowadays, while the association with healing has not left them entirely, unicorn horns are more associated with direct or miscellaneous, even aggressive, magical powers, while the word 'alicorn' has come to be associated with winged unicorns.

Unicorns themselves have come to be considered 'girly' (perhaps not too much of a deviation from old legends about them becoming tame around young women), though any ironic takes on this do, by chance, return the unicorns to their older, more rhino-like, nature.

As this animal originates from supposedly-true accounts, it is not connected to any particular myth, so I can do little with this section than recommend modern stories such as the classic animated film The Last Unicorn (1982)!

Loki, no, that pun is silly!


Before moving onto the man-eating equines, I'd like to take a bit of time to mention hippocampi (singular: hippocampus). Hippocampi are horses with the lower torso of a fish (the fish body often being long and curling). The word 'hippocampus' comes from 'horse' ('hippo') and 'sea monster' ('kampos'). Despite the obvious similarity to real-life seahorses (the genus of which is called 'Hippocampus'), hippocampi are not described as ordinary real-life creatures (as was the unicorn), but rather as fantastic beasts that may be seen pulling the chariot of Poseidon, god of the sea. Hippocampi are also used in decoration in many Roman mosaics, particularly if the building was associated with water, e.g. Roman bath houses.

Basically, hippocampi are cool-looking horse-beasts and are used in a similar way today if aquatic equines are wanted (though we're more likely to decorate our bathrooms with simplistic depictions of real-life seahorses).

There are fish-tailed horse beasts in mythology other than that of Greco-Roman culture, including the exciting Havhest of Norwegian mythology: an enormous horse-headed sea serpent with yellow eyes and a two rows of sharp teeth that supposedly breathed fire and sunk ships. There is a chance that the Greco-Roman hippocampi are connected to those of other cultures (the Roman Empire spread far and, before that the Greeks were notorious traders), but there are many mythological creatures from around the world that are fish-tailed versions of normal creatures, so it's also possible that the myths developed separately.

Jenny gets it.


Kelpies are creatures of Celtic mythology that appear to be tame horses in order to lure humans, especially children, into getting on their backs, at which point the kelpie will gallop into deep water and drown its victim. Deadly and deceptive, yet enticing: the kelpie is a good example of a fairly typical legendary water-based being. Rivers, oceans, and other bodies of water regularly attract legends warning of their risks, which is no surprise given the very real of drowning in such areas, even for those who can swim.

Some myths specify that the kelpie has a human form like various other water spirits, such as the selkie and swan maidens (who could appear as seals and swans, respectively). Unlike non-transforming water spirits, who tend to have stories only of death or close calls, those capable of transformation are much more prone to have romantic stories. The plot of these water spirit stories typically involves them becoming trapped in human form by a human who they then end up marrying (often with a happy marriage followed by a tragic ending as the non-human is accidentally 'set free'), and the kelpie versions seem to follow the same path (though there is at least one where the kelpie is trapped in horse-form until he truly loves his captor).

Myths vary a little on the appearance of the kelpie, no doubt thanks to other similar-yet-arguably-separate Celtic 'water horses'. Kelpies are usually they are described as all-black or all-white, and sometimes it is specified that they trap their riders by having sticky skin. Sometimes they can be recognised by being constantly wet, though at other times it's best to just be aware that a kelpie lives in the area. Ways to defeat or control them (vital to the romance stories) include taking their bridle or appealing to God.3

Particularly in modern interpretation, kelpies with no human form may still be depicted as having a 'true form', often that of a monstrous hippocampus. It must be noted, however, that this needn't be the case: true nature can be secret without the physical form being a lie.

  • For a typical (unromantic) kelpie story, go here: The Goblin Pony
  • For some beautiful artwork of creepy kelpie that transform into monsters, check out PorcelianDoll's DeviantArt (also includes a multi-part, dialogue-free, comic telling a kelpie story)
Zephyra and Splash, members of two of the Filly World's more mischievous families


Returning to Greek myth and this time including the legendary Heracles (AKA Hercules), as stealing these four mares was the eighth of his ten labours (tasks he had been forced to carry out as punishment).

In the myth, Heracles gets off to a good start with stealing the horses, and leaves them in the care of his good friend, Abderus, while he fights Diomedes, the giant they belonged to. When Heracles returns, he finds that his friend has been eaten by the mares, for these horses had a diet of human flesh. Heracles feeds Diomedes to the mares to calm them before returning with the horses victorious (albeit with one less friend). There are many variations on the myth, including some where the mares are able to breathe fire. The mares themselves do not always meet a happy end, though some versions have them 'cured' by eating their master, and they are left to peacefully roam the countryside.

Sadly these carnivorous horses count as an obscure myth, and it's hard to find any pages online that tell the story!

Uh, you DO think there's more wrong with their diet than their lack of variety, right, Melian?


Other horse-based monsters that are famous, Halloweeny, or both. I tried to limit this article to distinctly horse-like beasts while excluding famous mounts less iconic than Pegasus (e.g. Sleipnir, the mounts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), but there are other creatures, particularly those with human features, whose absence may be questioned, so I'll list them here:
  • Centaurs: Creatures with the upper torso of the body of a horse (upper torso connecting where a horse's neck would be). Often thought to be a misinterpretation or legendary take on the horse riders of Thessaly4, centaurs tend to be portrayed as barbaric and violent, though at least one exception can be found in the wise Chiron.
  • Sileni: Very much like a satyr but horse from the waist down rather than goat (though still having only two legs). Too rarely heard of, in my opinion!
  • Nuckelavee: This bizarre creature is what you might expect if horror game series Silent Hill featured a centaur! The nuckelavee is a skinless horse with an (also-skinless) upper torso of a human coming out of its back. Descriptions vary a little on extra physical features (none of them pleasant), and it is associated with plague, crop-failure, and other undesirable circumstances. How so few horror fans have heard of this demon remains a mystery!
  • Tikbalang: From Philippine folklore, a humanoid with a horse's head and eerily long limbs that likes to scare and play tricks on travellers.
  • Bicorn/Bigorne: Despite the 'Bicorn' take on the name seeming to imply a two-horned unicorn, these creatures are not actually at all horse-like. The Bigorne is a tiger/bull creature with a human face. It comes from a French Christian story, possibly a joke, about how the Bigorne feeds on good husbands, which are so plentiful that the creature is overweight, whereas its counterpart, the Chicheface, feeds on good wives, of which there are so few that the creature is emancipated. I imagine the joke is about how untrustworthy women are, but perhaps it makes sense to be untrustworthy if it means not getting eaten? 5
  • Kirin/Qilin: Again, not really horse-like. Modern interpretations have embraced it as an 'Asian unicorn', generally being depicted as a normal unicorn with elements of Asian dragons (e.g. scales), but you'll be hard-pressed to find any ancient art of this creature that doesn't depict it as a squat little dragon with cloven hooves. It often has two horns rather than one, too! Still, those reptilian horses can be pretty cool, so I personally don't mind.
  • Hippogriff: Do you know why you've never seen a real live hippogriff? Why, because horses and griffins hate each other, of course! Horses are either the favourite food of griffins, or else the two species have mutual disgust for each other, which is why the hippogriff is, quite uniquely, a mythological example of a creature that cannot exist.

...And there we have it! I hope anyone who made it through my first article found it interesting. What else is there to say?

Oh, right! Thanks, Tarot!

1 There is also the matter of the 'Ethiopian pegasi', also described by Pliny, but there appears to have been no real research into the exact wording used, so the translation may be misleading.
2 The young woman is usually called a 'virgin' (something regularly mocked if brought up in modern fantasy) but that word did not always carry the implication of sexual chastity that it has today, so I opted for a less confusing term.
3 Many Celtic myths became strongly influenced by Christianity.
4 'Taur' means 'bull' (as in Taurus and Minotaur) and Thessaly, where centaurs supposedly come from, was home to traditions of hunting bulls on horseback.
5 It's remarkably hard to find good English sources on this pair, so I prefer the French Wikipedia article!