A litle extracurricular reading - Horses as Symbolism

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A litle extracurricular reading - Horses as Symbolism

Unread postby DeppInTheHeartOfTexas » Sat Feb 17, 2007 11:50 am

I would like to thank one of our Noodlemantras for sending me this information on the symbolism of horses. I think you all will find some really fascinating connections to TPAOL!

The Horse

A belief, firmly seated in folk memory throughout the world, associates the horse in the beginning of time with darkness and with the chthonian (of or relating to the underworld) world from which it sprang, cantering, like blood pulsating in the veins, out of the bowels of the Earth or from the depths of the sea. This archetypal horse was the mysterious child of darkness and carrier of both of death and of life, linked as it was to the destructive yet triumphant powers of fire and to the nurturing yet suffocating powers of water. The multitude of symbolic roles which the horse displays derives from that complexity of meaning attaching to all major lunar figures, when imagination associates by analogy Earth, as the mother-figure, with her planet the Moon, water with sexuality, dreams with divination and plant life with its seasonal renewal.

Analysts, too, have made the horse a symbol of ‘unconscious psychosis’ or of the ‘non-human psyche’ (JUNA p312), an archetypal neighbour of the ‘Mother, the world-memory’, or even of time, since it is linked to the ‘major natural clocks’ (DURS p 72); or yet again of the onrush of desire’ (DIES p 305). Day, however, follows night and, in the process, the horse steps out of the darkness from which it came and rises aloft to the very skies, caparisoned in light. Majestically robed in white, the horse is no longer a lunar figure from the Underworld, but a sky or solar creature in the land of kindly gods and heroes – another factor to enlarge the scope of its symbolic meaning. This white, celestial horse stands for the control, mastery and sublimation of the instincts and according to the new system of ethics, is ‘the noblest conquest of mankind’. There is, however, no such thing as permanent victory, and despite this shining image, the horse of darkness continues its hellish gallop deep down in the individual. The horse thus veers from the benign to the malign, for it is no ordinary creature. Carrying men and women on its back, it is their vehicle, their vessel, and its fate is inextricably bound up in theirs. A special dialectic comes into existence between them, fountain of peace or of confrontation on both the psychic and mental planes. In the noonday sun, the horse gallops blindly on, while the horseman, clear-sighted, anticipates its fears and guides it towards its predetermined goal. At night, however, when the horseman himself becomes blind, it is the horse which sees and guides, and it is the horse which takes control, since it alone can with impunity pass through the gates of mystery beyond the reach of reason. Should conflict arise between horse and rider, they may well gallop to madness and death: if they are at one, it will be a triumphal ride. Tradition, ritual, myth, folklore and poetry in their evocation of the horse do no more than give expression to the manifold potential of this subtle interplay.

Creature of darkness & magical power

Tradition and literature from the steppes of central Asia, the land of the shaman and the horseman, have preserved an image of the chthonian horse with mysterious powers which take over at the point where human strength fails, at the point of death. Habituated to the darkness, clairvoyant, it performs the role of guide and intercessor, in other words, of a conductor of souls. In this respect the Kirghiz epic poem, Er-Töshtük, is significant (BORA). Although Töshtük may be the perfect hero, in order to recover his soul, which a wizard has stolen from him, he has in some sense to abdicate his own individuality and trust the paranormal powers of his magic horse, Chal-Kuiruk, which enables him to reach the Underworld and escape all its traps. This Asian Bayard, Chal-Kuiruk, is endowed with human speech and understanding. At the outset of this fantastic ride, it warns its master of the role reversal which will take place: ‘Your chest is broad, but your spirit is narrow. You are heedless. You do not see what I see, you do not know what I know… You are brave but stupid’ (BORA p136, 106). Lastly, to add the finishing touch to its powers, it says: ‘I can walk through the depths of the seas’.

One has only to read this epic poem to gain a deep understanding of some shamanistic traditions. Thus, throughout most of the Altai region, the dead man’s saddle is placed and his horse tethered close to his body to guarantee his last journey (HARA). The Buryat, believing that a sick person had temporarily lost his soul, tethered his horse at his bedside, ‘the horse being the first to perceive the return of the soul and showing it by quivering’ (ELIC p217). When a shaman died, he was laid on his saddle-cloth, with his saddle as a pillow, his reins, bow and arrows placed in his hands (HARA p212).

The Beltir sacrificed the dead man’s horse, so that its soul would guide its master’s, and it is significant that its flesh was then fed to the dogs and birds, themselves conductors of souls and familiar with the transcendent upper and lower worlds. Horse sacrifice was so widespread that it is regarded as one of the key characteristics by which primitive Asian civilization may be recognized (DELC p241). It is in evidence among many Indo-European races and extended in antiquity as far as the Mediterranean. In the Iliad, Achilles sacrifices four horses at the funeral pyre of Patroclus so that they shall carry his friend to the kingdom of Hades. Through its clairvoyance and knowledge of the other world, the horse played a major part in shamanistic ceremonies. The good spirit of the shamans of the Altai region, which accompanies them on their soothsaying journeys, possesses ‘horse’s eyes which enable it to see thirty days’ journey ahead. It watches over mankind and tells the supreme deity of their doings (HARA p112). Most of the adjuncts of the shaman’s trance were related to horses. Thus the skin of the ritual drum, rhythmically beaten to induce trance and bring it to its climax, was more often than not of horse or stag, and Yakut and other tribes expressly called it the ‘shaman’s horse’ (HARA p351). Lastly, shamans often use for their passage into the Otherworld a stick with a carved horse’s head, called the ‘horse-stick’, used, in a way reminiscent of the witch’s broomstick, like a live horse (HARA p333).

Human metamorphoses into horses: possession and death

The key role played by the horse in shamanistic trance rituals naturally leads us to consider the part played by this animal in Dionysiac rites and, more widely, in those of initiation and possession in general. From the outset it becomes all too apparent that in Haitian and African Voodoo and in Ethiopian Zar, just as it had in the ancient mystery religions of Asia Minor, the role reversal between horse and rider, to which we have already briefly referred, is carried to its most extreme conclusion. In all these traditions, man, the possessed, becomes a horse to be ridden by the spirit. In both Haiti and Brazil those possessed by the spirits of Voodoo are expressly termed the ‘horses’ of their Loa. Similarly in Ethiopia when, in the mass dance of the possessed, the ‘wajada, the possessed, identifies with his Zar, he becomes no more than his horse, lifelessly obedient to the whims of the spirit which rides him’ (LEIA p 337). According to Jeanmaire the same ritual, employing the same terms, was practised in Egypt down to the beginning of the present century (JEAD).

The Dionysiac cults of Asia Minor were no exception to what appears to have been a rule. Initiates into their mysteries were said to be ‘ridden’ by the gods. Horse-like figures abound in the train of Dionysus, supreme master of ecstatic worship. The Sileni and satyrs who accompany the Maenads in the Dionysiac rout are part-horse, part-man, just like the centaurs whom the God made drunk, thus causing their battle with Herakles (Hercules) (JEAD, GRID). In legend, the women associated with the Dionysiac orgy, Jeanmaire observes, ‘with remarkable frequency bear names ending in hippe… or epithets which as strongly give rise to horsiness’ (JEAD p285). Hence it is understandable that in Ancient Chinese tradition candidates at the time of their initiation were known as ‘young horses’. Those conducting the initiation, or those who preached new teachings, were known as ‘horse-traders’. To hold a more or less secret initiation ceremony was to ‘unbridle the horses’. If the horse stands for animal elements within the individual, it owe this above all to those powers of instinct which make it seem endowed with second sight. Horse and rider are intimately entwined. The horse teaches its rider: in other words, intuition enlightens reason. The horse imparts secrets: its path is straightforward. Whenever its rider sets it on the wrong path, it can see the ghosts and shadows there. But it risks becoming the Devil’s accomplice.

In the West, the medieval initiation into knighthood has some similarities with horse symbolism, since the horse was privileged to bear the knight on his spiritual quest. In some respects its prototype is the battle between Bellerophon, mounted on Pegasus, and the Chimera.

Thus, having been regarded as seer and conductor of souls, the horse becomes the possessed, a initiate into divine mysteries, who abdicates his own personality so that that of a higher spirit can make itself manifest through it, a passive role indicated by the twofold meaning of ‘to ride’ and ‘to be ridden’. It needs to be observed, at this point, that not all members of the Voodoo pantheon, the Loas who ride whom they possess, are evil. Among the most important Loas are the white Loas, heavenly sky-spirits. Thus the horse, a chthonian symbol, reaches the acme of its positive valence when both the upper and the lower planes are made manifest without distinction through its mediation, that is to say when its significance becomes cosmic.

Horses and death

The negative valence of the chthonian symbol makes the horse a manifestation of the power of the Underworld and of death, on the same plane as the figure with the scythe in Western folklore.

Horses which either foretell or carry death proliferate from Classical Greece to the Middle Ages and spread throughout European folklore. Most death-horses are black, like Charos, the modern Greek death-god, but some are pale, and these are often confused with the white sky-horse, with a completely opposite significance. Although these pale horses are sometimes called white, this must be understood as being the colour of the night, a cold lunar whiteness comprising emptiness and the absence of colour, while the whiteness of day is solar, warm and comprising the sum of all colours. The pale horse is as white as a shroud or a ghost. Its whiteness is akin to the commonest symbolic application of black – mourning. In the Middle Ages biers were called ‘St Michael’s horses’ in France and the horse symbolized the tree of death.

In terms of semantics, Krappe regards this sinister horse, be it black or white, at the root of the French cauchemar or English nightmare. The Mahrt (German ‘mare’ is an evil spirit from the Underworld, as the word indicates (cf. Old Slavonic mora, ‘witch’; Russian mora, ‘ghost’; Polish mora, Czech mura, ‘nightmare’; Latin mors, mortis, ‘death’; Old Irish marah, ‘death, plague’; Lithuanian maras, ‘death, pestilence’; Latvian meris, ‘pestilence’; and the sinister Irish Mor(r)igain) ( KRAM p229). Celtic folklore is haunted by death – or nightmare-horses. The March-Malaen (malaen = malignus, Latin) was one of the three scourges of the Isle of Britain; Scottish kelpies are horselike water demons, and Breton folklore is full of tales and stories of diabolical horses which lead travellers astray or dash them into quagmires.

Driving force of the libido

Once past puberty, the young man takes the horse as the symbol, in the fullest sense of the term, of what Paul Diel calls the ‘driving force of the libido’, with all that this implies in terms of fire, fruitfulness and warm-heartedness. As a symbol of strength, of the creative forces, and of youth, and acquiring a sexual as well as a spiritual valence, the horse now shares symbolically in both the chthonian and celestial planes. This would incline us to evoke the white horse, in its shining, solar aspect, but it is interesting to observe, in passing, that there are two aspects of the black horse as well. In Russian popular poetry what we have hitherto regarded as exclusively a death-horse becomes a symbol of youth and the triumph of the life force. These are the black horses which, in fairy stories, are harnessed to wedding-coaches; they are thus the horses of the libido set free.

The Horses of the Sun

Although its origins were in the Underworld, the horse gradually became a creature of the Heavens and the Sun. In the light of the foregoing it is striking to observe the Uralo-Altaic belief that the sacred marriage of Earth and Heaven was accomplished by the coupling of the White Stallion and the Dun Cow, the stallion being a manifestation of the sky-god (ROUF pp 343-4).

In Buddhist, as well as in Hindhu texts and in Greek writers under Plato’s influence, horses are above all else symbols of the senses harnessed to the chariot of the spirit and controlled by the Self who is the charioteer. In the same way, the teachings of Bardo are said to be like ‘the bridle which controls the horse’s mouth’. There is more of a hint of the symbolism of Pegasus here. This context provides an example, not only of all winged horses, but also of the association of horse and bird, of which mythology and tradition offer countless examples, always in a solar or celestial context – for example, in the Rig-Veda, where the sun is either a stallion or bird (ELLITp 144). In a further development of these interlinked analogies, the horse’s liveliness often makes it, in the celestial sense of the symbol, a manifestation of the wind.

The Horse Majestic

The white horse of the Sun, drawing the Sun-god’s chariot, becomes an image of that beauty gained when the spirit (the Charioteer) controls the senses. Generally it is ridden by him whom the Book of Revelation (19:11) calls Faithful and True, that is by Christ. St. John goes on to describe the heavenly host mounted on white chargers and this is why, in medieval iconography, angels are depicted on horseback.

This whole process of ascension culminates in the figure of the majestic white horse, the steed of heroes, saints and spiritual victors. All great Messianic figures ride such horses. Thus in Hinduism Kalkin, the future avatar (incarnation) of the god Vishnu, will be a white horse; while at his expected second coming, the Prophet Muhammed will also be riding a white horse. Lastly the white horse which the Buddha rode at the Great Departure, riderless, stands for the Buddha himself.

To conclude, it would seem as if the horse were one of those basic archetypes firmly embedded in folk-memory. Its symbolism encompasses both poles of the cosmos, the upper and the lower, and hence it is truly universal. In the chthonian world of the lower pole we have seen how the horse stands as an avatar or friend of the three elements which it comprises, Fire, Earth and Water, and of the Moon which gives it light. At the same time we have seen how the horse is associated with the three elements which comprise the celestial world of the upper pole, Air, Fire and Water and of the Sun which gives it light. On the pediment of the Parthenon, horses draw the chariots of both the Sun and the Moon. The horse passes as easily from day to night and back again, as from life to death and from the active to the passive role. It therefore links these opposites in continuous manifestation. Essentially the horse is manifestation, life and continuity, overriding the discontinuity of our lives and deaths. Its powers are beyond comprehension, it partakes of the miraculous and it is therefore easy to see why mankind should in prehistoric and historic times so often have made it holy. Only one creature in the symbolic bestiary of Nature surpasses it in subtlety – the serpent.

The Horseman

Equestrian statues or portraits inflate the importance of the conquering hero and are symbols of his triumph and his glory, for just as he has subdued his charger, so he has overcome the forces set against him. They display his ascent into the Paradise of the gods, heroes and the elect, like the famous vision of the Prophet Muhammad on his mare Borak, led by Gabriel and with a retinue of angels to the foot of God’s very throne. They may then partake of spiritual significance such as the accomplishment of the holy word or the attainment of perfection. Special signs sometimes distinguish the horse, its harness or caparison and also the horseman, his dress, distinguishing marks or arms. They lay bare a complete philosophy of which the following is a little-known but strangely rich example.

Most striking among Dogon equestrian carvings are those of Orosongo, horseman of the skies. Marcel Griaule regards this as an illustration of an episode in the myth of the Ark, which came down from Heaven with the originals of all living things.

As is the case with all images charged with hidden meanings, any symbolic interpretation of the horseman must take into account every least detail of his depiction. From being an expression of military or spiritual triumph, the image of the horseman came to signify perfect mastery of self and of the powers of nature. Jung, however, maintains that in modern art the opposite is true and that the image of the horseman, instead of expressing tranquillity, now expresses ‘tormenting fear’ and a measure of despairing panic in the face of forces over which the individual or the consciousness has lost control. The interpretation of symbols must include all these different meanings, provided that they comply with actual experience.


BORA: Boratev, Pertev, Aventures merveilleuses sous Terre, et ailleurs de
Er-Töshvük le géant des steppes, 1965
DELC: Delebecque, Edouard Le cheval dans l’Iliade,
DIES: Diel, Paul, La symbolisme dans la mythologie Grecque, 1966
DOND: Dontenville, Henri, Les rites et récits de la mythologie française
DONM: Dontenville, Henri, La mythologie française, 1948
DURS: Durand, Gilbert, Les structures anthropologiques de l’imaginaire,
ELIC: Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism, 1964
ELIT: Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 1958
FRAG: Frazer, J.-G, The Golden Bough, A Study in Magic and Religion,
GRID: Grimal, Pierre, Dictionaire de la mythologie grecque et romaine, 1963
HARA: Harva, Uno, Les representations religisieuses des
Peoples altäiques, 1959
JEAD: Jeanmaire, H, Dionysus, histoire du culte de Bacchus, 1951
JUNA: Jung, CG: Psychology and Alchemy,1968
KRAM: Krappe, Alexandre H, La genèse des myths, 1952
LEIA: Leiris, Michel L’Afrique fantôme, 1934
ROUF: Roux, Jean-Paul, Faune et Flore sacrees dans les sociétés altaïques,
Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming -
Wow! What a ride!

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