Artist Walter Crane was greatly influenced by Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites. His painting The Horses of Neptune is an iconic image depicting the power of the sea. The god Neptune charges forward with his horses, who boldly rise from the waves. There’s not a specific narrative that I know of, but Neptune has long been associated with horses and (as Poseidon) was described in Homer’s Iliad:
Down Poseidon dove and yoked his bronze-hoofed horses
onto his battle-car, his pair that raced the wind
with their golden manes streaming on behind them,
and strapping the golden armor round his body,
seized his whip that coils lithe and gold
and boarded his chariot launching up and out,
skimming the waves, and over the swells they came,
dolphins leaving their lairs to sport across his wake,
leaping left and right—well they knew their lord.
And the sea heaved in joy, cleaving a path for him
and the team flew on in a blurring burst of speed,
the bronze axle under the war-car never flecked with foam,
the stallions vaulting, speeding Poseidon toward Achaea’s fleet.–Homer, The Iliad, Book XIII
Instead of hooves, their feet are webbed which indicates they are probably the mythical sea-horses known as hippocamps or hippocampus. Hippocamps appear in Greek, Roman, and Etruscan mythology, but they also are seen in Scotland and Ireland as kelpies, which are similar to the hippocamp.
I saw the The Last Unicorn in theaters when it was released in 1982. I was seven years old and it has always seemed to be a part of my life. When I look at Crane’s painting, I can not help but think of the missing unicorns, trapped in the water, rising majestically on the waves as they are freed. Even if you have seen the movie a million times, I encourage you to read Peter S. Beagle’s book. It’s beautiful.
I think the first movie in The Lord of the Rings franchise reminds people of Crane’s painting as well. In The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson depicts Arwen conjuring up the flood that stops the Ringwraiths from pursuing her and the injured Frodo. As the water rises, it takes the form of vigilant horses that bear down upon the Ringwraiths. In Tolkein’s book, however, Elrond created the flood in the beginning of the War of the Ring, which also took the form of horses.
At that moment there came a roaring and a rushing: a noise of loud waters rolling many stones. Dimly Frodo saw the river below him rise, and down along its course there came a plumed cavalry of waves. White flames seemed to Frodo to flicker on their crests and he half fancied that he saw amid the water white riders upon white horses with frothing manes. The three Riders that were still in the midst of the Ford were overwhelmed: they disappeared, buried suddenly under angry foam. –The Fellowship of the Ring, LoTR Book 1, Ch 12, Flight to the Ford
In Scottish lore, a kelpie is a shape-shifting water spirit that often takes the form of a horse. In Herbert James Draper’s 1913 painting, the kelpie appears as a human.
And, of course, there’s these famous kelpies:
“Over the mountains, And over the waves, Over the fountains, And under the graves; Over the floods that are deepest, Which do Neptune obey; Over the rocks that are steepest, Love will find out the way.”–Thomas Percy