Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, January 14, 2005

The Water-Horse

I remember hearing, however, years ago, a mention made of the Fomhoraigh, which, without conveying any definite allusion to their stature, associated them with subterranean places:--An undergraduate from the neighbourhood of Killorglin, in Kerry, happened to relate in my hearing, how, when he was exploring some underground rdths near his home, he was warned by his father's workmen to beware of the Fomhoraikh. But on the borders of the counties of Mayo and Sligo I have found the word used as in the Scottish Highlands, namely, in the sense of giants, while Dr. Douglas Hyde and others inform me that the Giant's Causeway is called in Irish Clochán na bh-Fomhorach.

The Goborchinns or Horse-heads have also an interest, not only in connexion with the Fornori, as when we read of a king of the latter called Eocha Eachcheann [t], or Eochy Horse-head, but also as a link between the Welsh afanc and the Highland water-horse, of whom Campbell has a good deal to say in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands. See more especially iv- 337, where he remarks among other things, that 'the water-horse assumes many shapes; he often appears as a man,' he adds, ' and sometimes as a large bird.' A page or two earlier he gives a story which illustrates the statement, at the same time that it vividly reminds one of that part of the Conwy legend which (p. 13o) represents the afanc resting his head on the lap of the damsel forming one of the dramatis persona,. Here follows Campbell's own story, omitting all about a marvellous bull, however, that was in the end to checkmate the water-horse:--

'A long time after these things a servant girl went with the farmer's herd of cattle to graze them at the side of a loch, and she sat herself down near the bank. There, in a little while, what should she see walking towards her but a man, who asked her to fasg his hair [Welsh lleua]. She said she was willing enough to do him that service, and so he laid his head on her knee, and she began to array his locks, as Neapolitan damsels also do by their swains. But soon she got a great fright, for growing amongst the man's hair, she found a great quantity of liobhagach an locha, a certain slimy green weed [u] that abounds in such lochs, fresh, salt, and brackish. The girl knew that if she screamed there was an end of her, so she kept her terror to herself, and worked away till the man fell asleep as he was with his head on her knee. Then she untied her apron strings, and slid the apron quietly on to the ground with its burden upon it, and then she took her feet home as fast as it was in her heart [v] . Now when she was getting near the houses, she gave a glance behind her, and there she saw her caraid (friend) coming after her in the likeness of a horse'.

-- John Rhys, Celtic Folklore, Welsh And Manx (1901)


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