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Horses as Symbols of Power in History and Mythology

Horses as Symbols of Power in History and Mythology

There are many hypotheses regarding history of the domestication of the horse. Horses first appeared in Paleolithic cave art around 30,000 BC. These were wild horses that were hunted for their meat. However, it is disputed exactly how and when the horse first became domesticated.

In prehistoric times, humans used to paint the images of wild horses on the walls of the caves which they inhabited. By painting the image of an animal in this way, it is believed that they thought they would be granted power over the respective animal, thus making it easier to kill for food.

Replica of a horse painting from a cave in Lascaux

Replica of a horse painting from a cave in Lascaux ( CC BY 2.0 )

Clear evidence of the early use of the horse is as a means of transport. This evidence dates from chariot burials from around the year 2000 BC. Still, there is evidence supporting another hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes around the year 3500 BC. Botai settlements in the Akmola Province of Kazakhstan are believed to provide the location of the earliest domestication of the horse. Leaving aside the exact time and date of domestication, horses have been used throughout history for transport, warfare and agricultural work.

Bhimbetka rock painting.

Bhimbetka rock painting. Photograph by LRBurdak. Source: ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Horse Images as Symbols of Power

Horse images have been used as a symbol of power, as seen in the coastal steppes of Ukraine, near Izmail and north of the Danube Delta, in the Suvorovo graves. These were derived from the earlier funeral traditions from the area around Dnieper River. Some of these graves were found to contain polished stone mace heads in the shape of horse heads and horse tooth beads. Other settlements in the steppes, which were contemporary to the Suvorovo graves (for example Dereivka on River Dnieper and Sredni Stog II), contained numerous horse bones.

Horse stone mace head. ca. 40 AD. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Horse stone mace head. ca. 40 AD. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

First Signs of Domestication 

Horse mace heads have also been found in the farming towns of Tripolye and Gumelnitsa cultures. These are from present-day Romania and Moldova and they are close to the Suvorovo graves. These agricultural cultures did not have such mace heads, but they are believed to have aquired them from Suvorovo immigrants.

The collapse of Old Europe is thought to have been due to the immigration of mounted Indo European warriors. The collapse was attributed to intensified warfare which was only worsened by mounted raiding. Therefore, the horse mace heads can be interpreted as evidence for the introduction of domesticated horses and riding right before the collapse of Old Europe.

Graves of the Suvorovo.

Graves of the Suvorovo. ( S155239215.onlinehome.us)

Famous Horses in History

Throughout history, there have been a number of noteworthy horses which are still remembered up to the present day. Babieca was the horse of El Cid, the Castilian nobleman and military leader of medieval Spain. The most famous horse of Antiquity is probably Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great. After the horse’s death in 326 BC, after the Battle of Hydaspes, Alexander the Great founded the city named Bucephala in his memory, right on the spot where the horse had died.

Alexander taming Bucephalus.

Alexander taming Bucephalus. ( Public Domain )

Chetak was the war horse of Rana Pratap of Mewar in India.

Statue of Maharana Pratap riding Chetak

Statue of Maharana Pratap riding Chetak ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Llamrei was the horse of King Arthur. Copenhagen was the Duke of Wellington’s favorite horse, which he rode at the Battle of Waterloo.

Wellington on Copenhagen, painted by Thomas Lawrence.

Wellington on Copenhagen, painted by Thomas Lawrence. ( Public Domain )

The most famous Polish horse was Kasztanka of Josef Piłsudski.

Piłsudski on Horseback, astride Kasztanka, by Wojciech Kossak. ( Public Domain )

Dhuuljaanaah was the horse of Husayn ibn Ali during the Battle of Karbala. Tencendur was the warhorse of Charlemagne and Veillantif was the horse of Roland, one of Charlemagne’s men.

Statue of Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini (1725), St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Italy.

Statue of Charlemagne by Agostino Cornacchini (1725), St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Italy. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Marengo was Napoleon’s horse which was captured by the British. The horse outlived Napoleon by eight years.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps painted by Jacques-Louis David. The horse in the painting is believed to be Marengo.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps painted by Jacques-Louis David. The horse in the painting is believed to be Marengo. ( Public Domain )

Matsukaze (name meaning “Wind in the pines) was the horse of Maeda Keiji or Maeda Toshimasu, a famous samurai of the Sengoku Period in Japan.

An ukiyo-e of Maeda Keijirō, by Utagawa Yoshiiku, 19th century.

An ukiyo-e of Maeda Keijirō, by Utagawa Yoshiiku, 19th century. ( Public Domain )

Chitu or Red Hare was Lu Bu’s horse from the Three Kingdoms. The horse inspired the phrase: “Among men: Lu Bu. Among horses: Red Hare”.

Guan Yu riding the Red Hare, as depicted in a mural in the Summer Palace, Beijing.

Guan Yu riding the Red Hare, as depicted in a mural in the Summer Palace, Beijing. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Streiff was the horse of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden which he rode during the battle of Lutzen in the year 1632. In the present day, Burmese is the favorite horse of Queen Elizabeth II. The horse was a gift from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Queen Elizabeth II riding Burmese, statue in Regina, Saskatchewan

Queen Elizabeth II riding Burmese, statue in Regina, Saskatchewan ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Horses in Mythology

There are also famous horses in mythology. For example, Sleipnir was Odin’s favorite horse in Norse mythology. The horse was grey, it was the son of the trickster god Loki and it had eight legs. Because it had so many legs, it was the fastest horse in all of the nine worlds.

"Odin Rides to Hel" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

"Odin Rides to Hel" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood. ( Public Domain )

Mythology also speaks about the unicorn, the Pegasus, the equalacorn (the Pegasus with a unicorn horn), the dragon horse of Xuan Zang and the hippocampus (the Phoenician and Greek sea horse). The colors of the horses also have various interpretations. For example, white horses are associated with warrior heroes, fertility and the end of time. The Grim Reaper is said to ride a white horse.

It is clear that horses have played an important role in the life of humans for tens of thousands of years, and continue to do so to this day.

Top image: Horses on Bianditz mountain, in Navarre, Spain. Behind them Aiako mountains can be seen. Source: ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Valda Roric

References:

Valda Roric – “From History to Mystery”

Valda Roric – “Loki – The Trickster Unleashed”

Valda Roric – “Loki – The Trickster Redeemed and the Secret of the Runes”

Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology – Norse, Classical, Celtic, Anness Publishing, London, 2014

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