The Mystery of the White Horse of Uffington
The prehistoric White Horse of Uffington is one of the oldest hill figures in Britain, and is believed to have inspired the creation of all the other white horse hill figures in the region. Mystery abounds the creation of the White Horse – who made it, when and why? Some historians believe the figure represents a horse goddess connected with the local Belgae tribe, others believe it is Celtic goddess Epona, protector of horses, while an alternative theory suggests it is not a horse at all but the mythical dragon slain by Saint George.
Oxfordshire, the region in which the figure is found, and its neighbouring county of Wiltshire, are home to many white horse hill figures. There are or were at least twenty-four of these hill figures in Britain, with no less than thirteen being in Wiltshire. However, the White Horse of Uffington is the only one with known prehistoric origin. Initially believed to date back to the Iron Age due to similar images found depicted on coins from that period, more recent dating by the Oxford Archaeological Unit placed the hill figure in the Bronze Age, some 3000 years ago.
The Uffington White Horse is high on an escarpment of the Berkshire Downs below Whitehorse Hill, a mile and a half south of the village of Uffington. Measuring some 374 feet in length, the stylised image was created by digging trenches into the earth some ten feet wide, exposing the white chalk bedrock below.
The shape of the horse has changed over the centuries. The present outline may be only a part of the original: aerial photography shows that a larger, more conventional shape of a horse lies beneath. The loss of shape has been caused by slippage of the top soil and by repeated recutting.
The horse is only part of the unique complex of ancient remains that are found at White Horse Hill and beyond, spreading out across the high chalk downland. To the east of the Manger lies Dragon Hill, a low flat-topped mound. It is said to be the site where St. George, England's patron saint, slew the dragon, its blood spilling on the hilltop and leaving forever a bare white patch where no grass can grow. Across the region, numerous burial mounds can be spotted. These date from the Neolithic period and have been reused up to the Saxon age. The largest contained 47 skeletons.
Dragon Hill. Photo source: Wikipedia
Whether the hill figure is indeed intended to represent a horse, or some other creature instead, has been debated, but it has certainly been called a horse since at least the 11 th century.
The original purpose of the figure is unknown. The horse, which can only be viewed from above or from an adjacent plateau in the distance, is unique in its features and this leads some to believe it represents the mythical dragon that St. George slain on the adjacent Dragon hill or even his horse. However others believe it represents a Celtic horse goddess Epona, known to represent fertility, healing and death. Epona had a counterpart in Britain, Rhiannon, so the Uffington white horse may have been cut by adherents of a cult of the horse-goddess to be worshipped in religious ceremonies.
Others believe it may have been the emblem of a local tribe, and have been cut as a totem or badge marking their land. Alternatively, the horse could have been cut by worshippers of the sun god Belinos or Belenus, who was associated with horses. He was sometimes depicted on horseback, and Bronze and Iron Age sun chariots were shown as being drawn by horses. Conceivably, if this suggestion is correct, the horse could have been cut on the shallower slope at the top of the hill in order to be seen from above by the god himself.
Once every seven years from at least 1677 until the late 18th century a midsummer ‘scouring festival’ was held, during which the local people cleaned the chalk outline of the horse and enjoyed a three-day celebratory feast within the hillfort. The festival, which may have had ancient origins, lapsed about a hundred years ago and the horse is now cleaned by members of English Heritage, who are responsible for the site.
While the stylised image of the White Horse of Uffington remains elegantly etched within the picturesque Berkshire Downs, its true meaning and purpose appears to have been lost to the pages of history.
Featured image: The White Horse of Uffington. Photo source: Wikimedia