Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The Horse

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?
Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? (The Wanderer)

Both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian warriors, particularly nobles, loved their horses. They might prefer to fight on foot, swinging sword or axe with their men (unlike the Normans) but to own a horse meant status, rather like owning an expensive car does today. A king might direct a battle from the saddle but most of the valuable steeds would be led to the rear, safe from harm, before a battle. When asked to fight as cavalry in the early 11th century, ‘against their custom’, English warriors were so uncomfortable that they preferred flight. A mounted knight, isolated high in his saddle, cannot be one with his men. Perhaps it is this factor which led, following the Norman conquest, to the terrible widening of the social gulf betwixt noble and yeoman; a distance which had been relatively small in comparison in the egalitarian days prior to 1066.

Here I will discuss the horse and its place in pre-Conquest England.

The horse (Equus ferus caballus) is thought to have been first domesticated in Central Asia as early as 3,500 BCE. By 2,000 BCE, there is good evidence of the domesticated horse in North-West Europe. The use of the horse has been linked to the rapid expansion of the Proto-Indo-European speaking Battle-Axe culture in the late Neolithic. During the Nordic Bronze Age, horses were relatively small and predominantly used to pull chariots.
The horse of the Iron Age was still relatively small, perhaps 12.2 to 14.2 hands high (a ‘hand’ = 4 inches) This was smaller than modern riding horses, which range from 14.2 to 17.2 hands. However, such small horses were used successfully as light cavalry for many centuries. Modern Fell ponies, believed by some to be descended from Roman cavalry horses, are comfortably able to carry fully grown adults.
It has been estimated that the average size of the Anglo-Saxon horse was 14 hands.
Horses in the ‘Viking age’ probably resembled modern Icelandic horses. They are small (14.5 hands), but very sturdy and strong.
Icelandic Pony
Viking horses were taken to Iceland from Norway around 900 CE and have been maintained as a pure breed there. These sturdy horses have two unusual extra gaits in addition to Walk, Trot and Canter. Tölt, a 4-beat gait, also known as running walk, is very smooth and comfortable for the rider. In Flying Pace, a 2-beat gait used for racing, the horse can reach speeds of 30 mph. An Icelandic horse in action looks like it really does have eight legs and this is the most likely reason for portrayals of Sleipnir with 8 legs.

The modern English word ‘horse’ is derived from the Old English
hors, which derives from Proto-Germanic *hursa- (compare Old Norse hross and Old High German hros). The exact origin is unknown but is thought to mean “the swift (runner)” and related to the Proto-Indo-European root *kurs-.
The original Proto-Indo-European name would have been *ekwo, (hence the Latin equus) but as with many other animals, this was changed by taboo deformation in favour of the synonym. However, in Old English the word eh /eoh for horse does persist, probably because the horse’s ritual significance and its being the name for the rune M -‘e’ (derived from Proto-Germanic *ehwaz) comparable to the Old Norse jo'r.

Other Anglo-Saxon words for horses include three for stallion;
  • stéda (steed / stud) from from Proto-Germanic *stodjon (compare Old Norse stoð).
  •  stódhors, from Old English stód - "herd of horses, place where horses are kept for breeding," from Proto-Germanic *stodo, from Proto-Indo-European root *sta- "to stand".
  • hengest - "horse, stallion, gelding," from Proto Germanic *hangistas. Another circumlocution; meaning ‘Most Nimble’ or perhaps literally "best at springing," from Proto-Indo-European *kenku-.

Mare, meaning a mature female horse, derives from the Old English mere (Mercian), myre (West Saxon), the feminine form of mearh "horse," from Proto-Germanic *markhjon- said to be of Gaulish origin (compare Irish and Gaelic marc, Welsh march and Breton marh "horse"). There are no known cognates beyond Germanic and Celtic and I am fairly sure that this is a Celtic borrowing into English. The Old Norse form would be marr.

Roles of the Horse
The horse’s primary role has always been that of providing a swift form of transport. Although providing personal transport, (either ridden or via a chariot) the horse has also been utilised to transport goods as a pack-horse (ealfara) or to pull a cart or wagon (crætehors).
For the noble, the horse would be essential when hunting or hawking and it would be during these activities that he would hone his equestrian skills.

Because it offers swift transport, the horse has always been utilised for sending messages. The Mercians had a specific name for a mounted servant : a pre-7th Century word : radcniht (meaning ‘riding servant’. The Old English word cniht originally merely meant serving boy and only much later in the Middle Ages came to mean a tenant bound to serve his lord as a mounted soldier).
Even the predominantly infantry-based armies of England and Scandinavia needed horsemen to fulfil the traditional roles of light cavalry; scouting and pursuit. Mostly, the mounted troop (éored) would be un-armoured and be armed only with a spear and sax. Such a horseman would be called an éoredman in Old English or a ridda ridere. In Old Norse he would be a riddari.

Vendel-period pressblech showing mounted warrior
Uniquely the Swedish Vendel Age was characterised by the appearance of well-equipped aristocratic warriors who fought on horseback. The finds in Vendel and Valsgärde show that Uppland was an important and powerful area consistent with the sagas' account of the Swedish kingdom. Some of the wealth was probably acquired through the control of mining and production of iron. The rulers had troops of elite mounted warriors with costly armour and ornate helmets and swords. Graves of mounted warriors have been found with stirrups and saddle ornaments in gilded bronze with encrusted garnets.

These mounted elite warriors are mentioned by the 6th century Goth scholar Jordanes, who wrote that the Swedes had the best horses beside the Thuringians. The Norse sagas also describe king Adils as always fighting on horseback (both against Áli and Hrólf Kraki). Snorri Sturluson wrote that Adils had the best horses of his days.

Horse Worship
Horse worship in Northern Europe dates back to the Bronze Age. The horse, particularly the white horse, was seen as a sacred and magical animal associated with a particular god or as a totem of the warrior-king. Many Indo-European religious branches show evidence for horse sacrifice, and comparative mythology suggests that they derive from an original Proto-Indo-European ritual.
Pagan reverence of the horse, including its phallus, seems to have been linked to the worship of the fertility god Frea Ing / Yngvi Freyr and so outraged the Catholic Church that a complete ban was imposed in Northern and Western Europe against religious recognition or veneration of the horse in any form.

Horse Sacrifice
There is clear evidence of horse sacrifice in Sweden. At Skedemosse on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea, the bones of hundreds of horses have been discovered in a sacrificial bog. There were also deposits of weapons, bones of cattle, sheep and pigs and even a few human bones. Many of the horse bones had been split to extract the marrow. This is good evidence that these horses had been eaten. Since they accounted for a greater proportion of the sacrificed animals, they were evidently the favoured victim. Midden analysis from nearby farms show how unusual this was : sheep and cattle being by far the most common food animals. Eating horse-flesh (hrossakjöt) must therefore have marked a special occasion, probably some kind of ceremonial feast.
The name Skedemosse probably derives from the Old Norse skeið - one of whose meanings is either a horse-race or a fight between two stallions. It may be that there was a competition to select the best animals to sacrifice to the gods. Horse-fighting is well attested in Icelandic literature and is shown on a Viking Age stone carving from Häggeby, Sweden.
The 13th century writer, Snorri Sturluson, records the fact that such feasts involving horseflesh occurred regularly in Norway in the Viking Period. He describes one of the pagan Yuletide feasts :

... all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also and all the blood from them was called hlaut [sacrificial blood], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlautteiner, the sacrificial twigs. These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet.
(The Saga of Hákon the Good, Ch. 14)

Sometimes horse remains have been found at cult sites suggesting that the head, hide and hooves had been placed on a pole for display.
In the 10th century, a Moor named Ibrahim At-Tartushi visited the town of Hedeby (then Heiðabýr, an important trading settlement on the Danish-northern German borderland during the Viking Age) and described the sacrifice he saw there:

They hold a feast at which they all gather to honour their god and to eat and drink. Whoever kills a beast as a sacrifice sets up a pole at the door of his house and fastens the animal to it; thus the people know he has made an offering in honour of his god.”

Horses were undoubtedly killed and eaten in the early Anglo-Saxon period. There is little or no evidence that they were ritually killed as a sacrifice (and then eaten). However, as a horse is very inefficient at converting grass into meat, horses were not kept as meat animals. In times of food shortage, however, a horse which had become too old (possibly as little as five years old) or lame could expect to be butchered. Horse flesh is highly nutritious, low in fat and gristle and tastes slightly sweet as compared to beef.

When England and the Nordic countries were Christianised, eating horse meat was regarded as a sign of paganism and prohibited by Papal decree. In 732 CE, Pope Gregory III sent Boniface a letter charging him with the sacred duty of abolishing the Pagan custom of slaughtering and eating horses.
"You say, .... that some eat wild horses and many eat tame horses. By no means allow this to happen in future, but suppress it in every possible way with the help of Christ and impose a suitable penance upon offenders. It is a filthy and abominable custom ... We pray God that ... you may achieve complete success in turning the heathens from the errors of their ways."
In English-speaking countries there is still a very strong cultural taboo against eating horse-meat.

Horse Burials
Warriors were often buried with their horse.
The custom of burying a horseman with his mount appears from the Hallstatt period (800-600 BCE) onwards. The horse continued to be a popular grave good until the end of the Viking Period. The reason for this practice, however, is not obvious.
We might well ask the purpose of any grave good. Is the warrior buried with his arms and armour so as to be well-prepared for Valhöll ? Did the horse go into the grave as transport to the afterlife? Was the horse a sacrifice to placate the gods ?

A more modern and materialistic interpretation is that the horse was simply part of the wealth buried with the dead man. This was part of the northern tradition of conspicuous consumption and display - for the burial of a king or nobleman was always a piece of political theatre. Equally, it could be that everything put into the grave including the horse(s), was meant to recreate the familiar surroundings the dead man had known in his life.
In fact, horse burial probably subsumed several of these functions and burial ritual varied considerably. Horses are found in both male and female graves, in both inhumation and cremation burials and in both flat ground and mound burials. In many instances their skeletons have been found fully intact in the grave, while in some they have been found decapitated.

The Horse in Germanic Mythology
Most of the Norse Gods have chariots while Freyr and Freyja ride enormous boars. Heimdall, though, has a golden-maned horse called GulltopprSkinfaxi and Hrímfaxi are the horses of Dagr (day) and Nótt (night). Sól rode through the sky in the sun-chariot, pulled by the two horses Arvak andBlodighofi (Bloody-Hoof) is Freyr's fearless horse, which he gave to to Skirnir, when he rode to Jotunheim to get Gerd for his master.
Baldr’s horse is mentioned in the Second Merseburg Charm, written in Old High German.

Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza.du uuart demo balderes uolon sin uuoz birenkit.thu biguol en sinthgunt, sunna era suister;thu biguol en friia, uolla era suister;thu biguol en uuodan, so he uuola conda:sose benrenki, sose bluotrenki, sose lidirenki:ben zi bena, bluot si bluoda,lid zi geliden, sose gelimida sin!
Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,and the foot of Balder's foal was sprainedSo Sinthgunt, Sunna's sister, conjured it.and Frija, Volla's sister, conjured it.and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,so joint-sprain:Bone to bone, blood to blood,joints to joints, so may they be glued.
It is presumably this same horse which is sacrificed and its body placed on the pyre to burn with its master following the god’s untimely death.

The most famous horse in the whole of the mythology is Sleipnir, the grey stallion of Óðinn, whose name means ‘Slipper’. He is described, in Grimnismal, as ‘the best of horses’. His parentage is unique, for the god Loki is his dam. How this came about is described in the Prose Edda;
Sleipnir on the Tjängvide image stone
‘After the war with the Vanir, the walls of Asgarð lie in ruins, so the gods take on a man to rebuild them. The price is rather high; the sun, moon and the hand of Freyja in marriage but Loki persuades the gods to accept the terms as no human could possibly complete the work in the time allowed; only six months. If the work is incomplete then the contract will be void. The builder agrees but only if he is allowed to have his horse Svaðilfari to help. The gods agree but are astonished at the rate the stone hauling and building goes so that soon it becomes apparent that the builder will complete the work with time to spare. Angrily they turn on Loki and demand that he find a solution. That evening, Loki turns himself into a mare in season. The stallion detects the mare and promptly breaks his tether and runs off into the woods with the filly. Without the help of Svaðilfari, the builder is unable to complete the work in the allotted time and so the gods refuse to pay him. Insane with rage at being duped, the builder sheds his disguise and stands revealed as a Hrímþyrs - a Frost-Giant -sworn enemies of the gods. However, before he can do any mischief, Þórr promptly kills him with his hammer. A little longer than a year later, Loki returns to Asgarð leading a grey foal which he gifts to Óðinn; Sleipnir.

Sleipnir plays a significant part in the subsequent stories. It is a race between the giant Hrungnir’s horse, Gullfaxi, and Sleipnir, which Óðinn wins that leads to the holmgang between the ettin and Þórr.

When Baldr has dreams predicting his death, it is on Sleipnir that Óðinn rides into the Netherworld to consult with a long-dead prophetess. Following Baldr’s death, it is the incomparable Sleipnir who carries Hermóðr to Hel to beg for his return. Hermóðr rides Sleipnir for nine nights northwards.
Coming to Hel's gate, Hermóðr dismounts, tightens Sleipnir's girths, remounts and leaps over the gate. At Hel’s hall, Hermóðr sees Baldr. He begs Hel to release Baldr, telling her of the great lamentation among the Æsir. Hel is moved and declares that Baldr can return only if all things weep for him. Hermóðr bows and returns to Ásgarðr.

One puzzle in the Eddas and the sagas is that Sleipnir is said to have eight legs.
In Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, the poem Heiðreks gátur contains a riddle that mentions this:
36. Gestumblindi said: "Who are the twain that on ten feet run?three eyes they have, but only one tail.Alright guess now this riddle, Heithrek!"Heithrek said:"Good is thy riddle, Gestumblindi, and guessed it is:that is Odin riding on Sleipnir."
Two of picture stones from Gotland, Sweden dated to the 8th century CE, show eight-legged horses, which are thought to depict Sleipnir: the Tjängvide image stone and the Ardre VIII image stone. Sleipnir’s eight legs thus seem not to be a late poetic exaggeration rather quite an early attempt to show Óðinn’s steed’s speed. The eight legs may also relate to Óðinn’s shaman role, as someone who can journey to and fro between this world and the world beyond. Davidson meaningfully observes that : "a more fruitful resemblance seems to be on the bier on which a dead man is carried in the funeral procession by four bearers; borne along thus, he may be described as riding on a steed with eight legs."
Sleipnir is also said to be able to ride through the air, a process which quite disconcerted the young hero, Hadding, who was riding with Óðinn, according to Saxo.

A huge sculpture of Sleipnir, erected just outside the town of Wednesbury in 1998. It is 25ft. long, 20ft. high, and was sculpted by local artist Steve Field. 
Another famous horse from the Norse and Germanic Myths is Grani / Grane; the horse of Sigurðr / Seigfried. The Völsunga saga tells how the hero meets a strange grey-bearded old man. Sigurd tells the old man that he is going to choose a horse from his step-father’s herd and asks the old man to come with him to help him decide. The old man advises that they drive the horses down to the river. They do this and all of the horses swim back to land but for a large, beautiful grey colt who is, as yet, unbroken to the saddle. The grey-bearded old man tells Sigurd that the colt is of "Sleipnir's kin" and that he will be the best horse in the world". When the young hero turns again, the old man has vanished and he realises that he has been in the presence of the God. Sigurd names the horse Grani.
The young stallion proves to be a fearless steed. It is on Grani’s strong back that the hero piles Fafnir’s treasure.
Sigurd also rides Grane through a magical wall of flames to woo Brynhild.
According to Danish folklore, the helhest (Danish "Hel horse") is the three-legged horse associated with the Hel, goddess of death . Anyone catching sight of the helhest was sure to sicken and die. It is most likely that originally this horse was the steed of Hel herself.
"Horse terminal" from the Staffs Hoard

To this day, the English folk continue their age-old love affair with the horse. Their images adorn our hills, some dating back to pre-history, some newly carved in defiance of ‘Europe’. The horse would seem to have been particularly important to Mercians and to those of Anglian descent. That mighty ambassador for Mercia, J.R.R. Tolkein made the flag and symbol of his kingdom of Rohan (also called Riddermark or the Mark) the white horse. It is salutory to note that the golden helmet-crest terminal found in the Staffordshire hoard appears to be a horse-head.
“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.” ~William Shakespeare, Henry V