“It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.” (The Scorpio Races, 1)
Going into a book “blind” is a fun experience. It’s a mystery between two covers, wrapped up in countless words and pages. One is unbiased, unhindered neither by hype — for good or ill — nor by “buzzwords” or perceptions. One just gets the mysterious map and decides for oneself whether the journey is interesting, the destination satisfying.
I went into The Scorpio Races blind. This award-winning novel by Maggie Stiefvater tells the story of a fictional horse race that takes place every year on the island of Thisby, where the mounts involved in this contest are mythical, carnivorous horses from the water that are equal parts dangerous and breathtakingly gorgeous.
And that’s all I knew when I went into the book for myself in 2014. I’d picked up the audiobook from my library because, having already listened to the available books in her Raven Cycle quartet, I knew Stiefvater’s writing possessed a musical quality to it that made listening to her novels even better than reading. Rather like how poetry can be appreciated when read, but the rhythm and metre should be experienced in a spoken-word format.
I dove headfirst into this world for however many hours and did not resurface until I had finished. I loved it, but this is not a review of The Scorpio Races — this is me telling you that I completely misread its mythology…and yet, in my head at least, it all still worked.
“These are not ordinary horses. Drape then with charms, hide them from the sea, but today, on the beach: Do not turn your back.” (TSR, 2)
The mythological inspiration for The Scorpio Races comes from Scottish folktales of the kelpie, a shapeshifting water spirit that was usually described as adopting the form of a beautiful black horse. The kelpie lived in the lochs of Scotland, preying on any humans it encountered, leading to it often being referred to as some kind of demon.
In Stiefvater’s novel, the water horses are called capaill uisce (pronounced: “CAPple ISHka”) which, of course, I only learned how to spell after the fact when I finally bought the novel. When first listening to The Scorpio Races, I imagined the word looking something more like this: kapalishka.
This is why I’m not in linguistics. As you’ve probably guessed, I went into The Scorpio Races with the complete image of a Greek-inspired world. You would think that, even listening, the name, capaill uisce, would have set off alarm bells in my head to clue me in that my imagination was a little off.
Why didn’t it, though?
This is a question that bothers me only because, in the 20/20 of hindsight, it should have been obvious that I was in the mythological wrong. I knew that Maggie Stiefvater had a history with the folklore of the British Isles from her Raven Cycle, which deals with the medieval Welsh king, Owain Glyndŵr; and the theme music for the Scorpio audiobook, composed and performed by Stiefvater, exudes a notably non-Hellenic musical slant.
And, yet, my mind perfectly accepted the idea of a Hellenic-based, mythological horse race until the audiobook moved into an author’s note from Maggie Stiefvater and illusion was shattered in the following paragraph:
“There were rather a lot of variations: a Manx version called glashtin; Irish versions called capall uisge, cabyll ushtey, and augh-iskey; Scottish versions called each uisge and kelpies.” (TSR, 406)
I’ll be straight: I don’t know much — read: anything — about Scottish and Celtic myth. My specialty lies in the world of the Classical: the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Had I known anything about Scottish lore, I’d have realized that one of the potential etymological origins of kelpie may have been the Gaelic word: calpa or cailpeach. Or I might have even known of the cabyll-ushte, the name itself meaning “water horse.”
But, no, I had a Hellenic mythological slant because, you know what? They had mythical horses too, especially mythical water horses.
“τὴν δὲ Δήμητρα τεκεῖν φασιν ἐκ τοῦ Ποσειδῶνοςθυγατέρα, ἧς τὸ ὄνομα ἐς ἀτελέστους λέγειν οὐ νομίζουσι, καὶἵππον τὸν Ἀρείονα: ἐπὶ τούτῳ δὲ παρὰ σφίσιν Ἀρκάδων πρώτοιςἽππιον Ποσειδῶνα ὀνομασθῆναι.” (Description of Greece, VIII)
“Demeter, they say, had by Poseidon a daughter, whose name they are not wont to divulge to the uninitiated, and a horse called Areion. For this reason they say that they were the first Arcadians to call Poseidon Horse.”
In Greek mythology, the horse is a creature of the sea, linked particularly with Poseidon (Ποσειδῶν) — in fact, one of his most well-known epithets was Poseidon Hippios (Ποσειδῶν ἵππιος), coming from ἵππος (hippos), the Greek word for horse.
In the tamest version of the myths, it is said to have been crafted by Poseidon form the breaking waves of his dominion. Other versions of the “horse origin” myth contain a far more overt sexual component, with Poseidon literally as the father of horses whether it be by spilling his seed on a rock, or by mating with a creature who then gave birth to the first horse.
There is also, famously a water horse called the hippokampos (Ἱπποκαμπος), a combination of the words ἵππος (hippos) and κάμπος (monster). These sea-horses, which in Hellenistic and Roman mythology drew Posedon’s great chariot, were depicted as having the head and fore-parts of a horse and the serpentine tail of a fish. Quintus Smyrnaeus wrote of them as:
“τοῖς δ᾽ ἔπι κυδιόων μετὰ κήτεσιν εἰναλίοισιν ἤσκητ᾽ Ἐννοσίγαιος: ἀελλόποδες δέ μιν ἵπποι ὡς ἐτεὸν σπεύδοντες ὑπὲρ πόντοιο φέρεσκον χρυσείῃ μάστιγι πεπληγότες: ἀμφὶ δὲ κῦμα στόρνυτ᾽ ἐπεσσυμένων, ὁμαλὴ δ᾽ ἄρα πρόσθεγαλήνη ἔπλετο: τοὶ δ᾽ ἑκάτερθεν ἀολλέες ἀμφὶς ἄνακτα ἀγρόμενοι δελφῖνες ἀπειρέσιον κεχάροντο σαίνοντες βασιλῆα, κατ᾽ ἠερόεν δ᾽ ἁλὸς οἶδμα νηχομένοις εἴδοντο καὶ ἀργύρεοί περ ἐόντες.”
“And there [depicted on the shield of Akhilleus] triumphant the Earth-shaker [Poseidon] rode amid Ketea: stormy-footed steeds [Hippokampoi] drew him, and seemed alive, as o’er the deep they raced, oft smitten by the golden whip. Around their path of flight the waves fell smooth, and all before them was unrippled calm. Dolphins on either hand about their king swarmed, in wild rapture of homage bowing backs, and seemed like live things o’er the hazy sea swimming, albeit all of silver wrought.” (The Fall of Troy, V)
These mounts, to be fair, are not what I imagined when listening to Stiefvater’s capaill uisce, but it certainly contributed to my misreading of the novel’s mythological origin. That and, of course, two very specific myths related to notable, otherworldly horses: Herakles‘ (Ἡρακλῆς) labour involving the man-eating horses of Diomedes (Διομήδης) and the chariot race between Pelops (Πέλοψ) and Oinomaos (Οἱνόμαος) for the hand of the latter’s daughter, Hippodameia (Ἱπποδάμεια).
“τεθρίππων τ᾽ ἐπέβα καὶ ψαλίοις ἐδάμασε πώλους Διομήδεος, αἳ φονίαισι φάτναις ἀχάλιν᾽ ἐθόα- ζον κάθαιμα σῖτα γένυσι, χαρμοναῖσιν ἀνδροβρῶσι δυστράπεζοι.”
“[Herakles] mounted on a chariot and tamed with the bit the horses of Diomedes, that greedily champed their bloody food at gory mangers with unbridled jaws, devouring with hideous joy the flesh of men.” (Herakles, 380)
Despite what Disney would have you believe, Herakles, the half-wild and near-savage hero, did not ever ride the Pegasos (Πήγασος). He was, however, for one of his twelve labours, ordered by his cousin King Eurystheus (Εὐρυσθεύς) — via Hera (Ἥρᾱ) — to steal the four man-eating mares of the giant, Diomedes. At the time, the hero did not know that the horses, Podargos, Lampon, Xanthos, and Deinos, were kept perpetually tethered to a bronze manger because of their wild madness, attributed to their diet of human flesh. Some versions of the myth take this even further to say that they exhaled fire upon their breath. But the message is clear: they’re man-eating and uncontrollable. Ultimately the labour ends with Herakles feeding Diomedes to his own horses, who are then tamed as a result of consuming the master who founded their own madness.
The capaill uisce of Stiefvater’s novel are not only carnivorous, but can also turn into man-eaters as a result of their desires for flesh. One of the two narrators of The Scorpio Races describes the effect the water horses have upon her home island:
“Friends would miss school because an uisce horse had killed their dog overnight. Dad would have to drive around a ruined carcss on the way to Skarmouth, evidence of where a water horse and a land horse had gotten into a fight. The bells of St. Columba’s would ring midday for the funeral of a fisherman caught unawares on the shores.” (TSR, 14)
This is but a single, early example as The Scorpio Races is littered with further examples of the savagery of the uisce, whether it be mutilated sheep carcasses, injuries to people on the island, and even descriptions of the uisce devouring their own. The ferocity of the uisce is part of the thrill and danger of participating in the Scorpio Race.
And speaking of a dangerous race involving mythical horses of the sea…
“For no horses on Earth could outrun the horses of Ares.” (D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths)
Pelops is known for many things in Greek myth, but one of his most famous moments came when he traveled to seek the hand of Hippodameia from her father, King Oinomaos. It was a tricky business, however, as Oinomaos feared a prophecy that claimed he would be killed by his son-in-law; as a result, he had actually killed the eighteen previous suitors of Hippodameia after defeating them in a chariot race. Because he was a son of Ares (Ἄρης), the Greek god of war, Oinomaos was not only an expert charioteer, but also possessed mythic horses that were a gift from his father.
As he was a man blessed by the Olympians — they did, after all, put him back together after his father hacked him to pieces to be served as an entree — Pelops too had a team of mythic horses, though his were from his former lover, Poseidon. While the outcome of the race is the same, there are two best-known differing accounts as to the details of the race itself. Theopompos (Θεόπομπος) wrote that Pelops won the race entirely of his own merit, though receiving some sort of otherworldly support from his recently-deceased charioteer Sphaeros, whom he buried in spectacular fashion. I’m not entirely sure how this all worked out, but spirits were a powerful force in Greek mythology, so I suppose this works.
The other, and probably more well-known, account of this chariot race involves Pelops going to Myrtilos (Μυρτίλος) — who was not only Oinomaos’ charioteer, but a divine son of Hermes (Ἑρμῆς) — to help him win. Myrtilos agreed and, the night before the race, replaced the bronze linchpins attaching the wheels to Oinomaos’ chariot axle with false ones made of beeswax. Therefore, at the race the following day, just as Oinomaos closed in on Pelops, the wax melted, the wheels flew off, and the chariot broke apart. Oinomaos was dragged to death by his mythic horses; Myrtilos survived, but was later killed by Pelops after attempting to rape Hippodameia. There is, as always, so much more that follow sin this story, but it’s not exactly necessary here, so I’ll just leave it at that.
When we finally reach the titular event of Stiefvater’s novel, we are treated fifteen-something pages of raw, adrenaline-filled racing. Horses drag riders into the waves; one man takes out a knife and starts slashing at protagonists other riders; limbs are broken; and, all in all, it’s a heart-stopping experience. People cheat, the mythic horses fight the call of their own natures and, in the end, there are people dead. It’s not identical in any way to the Pelopian chariot race, but my brain could not help but think of it: they’re both tales of high-stakes horse races with violent, tragic ends that reflect the lengths to which people will go to achieve an end goal.
“I am so, so alive.” (TSR, 2)
So, yes, I completely misinterpreted the mythological origins and inspiration of The Scorpio Races and yet, despite all this, I managed to understand what the mythology brought to the story regardless. The capaill uisce are just an element of magical realism within what is, ultimately, a tale of determination, self-will, and the many forms of bravery.
The myths are there for what they say about humanity: what is it that we fear? We fear that which is beyond our control; it is, after all, rather difficult to control a mythic water horse. It is the eternal struggle of man versus nature and even man versus self. Not only are the capaill uisce the manifestations of the sea — wild, crashing and devouring one moment, then calm the next — but of the wild urges within man.
When let loose, these passions and more primal tendencies are beautiful and powerful; yet, when unchecked and unbalanced, can wreak complete havoc and bring out man at its worst, and its most vicious. As Stiefvater says in her novel, “[The Scorpio Races and the horses are] life and it’s death or it’s both, and there’s nothing like it.”