The Sacred Celtic Horse
White Horse of Uffington; carved into a chalk hillside in Berkshire, England. It is believed to date from the 1st century and to represent the horse goddess Epona.
The horse was a very important animal in both Celtic culture and spirituality. In Western Europe, the horse has been domesticated since approximately 3,000 BC. Before domestication, he was hunted primarily as a food source, and the earliest records of such date back to some 25,000 years ago. Perhaps the best preserved archeological record is a bone heap at an old campsite in the Rhone valley of France, which consists of the cracked and dismembered bones of some 100,000 horses!
The European wild horse, sometimes referred to as the European forest type, lived in the forests of what is now known as Germany and Scandinavia until historic times. He was the wild black horse of Flanders. This was a stocky animal, a draft type that possessed considerably more size and scale than the Asian type or desert horse. The Flanders horse was native to Western Europe at the time of the Roman invasion. He was the forerunner of the Great Horse or British War Horse of the Middle Ages. The latter, in turn, fathered the modern draft breeds. The Modern Shire horses of England seen to the right are the purest survival of British War Horse spoken of by medieval writers, whose strength, courage and aptitude for discipline are praised by the chroniclers of the Roman legions. They are certainly the direct descendants of the horse which, when Julius Caesar arrived on the shores of Great Britain, attracted his attention for its efficiency in the assistance which it rendered the Celts in the pursuits of war.
The Belgian horse, pictured left, is also considered a pure descendant of this Great Horse; obviously originating in what is now known as Belgium, land of the Belgae tribe. Belgium lies in the very center of that area of western Europe, just west of the original home of the Celts, which gave rise to the large black horses known as Flemish horses. They were the great black horses that carried armored knights into battle.
The Percheron horse, which originates from La Perche, France, land of the Gauls, for the most part retains the black color of the Flemish horse, although greys are common also. It is believed that the Percheron, seen to the right, has a touch of Arabian blood. The Clydesdale is Scotland's Great Horse descendant and were along many thousands of years before Busch.
Not all the wild horses of Europe were large, however. Small, shaggy animals were native to northern Europe. They were strong and hardy and required less feed than other types of horses. These animals are thought to be the progenitors of the Shetland pony, and perhaps the Connemara in Ireland. The Connamara pony, seen below, can certainly be traced to ancient times as a member of that group of equids known as mountain and moorland ponies. It originated in Connaught in western Ireland, and later was used to influence the fine Irish hunter. We can see that the Celts were certainly no strangers to horses. Indeed, the chroniclers of the Roman Empire wrote with grudging admiration concerning the equestrian skills of the Celtic people they encountered in war. This would demonstrate that the horse was an integral part of Celtic life, for, as any modern equestrian will attest, high skill in horsemanship requires knowledge of the horse and his psyche on an intimate level.
Horses appear frequently in the tales and myths as animals of special qualities. The Irish deity Manannan mac Lir has a horse called "Splendid Mane," which is swifter than the spring wind and can travel as easily over water as it does on land. The Dagda has a black horse named Ocean, and wears horse-hide boots with the hair on the outside. The Irish hero Cuchulainn had two horses that pulled his war chariot, the Black of Sainglend and the Grey of Macha, which were both foaled at the same time Cuchulainn was born. Before Cuchulainn went on his final foray, the Grey of Macha refused to be bridled and shed tears of blood. During the last fight, the Grey was mortally wounded, but still managed to kill fifty warriors with his teeth and thirty more with his hooves before he died! Horses of fantastic colors appear from the Otherworld; Cuchulainn witnessed a chariot drawn by a single red horse which had only one leg, and in the chariot was a woman with red skin, obviously a Goddess. Enchanted horses that carry people to the Otherworld are also a frequent motif; Oisiacuten, son of Fionn mac Cumhail, rode off to Tiacuter Tairnigiri (Land of Promise) on a magical horse with Niamh, the daughter of the Manannan mac Lir, and stayed for three-hundred years. When he wanted to go back, Niamh allowed him to use the horse, but warned him not to dismount. He fell from the horse by accident and was changed immediately into a blind, grey-haired, withered old man. In addition, there is the story of the fifteen members of the Fianna taken captive and unwillingly transported to the Otherworld on the ugly and nasty grey horse of Abarta, who was a mischievous member of the Tuatha de Danaan, Ireland’s oldest race.
Several figures emerge as horse-goddesses; perhaps the best known of these is the Gaulish Goddess Epona, whose name is self-evident. Epona's name occurs in more inscriptions of the Roman period and with a wider distribution than any other Celtic name of god or goddess. She is the only Celtic goddess known to have been honored in Rome, and her name is sometimes written as Regina. It has been argued that "her concern was as much with the journey of the soul after death as with the welfare of horses and mules and their attendants." The wife of the God Mider, Eacutetain Echraide, is also by her very name associated with this animal, for "Echraide" seems to mean "on horseback".
The Welsh Goddess Rhiannon is also associated with horses in a very definite way. Rhiannon was said to be riding a "pure white horse of large size" when Pwyll first spied her, and though she seemed to be riding at a leisurely pace, when he tried to catch up to her it was in vain. It wasn't until he called out to her to stop that she did. They eventually married, and Rhiannon gave birth to a son, who was stolen away in the night in spite of the guard of six women. When these women awoke and the child was gone, they were fearful lest their lives be forfeit for their neglect, and so agreed to swear that Rhiannon ate her child. They killed a litter of puppies and smeared some of the blood on Rhiannon's face and hands, and put some of the bones by her side. Then they awoke her and accused her, and though she swore she didn't do it, she was condemned and assigned a penance. For seven years, she was to sit by a horse-block outside the gate, and offer to carry visitors into the palace upon her back, like a horse. Her stolen son (Pryderi) was eventually found again on May Eve (Beltaine), when a monster tried to steal the foal of Teirnon's mare. As a great claw reached in for the foal, Teirnon hacked off the arm and so rescued the foal, but when he went outside he discovered a babe that had been left by the retreating monster. The child was returned to Rhiannon, and the foal born on that May Eve was given to Pryderi. Also, after Rhiannon disappears into Llwyd's magic fortress, her punishment is to have the collars of asses, after they had been carrying hay, about her neck.
Another Celtic Goddess associated with horses is the Irish Macha. In one of her personalities, she appears as the mysterious wife of Crunniuc Mac Agnomain of Ulster. Crunniuc's wife had died when, one day, a beautiful woman arrived at his fortress and took on the role of his wife and became pregnant by him. While attending a royal gathering where the king's horses were winning all the races, Crunniuc boasted that his wife, even pregnant, could outrun the king's horses. The outraged king demanded that the boast be fulfilled. Macha was brought before the king and was told that if she refused to race, Crunniuc would be killed. Macha said: “A long-lasting evil will come out of this on the whole of Ulster.” She raced against the king's horses, and as she reached the end of the field, she gave birth to twins. As she gave birth she screamed, and with her dying breath proclaimed that all who heard the scream would suffer from the pangs of childbirth for five days and four nights in times of Ulster's greatest difficulty. The curse would last for nine times nine generations. The only people free of the curse were women, boys, and Cuchulainn. Thereafter the place was named Emain Macha (the twins of Macha).
The association of the horse with goddesses is interesting, as the Celtic goddesses were usually associated with the fertility of the land or were in themselves a representation of the land. For instance, the three goddesses which Amergin met upon reaching Ireland were Banba, Fotla and Eacuteire, who clearly represent the spirit of Ireland. (This is directly opposite the East Indian concept of the horse deities usually being associated with gods.) Among the Celts, the condition of the land was always a reflection of the quality of kingly rule, and the king was considered "married" to the land, and must care for her as he would a wife. This concept is brought home with one of the more distasteful (to our modern sensibilities) Celtic rituals involving horses -- the reported "great marriage" to the land. The king either mimicked or actually had intercourse with a white mare which represented the Goddess Sovereignty. Then the mare was sacrificed and he bathed in her blood and ate her flesh. This king making ritual was still being enacted in 12th century Ulster, and is kin to the Hindu rite of asvamedha, wherein a queen symbolically lies with a dead white stallion. These horse sacrifices were reported to be a common Indo-European practice.
However, the horse is tentatively associated with certain Celtic gods as well. It is said that the Irish god Lugh invented horsemanship. The Dagda is sometimes called Eochiad Ollathair, the latter term meaning "all-father," and the former obviously from the root "horse." It is quite possible that these references to a relationship with the horse (and therefore the Goddess Sovereignty) are meant to indicate the right of sacred kingship.
The white horse repeatedly appears in their literature, and we can surmise from the history of the horse that the most common color of the European horse at the time was black. With this in mind, it becomes no surprise that the white horse, both in India and in Celtic lands, was the choice for sacred ritual. It was probably something of a phenomenon to find a white horse, and the color white is also frequently associated with Otherworldly animals. In fact, it is extremely rare even now to find a truly white horse; most that are called "white" are actually grey (their skin is black, as opposed to the pink skin of a pure white animal).
The Celtic horse can therefore be considered a representation of fertility, sexuality, sacred kingship, and the journey to and from the Otherworld -- intimately tied to the life cycle of death and rebirth, the Land, and the Goddess Sovereignty. The horse was a significant animal in ancient Celtic spiritual belief and an important animal in the culture. It is not surprising that the Celtic fringe went on to develop some of the finest and most specialized equines that exist in the world today, and continue to improve upon and refine the accomplishments of their ancestors. The Celts worshipped horses and one of the most famous is the rather strange creature on the hill above Uffington in Berkshire. It is the thought to have been made by the Belgic tribe in southeast England between 50BC and 50AD. It is 374 feet long and 130 feet high and probably represents a Celtic God. It has a strange 'beaked' muzzle and the limbs are disjointed. This horse is one of the oldest of the Celtic symbols. A similar “horse” is featured on old Celtic coins from 150BC. One cut at Westbury in Wiltshire, The White Horse, was altered and re-cut in conventional form in 1778.
At Tysoe in Warwickshire can be seen the Great Red Horse cut into Sun Rising Hill. At one time there were 3 horses between Lower and Middle Tysoe, one reputedly to be 300 feet long and 210 feet high and gave its name to the Red Horse Vale.
It is not known how many of these horses have disappeared, the grass slowly encroaching upon them, but it is believed that they were numerous at the time of the Celts. White horses have been considered lucky, as have horseshoes. The horseshoe is a lunar symbol which perhaps explains the crescent on the tail of the Westbury horse.
While few ancient legends speak of the horse in Ireland as a beast of burden, in reality it was used as a pack animal and plough-horse. There is also little early evidence of people riding horses, unless of course, one's status was that of hero. Through most of pre-history, the horse of the legends had assumed a sacred status, not for work or for riding, but for pulling the chariots of the gods or the high-born. In time however, the horses potential for racing became obvious and “the sport of kings” was born.
According to the legends, it was the god Lugh who brought the horse to Ireland. Lugh's special festival, Lughnasa, was celebrated at harvest time in early August. As a means of reinforcing tribal bonds, Lughnasa was a time for meeting, for settling arguments, and for horseracing. The low-born, small farmers, would only posses the reliable work-horse which probably resembled the sturdy Connemara and the Kerry Bog ponies of today. Thus they would have been very impressed indeed at the sight of the kings fine racing stallions, animals of immense strength and speed. Who could posses such wonderful creatures? Only someone of great power and wealth himself. When the king and his horses arrived, any ideas of defying him went out the window.
There are still many horse fairs in Ireland at which the old idea of gathering of clans is evident. Held in Clifden, County Galway at the end of August every year is the Connemara Pony Show. In the past it was a rough and ready affair, most unlike Dublin's very fashionable Horse Show Week which takes place in early August at the Royal Dublin Society. Also in August is the fair at Muff in County Cavan and Spancil Hill, CountyClare. All of the shows occurr in August for which the Irish word for the month is Lunasa!
Whether down to earth or high society, horse fairs involve a lot of horse-trading. For most people the mind of the experienced horse-trader is a mysterious place. What do they know that we don't? What can they see that we can't? In his excellent book, Early Irish Farming, Fergus Kelly provides some clues. His translation of a ninth century Irish legal text speaks of 'the proper qualities of a horse'. The list is fascinating and offers even today's trader some wise words. As to positive traits, the ideal horse should be “swift, high-headed...lively-hearted, broad-chested fiery... yet gentle, calm narrow legged, of good stock...” One should, however, be wary of any animal which walks stiffly, is either too low or too tall, one that is “in the habit of leaping about....clumsey....lazy or lame.” The ancient admonition goes on to say that any horse which is discovered to have these poor qualities should be returned; otherwise “compensation is to be paid.”
But what if a horse shows potential yet insists on being troublesome? There may be an answer in the secret skills of the horse whisperer. Not unique to Ireland, the man who can speak to horses (and it usually is a man) is found in many traditional societies. It is only the whisperer who knows 'the word', who can speak to the soul of the horse and bring it into perfect harmony with the human world. And the horse will understand if 'the word' is true, for the legend says that the horse is part-human, that horse and human share a common ancestor. Tall tales aside, the horse's hearing is keen and sharp, better than its sense of smell and certainly far superior to its sight. So why shouldn't whispering be a perfectly sensible way of establishing a relationship? Watch show-jumpers or jockeys, anywhere in the world, just before or after an event or race. They lean forward, pat the animal's neck...and would seem to speak to it.
In the Ireland of the Celts, there was a place for everyone and everyone had a place, be it high or low. There were, of course, the kings and the nobles as well as the learned class which included the judges, physicians and musicians. Within this group, perhaps the greatest respect-- and fear--was reserved for the poet. And the poet held great sway indeed as his very words could make or break a king. Give a poet a poor gift for his tales of battles won, of noble and heroic deeds, and you'd had it as this little ninth century outburst shows.
He never gives fine horses
for my songs of praise.
He gives what his sort allows------cows! And what would have been a worthy gift for this mans efforts? He says it himself:
“...fine horses.” From the time when history was merely a folk tale, the horse has played an important role in Irish culture. It was the horse that could roam freely between this world and the land of the spirits, the “otherworld.” Could a man but stay on the horse's back, he too could make this journey and stay forever young. But woe to those who touch the earth, for their fate is old age or death. The mythical hero Oisin is perhaps the best known of those who did not survive the trek from Tir na nog, the land of the young to the human world. As it happens, he was unlucky because his saddle girth snapped; a twelfth-century form of equipment failure. Too bad because the gods are ruthless and for Oisin, there was no turning back.
Depicted in stone on the high crosses of Christianity, shown in 16th-century woodcuts, painted in oils by Jack Butler Yeats, the horse is ever present in Irish poetry, prose and song. Epona, from Celtic Gaul, was especially worshipped as a protector of horses, a bringer of fecundity to mares, and a giver of well being to fools. She was the only Celtic goddess to be adopted by the Romans. A lunar goddess, Epona is often depicted with a cornucopia, a symbol of abundance and plenty. Like the symbol of the horse, she is a bringer of fertility, a source of inspiration, and a figure of death-a psychopomp on the soul's final journey. As late as the twelfth century, Irish kings underwent a ceremony of symbolic birth from Epona in the form of a white more as part of claiming their kingship. In ancient days, a king was ritually wedded to the goddess as part of becoming king. Comfortable in both the realm of life and that of death, Epona is a strong symbol of independence, nurturing, intuitive understanding, instinct and vitality. Horse-totem goddess of the British and Continental Celts, adopted by Roman cavalry as their patroness, and the only Celtic goddess known to have been honored in Rome. Originally a Celtic Great Mother goddess, many of her images show her with a sheaf of corn on her lap, or carrying a goblet, and she is often shown accompanied by birds. Said to have been born of a mare. Agesilaos, a late Greek writer, tells us that "Phoulouios Stellos, who hated woman, had relations with a mare. In time it gave birth to a beautiful little girl who was given the name Epona - not by her father but by her (presumably divine) mare mother."
The horse was a very important animal to the Celts, and this explains the popularity and the expansiveness of the cult of Epona and other aspects of the Horse Goddess. The horse Goddess was known and worshipped under many different names, each tribe having its own special title for Her. She is Rhiannon to the Welsh Celts, Macha to the Irish, and Edain to the Gaelic Celts. There is even evidence of the existence of specific horse cults, such as the 'Epidii', a horse tribe in Ireland.
Epona was variously depicted with, seated on, or as a horse (most often a white mare) and her influence was widespread, even crossing into non-Celtic peoples. She was mainly believed to have been seen as the protector of horses, animals and stables, and was linked with fertility and maternal concerns as well - one of her early symbols was the cornucopia. Epona also represented freedom and creativity to the Celts, two elements that were greatly prized by Celtic culture which had nomadic roots. Epona could be seen in carvings and statuettes in barns, stables, and even estuaries.
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