The horse has, in our contemporary western society, been all but forgotten; made obsolete at the beginning of this century by the internal combustion engine. Now their role in human society is but a shadow of its former self, relegated by the majority to entertaining us every so often at the Grand National and the Horse of the Year Show.
However until the very recent present the horse was a vital part of the society and culture of The West, relied upon for transport of both goods and people and a cornerstone of agriculture; indeed up until this century the fastest way a human could travel was upon horseback. It could easily be argued that our very civilisation was built on the back of the horse.
Given this essential and all-pervasive role the horse has played in the history of mankind it is not surprising that the horse would become associated with worship and magic, gaining a magical significance and, in some cases, reaching divine status.
The Earliest Horses
The first relationship between man and horse seem to have been as predator and prey. Various cave paintings, such as those found at Lasceaux in france and the Iron Age cave paintings at Val Camonica in Italy, show pictures of the hunt with horse-like creatures among the species being preyed upon. It is here that we first find the horse's association with magic in carvings and paintings thought by scholars to depict magical ways of killing horses - the premise of sympathetic magic being that the ritual drawing of a horse with your spear in it making sure that when actually in the hunt your spear throw would hit. There are depictions of human/animal combinations, suggested to have been a tribal shaman dressed in skins being pierced by weapons but also suggested by others, such as Alan Richardson1, to be depictions of a male deity of the hunt. There also appear to have been rituals connected also with fertility, some drawings depicting pregnant females and copulating creatures, including humans and animals mating (again at Val Camonica and the bronze age rock paintings in Bohuslan, Sweden). However the consensus is that the first rituals involving horses were for sustenance of self and clan.
The first domestication and controlled breeding of horses is thought to have commenced around the three thousand BC by the steppes nomads of Central Asia, this produced a sturdy horse, which can still be seen being ridden by the herdsmen of Kazackstan, capable of pulling a chariot or bearing a rider, spreading westwards to the early civilisations of the Middle and Near east in the following millennia. Horses are herd creatures and are relatively easy to domesticate and seem, in the main, to relate well to humans. So it was that by the time of the fall of Troy (around 1300BC) the horse was well known to the civilisations of the Mediterranean and was being used in that oldest of civilisation's activities, fighting wars. It was at this time that the horse began to be associated with deities, to the Greeks they were associated with both Poseidon whom, legend has it, created the horse in one of those boasting competitions the Greek Deities were so fond of and with the more solar deities such as Apollo and Helios. The horse was certainly associated with water and with magical springs, such as the Hippocrene which the Muses bathed in to keep them beautiful and from which the flying horse Pegasus drank. Equally the horse had a solar dimension in Ancient Greek religion which it was to lose to the west and indeed to the desert nomads of the east to whom the horse, with it's crescent footprint was to become ascribed lunar and female attributes, this continuing into Islam in whose folklore the Prophet Mohammed was carried to heaven on the back of the mare, Al Borak. The horse also became part of magical lore to the Greeks in the form of the centaur which myth states came from the union of the King of the Lapiths and a replica of the Goddess Hera in the form of a cloud.
The Western Horses
However, it is perhaps further westwards with the Celtic, Gallic and other Northern Europeans that the idea of the divine horse came to be best known. The Celtic people were originally nomadic, it has been said2 that the name Celt has its origins in Greek "Keltoi" meaning "Wanderer". To a mobile people in a harsh world the horse would have been utterly essential to their society and survival, an item of great value and status. It was used for travel, in war (although it is not thought that the Celts fought from horseback, rather they used the horse to take their warriors into the battle, much like shock troops, dismounting to fight) but also to establish rank; the more horses you had and the better they were the more important you are. A Welsh poem of mystical significance, the Cad Goddeu (The Battle of The Trees) speaks of this boast:
"Six steeds are there of yellow hue:
than these, a hundred times better is Melyngan, my steed,
swift as the sea-mew, which will not pass by me,
between the sea and the shore."3
Another example of the value and also perhaps the religious significance of horses to these peoples can be seen in the story of Versingetorix whom, at his last stand against the Roman invaders of Gaul, when it became clear that all was lost, sent his horses away from the scene of the last fateful battle rather than see them lost in battle.
Given this importance of horses it is not surprising that the horse would have been thought of as something more than just a creature of flesh and blood and so, invested of a greater importance than their purely material worth, a cult of the horse sprang up and the horse became associated with the lunar Mother Goddess of these peoples.
It's widely thought that the Celts and other Northern Europeans did not think of their deities as having animal form in the way that, for example, the Egyptian deities were (although the myths show that they could assume such if they wished) and so we normally find horse deities such as Epona depicted as a human female either sat on horseback (often side-saddle), between two horses or in the act of feeding horses, pregnant mares especially; the latter appearing to point up the association of the horse-goddess to fertility. As an interesting aside it would appear that there was never a male horse deity in pagan Northern Europe. It would appear then that the horse was not regarded as divine but rather than it was the representative of the deity, becoming the deity at certain times and in certain rituals, much in the same way in pagan religious practice a priest or priestess can become the Goddess or God during a rite.
Because of this importance both as symbol of wealth and as representative of the Goddess the horse was considered far too precious to be used as a food animal and I think that is where people particularly in lands populated by descendant of the Celts, the Angles and the Saxons gain our almost instinctive distaste at the idea of eating horseflesh. However there were occasions at which a horse would be sacrificed in a symbolic communion with the deity. One such ritual which also emphasises the horse as a direct representative of the Goddess was recorded by a monk Giraldus Cambrensis, in the thirteenth century (that this ritual had survived this long is a testament to its importance). Giraldus wrote of the new king's coronation in these terms:
"Once the people had been gathered together a white mare was lead into the middle of the crowd. Then, in full view of everybody, this person of highest rank approached the mare bestially, not like a prince but like a wild beast, not like a king but like an outlaw, and behaved just like an animal, without shame or prudence. Immediately afterwards the mare was killed , carved up into pieces and thrown into boiling water. A bath was prepared for the king with the broth and he sat in it whilst scraps of meat were brought for him to eat and to share with the people around him. Once this ritual had been performed his rule and sovereignty were assured."4
Now quite understandably poor Giraldus was a little shocked at seeing a man crawl about on all fours, have sexual intercourse with a horse and then eat it. However he evidently did not understand the symbolism of the ritual he'd seen. I read into this account something that contemporary Pagans and Wiccans will most likely be well aware of. The God being born of the Goddess, becoming her child (a foal in this case - hence his "approaching her as a beast"), mating with her and then the deity giving up their life so that Her people could live. Admittedly in Pagan myth it's ususally the God that gives up his life rather than the Goddess but for quite obvious reasons the roles were reversed in this case.
Various aspects of the Horse Goddess are known of such as her prsesidince over the fertility of animals, crops and humans, her protective influence over childbirth and also as a warrior deity. Some aspects were more played upon than others, but predominantly the horse and its associated Goddess became seen in the dominant aspects of fertility and of plenty, as a provider rather than as a destroyer.
Perhaps the most famous of all the Horse Goddesses, worshipped throughout Europe and indeed traces of her ancient worship can still be seen to this day, is Epona.
Epona - The Goddess Of The Horse
The worship of a Horse Goddess under the name of Epona appears to have come from Gaul, her worship spreading throughout Europe around the time of the Roman Empire. There were other Goddesses who were associated strongly with horses, such as the Celtic Rhiannon and so the assimilation of myth and archetype was quite straitforward. The Romans, particularly the cavalry legions, also adopted Epona whom they honoured under the name of Epona Augusta or Epona Regina. Interestingly enough the Romans usually adopted the local deities and gave them names of Gods and Goddesses they knew already, for instance the local deity Sulis (who gave her name to the city of Bath, "Aquae Sulis" in Latin) being honoured by the Romans under the name of Minerva. Epona was the only Celtic deity to be honoured in Rome, her feast day being held in December.
Her shrines were, predictably, often found in stables. Lucius Apuleius in his book "The Golden Ass" a late Roman work, mentions such a shrine. The hero, turned into a donkey in a magical experiment that went badly wrong, notices some roses, which he needs to eat to restore his human form; these roses are wreathing:
"...a little shrine of the Mare-headed Mother, the Goddess Epona, standing in a niche of the post that supported the main beam of the stable."5
From this it seems that Epona was more of a folk-deity, a Goddess of the common people who was honoured in her Mother-Goddess aspect rather than in a more warlike aspect as she is reported to have been by the cavalry legions of the Roman Empire. It would appear that some Egyptian influence was creeping into the worship of Epona as the Godess is described as being "mare headed". However as "The Golden Ass" has it's foundations in the mysteries of Isis then this is really only to be expected.
Equally other aspects of myth and legend seem to have spread across Europe with her, in an echo of the right of ascension of the Irish king witnessed by Giraldus Cambrensis a Greek writer, Agesialios, writes of Epona's creation in these terms:
"A certain man, Phoulouios Stellos, who hated women, had relations with a mare. In time she gave birth to a beautiful girl whom she named Epona."6
Notice that it's the mare that names the child, presumably she is divine herself (as the Greeks were quite familiar with their Gods taking on animal forms to become on intimate terms with certain mortals) or at the very least magical. I doubt very much that the writer of that passage plucked it out of thin air and I would suggest that he probably heard about, or maybe even witnessed a similar ritual of birth, mating and death as Giraldus was to some nine hundred years later.
As to the specifics of how Epona was worshipped records are, as always, difficult to come by. In England it has been suggested that some of the white horse figures are connected with her worship. This is certainly possible, particularly with figures such as the White Horse of Uffington, which also have bird-like features (the Uffington Horse appears to have a beak-like head) and birds do feature strongly in connection with Epona, particularly in her Celtic aspect where she was worshipped as Rhiannon, and in mainland Europe where cranes were also sacred birds of The Goddess. However arguments still rage over the White Horses but certainly the area around Uffington, the Vale of White Horse 7 and the North Downs have very strong associations with horses - Waylands Smithy is not too far away along the Ridgeway and the area is saturated in legend and folklore. I can personally attest that Epona's power is still very present in this corner of England's green and pleasant land.
As I mentioned earlier Epona, or a Goddess with firm equine connections, was worshipped under a variety of names in various places. In Celtic Wales she is known as Rhiannon and in her we see her association with the dead, as Rhiannon was Queen of Annwn, the land of the dead (which wasn't a place like the Christian Hell, rather another country where the dead went to after departing this world). She is often spoken of as guiding the dead and her birds (as I have mentioned birds do seem to feature prominently with Horse Goddesses) were said to "Sing the dead to life and the living to sleep". In the great Irish Legend of CuChullain, Loegaire, his charioteer, says of The Otherworld:
There is also a tale from the Mabinogion, which tells of how Rhiannon, wrongly accused of murdering her son, is forced to sit by the horse-mounting block by the castle gate, tell the story of her supposed murder to passers by and offer to carry them into the castle on her back - in other words to be their horse. She was saved from this fate by Tiernyon who owned a beautiful mare which had a foal every Beltaine8 - notice the date? This foal always disappeared until Tiernyon stayed up on the third time his mare was due to foal only to see the foal being grabbed by a monstrous clawed arm which he hacked off. On rescuing his new-born colt he found a child beside it which, surprise surprise, turned out to be Rhiannon's son, who later became known as Pryderi (which in Welsh means "trouble"). It is thought9 that this legend relates to a time when Rhiannon's Horse Cult was poorly treated or persecuted as later legend has her married to the sea-deity Manawyddan ap Lyr rather than to the mortal Phwyll.
Today echoes of Epona's worship still remain. In Padstow on Beltaine the "'Obby 'Oss", a wooden headed black horse figure with a man inside it, dances though the town accompanied by a retinue of musicians and revellers, the 'Oss chasing the young and not so young ladies of the village. Local legend has it that if the 'Oss catches them that it bodes well for their marriage prospects or foretells that they will soon have a baby; again this echoes the fertility aspects that appear to underlie all horse-worship. Interestingly an echo of death and rebirth that we have seen in other Horse Deity rituals is enacted in the Padstow dance when the "Day Song" song becomes the dirge and the 'Oss "dies", only to come back to life when the song changes again. The hobby horse figure can be found in many folk rituals throughout Britain and Northern Europe such as the Hodening (hooded) Horse of Kent and eastern England, the Lair Bhan of Ireland and Mari Llwyd of Wales (which mean White and Grey mare respectively) and the Schimmel or white horse of Germany. In all of these festivals, these stubborn survivals of the rituals of the Old Gods, the aspects of fertility and plenty are there for all to see. This was apparent to the early Christian Church who, of course, sought to ban them. St Augustine in the 5th century spoke out, condemning the "filthy practice of dressing up like a horse or stag" and later in Scotland the ecclesiastical authorities forbade "any man from dressing as a horse or wild beast and dancing widdershins in the Kalends of January, for this is devilish."
Fortunately they failed in their attempts and, in one form or another, Epona is still being honoured today.
Horses and the hypernatural.
I use the term "hypernatural" in preference to the term "supernatural" as I think that there is nothing "super" or outside "nature" in magic or any other aspects of the occult (such as ESP, telempathy or suchlike) To me these are all parts of nature, we just don't fully understand them or have convenient scientific labels for them, hence their confinement to the backwaters or "the uncanny".
When I started to prepare for this talk I had a few stories of hypernatural experiences with horses: some personal, others from books. However as I talked to people around the world thanks to the wonders of computer technology and data networks I began to gain evidence that these experiences were not in the least unusual, in fact they are remarkably common. This was well known to the people of times past who worked with horses and charms and spells to protect and in some cases harm horses are not rare.
The blacksmith has a particular place in horse-magic, the shoes that they create being regarded as particularly good warding charms, partly because they are made of iron, long regarded as potent against harmful magic, and also I think because of their association with the Horse Goddesses' protective aspects of "hearth and home." Today we still see horseshoes, points uppermost so that the "luck won't run out" are a common sight on homes throughout Britain and Northern Europe. In northern Germany stylised horses heads adorn the roofs of many farmhouses as they have for centuries in a similar protective manner. The oldest of horse-charms can also still be seen today although their function has largely been forgotten; the charms took the forms of horse-brasses and are used today mainly for decorative purposes, although one Pagan I know of in the United States wears one for it's original purpose.
Another group that have become identified with horse-magic was a society or cult know as The Horseman's Word. Originally from the east of Scotland they were ploughmen who owned their own horses and who travelled from farm to farm, a trade guild not unlike the Masons. They had complex initiation rituals during which the neophyte would be told "The Horseman's Word". This magical word, when whispered into a horse's ear, gave the speaker complete control over the horse. What this word actually is is still a mystery but the practice of "horse-whispering" is also practised by the Romany people of Europe. The initiate to the society was also taught herb lore and how to create potions that would attract horses and also repel them.
Healing lore for horses include such unusual items as horse hairs, especially those from piebald horses, are a traditional cure for goitre when word around the neck and are also said to be able to cure worms when eaten. The piebald or black and whie horse is regarded as being particularly potent in healing. The calluses that form on the inside of a horse's leg, sometimes known as the Chestnut or Horse-Spur, are said to be a sovereign remedy against cancer. Equally there are eamples of herb lore to cure sick horses (and many of these remedies are still used successfully today) and sacred springs, the waters of which can cure lameness and other equine ailments.
But to my mind the most interesting aspect of horse-magic is the sensitivity of horses themselves. Horses are, perhaps as an evolutionary survival trait, exceptionally sensitive creatures both in the physical realm of the five senses but also in more psychic realms. Just like people some individual horses are more gifed than others. I have experienced this phenomenon with some of the horses I have worked with, and have been able to mentally "call" a horse to me, even when he and I were out of sight of each other. Whilst preparing this talk I found that this was not an isolated incident and that in fact the majority of horse owners I spoke to reported that they could summon their horses just by thinking and that in at least two cases their horses had summoned them when they were in difficulty or pain. This psychic bonding seems to be, in most cases, something that develops in time and between horse and its rider or owner. My experiences and that of others is that it is quite possible to ride and direct a horse using your thoughts alone and this is a two-way process, the horse - in its own way - talking back to the rider shifts of position and movement and also through what I think could be called telempathy, the projection of emotion. It's certainly possible to know if a horse is unhappy about attempting something, a jump for instance, if you allow this "psychic bond" to develop - the horse will let you know in no uncertain terms how they feel about any given situation. In this age of the internal combustion engine I defy anyone to do the same with their car.
This ability of emotion projection and emotion sensing is by no means confined to people with any training in occult practice, initiationary experience or any of the plethora of magical knowledge. The power of the horse in this realm is such that most people develop this bond or the ability to "read horses" without realising it. A friend in the Life Guards (the Queen's ceremonial cavalry regiment) tells me that among his fellow cavalrymen he has heard hardened soldiers say things like "she's feeling a bit funny today, " merely o n walking into a stable. Henry Blake, in his book "Talking With Horses" gives several examples of this ability and he has developed a technique of training horses he calls "gentling" by using what could be called telepathic and telempathic projection, leading to the ability to direct horses to a particular place simply by thinking of them.
I have seen, and I have been told of, instances where horses will approach people especially when they are upset or otherwise very emotionally active, even though they may not have actually "summoned" them. This psychic sensitivity, combined with the natural curiosity of the horse seems to draw them. But not only do horses seem attracted to such emotional turmoil they would appear to have the natural ability to do something about it. There is a general consensus among those whom I've spoken that the presence of a horse is a calming influence, particularly to an individual under stress and this has long been recognised. In the Anglo Saxon rune poem, the stanza for Ehwaz, the "M" shaped horse-rune, ends with the words "... an byth unstillum, aefre frofur." which translates as "... and to one who is disquiet, he is ever a comfort." I can certainly recommend riding as a hobby to anyone with a stressful job!
Finally, Mark Matthews, a friend of mine in the United States, has told me of a couple of experiences he has had with one of his horses that seems to indicate that this "psychic bond" can in some cases be developed further. He tells of two instances where he and a pony mare have "swapped places" for brief moments in time. This has occurred when he was on the edge of sleep, probably with his brain in an alpha-rhythm state and possibly with the horse likewise. He describes the first event as follows:
"Suddenly I wasn't lying down any more but standing up, looking down at the stable floor but I could only see in grey shades. The shock snapped me back to my own body and I looked over at her and she was agitated, her ears flat back on her head and her teeth bared. She calmed down almost immediately though."10.
The second experience lasted longer but was more indistinct although he was aware of being "a human inside a horse"
To conclude I would like to come full circle back to what I started with tonight, that the horse has been made redundant by technology and so called "progress". I hope that I've given you an insight into the rich fund of horse-lore both in the religions and worship of the ancient horse deities and of the extraordinary abilities of horses in magical and hyper-sensory practice. I think that it important that we do not forget the horse or their deities for the time is fast coming when we shall have need of them again; after all, the oil will only last for a few more years...
"Earth God Rising - The Return of the Male Mysteries" Alan Richadson. Llewelin Publications. 1990.
Delaney "The Celts"
David Edwards "The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids"
Translated by Kim McCone in "Pagan Past & Christian Present"
Lucius Apuleius "The Golden Ass" (trans Robert Graves)
Translated privately by Jeanette Stuart.
The Vale of White Horse runs approximately from Oxford to Swindon in Southern England.
May Day Night (30th April) - this is the date of an ancient and modern Pagan festival to celebrate fertility and plenty.
Murray Hope "Practical Celtic Magic"
Mark Matthews, private communication.