Magical Animals in European Lore: Horses
Stumbling in the fever of a dream, down towards
The dark woods, from the kindling tops,
And came to the horses.
There, still they stood,
But now steaming and glistening under the flow of light,
Their draped stone manes, their tilted hind-hooves
Stirring under a thaw while all around them
The frost showed its fires.
from “The Horses” by Ted Hughes
Of all animals revered by European peoples, horses are among the dearest. The domestication and husbandry of horses facilitated farming, hunting, warring, and travel among tribes – virtually all activities that our ancestors found necessary for survival. Deities and spirits connected to horses are many in ancient pagan and heathen pantheons, including, in northwestern Europe, Rhiannon for the Welsh; Aine for the Irish; Epona for the German and French Celts. Freyr holds horses sacred, and the riders of the Wild Hunt are often on horseback or pulled by horses in a wagon. Many European mythologies envision the journeys of the sun and moon as chariots driven by horses.
Horses are psychopompic creatures. They are intimately tied to fertility, journeys to the underworld, divination and magic, and therefore to the elves, Fae, and the dead. The dead are the tutors and conveyors of magic in Germanic myth and lore. Odin had to die (or nearly die) to gain the wisdom of the runes, and he learned prophecies from the dead volva in her resting place. The Fae and the elves are also connected to the dead and are the wielders of original magic. And so horses are our deliverers, guardians, and companions in our journeys through both the living world and the underworld.
Heads of Horses
Horse heads have an important place in European magic. In “The Goose Girl,” the eponymous heroine is protected by her horse Falada until his death. Afterwards, the goose girl asks the man who killed her horse to cut off its head and mount it in an out-of-the-way place so that she can continue to receive its protection.
Similarly, there are winter traditions (Christmas and New Year) in the UK that involve the mounting of horse skulls on poles, dressing them with white or black sheets as well as ribbons, bells, and other ornaments. Borne door to door, these figures — called Mari Llwyd in Wales, the Hooden Horse in Kent, and the Poor Old Horse in northern England, to name just a few. These hobby horses are part of a larger hooded animal trope that runs throughout Europe and also includes donkeys, rams, and goats. These creatures often had trickster demeanors but would ultimately bestow health and wealth throughout the next year at the homes they visited. Considering the time of year (when many pre-Christian European peoples made sacrifices to deities and other spirits to return the warmth and greenery of spring and summer), the parading of a horse’s head through town seems a development from an ancient sacrifice of a horse that confers — through divine blessings — a good growing season when the long days return.
The Icelandic sagas have an opposite purpose for a horse’s head on a pole. Called a niðstang in Old Norse, it was used to curse one’s enemies. Nið was an Old Norse term that meant something like infamy, disgrace, and dishonor, and to construct a niðstang was to spiritually poison an enemy by disgracing and dishonoring them publicly. Even as recently as 2016, the power of the niðstang was invoked by protesters who mounted trout heads on poles against a politician. Defamatory runes were traditionally carved into the pole, but of late these poles only bear the names of the intended victims.
Horses and the Household
In Latvia, horse skulls are sometimes found between the foundation stones of old houses; in other places, horseshoes are buried under the corner of a house (Lecouteux 21). Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to find horseshoes above ground, hanging above exterior doorways. In these instances, horses and their accoutrements serve two purposes: 1) as sacrifices to the household spirit(s), and 2) as apotropaic objects that ward against bad luck and ill will. This second purpose is reflected in “The Goose Girl.”
Household spirits seem particularly fond of horses. Lecouteux notes that elves that frequent stables are blamed for tangles in horses’ manes or, alternately, nicely combed and braided manes (139-141). Horses may be found sweaty and exhausted after being elf-ridden (Lecouteux 165).
Horse figures also deck roofs of traditional Slavic houses, such as the Russian izba. This is to protect the house, much like gargoyles in other parts of Europe. Those who died unfortunate deaths — such as babies who died before baptism, or suicides — were removed not through the front door but through the roof so that they couldn’t easily find their way back to wreak havoc upon the household. It is likely that the horse figures are meant to ward off the evil-meaning spirits if they did try to return the way they’d left. Lecouteux notes that the draugar — revenants of unsavory character — that tormented Icelandic families would often be heard pounding on top of the roof (39).
Bearers to the Underworld
It may be the horse’s connection to the dead and the underworld that links them so to the elves. The most famous underworld-cavorting steed is Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin and the child of the jotun and trickster-god Loki. Hilda Roderick Ellis [Davidson] notes that Sleipnir not only brought Odin to the realm of the dead but also mortal heroes favored by that great god of magic, fury, and the dead (172).
It’s not only in the sagas that horses are companions to those journeying to Hel. Ellis highlights the presence of horse remains in burial mounds (10). Sacrificed at the funeral, the horses were buried with their masters to accompany them to the world of the dead.
It is significant that in the Danish wonder tale “Esben and the Witch,” Esben locates a stick that resembles a horse. This stick is capable of magically bearing him across a body of water to the witch’s house at his command: “Fly quick, my little stick, and carry me across the stream.” Water, of course, is a traditional portal to the underworld in much European lore. Ellis writes that the path to the realm of the dead includes a “bridge across the river and the woman guarding it” (171). In Gylfaginning, the woman’s name is Modgudr. After this bridge, there is often a gate that is impossible to jump for anyone but the powerful Sleipnir. Ellis writes: “It is due chiefly to the power of his steed that Hermodr passes all these obstacles [on the road to Hel] and particularly [the gate] successfully” (171).
Horses were so important to Germanic peoples that there is even a horse rune in the Elder and Anglo-Saxon futharks. Called ehwaz or e(o)h, the Anglo-Saxon rune poem refers to horses as a joy and a comfort. The horse is also mentioned in the verse for the “riding” rune as a companion on difficult journeys.
Even today, horses remain potent symbols for virility, freedom of movement, and power. The small bands of wild horses of the Mongolian steppe, the American West, and other places around the world, still evoke sacred feelings in us with their graceful wildness and vigor. Perhaps because they have been with us for so long, we relate to them more than virtually any other animal aside from dogs, seeing in them the aspects of humanity that we most revere. In myth, they are powerful gods, founders of civilizations, even ancestors, but always, always our faithful partners.
Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel. Greenwood, 1968.
Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.