Iceland shares a belief in kelpies with several other northern countries like Scotland, Ireland, Norway and the Faeroe Islands. These are malevolent water creatures that most usually take the form of a gray horse that has its hooves and withers on backwards. The horse is docile, even friendly, until mounted. Once someone has mounted a kelpie, they can not get off again (some say touching it is enough to get stuck) and the kelpie will take the helpless rider into its lake with it and eat them. Most stories about kelpies are of this nature – someone usually gets eaten and someone escapes – so I decided to tell a different kind of kelpie tale:
Once upon a time a group of farmers were at work restoring the wall around their parish church in rural Iceland. Early one morning they were all at work except one old man who was a loner and not very convivial company due to his bad temper. It was mid-day before he appeared, leading a grey horse. The other men scolded him over his lateness, but he paid them no heed and simply asked what job they would have him do.
Because he had a horse with him, he was assigned to the group that was to bring building material for the wall, which he gladly accepted. The grey horse was bad-tempered and attacked the other pack horses, kicking and biting until they all ran away. The men were unhappy with this and decided to give him a heavier load to calm him down, but it was to no avail. The horse carried twice as much as before and still kicked and bit. The old man then loaded the horse with everything that the whole herd of pack horses had carried before, and then the horse stayed calm.
In this manner he brought the whole of the building materials needed for the restoration of the wall. When this was done, the old man removed the horse’s halter, but hit the horse over the rump with the reins as he released it. The horse didn’t like this at all and kicked the new wall with both hind legs so hard that a section of the wall fell away, and then it ran off.
The last that was seen of the horse was that it ran straight to a nearby lake and dived into it, and everyone agreed that it had been a kelpie. The breach in the wall could not be repaired because it would fall down again and again. Finally the problem was solved by using it as a gate.
A little more on kelpies:
A way to test if an apparent horse was a kelpie was to say ‘nykur’, ‘nennir’ or ‘naddi’ to it, but these are the Icelandic terms for a kelpie. A kelpie would take fright upon hearing its name and return to its watery home as fast as possible.
The cracking sounds of ice breaking on lakes and rivers is supposed to be the kelpie neighing.
Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.