After the Bronze Age: The Horse by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 167-172.

The horse continues to be a symbol of great religious significance throughout the pagan period. Once more there is a dearth of evidence in the centuries following the Bronze Age, and strong emphasis again on the once popular symbol in the Migration period in Scandinavia. The importance of the horse to the Celts in the Roman period, however, is undoubted, and horses are found as attributes of a divine male couple in Gaul, ad of the goddess Epona (‘Divine Horse’) in particular; Epona has also dog and bird attributes, and may have been one of a set of three deities (Ross, pp. 321 ff.). It may be noted that a horse with wings and a beak appears on the Gundestrup bowl, as well as the more normal steeds ridden by warriors.

Gundestrup Images08.Plate aa
A horse with wings, a so called “Pegasus”, is below the man on the right.

There is archaeological evidence for horse sacrifice on a large scale in Sweden in the Migration period. At the cult centre of Skedemose on the island of Öland, for instance, the remains of a great number of horses have been found, some cut up as if for sacrificial feasts. One one of the gold horns from Gallehus, dated about A.D. 500, there are scenes from what appears to be a horse sacrifice, including the figure of a priest or priestess carrying a horn, which might hold the blood of the slain animal (Fig. 73; Davidson, 1967, pp. 86-7). Horse-racing and horse-fighting probably formed part of this cult (Gjessing, 1945, pp. 30-46). We read of horse-races in Beowulf, and of warriors on horseback riding round the hero’s burial mound for the last rites in his honour, while horse-fighting is described in a number of Icelandic sagas. Horse-races were held on the second day of Yule in Norway up to about a century ago, and, according to a Norwegian bishop writing in 1618, the horses were set to bite one another in pairs, and if they fought lustily it was believed that the crops would be good. Horse-racing was also popular among the Celts, and was represented as one of the pastimes of the happy Other World (Ross, p. 327).

Fig. 73. Chariot of the Sun

On the memorial stone from Häggeby in Sweden two horses are shown facing one another and apparently being urged on to fight by the men standing behind them (Pl. 6). There are horses too on memorial stones and bracteates of the Migration period, tending to be fantastic in shape and to have a strange, bird-like look, like those on the Häggeby stone. One of the small Gotland stones, dated by Lindqvist to about A.D. 600, has two horses facing one another, as on the Kivik slab (Fig. 80). The ritual importance of both the race and the fight was probably due to the fact that the victorious horse would be the one chosen for sacrifice.

Fig. 80. Chariot of the SunMore evidence for horse sacrifice comes from the discovery of animal remains in graves. Horses are buried in a number of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, sometimes in separate graves and sometimes in separate graves and sometimes beside the dead man.1 Similarly on the Continent there were many horse burials in the Merovingian period, both single and multiple examples; one grave at Bekum, Westphalia, had as many as twenty-six horses. In Alamannic cemeteries the horse was often laid at the foot of the dead, sometimes beheaded, and there was a horse’s head in the grave of a chieftain at Douvrend, and also in the tomb of Childeric I at Tournai (Salin, pp. 24-25). Rows of horses, some beheaded, have been found in great ship-burials from the seventh century onwards at Vendel, Valsgärde (Uppland), Oseberg, Gokstad (Vestfold) and Ladby (Denmark); there are horse burials also in both men’s and women’s graves in Iceland, where sometimes the head only is found. An eye-witness account by an observer of the tenth century at the funeral of one of the chief men of the Rus, Swedish settlers on the Volga, describes how two horses were made to gallop until they were in a sweat, and then cut to pieces and thrown onto the ship which was to serve as a funeral pyre. This is in agreement with more recent examples of horse sacrifice among various Asiatic peoples, particularly the Mongols, and it appears that the object of making the horses gallop was to ensure that the life and energy of the animals were at their highest point at the moment of death (Boyle, p. 207). Thus again in the Viking Age we find horse and ship associated with funeral ritual.

Three separate aspects of the horse sacrifice have survived in the literature. First we have accounts of the communal meeting together when men feasted on the flesh of sacrificial horses in honour of the gods, as described in the saga of Hakon the Good in Snorri’s Heimskringla, which is known to be based on earlier sagas and poems. This tenth-century king of Norway has been converted to Christianity, but his change of faith was most unpopular with his heathen subjects, and there is an account of a ‘blood offering’ in which he was forced to take part. This took place in the autumn at Lade near Trondheim, and the people demanded that the king should sacrifice for them according to custom, for good seasons and peace. It was evidently essential that he should eat the cooked horseflesh at the feast on the second day, but as a Christian he felt unable to do this, or to drink the broth; however, he was finally persuaded to open his mouth over the cauldron in which the meat was cooked. Insistence on this point may seem surprising, but it is to be assumed that the cauldron contained the blood of the sacrificed animal, and that it was this which the men wanted the king to drink. At the next sacrifice, at Yule, Hakon consented to eat a piece of horse liver, and to drink from bowls in honour of the gods, and here again the drink may have been of blood as well as of mead. The importance of the king’s full participation in the sacrificial rite helps to explain the strong prejudice against the eating of horses in Britain. In the ritual killing of the white mare in the account by Giraldus Cambrensis (p. 91 above), said to be practised by a clan in Ulster, the king had to bathe in the animal’s broth, eat the flesh and drink some of the liquid as part of his coronation ceremony (Ross, p. 325).

Secondly, there are accounts of the killing of a horse and the setting up of the body, or the head alone, on a pole, as an insult or a hostile spell against an enemy . these occur in several Icelandic sagas, and also in Saxo Grammaticus’ twelfth-century history of the Danes. The practice may be paralleled from accounts of sacrifices among Asiatic peoples, and linked with that of hanging up the sacrificed animal in a tree, as was said to have been done at the heathen temple at Old Uppsala in the tenth century. There are traces of this tradition of raising the head on a pole continuing in England in later times, particularly in the Hooset  Hunt, when the head of a horse formed part of ‘rough music’, a demonstration used as a sign of hostile criticism of those whose behaviour had shocked their neighbours.

Thirdly, a broadly comic story preserved in the fourteenth-century Flateyjarbók, where it is loosely connected with the saga of Olaf the Holy, tells of a family of peasants who treasured the genital organ of a horse killed on their farm, calling it Völsi, and passing it round the hall while they spoke verses in its honour. To make sense, this story must poke at the horse cult against which the kings of Norway battled after their conversion. All these glimpses of pagan rites connected with the horse in Scandinavia emphasize the link between the sacrificed animal and the fertility of the land, for the raising of the horse’s head on a pole was said to be done in order to arouse the hostility of the land spirits against the enemy.

In a rather different category are the horse and rider associated with the cult of Odin, god of magic and the dead. A man on a horse is shown on the top panels of stones of the Viking Age in Gotland, replacing the sun-disk of the Migration period, and it seems that he represents the dead man arriving in the Other World. There must be a link with Odin in these scenes, since on three of the stones the horse has eight legs (Fig. 81), corresponding with descriptions of Odin’s horse Sleipnir in the literature. The rider may be Odin himself, visiting the land of the dead, or the dead man borne by Sleipnir to Valhalla. A horseman appears also on some memorial stones from the Swedish mainland, and on one from Altuna is shown approaching a gate with a figure standing behind it, which is in agreement with references in the literature to the gate of the dead, passed by those riding down to Hel (Davidson, 1967, p. 129). It is possible that the single horse buried with a dead man was provided for his journey to the Other World. The horse was regarded by the Celts also as a means of travel to the land of the dead (Ross, p. 328).

Fig. 81. Chariot of the Sun

There is some reason to believe that at least two of the famous hill figures surviving in England up to recent times were associated with the pagan gods of the Anglo-Saxons. The characteristic Celtic style of the White Horse on the Downs at Uffington in Berkshire has been shown to be misleading, because of the tendency of such figures to move upwards as the chalk surface of the hill crumbles, with consequent distortion of their shape. Mrs. Diana Woolner, who has found earlier outlines of horses below the present one, argues for an Anglo-Saxon origin for this hill figure (Woolner, pp. 90-111). Of particular interest in view of this is the Red Horse of Tysoe, which used to be scoured every spring, and whose appearance before its destruction in 1800 has been reconstructed from aerial photographs (Miller and Carrdus). If these are reliable, the animal was nearly 100 yards and 70 yards high. The name Tysoe is believed to have been derived from that of the god Tiw (ON Tyr), known as Tiwaz among the Germanic peoples, and his association with a horse cut on a hill and renewed every spring would be significant in the light of the Bronze Age symbolism.

In the literary sources, horses are definitely associated with the Vanir, and with the god Freyr in particular. In Heimskringla horses are said to be sacrificed at Freyr’s temples in Norway, and when Olaf Tryggvason is described as dragging the figures of Freyr and Thorgerd Hǫlgabrúðr at the tail of a horse, he seems to be deliberately parodying their connection with the horse cult. According to Hrafnkels Saga, it was customary to dedicate a living horse to Freyr, which no man was permitted to ride. The plot of the story hinges on this, and the sacred horse is a stallion with a stud of mares. It is probable that the custom of dedicating a live animal to a god in this way meant that it was ultimately designed for sacrifice.

Folk customs show that the horse symbol remained potent long after the close of the pagan period. The hobby-horse plays an important part in various local ceremonies and dances still surviving in England and in a number of European countries (Alford). Sometimes it is linked with mummers’ plays and sometimes it comes on afterwards or alone. Traditional mating scenes are sometimes part of these ceremonies, and it is probable that these are very ancient rather than crude innovations grafted onto once respectable plays. In elaborate forms surviving in Balkan countries the horse is sometimes castrated, and a wooden phallus introduced, offering a possible clue to the Völsi tradition referred to above. The skull of a horse fixed to a pole, with a sheet to conceal the man carrying it, has also survived in parts of England and Wales up to recent times, and in many parts of Europe.

The study of the horse cult is complicated by links not only with Celtic practices, but also with customs recorded in south-eastern Europe and the Steppe, while there is an elaborate parallel in the horse sacrifice performed by the Brahmins to promote fertility and good seasons (Campbell, pp. 191-7). Here the mating symbolism between the queen and the dead stallion has a remarkable resemblance to that between king and mare described by Giraldus Cambrensis (p. 91 above). It is difficult to say how far the horse cult in Scandinavia has been influenced by new ideas during the later heathen period, but at least there is abundant evidence for the importance of the horse as a symbol throughout pagan times.

It is more difficult to find the horse used as a symbol of the travelling sun, although the horses of the gods travel over earth and sea. In the Edda poems there is a reference to two horses drawing the sun’s chariot, called  Árvakr and Alsviðr (Early-Waker and All-Strong). There is a cryptic statement about the gods fitting something under their shoulders, which Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century interprets as bellows to cool them from the sun’s heat. There is also a reference to two chariots crossing the heavens, one that of Day, drawn by the horse Shining Mane, and the other that of Night, who has the horse Frost Mane. light streams from the mane of Day’s horse, while dew falls into the valleys from the name of the steed of Night, according to the poem Vafþruðnismál. Thus the journey of the sun forms part of the esoteric lore of the gods preserved in the Edda poems. There is also the tradition of Skirnir, whose identity is not clear, but whose name indicates brightness, who was sent on Freyr’s special steed and girded with his sword in order to ride down to the underworld and woo the maiden Gerd for the god, in the poem Skírnismál.

Picture stone from Tjängvide, Alskog Parish, Gotland, Sweden.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s