THE MYTHICAL HORSE
Ancient Man Held the Horse in Awe, Placing Equus among the Gods
Cultures of the ancient world evolved various mythologies, bodies of legend and belief which reflected their values, ideals, and visions of the past. The presence of the horse is common to many mythologies. The horse is frequently represented as a powerful, intelligent, and beautiful creature.
Poseidon Creates the Horse from the Ocean’s Waves
A Roman mosaic of the third century AD shows Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his wife Demeter being drawn across the sea by a team of “hippocamps.” The hippocamp was a horse with a serpent tail, a symbol of his aquatic heritage. Poseidon was not a faithful husband, and frequently cavorted about disguised as a stallion. In this form, he begat Arion, the wild horse who had both the power of speech and whose front feet were those of a human. Also in the form of a stallion, Poseidon seduced the Forgon, Medusa, in the temple of Athene.
Infuriated at this profanity, Athene turned Medusa’s hair to snakes. Later, when Perseus beheaded Medusa, Pegasus sprang from the blood which gushed from her wound, and Pereus fled on Pegasus’ back.
The Horse-drawn Chariot of the Sun
The horse inspired such awe in ancient man that he often thought of the horse as the power behind certain natural elements. In India, ancient gods drove chariots across the sky, some chariots carrying the sun. In Christianity, devastation was brought to earth by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A cult object from Trundholm in Denmark represents the power of the sun itself, with a horse pulling the light of day across the sky.
The Centaur – Ultimate Horse- Man
The centaur was a magnificent creature whose body was half horse and half man. They were renowned for both extreme physical strength and great wisdom. Most centaurs were frightful beasts. However, Chiron was a centaur known everywhere for his goodness and wisdom. He tutored mortals in proper conduct and learning. The centaur may have evolved from people who first saw horses with men on their backs and believed them to be one creature.
Pegasus – the Winged Horse
Pegasus was a wild and winged steed who was ultimately tamed by Bellerophon by using a golden bridle he received in a dream from Athene. Bellerophon attempted to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, but was thrown back. Pegasus remained on the sacred mountain, where he carried Zeus’s thunderbolts and was ridden by Eos, the goddess of dawn. Pegasus became a popular subject for artists, since from under his feet sprang the sacred springs of the muses on Mount Helicon.
The Horses of Homer, 750 BCE
The Poet Sings of Heroes and Horses
The Iliad by Homer, the blind bard who is the father of Western literature, is among the oldest literary documents of western civilization. This great epic poem is the first and most graphic account of the role of the horse in ancient warfare. We see horses created by the gods themselves, drawing the chariots of their masters to glory or to defeat in war and in sport on the plains of Troy.
When Patroclos, the beloved friend of Achilles, was killed in battle, funeral games, including chariot races, were held to honor him.
The Immortal Horses of Achilles
The hero, Achilles, described his horses’ sense of loss for the dead Patroclos:
“You know how much my horses surpass in their speed all other;
Yes, for they are immortal horses, and Poseidon gave them to Peleus, my father who in turn gave them into my hands.
But I stay here at the side, and my single footed horses stay with me;
Such is the high glory of the charioteer they have lost, the gentle one who so many times anointed their manes with soft olive oil, after he had washed them in shining water.
Therefore, these two horses stand here and grieve, and their manes
Are swept along the ground as they stand with hearts full of sorrow.”
The Heat of the Race
A central feature of the funeral games of Patroclos was a chariot race, and Homer has vividly described the great event for posterity.
“Then all held their whips high-lifted above their horses, then struck with the whip thongs and in words urged their horses onward into speed. The dust lifting clung beneath the horses’ chests like cloud or a storm whirl. Their manes streamed along the blast of wind …and the drivers stood in the chariots, with the spirit beating in each man with the strain to win, and each was calling aloud upon his own horses, and the horses flew through the dust of the flat land…the field of horses strung out, and before long out in front was the swift-stepping team of the son of Pheres, Eumelos, and after him the stallions of Diomedes, the Trojan horses, not far behind at all, but close on him, for they seemed forever on the point of climbing his chariot and the wind of them was hot on the back and on the broad shoulders of Eumelos. They lowered their heads and flew close after him.
Tydeus’ son in his rapid course was close on them and he lashed them always with the whipstroke from the shoulder. His horses still lifted their feet light and high as they made their swift passage…The horse came in running hard. Diomedes stopped them in the middle of where the men were assembled, with the dense sweat starting and dripping to the ground from neck and chest of his horses. He himself vaulted down to the ground from his shining chariot and leaned his whip against the yoke. Nor did strong Sthenelos delay, but made haste to take up the prizes, and gave the woman to his high hearted companions to lead away…while Diomedes set free the horses.”
The Trojan Horse
The Greeks left the huge wooden horse behind when they retreated from the siege of the walls of Troy. Rejoicing at the war’s apparent end, the Trojans brought the wooden horse within the walls of the city, ignoring the priest Laocoon’s warning about Greek’s bearing gifts. That night the Greek warriors within the horse’s belly crept out and opened the gates to renewed attack, and the city fell. A detail from a seventh century BCE vase shows the Greek warriors, rather humorously shown inside the wooden horse, being carried into the city. Undoubtedly, the Greeks chose the horse for their devious vehicle, since they knew the Trojans, renowned horsemen, would have greater respect for the horse than any other animal.
Online Exhibits Menu