Tag Archives: mythology

Fantasy Horses – Gypsy Gold Does Not Chink or Glitter

Fantasy 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 notchink 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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A Dragon By Any Other Name

Are you a draconic purist? Do you firmly believe that a dragon has certain qualities and if it doesn’t it’s not a dragon? Or do you subscribe to close enough is good enough? If it has scales, wings and breathes fire (or not) it’s a dragon, no matter what you call it?

I admit to being a purist. And a pretty rabid one at that. When I first saw the ‘dragon’ in the Harry Potter movies, I waxed lyrical about the fact that it was not in fact a dragon at all but a wyvern. My friends still remember it to this day. I was disappointed that such a big budget movie couldn’t get the detail right. It made no difference to the story which depiction was used, but apart from being a purist, I am also a perfectionist with an eye for detail. How much more effort would it have taken to get it right? None, I am sure. It was just ignorance or laziness. And if it was ignorance, then someone (whoever was responsible for that particular piece of imagery) needs to learn more about the genre they are working in.

Some of the ‘dragons’ in ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ were also wyverns (of the variety modelled after pterosaurs – that is, they use their wings to substitute for front limbs). The movie was hilarious enough for me to overlook it, particularly as the main dragon was a proper dragon with four legs.  

A pterosaur-type wyvern ‘dragon’ from ‘How to Train Your Dragon’
So are you nodding your agreement? Or are you thinking ‘This chick is a bit of a nutjob’.

If it’s the latter, you’re probably also thinking ‘Doesn’t she realise dragons aren’t real? It’s made up! It can look like whatever we want it to look like!’

Well yes… and no.

Dragons are not real and if this comes as news to you, then you’re a little more whacked than I am. But the body of mythology from which they originate and the body of literature that has grown up around them is very real.

In fact, if you search Wikipedia, you will find this reference:

“Dragons are usually shown in modern times with a body like a huge lizard, or a snake with two pairs of lizard-type legs, and able to emit fire from their mouths. The European dragon has bat-type wings growing from its back. A dragon-like creature with no front legs is known as a wyvern.”
Ah, yes, the wyvern. That’s what we see in Harry Potter. A wyvern. Thank you, Wikipedia, for being as much a purist as I am.

You’ll also notice the Wikipedia reference talks about European dragons. That is the typical type of dragon we find in the fantasy genre. I am not here discussing Chinese dragons, which are an entirely different type of beast.

So now we have dragons and wyverns. What about the multiple-headed dragon? Can’t we just call it a two-headed dragon? Or a seven-headed dragon?

No, actually, that also has a name! We call it a ‘hydra’, although typically a hydra has three, seven or nine heads. Typically, severing one of its heads causes two more to grow. Nasty! The hydra originates from the Greek legend of Heracles. In that tale, Heracles defeated the hydra by severing the hydra’s one mortal head, thus killing it. Of course, finding that one vulnerable head in a writhing nest of poison-spitting, fanged mouths would be no easy task. Presumably Heracles thought so too. He solved this problem by severing each head in turn and burning the stump of each neck (with fire, or the beast’s own poisonous blood – there are two versions) to prevent them growing back. Process of elimination! Brilliant…

If you’re a purist, you probably already know this. If you don’t, maybe it’s news for you. Here’s some pictures to help you out!
A typical dragon. It has four legs, bat-like wings and is scaled. It probably breathes fire.This picture helpfully has a person drawn in to give us scale
A wyvern. Notice it has only two legs? This mythological reptile is more bird-shaped than a dragon.Typically they are much smaller than dragons (being an inferior cousin). It isn’t usually much more than twice a man’s height, or a quarter the size of the dragon (above)
A hydra. Less commonly depicted than dragons or wyverns. This one has seven heads, one of the ‘typical’ numbers associated with hydras. They are sometimes but not always depicted with wings.
So, do you believe a dragon by any other name is still a dragon?

Or are you a purist who will cite the various qualities of the different species at the slightest hint of a debate?

Put another way, are you with me or against me?

Share your thoughts!

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

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to check out my previous posts if you haven’t already. If you’re finding yourself here often, you might like to join as a member, sign up to the blog through RSS or email, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Don’t forget to share the love and spread the word on Twitter, Facebook or StumbleUpon (or other social networking site of your choice) if you know other people who might also enjoy this.

Thanks for stopping by and visiting with us!