Horses in folklore

This appeared in the North Clare Local in March…

The White Horse of Uffington (via Wikimedia Commons)

The White Horse of Uffington (via Wikimedia Commons)

Of all the animals that humans have domesticated, none has had more impact than the horse. Dogs guarded the homestead and were used for hunting; cats kept away pests and protected stores. However, just like a car does today, a horse represented freedom and independence. These gentle, strong animals have been part of human life for thousands of years. There is definite evidence that horses were being used by humans on the steppes of Eurasia more than 5,500 years ago.

There is evidence that horses were worshipped as gods in the early Bronze Age, but details are hard to ascertain as it was simply so long ago. A horse goddess called Epona was believed to have been revered by the ancient Gauls in France. Her name is Roman in origin and there is scant evidence that she was on the radar before the Roman invasion.

The Welsh had Rhiannon. This queen goddess was usually pictured with horses, even though she is not technically a horse goddess. And yes, the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name is inspired by the Welsh deity; Stevie Nicks was inspired by a novel on Celtic mythology.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

In England, there is an ancient structure, the White Horse of Uffington, carved into the land in the county of Oxfordshire. It was dug into the hillside and filled in with chalk at some point in the Bronze Age. This magnificent site is indication that horse worship was common across Europe.

Classical mythology created endless combinations of horse-like creatures. Horses have long been associated with the sea, and the Greeks believed the first horse was created by Poseidon himself out of sea foam.

The god of the ocean is often depicted with hippocampuses by his side- horses with fishtails. The hippocampus also represents the four winds- east, west, north and south. The Greeks also believed in the lusty, unpleasant centaur (a man with the lower body of a horse) and winged horses. Pegasus, the most famous example of the latter, was the son of Poseidon and Medusa. Legend says that he and his brother sprung from the remains of Medusa when Perseus lopped off her snaky head.

Neptune (Poseidon) with his sea-horses (via Wikimedia Commons)

Neptune (Poseidon) with his sea-horses (via Wikimedia Commons)

But what of our own beliefs? The Irish have long had a love of horses. Not for nothing are we considered among the best at the world at horse-breeding. Horses feature prominently in Irish myth.

Aonbharr was the horse of the sea god, Manannan Mac Lir. Like his Greek equivalents, this horse was equally at home on land or sea. His preternatural speed and strength set him apart from mortal horses.

Cú Chulainn was given two supernatural horses by the Morrigan. These beasts, which appeared in a pool of water, could not be tamed, but the famed hero drove them all over Ireland and eventually managed to break them in.

The tale of Oisin in Tir na nÓg is one of the most famous Irish legends. Niamh, the fair maiden who tempts Oisin away to the land of eternal youth, is described in vivid detail as is her horse, a white steed. It is this magical horse that takes Oisin back to Ireland many years later. Despite Niamh’s strict instructions to dismount, he falls. Once he is off the horse, he ages 300 years and dies.

Domenichino, Virgin and Unicorn, (working under Annibale Carracci), Fresco, 1604 – 1605 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Domenichino, Virgin and Unicorn, (working under Annibale Carracci), Fresco, 1604 – 1605 (via Wikimedia Commons)

It is not only in Ireland that white horses are considered magical. Some believe that the lady at Banbury Cross, on her white horse, in the lovely old British nursery rhyme is in fact Rhiannon.

In the Bible, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse sits atop a ‘pale horse’. This horseman is Death, and while white is often associated with purity and innocence, this ties in well with the colour’s Eastern associations with death.

Aquarelle by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1837 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Aquarelle by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, 1837 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Not all horse beliefs are positive. As horse worship is very ancient, it has become corrupted and sinister down through the ages. Old gods get a little ticked off at being replaced.

Some folklorists believe the púca is a remnant of horse worship. Likewise, the dullahan, or headless horseman, is a frightening death omen. If the dullahan calls a specific name, that unfortunate person’s goose is cooked. The headless rider can be appeased with a gift of gold tossed in his path.

Variants of the headless rider are found across Europe, including the Wild Hunt, which can be seen in the night sky. The belief spread across the Atlantic, where it was picked up by Washington Irving for his short story, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.

Before we gallop away, just a little note on the word ‘nightmare’. While Rhiannon was associated with crossroads and bad dreams as well as horses, the ‘mare’ refers to an old, old Anglo-Saxon goblin believed to cause nasty visions, not a female horse.

Until next month, where I will discuss the changeling.

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