The horse has featured in myth and legend from the earliest times. Equine representation in Palaeolithic art has been interpreted as indicating shamanistic practice, and horses are common in the folklore and mythology of Europe and Asia (the natural habitat of the horse). Lore and myth concerning the horse will be briefly overviewed, not as a thorough treatise but more as a superficial surf, considering points of interest. The essential features of the horse in mythical tradition, abstracted from a range of sources, can be summarised as: travel, flight, soul journeying and transcendence, protection, communication, stamina, power, wisdom and faithfulness.
The horse played a significant part in native shamanism of Asiatic peoples. Here the white horse was the most sacred (a common theme to societies of proto-Indo-European origin). The horse was used as a psychopomp, to transport the shaman to mediate with souls of the dead and to return messages from the other world to the living. Ritual has been well documented by Eliade (1964). The shaman’s drum, used to assist attainment of the altered state of consciousness, was often referred to as “the horse”, and other props used to reach the ecstatic state included a symbolic horse in the form of a horse headed stick (a possible precursor of the witches broomstick). Some shamanic ritual involved horse sacrifice (although Eliade considers the shaman was not primarily a sacrificer), stylised sacrifice or symbolic presence of the horse, for example the burning of horsehair or sitting on a horse hide. Shamanic practice with equine involvement has been noted throughout Asia, and also from North America. In an interesting reversal of Asiatic shamanism, the Haitian shaman is said to be the horse ridden by the possessing spirits (Bourguignon 1989). Shamanism has survived in its original form to modern times and Lintrop (1998) reports on Tubyaku Kosterkin, one of the last Nganasan shamans of Siberia. Kosterkin invokes the “iron” horse Mikulushka as one of his spirit helpers, which claimed to represent soviet power and support official business. Through the horse, the shaman purported to be able to directly act upon the state and its development. Horses are also represented in surviving Korean shamanism, in which the arrival of spirits is associated with the sound of horses’ hooves (Gittings 1999). Although the Korean ritual has developed in a different direction to that of Siberia, both can be traced to a common origin some 2,000 years ago.
Bronze Age Greek culture attributed the horse with drawing the sun chariot across the sky. White horses were sacred to Neptune, and were sacrificed into the sea at Rhodes as an offering to the sun god, the sun apparently setting below the sea. Pegasus, the winged horse, is taken to be the source of poetic inspiration – the Hippocrene (horse spring) created where he struck the ground with a forefoot gave the gift of verse to those who partook of its waters. Pegasus also provided the gods with rapid transport between worlds. Centaurs from the east (and probably their Chinese counterparts, the Ting Ling from the west) may have developed from early contact with the nomadic horsemen of the Asian steppes. Centaurs were endowed with great wisdom and learning, but also showed a warlike nature. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks and although the horse played little role in their mythology, Tacitus records the sacrifice of the “October Horse” as an appeasement to the war god Mars (Adam 1825). Neither Greeks nor Romans were proficient equestrian peoples, nor did they depend upon the horse for military supremacy, and this may account for the minimal significance attributed to the horse in their religion.
Celtic peoples developed a horse-based society, and as such were dependent upon the horse for their success through Europe. This is reflected in the fundamental and enduring role given to the horse in Celtic mythology. Epona, a triple aspect goddess, was the protectress of the horse and horse keepers; she was paralleled by the Irish Macha and Welsh Rhiannon (Powell 1958). Epona’s aspects included warfare, fertility, life cycle and protection and she is also attributed with concern for guidance of the soul to the afterlife. Epona has been hypothesised as evolving from a water fertility goddess, and certainly she has a clear iconographical link with water (Green 1989). There is a continuous association between horses and water from Greek marine sacrifices through to the Kelpies and Each Uisge (water horses) of recent Scottish folklore. Tacitus noted in the 1st century that Germanic Celtic priests considered horses to understand the will of the gods more clearly than man and so could reveal divine secrets. The legendary horse was available for travel to other realms (e.g. the horse of Mannan MacLir could travel over land and water and between realms with equal ease). The Celtic horse was associated with fertility and vitality; white, black and red (chestnut?) horses were especially sacred to the Celts and deemed to have supernatural abilities. Under Roman influence, the Celtic horse became associated with the sun, war, and healing, and war, sky and sun gods of the Gauls are depicted mounted on horseback. Although little is known of these deities, their association with the horse has been hypothesised to be a reflection of the importance of the horse in war, religion and the economy. The horse was crucial to the Celts for military power, as well as for prestige, civilian economy and ritual. The secular importance of the horse endowed it with reverence, sanctity and supernatural powers, and it was admired for beauty, strength, speed and sexual vigour (Green 1989).
Scandinavian culture likewise attached great importance to the horse as a means of transport and warfare. Bronze Age Scandinavians associated the horse with the journeying sun, as clearly indicated by the model of a bronze horse drawing a gold plated sun disc found at Trundholm in Denmark. Solar and lunar significance prevailed, with Skinfaxi and Hrimfaxi drawing the sun and moon across the sky respectively and so being responsible for the continuity of solar and lunar cycles. Sleipnir, the 8-legged mount of Odin was considered to be the universal traveller, able to carry his rider over land and water, and to Hel and back. Lug’s steed Aenbarr had similar abilities and also carried a charm so the rider could never be killed whilst on her back. Sleipnir has been hypothesised to represent a coffin with four pallbearers (8 legs), thus becoming an archetypal equine psychopomp (McLaughlin 1997). This is perhaps the source of the later mediaeval Christian name for a bier, St. Michael’s Horse, St. Michael being the main guide for the discarnate human soul (Naddair 1987), an equivalent to Odin. The Valkyries retrieved the souls of dead slain in battle and transported them to Valhalla on horseback. Scandinavian gods were able to shapeshift, as Loki metamorphosed into a mare to conceive and give birth to Sleipnir. The 10th century Icelandic Egil’s Saga records the use of a horse head on a pole inscribed with appropriate runes (a nidstang) to channel a curse on an enemy. The pole directed the destructive forces of the goddess Hel, and the use of the rune ehwas was significant as the horse was sacred to Odin, god of runes and magic.
Origins of horse whispering can be seen in Celtic belief and in the more recent “horseman’s word”, a magic word which if uttered gave one power over horses, and with claim going back to Pictish Britain. This concept reached its culmination at the latter end of the 19th century with the formation of the “Secret Society of the Horseman’s Word”, prevalent down the north-eastern side of Britain. The word was such a closely guarded secret that if it existed it was never divulged, and the society’s rituals also remain vague (only passed on through esoteric oral tradition), though it is still rumoured to exist. Little information is available on this group, although McKerracher (1987) published a general, if somewhat imaginative account. It might be considered that the society was less of a mystical group with ancient powers as adherents publicly claimed, but simply an early attempt at trade unionism. Modern horse owners still tend to the belief that there may be a magical word that will give power over horses, and observe that some people do indeed appear to have better control over horses than others without apparently doing anything different (though this is more likely to be due to other factors than magic).
Adam, A., 1825, Roman Antiquities: An account of the manners and customs of the Romans, Longman, Hurst and Co., London.
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