Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Gypsy Gold Does Not Chink or Glitter: Fantastical Horses:

My post on the types of ‘so-called’ dragons and other fantastical reptilian creatures was well-received so I thought I’d do a series of posts devoted to the various traditional creatures of fantasy. If you missed it, please do stop by A Dragon By Any Other Name.

This is the second post of this series, devoted to fantastical equines of all kinds. I admitted to being a crazy dragon lady. I’m also a little bit of a crazy horse lady. Of course, it’s much easier for me to find a horse to ride than a dragon, although I think I would prefer the latter. Some of the horse’s fantasy cousins, though, are not so easy to find. 

So here are the equines of the fantasy world!

Gypsy Vanner

Yes, the good old horse often features in fantasy. It is a common means of transport, often the fastest short of magic. For some fantasy cultures, the horse is of pre-eminent importance. As the Claddagh Gypsies of Galway, Ireland, say "Gypsy gold does not chink and glitter...it gleams in the sun and neighs in the dark" and this is often true of many fantasy cultures as well. Check out this Gypsy Vanner horse! I. Want. Of course if I had one, it would need to be my gold because I would sure be poor. To import one of these to Australia will set you back about A$20,000. It’s a little cheaper to buy one here but we don’t have many breeders yet. 


Traditionally depicted as a horse’s body, with a spiralled ivory-type horn, hairy fetlocks, cloven feet, a beard and a lion’s tail. Surprisingly, it was very difficult to find a picture of this old-school type unicorn (hence the slightly cartoony image we have here). 

Traditional unicorn in the heraldic style
The unicorn has more recently morphed into a more typical horse, with a horn on its head. Sometimes the beard or the cloven hooves remain, and often the hairy fetlocks - after all, feathers on a horse’s feet are beautiful! Just check out the feathering on the Gypsy Vanner above! I wouldn’t want to be washing it though... The lion’s tail often seems to be ditched in favour of a more traditional horse’s tail. I suppose it makes the unicorn more aesthetically pleasing. 

Traditionally unicorns were always white, associated with purity and thus could only be lured by a virgin. These days you will often find black unicorns as well. I admit to being partial to this variety. Pretty…
Belief in unicorns was widespread among historians, alchemists, writers, poets, naturalists, physicians, and theologians until the 19th century. As such it was a part of their natural history and not mythology! It was described as an extremely wild woodland creature. 

Its horn, and the substance it was made of, is called alicorn and was said to have the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness. Alleged alicorns were probably the tusks of narwhals.

The unicorn is depicted in heraldry in its traditional form. It was popular from the 15th century. Though sometimes shown collared, it is more usually with a broken chain attached, showing that it has broken free from its bondage and cannot be taken again.

White and black unicorns feature in Terry Brooks’s ‘Kingdom of Landover’ series. 

More modern unicorn

A horse with wings. Also usually white but now also seen in other colours and varieties. I even found a paint Pegasus while looking for this picture. The fantasy pegasus is based on the Greek myth of Pegasus, who was a winged divine horse, usually white in colour. He was sired by Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, in his role as horse-god, and foaled by Medusa. Pegasus is a friend of the Muses – and perhaps, therefore, also a friend to writers? He can be my friend!

Pegasus was captured by the Greek hero, Bellerophon. Pegasus allows Bellerophon to ride him to defeat the Chimera (the subject of a later post). Later, while trying to reach Mount Olympus, Bellerophon falls off Pegasus’s back and Zeus transforms him into the constellation Pegasus. 

The plural of pegasus (in the fantasy context obviously, because there was only one Pegasus) is pegasi.

I have used pegasi in my book The Blood Infernal. They are in fact genetically corrupted horses. For the most part their wings are stunted and they are flightless. Pure horses have almost ceased to exist and their bloodlines are jealously guarded. The Rohmani (descendants of our Romany) have traded their gypsy horses for flighted pegasi and breed and own some of the most amazing flight-capable pegasi. 
Winged unicorn

Kind of self-explanatory. Typically modelled on the horse-like unicorn, not the heraldic unicorn. As far as I know this one has no mythical origins beyond the fact it is a fantastical hybrid of the mythical Pegasus and the unicorn. She-Ra, Princess of Power, rode Swift Wind, who was a flying unicorn. I desperately wanted one of these when I was a little girl!

Disturbingly, a Google search of ‘flying unicorn’ produced a search result I didn’t know, could have done without knowing, and which certainly isn’t suitable for this blog or any conversation involving children’s cartoons. 
Winged unicorn

A human/horse hybrid, featuring the body of a horse and a human from the waist up. The centaur is the subject of Greek and Roman mythology. The exact origins of the myth is unknown but the most common theory is that the idea of centausr originated when the Greeks, a non-riding culture first encountered nomads mounted on horses i.e. that to such a non-riding culture, horsemen would appear as a hybrid man/horse creature. A similar misapprehension by the Aztecs about Spanish horsemen has been historically reported. 
Male and female centaurs

Female centaurs appear later in Greek mythology. The proper term for a female centaur was Kentaurides and they rate a mention in Shakespeare’s King Lear. 
The starsign, Sagittarius the Archer, is represented as a centaur. When Chiron, the centaur, was mistakenly killed by Hercules, Zeus gave him this place among the stars. Centaurs feature in Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia. 

I have also used centaurs in my book The Blood Infernal. They live in an isolated forest and only appear to come in the female variety. I basically took the mermaid myth – often there are no mermen and mermaids capture sailors in order to make more mermaids – and used it with centaurs. There is a reason, being that it challenges the protagonist’s prudish ways and beliefs. 

While I don’t have as many unicorn statues as I have dragons, I admit to owning a few. People just seem to keep buying this stuff for me… Honest! Now I just need to add a Pegasus and a centaur….
The obligatory dragon...

You can find other posts in mythical creatures series here - DragonsCreatures of the Sky, Mythical Creatures of the Sea - Part 1 and Part 2, and Spirits of Inland Waterways

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P.I. Barrington said...


Jessa Slade said...

Don't forget the kelpie! Often appearing in the shape of a roaming black horse, the lake-dwelling kelpie would lure unsuspecting (and somewhat larcenous) folk onto its back and them freeze them there while it galloped back to its pond to drown its rider and eat the flesh.

My kelpie dog is much more cuddly but she loves horse kelpie stories :)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Ah, yes, the good old waterhorse.... I might cover this one under spirits. Also the related Each Uisge, which can transform into a beautiful man to lure women to their deaths. I do love the books of Cecelia Dart-Thornton which cover these myths and legends in great detail.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it :-)

Gina Leigh Maxwell said...

The Gypsy Vanner is beautiful! I love gigantic horses with furry fetlocks. :) Thanks for the wealth of information on the different fantasy horses.

And because I couldn't resist, I looked up 'flying unicorn' on Google and laughed hysterically. I like how the urban dictionary says that it "produces almost no pleasure" for either participant. Too funny.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I wondered if someone would Google it LOL. Yes I noticed the 'almost no pleasure' part too. It made me scratch my head. Why do it then? And hey, why did someone take the time to sit down and think this stuff up when they could have been doing something that produced more than 'almost no pleasure'?

I'm so in love with the Gypsy Vanner. They actually aren't that big, usually around 14 - 15hh high, they just have the look of a much bigger horse. They make great saddle horses. You'd really need to stable it though. Imagine washing it after a dirtbath?

Rosie Lane said...

I used to ride a skewbald (paint) vanner. Don't *talk* to me about the stable stains. World class. We sometimes had to chalk him if he was going out in public. I swear he knew the night before...

He was a sweetheart though, and felt like an armchair to ride. Helped the beginners not to fall off and then jumped and did basic dressage for me. Broke my heart a little bit when his riding school owner wouldn't part with him.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Oh shame! I know what you mean about stains though. My last horse was a skewbald Welsh pony, more white than black or brown. I'd brush him and brish him and brush him... you get the picture. I swear there was no dust but after getting back from a ride you find the dust you had missed is now sweaty mud. Keeping a white horse clean is so not worth the effort. As beautiful as the Vanner's are, I can't see myself ever getting one unless I can pay someone else to keep him clean *adds that to the list of things for when I'm a famous and wealthy author or when I win lotto, whichever comes first*

Jenny said...

So pretty!!! :D Love me some horsies! :)

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Shiny! :-)

Ms Kitty said...

I've got a black gelding who has never been clean. He wallows in mud like a pig. Patting him raises a dust cloud. He's got a winter coat as soft and thick as a cats. I call him 'my old rug.'

Ciara Ballintyne said...

He sounds absolutely beautiful! I'm currently horseless :-( Looking forward to getting another one after my next pregnancy.

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