“You can lead a horse to water…”

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany.

1stC BCE coin of the Redones of NW Gaul, now Brittany. In the coins of this tribe, the female rider is usually armed.

…When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream…. George Waldron – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ 1731 – legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’.

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

A Pre-Raphaelite Tehi-Tegi

The image of the horse is a striking symbol on Celtic coins of the late European Iron Age, all the more so when depicted ridden by a naked warrior woman, as was the case during times of war with the encroaching Roman empire – both in central-eastern and north-western Europe. The question is – what was the importance of the horse to this culture, such that it was depicted on almost all of its various tribes’ coinage? We know from the writings of the Romans that the Atlantic/western Celtic peoples’ main religious doctrines were based around the principle of reincarnation. However, after subjugating and then ‘Romanising’ them, there is little more said about their beliefs as they seemed no longer to be relevant. The Celtic religious system seemingly incorporated into the Roman pantheon but in a marginal way that gave no precedence over Rome’s greater gods: Statues and stelae of a horse-goddess ‘Epona’ seems to have been one popular expression of native religion, but the original context is not understood. The Batavians (Belgic celts) who built the 3rdC CE temple of the well-goddess ‘Coventina’ at Hadrian’s Wall in England were a cavalry unit – surely a shrine to Epona would have had greater precedence if there was an actual ‘horse goddess’? Perhaps to the Batavians, the well-goddess was the same person as the ‘horse goddess’! To understand this imagery of the divine female and the horse we need to examine how she was represented both before, and after Romanisation. Surviving images of Epona from Romanised Celtic shrines generally portray her as a gentle beneficient figure, conveying pateras of food and cornucopias. When contrasted with the coin imagery of the pre-conquest tribes however, and it immediately becomes clear that there is a clear distinction in imagery: In these, she is a fierce naked horsewoman-warrior, armed for the job of butchering Romans! Of course, once conquered, the Romans put an end to these images and the coins stopped being minted. The cult of ‘Epona’ was therefore probably a deliberate attempt to corrupt an important core tenet. She went from this:

More coins from the Redones tribe

More coins from the Redones tribe

To this…

Cuddly mother Epona - the original would have bought your head on a plate, not food!

Cuddly mother Epona – the original would have brought your head on a plate, not food!

The ‘Tehi-Tegi’ legend from the Isle of Man is perhaps the most overt survival (maybe matched by some Cliodhna legends of Ireland) of the ‘death-dealing horsewoman’ that the Iron Age celts were so enamoured of, but the principle has survived in many other forms. Most notable of these are the folktales of the fairy horse who kills people that try and ride it by jumping into water. Be it the Neck, Nykyr, Nixies or Rhinemaidens of the German and Scandinavian legends or the Kelpie of the Scots myths: all are related the same belief – a woman who conducts the dead to a realm under water. When we examine the fairy lays of the middle ages (Lai de Graelent, Lai de Lanval) we can see that the beautiful ‘fairy woman’ ends up conducting the tragic hero to a deathless realm through water. No wonder so many early Christian saints such as Kentigern spent their days mortifying themselves in water! The Germanic words used for the water-horse-spirit generally revolve around the word-root ‘nik-‘ – from a presumed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) neigw which means ‘wash’ – from which the Irish have nigh and in folklore the fairy washerwoman, the Bean nighe. The most famous portrayal of a Bean nighe in medieval Irish literature is that of the Morrigan washing bloody armour at a ford in the death tale of Cuchullain – part of the Ulster cycle. The Scots word ‘Kelpie’ is an allusion to what is also known in the gaelic world as ‘wrack’ (seaweed) which is also the Brythonic word for ‘hag’ – Gwrach or Groac’h. Martin Martin recovered a tale of Hebridean islanders in the 17thC sacrificing to a sea-god called ‘Shony’ (‘Old One’) in order to receive wrack from the sea to spread on their crops as manure. So there you have it – the military horsewoman on the Celtic coins is the Slachdan-weilding Cailleach – the Morrigan herself: The water woman of the fairy realm – otherwise known as the realm of the dead. The question now remaining to be answered is how does the horse fit in with the general reincarnation/otherworld myth? You might recall from my last post that I remarked upon the profusion of apparently astronomical imagery that accompanied the horse depicted on Celtic coins from before the Roman subjugation. Apart from the sun and the moon and obvious star-shaped figures, there are frequently dot-and-line figures with an uncanny similarity to what astronomers refer to as ‘asterisms’. The horse itself is also very stylised in its appearance, and the logical place to start in understanding the importance of the horse is to turn our eyes to the sky: The most well-known equine asterism is the great constellation of Pegasus which sits next to the Milky Way. We immediately have here an interesting combination: The Milky Way arches across the sky like a great shining white river – nowadays difficult to see clearly due to light pollution, and the great leaping horse in conjunction with this is a remarkable metaphor of the Kelpie, Nixie and Tehi-Tegi legends. However, in terms of Greek mythology, Pegasus represents the horse as a benign force, but with a very aquatic pedigree – his father is Poseidon, his mother Medusa, he is a friend of the Muses and created a magical well for them with his hooves. He is also a conveyor of heroes into the spirit realm. Already sounding like many Celtic myths, isn’t it? The Muses of course represented the ‘fairy-woman’ function of inspiring poets, keeping memory and promoting knowledge to humanity… The other less-benign and more overtly aquatic asterism that sits close to Pegasus on the other (‘southern’) side of the ecliptic path is that of Cetus variably described as a sea monster or whale. In Greek mythology Cetus/Ketos was sent by Poseidon to devour the sacrificially-chained Andromeda, and was killed by the Pegasus-riding hero Perseus who showed it the head of Medusa. Ketos in fact means any large aquatic beast, in the same way that the  old Germanic languages used variants of ‘neck’ to mean the same: nicor was the Old English term used for a water beast or a hippopotamus*, and the Old High German word nihhus was used for ‘crocodile’. As a ‘*water horse’ is what we are interested in, the constellation of Cetus seems like it is worth considering further: The constellation Cetus lies in such close proximity to the ecliptic path (the road travelled by the Sun, Moon and planets in the sky, marked by the 12 zodiacal constellations) that it seems that it should be considered a 13th ‘intercalary’ member of the zodiac. Its proximity to the asterism of Pisces is intimate enough that they can be considered in the same ‘house’. Cetus is in close proximity to the other ‘watery’ constellations: Aquarius and Capricorn (the fish-goat), the ‘river’ Eridanus and the dolphin Delphinus.

Cetus in relation to Pisces - picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Cetus in relation to Pisces – picture borrowed from blackholes.stardate.org

Now we know that the celtic high-priests were reputed to be philosophers and diviners of the heavens, so we might conjecture that celtic coins portrayed astronomical imagery. Having been puzzled by the potential relationship between the horse depicted on those famously beautiful Iron Age coins and that of Pegasus, I initially overlooked one of the motifs that accompanied it – that of the ‘tented net’ depicted on the Celtic Parisii coins. Looking eastward of Pegasus we come immediately to Pisces and Cetus – and the symbolism of the coins is made immediately clear – the horse is not a depiction of Pegasus – it is in fact Cetus, the ‘water horse’, with the net being Pisces! If this interpretation is correct, then a lost celtic star-myth has been recovered, together suggesting some potential original celtic names for their asterisms: ‘the water horse’ and ‘the net’!

Compare the stylised horse's body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

Compare the stylised horse’s body to the shape of the Cetus asterism

So… is there anything special about Cetus? As it turns out , there is – a star on the beast’s ‘neck’ known to us today as Mira Ceti: ‘Mira’ as in ‘mirabilis’ on account of this star’s seemingly miraculous appearance and disappearance from the constellation! It is actually a binary star whose conjunctions and occlusions are responsible for this effect, causing it to reach a maximum brightness every 332 days (approximately 11 months) when it is definitely visible (unless the sun is transitting near it if it falls in early springtime) and invisible to the naked-eye astronomer during its minima. Although there are no definite references to this phenomena in ancient Babylonian or Greek texts, an excavation of a 3rdC BCE Boii temple complex at Libenece in the Czech Republic contains sighting post allignments which possibly correspond to a viewing of Cetus, and (concludes the author of this astronomy paper), Mira Ceti in particular. The other star which famously exhibits this quality of variable intensity is ‘nearby’ in the constellation Perseus – Algol, the gorgon’s eye – whose period of dimming is much more regular – every 2.867 days, to be precise. The coming and going of a star might have been a metaphor for the coming and going of the year – of the sun. The cycles of ‘coming and going’ appear to have been a fundamental theme for the religious viewpoint of metempsychosis, and hence a great deal of attention would have been paid to the natural phenomena in which this was shown: These were – the cycles of the sun, the moon, the seasons and the tides. The principle that the heavens represented the world of spirits pervaded the ancient mindset, and the use of mythology to explain the heavens and their phenomena was a key part of this understanding. The image of the horse and the chariot convey mythological implications of the mysteries of the sun – the Greek legend of Phaethon, son of Helios/Apollo, who took his dad’s sports chariot for a spin with disastrous consequences attests to this. Most of ancient mythology was quite possibly designed to explain the cycles of nature in relation to the cycle of events witnessed in both the sky and on Earth and in the oceans – something which became lost in the Christian age…

Tehi Tegi

Some time between 1720 and 1730, a young Englishman by the name of George Waldron was living in the Isle of Man, employed as a trade commissioner for the British government who were trying to supress smuggling in the Irish Sea region. Fascinated by the strange history and wild ancient beliefs of the islanders he began compiling a book – ‘A Description of the Isle of Man’ – which provided one of the earliest pieces of indigenous ethnography and folklore writing from Britain and Ireland. This was published shortly after his untimely death in 1731:

WaldronIOMCoverThe book was famously used as source material by romantic authors of the next century, most notably Sir Walter Scott, who employed some of the Island’s fairy tales and legends to embellish historical stories such as Peveril of the Peak. In the book, Waldron related one particular popular local tale of the Manx taken from the popular pseudo-historical narrative tradition:


A person at his first coming to this Island, would be strangely amazed at the little complaisance they pay to the: weaker sex: the men riding always to market on horseback with their creels on each side their horses full of fowls, butter, eggs, or whatever they bring thither to dispose of, and the women following them on foot over rocks, mountains, bogs, sloughs,   and thro’ very deep rivers, and all this without either shoes or stockings’ carrying, these superfluous coverings, as they term them, under their arms till they come near the market-town; then they sit down all together on the side of a hill,   and put them on for fashion sake, and let down their petticoats also, which before were tucked up higher than their knees’   for the convenience of wading thro’ the rivers, and to preserve them from the mire of the bogs and sloughs.

But the reason for obliging the females to this hardship, is a very whimsical one, and such a one, as I believe, cannot but afford some diversion to my curious reader, I shall therefore insert it in the manner it was told me by an old native, to whom it had been handed down from many generations as an undoubted verity.

He told me that a famous enchantress sojourning in this Island, but in what year he was ignorant, had, by her diabolical arts, made herself appear so lovely in the eyes of men, that she ensnared the hearts of as many as beheld her. The passion they had for her so took up all their hearts that they entirely neglected their usual occupations; they neither Flowed nor sowed; neither built houses nor repaired them; their gardens were all overgrown with weeds, and their once fertile fields were covered with stones; their cattle died for want of pasture, their turf lay in the Bowels of the earth undug for; and every thing had the appearance of an utter desolation: even propagation ceased, for no man could have the least inclination for any woman but this universal charmer, who smiled on them, permitted them to follow and admire her, and gave every one leave to hope himself would be at last the happy he.

When she had thus allured the male part of the Island, she pretended one day to go a progress through the provinces, and being attended by all her adorers on foot, while she rode on a milk-white palfrey, in a kind of triumph at the head of them: she led them into a deep river, which by her art she made seem passable; and when they were all come a good way in it, she caused a sudden wind to rise, which driving the waters in such abundance to one place, swallowed up the poor lovers to the number of six hundred in their tumultuous waves. After which, the sorceress was seen by some persons who stood on the shore to convert herself into a bat, and fly through the air till she was out of sight; as did her palfrey into a sea-hog or porpoise, and instantly plunged itself to the bottom of the stream.

To prevent any such like accident for the future, these wise people have ordained their women to go on foot, and follow wheresoever their lords the men shall lead; and this custom is so religiously observed, as indeed all their traditions are, that if by chance a woman is before, whoever sees her, cries out immediately, Tehi-Tegi! Tehi-Tegi ! which, it seems, was the name of that enchantress which occasioned this law among them.

The essence of the legend of ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is of a magical female in times past (the usual narrative subtext for a pagan goddess) whose beauty leads an enslaved army of Manx men on a procession ‘through the provinces’ and then to a river or to the sea (the legend has a certain plasticity) where they are drowned and taken by the waters. The tale contains strong elements of the old Scots legends of Kelpies and the related Scando-Germanic Nixies or Necks – usually portrayed as beautiful women who transform into horses and drown men in rivers or in the ocean. The root word of Nix apparently means ‘wash’, and this probably relates to the fairy washer-women who pepper folk-tales in the Isle of Man, Scotland and Ireland as well as further afield. It is also related to the Mermaid traditions, of which the Isle of Man has a rich share. The theme is of a transforming feminine force, related somehow to horses, which steals men’s lives by conveying them into water. The Manx also call their own local Kelpie the Cabbal Ushtey or Water Horse, or the Glashtyn – ‘Grey One’. There is even a pool on the Island called Nikkesons showing the Viking input to the legendary heritage of the place.

However, ‘Tehi-Tegi’ is also a tale bearing strong similarities to that of Nerthus in Tacitus’ Germania from the 1stC CE. In Waldron’s tale, the ‘Enchantress’ rides a white horse rather than travelling in a wain or waggon, but the parallels are striking: The procession ‘through the provinces’ led by a potent ancient ‘magical’ female, and the drowning of the enslaved at the conclusion of the account… There are also echoes in the medieval story of the Ratcatcher or Piper of Hamelin in Germany. It therefore appears that it might represent a little fragment of pagan belief cast in legend!

The name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ means ‘Fair Chooser’ (Tei is the Manx verb ‘to pick, gather, collect’, Teg is a Brythonic Gaelic word meaning ‘fair’ or ‘beautiful’, placing the origin of the name in the island far back in time). The meaning of the name ‘Tehi-Tegi’ and the description of her as an enchantress mark her as a pagan deitypreserved in a fairy tale. Curious details include her final transformation into a flying creature bring to mind an otherworld-transition; She becomes a bat in Waldron’s version, and but more usually a wren in other local versions, linking ‘Tehi-Tegi’ firmly to the annual Wren Hunt held on St Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26th) on the Island and in former times, elsewhere. Here are some examples of this:

Legends of the north, or The feudal Christmas; a poem By Henry Rolls (mrs.), Pub Simpkin & Marshall London 1825, pp.269-270

The wren is still regarded by the Manx people as possessing supernatural intelligence. They say that when St Maghull (Ed: Maughold – the Manx ‘Saint’) came to the island and converted it to Christianity he banished all the fairies but their queen who assumed the form of a wren in which she at times still appears and that if in that shape she can be killed her power will cease for ever. They hate this bird but fear to destroy it as some dire calamity will befall the person and all his family who effects the destruction of the reign of the fairies in Man.


From: History of the Isle of Man, by Hannah Bullock; Pub. Longman, London, 1819. (Chapter 19):

….one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year’s Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy…

Tehi-Tegi’s white horse (possibly representing the moon which controls the tides) becomes a porpoise and swims away at the end of Waldron’s version of the tale – redolent of the scene in the Voyage of Bran when Manannan introduces the transition to the otherworld and the horses galloping alongside him appear as fish!

The tale probably survived in its traditional form because it also acted as a metaphor where Tehi-Tegi IS the sea – drawing the Manxmen away from agriculture and into the trades of the sea: fishing, commerce and piracy! The Manx rural economy as far back as records go has been supported by its menfolk going to sea during the herring fishing season in order to increase food stocks of winter food and provide cash money to supplement the income from agricultural surplus. It was a dangerous trade, and a law of 1610 limited the fishery to operate only between midsummer and the end of December, meaning that the start of harvest crossed over with that of the fishery, offering some Manxmen a quandary between going to sea and working the land. Either way the womenfolk must have been anxious – both about the danger, and the lack of male help on the farmstead close to harvest… This perhaps provides a social aspect to the legend as told to Waldron, crackling as it is with gender politics.

So who might this ‘enchantress’ or ‘Fair Chooser’ have been? She appears in the legend and by her name to operate as a psychopomp or conductor of souls of the dead. She also represents the ‘otherworld attractor’ qualities of Love and Beauty that typifies fairy legends. She also has a particular association with the rivers and the ocean, and with horses, marine life and flying creatures. The Manx tales state ‘Tehi-Tegi’ was Queen of the Fairies, and there is a similar account from Ireland, naming the Fairy Queen Cliodhna as the protagonist who is annually transformed into a Wren. She is more usually associated with the Tonn Cliodhna – a powerful tidal surge in the neck of Glandore Harbour, Co.Cork. Local legends held her to be a daughter of ‘Manannnan’s druid’. Manannan is also associated with the Tonn Banks off Co. Donegal, which also have Cailleach legends associated with them.

That some of these attributes could be associated with the Scandinavian Vanir goddess Freyja (and her Father:Mother (N)Jörð) is perhaps unsurprising as the Islanders are a genetic combination of Viking and Celtic settlers whose folklore preserves many of the old pagan ideas. Freyja was described in Snorri‘s 13thC Icelandic ‘Prose Edda’ tale – Gylfaginning as having the choice of ‘half of the slain’ in battle, the other half going to Odin. He uses the kenning Valfreyja – ‘Lady of the Fallen’ – a function certainly being carried out by Tehi-Tegi. One of the other kenning-names used by Snorri was Mardöll, possibly meaning ‘Image of the Sea’ (Mar and a contraction of the Lat in/Greek word (e)idola, which entered Germanic languages and Manx at an early stage).

Freyja was supposed to have had a ‘cloak of feathers’ which could transform the wearer into a bird, much in the manner of the jǫtunn Þjazi, to whom some legends have her being grand-daughter. Apart from the connection of Tehi-Tegi with the bat or wren, another Manx legend – of a giant magical female called Caillagh ny Groamagh who comes from the sea in the form of a bird on February 1st (or March 25th – the tradition is confused) to search for firewood/build her nest back on land. The dating of ‘Caillagh ny Groamagh’s Day’ coincides with that of the day of St Bridget, which is also the Celtic/Atlantic festival of Imbolc. The similarity between the Manx name for Bridget: Vreeshey or Breeshey (the terminal -ey in Manx is pronounced ‘-a’, as Vreesha‘) and the name Freyja is very intriguing. One wonders if they might be related? And is the Manx name for the Isle of Man – Vannin or Mannin – related to the tribe of the Vanir? We know that many of the Scandinavians who settled Iceland and who preserved many of the old Eddaic legends were connected strongly to the Viking kingdoms of Dublin and the Isle of Man.

It is possible that regional alliance and cultural and population mobility between the northern European peoples during the Iron Age led to a syncresis between Western and Eastern forms of paganism which led to the combined Aesir and Vanir traditions recorded and described by the (Christian) Icelanders during the 13thC. Alternatively, the Scandinavian and Germanic religions may be the survival of un-Romanised, un-Christianised Celtic paganism, albeit altered through a prolonged interaction with these cultures before the final Christianisation began in the 10th and 11th centuries.