Equine Poetics

  Platte, Ryan. 2017. Equine Poetics. Hellenic Studies Series 74. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_PlatteR.Equine_Poetics.2017.

2. Horses, Heroes, and Sacrifice

The prominent position of the formula ὠκέες ἵπποι and related expressions attests the special role played in Greek epic by horses and the physical abilities that distinguish them. The similarity of formulas in both Indian and Iranian oral poetries makes it clear that the phrase indicates a common poetic inheritance. It is a sensible assumption that a formula about horses that is important enough to be maintained in all three cultures would accompany other poetic and cultural treatments of horses that were also commonly inherited. In fact, the similarities in the treatment of horses found in the descendant traditions do extend beyond vocabulary.

Heroes as Horses and Horses as Heroes

Before proceeding to cross-cultural and historical parallels, then, I will discuss some special details of horse/hero comparisons that are generally found in Greek epic. The fact that there is a close connection between the two is not surprising, but the depth and nature of this link is truly unique and not, I think, common outside of the IE world. First, the similarity between horses and heroes begins at the level of ontology. [2] Not only are both essential figures of martial excellence, but horses are seemingly unique in the animal world for sharing with humans, especially heroic humans, the capacity for divine lineage and semi-divine identity. Several Greek gods have immortal horses that are known by name, such as those of Ares, Helios, and the Dioskouroi. [3] Yet immortal horses that live among mortals are more important for the current discussion, and there are several. For example, Pausanias describes the very powerful horse, Areion, owned by Herakles and then by Adrastus, which was born from the coupling of Poseidon and Demeter when both gods had assumed the form of horses: [4]

πλανωμένῃ γὰρ τῇ Δήμητρι, ἡνίκα τὴν παῖδα ἐζήτει, λέγουσιν ἕπεσθαί οἱ τὸν Ποσειδῶνα ἐπιθυμοῦντα αὐτῇ μιχθῆναι, καὶ τὴν μὲν ἐς ἵππον μεταβαλοῦσαν ὁμοῦ ταῖς ἵπποις νέμεσθαι ταῖς Ὀγκίου, Ποσειδῶν δὲ συνίησεν ἀπατώμενος καὶ συγγίνεται τῇ Δήμητρι ἄρσενι ἵππῳ καὶ αὐτὸς εἰκασθείς…τὴν δὲ Δήμητρα τεκεῖν φασιν ἐκ τοῦ Ποσειδῶνος θυγατέρα, ἧς τὸ ὄνομα ἐς ἀτελέστους λέγειν οὐ νομίζουσι, καὶ ἵππον τὸν Ἀρείονα·

They say that while Demeter was searching for her daughter, Poseidon followed her, desiring to couple with her, and that she, having changed into a horse, grazed among the mares of Onkios. Poseidon, however, realizing that he had been tricked, mated with Demeter, having changed his own form to that of a stallion. They say that Demeter bore a daughter by Poseidon, whose name they believe should not be told to the uninitiated, and a horse named Areion.

Pausanias VIII 25.5–7

This horse is also mentioned in the Iliad in connection with other divine horses:

οὐκ ἔσθ’ ὅς κέ σ’ ἕλῃσι μετάλμενος οὐδὲ παρέλθῃ,
οὐδ’ εἴ κεν μετόπισθεν Ἀρίονα δῖον ἐλαύνοι
Ἀδρήστου ταχὺν ἵππον, ὃς ἐκ θεόφιν γένος ἦεν,
ἢ τοὺς Λαομέδοντος, οἳ ἐνθάδε γ’ ἔτραφεν ἐσθλοί.

There is no one who could catch you with a burst of speed or pass you by, not even if he were driving behind you the lordly Areion, the swift horse of Adrastus, who was born of the gods, or the horses of Laomedon, the noble horses raised here.

Iliad XXIII 345–348

The local Trojan horses mentioned here are the divine horses given to Laomedon by Zeus as recompense for the abduction of Ganymede. The horses of Aeneas, which feature so prominently in the Iliad due to their abduction by Diomedes and subsequent victory in the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus, are descendants of these horses. [
5] In book XX, Aeneas recalls the story of the three thousand mares of Erichthonius, which mated with Boreas, the god of the North Wind, and produced twelve colts that could run over the top of the sea. [6]

τοῦ τρισχίλιαι ἵπποι ἕλος κάτα βουκολέοντο
θήλειαι, πώλοισιν ἀγαλλόμεναι ἀταλῇσι.
τάων καὶ Βορέης ἠράσσατο βοσκομενάων,
ἵππῳ δ’ εἰσάμενος παρελέξατο κυανοχαίτῃ·
αἳ δ’ ὑποκυσάμεναι ἔτεκον δυοκαίδεκα πώλους. 
αἳ δ’ ὅτε μὲν σκιρτῷεν ἐπὶ ζείδωρον ἄρουραν,
ἄκρον ἐπ’ ἀνθερίκων καρπὸν θέον οὐδὲ κατέκλων·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ σκιρτῷεν ἐπ’ εὐρέα νῶτα θαλάσσης,
ἄκρον ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖνος ἁλὸς πολιοῖο θέεσκον.

His three thousand horses grazed along the marsh-land, mares delighting in their tender foals. And Boreas became enamored of them while they pastured and, assuming the form of a dark-maned stallion, he mated with them. They conceived and bore twelve colts, which, when they bounded over the fruitful land, raced over the topmost ears of corn without breaking them, and, when they bounded over the wide back of the sea, they raced over the tops of the waves of the hoary sea.

Iliad XX 221–229

Furthermore, part of what makes Achilles special on the battlefield is that he has three horses attached to his chariot—unlike most fighters, who have only two—and that two of his are immortal. At the time of the events of the Iliad he has only recently added the mortal horse, Pedasos, while his permanent team of Xanthos and Balios are the immortal offspring of the Harpy Podarge, an especially appropriate name for the progenitor of famous steeds. Horses, then, share with humans, especially heroic humans, an ontological position unique among living things: they may descend from the gods and maintain some divine capacity derived from them. In the same way that heroes are marked out from the rest of humanity by their divine lineages, so then are their horses. Like the demigods they are descended from immortals, equine or godly, and in some cases capable of inheriting from them immortality themselves, as Herakles did from Zeus and his horse Areion did from Poseidon and Demeter.

The potential of horses to share with heroes characteristics of essential identity extends to a similarity in poetic treatment as well. Horses within the Iliad are regarded as heroes by the human characters of the poem as well as by its narrator, and occasionally treated like their owners themselves. For example in book VIII Hector urges his four horses to battle, [8] calling them by name and saying:

Ξάνθέ τε καὶ σὺ Πόδαργε καὶ Αἴθων Λάμπέ τε δῖε
νῦν μοι τὴν κομιδὴν ἀποτίνετον, ἣν μάλα πολλὴν
Ἀνδρομάχη θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος Ἠετίωνος
ὑμῖν πὰρ προτέροισι μελίφρονα πυρὸν ἔθηκεν
οἶνόν τ’ ἐγκεράσασα πιεῖν, ὅτε θυμὸς ἀνώγοι,
ἢ ἐμοί, ὅς πέρ οἱ θαλερὸς πόσις εὔχομαι εἶναι.

Iliad VIII 185–190

The fact that these horses drink wine at all distinguishes them from other animals since wine is a mark of human civilization. This act essentially isolates a species boundary, a boundary that positions horses as closer to humans than to other animals. The use of the phrase ὅτε θυμὸς ἀνώγοι is also striking and is translated here as “whenever your heart bade,” and is assumed to refer to the horses. It could, however, be argued that this clause refers to Andromache’s desire rather than to the horses’, that it should be translated as “whenever her heart bade.” Yet the formula πιέειν ὅτε θυμὸς ἀνώγοι appears elsewhere twice in the Homeric corpus and in each case πιέειν complements ἀνώγοι, [
10] so the heart of the figure by whom the wine is to be drunk is the subject of the verb ἀνώγοι. If that relationship holds true in this usage then the horses here display a degree of agency otherwise reserved for humans. It may be pointed out that this entire line was athetized by the Alexandrian editors, signaling their discomfort with the depiction of the horses drinking wine at all. Be that as it may, the image did appear in the ancient tradition, and did so because the offering of wine to heroes was a regular feature of Greek oral song and these horses are here treated as heroes, rather than as ordinary animals.

This attitude toward horses and heroes is also observable in the narrator of the poem himself. Near the end of the catalogue of ships he asks the goddess for special inspiration so that he may know who the very best of the warriors at Troy were:

οὗτοι ἄρ’ ἡγεμόνες Δαναῶν καὶ κοίρανοι ἦσαν:
τίς τ’ ἂρ τῶν ὄχ’ ἄριστος ἔην σύ μοι ἔννεπε Μοῦσα
αὐτῶν ἠδ’ ἵππων, οἳ ἅμ’ Ἀτρεί̈δῃσιν ἕποντο.

These were the leaders and commanders of the Danaans. But tell me, o Muse, who was the very best of the men and of the horses that followed with the sons of Atreus.

Iliad II 760–762

Her inspired answer is:

ἵπποι μὲν μέγ’ ἄρισται ἔσαν Φηρητιάδαο,
τὰς Εὔμηλος ἔλαυνε ποδώκεας ὄρνιθας ὣς

ἀνδρῶν αὖ μέγ’ ἄριστος ἔην Τελαμώνιος Αἴας
ὄφρ Ἀχιλεὺς μήνιεν· ὃ γὰρ πολὺ φέρτατος ἦεν,
ἵπποι θ᾽, οἳ φορέεσκον ἀμύμονα Πηλεί̈ωνα.

The best horses were the mares of the son of Pheres, the ones that Eumelus drove, swift like birds…And by far the best of men was Telemonian Ajax, so long, that is, as Achilles was raging. For he was indeed the most powerful, as were his horses, those who bore the incomparable son of Peleus.

Iliad II 763–764; 768–770

The narrator in fact also often compares heroes to horses, and even interweaves elements of the horses and their owners’ identities. The epic fighters in general wear horsehair-crested helmets, giving the impression that they have a horse’s mane. Horses are fitted out for battle along with warriors, who don a piece of clothing that makes them look, at least a little, like horses. Griffith expresses this very well: “The horse-hair plumes of these helmets blend valor with exuberance, horsiness with humanity.” [11] The dressing of both hero and horse works to assimilate the two figures visually. Some heroes can also be specially marked out by their identification with their horses, as a quick look at Diomedes and his horses will prove. In book V, when Aeneas is talking to Pandarus about the unknown man raging on the battlefield, Pandarus replies that he knows that man to be Diomedes, in part because of his horses. He says:

Τυδεί̈δῃ μιν ἔγωγε δαί̈φρονι πάντα ἐί̈σκω,
ἀσπίδι γιγνώσκων αὐλώπιδί τε τρυφαλείῃ,
ἵππους τ’ εἰσορόων.

I liken him in all ways to [Diomedes] the son of Tydeus, knowing him by his shield, his crested helmet, and by looking at his horses.

Iliad V 181–183

It is ironic that these horses by which Diomedes is recognized are the very horses that he will forsake for the semi-divine Trojan horses that he steals from Aeneas. Yet, the story of Diomedes in the Iliad is largely the story of a lesser hero stepping temporarily into the role of Achilles, and, in a sense, his heroic ascent is paralleled by his equestrian ascent. Pandarus, on the other hand, is best known for his archery and is unique among the Trojan fighters in not having any horses at all. When Aeneas asks him to assume the role of his charioteer in book V he does so because Pandarus has just explained that he has no horses of his own because he left them all in his homeland. [
12] He says in line 201 ἦ τ’ ἂν πολὺ κέρδιον ἦεν, “it would have been much better [if I had brought horses].” It is difficult to avoid thinking that the life that he leads at Troy, tricked into breaking the truce and finally killed, pierced through the tongue by Diomedes, is somehow presaged by his unusual dearth of horses, the warrior’s standard accoutrement and the very status marker in which Diomedes is excelling.

Furthermore, Diomedes upbraids the aged horseman Nestor for being out on the battlefield past his prime by criticizing his horses and by extension Nestor himself:

ὦ γέρον ἦ μάλα δή σε νέοι τείρουσι μαχηταί,
σὴ δὲ βίη λέλυται, χαλεπὸν δέ σε γῆρας ὀπάζει,
ἠπεδανὸς δέ νύ τοι θεράπων, βραδέες δέ τοι ἵπποι.
ἀλλ’ ἄγ’ ἐμῶν ὀχέων ἐπιβήσεο, ὄφρα ἴδηαι
οἷοι Τρώϊοι ἵπποι

Old man, indeed the young fighters are wearing you out. Your strength is sapped and harsh old age oppresses you. Your attendant is weak and your horses are slow. But come, mount my chariot and see of what sort are the horses of Troy.

Iliad VIII 102–106

Nestor’s old age is mirrored in the slowness of his horses while the superiority of Diomedes is reflected in the high quality of his, despite the fact that the horses have only recently been stolen from Aeneas. That the horses did not originally belong to Diomedes is not an issue: his present status as a fighter is perfectly matched by his current steeds, perhaps especially because he has proven his superiority over Aeneas by taking those horses. Diomedes’ superior stature means that the worthier horses are properly his regardless of their provenance.

This identification of horse and hero finds its most consistent expression in Achilles and his mixed triad of mortal and immortal horses. Achilles’ own horse-like qualities are signaled by his legendary speed as well as by his sharing of the epithet “swift-footed” with Iliadic horses. In turn, the human-like quality of his horses is made clear by the famous episodes in which they shed tears at the death of Patroclus [13] and in which one of the horses, Xanthos, rebukes Achilles for accusing the horses of allowing Patroclus’ death. [14] The close identity between Achilles and his horses is reflected in their relationship to immortality. As mentioned earlier, Xanthos and Balios [15] are the immortal offspring of a Harpy, and Pedasos, though mortal, is nevertheless swift enough to keep pace with the immortal horses:

τῷ δὲ καὶ Αὐτομέδων ὕπαγε ζυγὸν ὠκέας ἵππους
Ξάνθον καὶ Βαλίον, τὼ ἅμα πνοιῇσι πετέσθην,
τούς ἔτεκε Ζεφύρῳ ἀνέμῳ Ἅρπυια Ποδάργη
βοσκομένη λειμῶνι παρὰ ῥόον Ὠκεανοῖο.
ἐν δὲ παρηορίῃσιν ἀμύμονα Πήδασον ἵει,
τόν ῥά ποτ’ Ἠετίωνος ἑλὼν πόλιν ἤγαγ’ Ἀχιλλεύς,
ὃς καὶ θνητὸς ἐὼν ἕπεθ’ ἵπποις ἀθανάτοισι.

Iliad XVI 148–154

The mixture of mortal and immortal components in his chariot team reflects the genealogy of Achilles himself, the son of a goddess, Thetis, and a human, Peleus. [
18] We hear twice in the Iliad, once from Odysseus and once from Apollo, that no one but Achilles can drive his horses properly and that this is due to a similarity in their makeup. One of these instances occurs in book X, when Dolon confesses to Odysseus that he spied on the Trojan camp because Hector had promised him the horses of Achilles in return. Odysseus replies:

ἦ ῥά νύ τοι μεγάλων δώρων ἐπεμαίετο θυμὸς
ἵππων Αἰακίδαο δαΐφρονος· οἳ δ’ ἀλεγεινοὶ
ἀνδράσι γε θνητοῖσι δαμήμεναι ἠδ’ ὀχέεσθαι
ἄλλῳ γ’ ἢ Ἀχιλῆϊ, τὸν ἀθανάτη τέκε μήτηρ.

Indeed your heart was set on great gifts, the horses of the battle-minded son of Aeacus, but they are hard for mortal men to tame and drive, for any man but Achilles, whom an immortal mother bore.

Iliad X 401–404

The team is unmanageable to others because it is partly divine but can be mastered by Achilles, who is also partly divine, the son of the goddess Thetis. Yet it is singularly important that neither Achilles nor his chariot team is entirely divine, because the narratological focus is frequently not on the two immortal horses but on the mortal one, Pedasos, just as the narratological focus of the epic is on Achilles’ mortality despite his superhuman stature.

The relevance of Pedasos’ mortality is made abundantly clear at lines XVI 466–471. While Patroclus is fighting in Achilles’ stead and making use of his horses, Sarpedon throws a javelin at Patroclus:

Σαρπηδὼν δ’ αὐτοῦ μὲν ἀπήμβροτε δουρὶ φαεινῷ
δεύτερον ὁρμηθείς, ὃ δὲ Πήδασον οὔτασεν ἵππον
ἔγχεϊ δεξιὸν ὦμον: ὃ δ’ ἔβραχε θυμὸν ἀί̈σθων,
κὰδ δ’ ἔπεσ’ ἐν κονίῃσι μακών, ἀπὸ δ’ ἔπτατο θυμός.
δὲ διαστήτην, κρίκε δὲ ζυγόν, ἡνία δέ σφι
σύγχυτ’, ἐπεὶ δὴ κεῖτο παρήορος ἐν κονίῃσι.

Sarpedon missed him with his shining spear as he rushed at him in turn, but he struck the horse Pedasos with his spear on the right shoulder, and the horse shrieked, gasping for life, and having bleated he fell down in the dust, and his spirit flew away. Then the other two sprang aside and the yoke creaked and the reins tangled, while the trace horse lay dead in the dust.

Iliad XVI 466–471

Pedasos’ purpose, narratologically, is to die. Soon thereafter the immortal horses see Patroclus die as well, and as Zeus observes them shedding tears, he says:

ἆ δειλώ, τί σφῶϊ δόμεν Πηλῆϊ ἄνακτι
θνητῷ, ὑμεῖς δ’ ἐστὸν ἀγήρω τ’ ἀθανάτω τε;
ἦ ἵνα δυστήνοισι μετ’ ἀνδράσιν ἄλγε’ ἔχητον;

Oh wretched pair, why did we give you to lord Peleus, the mortal, you who are ageless and immortal? Was it so that you might have pains among miserable men?

Iliad XVII 443–445

These horses are also closely linked to Achilles’ immortal mother, Thetis, because they were given to Peleus as a gift from the gods when Thetis was forced to marry him. The plight of these immortal horses next to a mortal companion and accompanied by mortal riders recalls the frequent lamentations of Thetis at having been forced to marry a mortal and to bear a mortal child whom she must see die. It is the plight of immortals who are close to morals. The unusual combination of mortal and immortal in Achilles’ chariot team reflects the uneasy identity of Achilles himself, more than human but ultimately not fully divine. Pedasos’ tragic demise foreshadows Achilles’ own impending death as well as that of Patroclus, and we see that the Iliad’s tendency towards comparison of heroes and horses finds its most consistent expression in Achilles, the figure that is both most horse-like and most heroic.

Indic Horses and Indic Heroes

In approaching these hymns we should bear in mind how unusual they are, and the significance of that oddity. They occur in the Ṛgvedic corpus, which constitutes the earliest group of Vedic hymns. There are over a thousand of these hymns, and they almost exclusively praise divinities. The divine identity of the addressee is so expected that the addressee is referred to technically as the devatā, “divinity.” The devatā of each hymn is specifically designated by commentators and constitutes one of the four categories by which Sanskrit commentaries consistently identify each hymn, others being the composer’s name, the meter, and the hymn’s ritual application. The devatā of these hymns is identified simply as aśva, “horse,” according to this principle, which the commentator Sāyaṇācārya explains as follows: aśvasya stūyamānatvādyā tenocyate sā devateti nyāyenāśvo devatā, “because it is the horse who is being praised, the horse is the devatā, according to the principle that the devatā is that which is addressed by him [scil. the ṛṣi].” [20] His explication of this principle seems motivated by the oddity of a horse serving as the subject of a hymn, since this function is usually served by gods. In consideration of the fact that the corpus of Ṛgvedic hymns does contain actual divine horses and that Ṛgvedic poetry and culture descend from an Indo-European tradition, in which horses may have been important religious symbols, it seems sensible to think that the capacity of the horse to function as the addressee of such a hymn in some way continues an Indo-European tradition of sacred and divine horses.

A further similarity of horses to heroes is also revealed by the very first word of the quoted passage, vājin, which is frequently used to describe horses in the Ṛgveda. I have translated the word as “prize-winning” to call to mind Homeric parallels, such as ἀθλοφόρος. The connotations of vājin presumably extend to horse racing, which can itself be a form of symbolic combat, but vāja, from which this adjective is derived, also indicates the loot taken from conquered enemies by a warrior. The Vedic hymn IV.38, to the immortal stallion Dadhikrā, directly compares him to a king, nṛpatiḥ, translated as “lord of men”:

pruṣitápsum āśúṃ carkṛtyam aryó nṛpátiṃ ná śūram ||
yáṃ sīm ánu praváteva drávantaṃ víśvaḥ pūrúr mádati hárṣamāṇaḥ |
…ghṛdhyantam medhayúṃ ná śūraṃ rathatúraṃ ||

prize-winning…Dadhikrā…dappled, swift, to be praised by the faithful man, like a lord of men himself, and valiant, at whom each man rejoices, glad at heart, while [Dadhikrā] runs as if down a precipice, striving, eager for the rewards of war, like a valiant charioteer.

Ṛgveda IV.38.2–4

Kings in the context of the Ṛgveda are often praised as warriors, as they are in Homer, so nṛpatiṃ, the accusative form of nṛpatiḥ, here is a heroic epithet. This metaphor extends to describe Dadhikrā fighting in battle and snatching war spoils from enemies. Dadhikrā is propitiated in his capacity as hero, as, in fact, are the other divine horses, who are consistently described as invincible, vanquishers of chariots, etc. One of these immortal horses, Paidva, even takes the same epithet as Indra, ahihan, “dragon-slayer.” [22] In the earliest literature of both Greece and India, then, horses and heroes are handled in notably similar ways and display a similar ontological positioning. In India too horses function as a reflection of the hero and are treated in ways that render them very much like heroes, while heroes are treated in ways that render them like horses. A fascinating manifestation of this overlap between horse and hero occurs in heroic names that involve horses. [23] While discussing these well-documented names, such as Vīśtāspa (Avestan “swift horse”), Puhvel argues convincingly that these names are not simply bahuvrīhi compounds that indicate possession, e.g. “he of whom there is a swift horse,” but that they are meant to convey a sharing of quality between the horse and man. He says that “in onomastic usage the line gets blurred, even as ‘Crazy Horse’ hardly evokes the proud owner of a deranged equine.” [24] The compounds indicate possession in a way that draws on the ability of one’s horses to function as reflections of one’s own identity with the result that the owner of swift horse possesses some of the qualities of a swift horse himself. Horse and hero, then, are equated on a poetic and onomastic level. If this tendency indeed reflects inherited PIE cultural practice, then the Greek poetic treatment of horse and hero may well be a more ancient and complex phenomenon than it first appears.

It could be argued, of course, that the evidence presented thus far does not preclude the possibility that these similarities simply reflect a coincidence of internal logic within these societies, i.e. heroes use horses in battle so the comparison of the two is simply natural and any overlap just the result of chance. Given the relationship between these cultures, in history and poetry, this would seem unlikely to me, but to bolster these conclusions one would want to see evidence of some kernel of this phenomenon in the parent culture as well. Since we have no literature from that culture, however, such evidence is inherently difficult to obtain, to say the least. In this particular instance, however, we may be in exceptionally good luck. This is so because of one particular element of IE religious practice that has to do with horses, to which I will now turn.

The Horse Sacrifice

We must look then to the evidence for this kingly ritual, in which the space between equine and human identity became permeable, an appreciation of which has practical implications for our understanding of the unique treatment of heroes and horses in early Greek epic. The reconstruction of an actual religious ritual, however, is not as straightforward as the reconstruction of a word or phrase, and may not even be possible, because the evolution of a culture’s religion does not progress by consistent or predictable tendencies. Therefore, although it is important here to review the evidence and even discuss at some length certain issues brought up in reconstruction, I will ultimately suggest that we should not try to reconstruct the ritual precisely, but instead examine what our evidence for it allows us to glimpse about the patterns of thought that shaped its formation generally. This, I think, will be more useful for the sort of analysis needed for the study of horses in Greek poetry and will help us avoid certain difficult pitfalls inherent to precise ritual reconstruction.

The most secure evidence for this sacrifice comes from ancient India and Ireland. Our evidence for a kingly horse sacrifice in India is extensive, comprising literary evidence as well as archaeological. The archaeological evidence includes an aśvamedha (horse-sacrifice) altar near Kalsi, inscriptions attesting performances of such sacrifices, [26] and even coinage. [27] Our literary evidence, however, provides the oldest and most thorough descriptions of the particulars of the ritual. There exist two Ṛgvedic hymns about the sacrifice, I.162 and I.163, and detailed information about the ritual procedure and associated mantras is also provided by other texts, especially the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa [28] and the Śukla-yajur-veda. [29] Aśvamedhas also occur in both the Mahābhārata, in book XIV, the Aśvamedhikaparvan, and in books I and VII of the Rāmāyaṇa. Puhvel provides a succinct summary of the ritual:

The ritual could in fact be much more elaborate than this, and could involve as much as a full year of preparations, yet this summary will suffice for our current purposes. [

While the details of the later rituals are not widely documented outside of India, there is enough information that some scholars have attempted to reconstruct at least the essential elements of the PIE rite. [35] It is, however, my opinion that such reconstructions are always in jeopardy of privileging one or another of the later traditions. Since the details of the Indian horse sacrifice are so much better documented than the others, one could easily be tempted to include elements of the Indian rite in the PIE reconstruction that are not justified by other sources. Some of the specially Indian procedures may indeed be genuine remnants of PIE ritual practice that have simply been lost elsewhere, but there is no way to know which these are, and thus these Indian practices cannot securely be assumed to have descended from PIE traditions. Additionally, actual ritual practice in the culture of the Proto-Indo-Europeans should not be expected to have been any more consistent than ritual practices in other cultures, so as much room as is possible should be left in reconstructions for variations in ritual practice within PIE culture. Any such ritual is likely to have varied over time and even among different groups in the original community. Therefore, the safest methodology for hypothesizing about this particular ritual is to be minimalistic, using only the elements that are most secure and then to extrapolate from them a sense of the rationale of the sacrifice. This will undoubtedly give us an impression of the ritual that is unrealistically minimal, and we may suppose that in practice such sacrifices were much more elaborate than we can perceive. Yet it should provide us the surest details, which we will need in order to interpret early Greek poetic treatment of horses.

In such a minimalistic model many of the significant details of the later ritual will have to be omitted due to an inability to select between regional variants. Since my exclusion of some details is unusual I would like to explain the reasoning, before offering my conclusions. For instance, the Indian sacrifice involves the horse being killed by smothering before the copulation while the Irish tradition has it killed afterward in a manner that is unclear. Even more importantly, the Irish tradition has a king copulating with a horse, which should probably be assumed to be a mare, while the Indian tradition has a queen copulating with a stallion. It seems to me that the idiosyncrasies of these rituals are all so interrelated that it would be very difficult to select any particular facet of one ritual and project it all the way back to the parent culture. The method of execution in India, for example, is inextricably linked to the sequence of the ritual procedure there. It has occasionally been suggested that the explanation for this lies in the biology of asphyxia, in that death by asphyxiation gives rise to postmortem “tumescence,” which may have been necessary for the ensuing procedures. [36] It seems better to assume that this method of killing is related to another notable distinction of the Indian procedure: the fact that the killing occurs before the ritual copulation. The fiction of living participation on the part of the horse is evident and, in fact, essential in all the ritual procedures. Throughout the entire drama of the aśvamedha ritual, the participants, who include at least three wives and several priests, pretend that the horse is alive. For example the queen utters once she has lain down with the dead horse, ná mā nayati káścaná | sasastyaśvakáḥ, “no one is leading me [euphemistically], the horsey is sleeping.” [37] Furthermore there is no mantra associated with the killing of the horse, but this would, of course, have destroyed the fiction of the horse’s life. Traditional methods of sacrifice would have precluded, or at least dramatically complicated, the maintenance of this fiction by leaving the body of the animal visibly disfigured by the mortal wound. Thus the horse is presumably killed by smothering precisely because smothering leaves no marks. It is therefore necessary that the horse be killed before the sexual element of the ritual. If it were killed afterward, there would never be a need to pretend that the dead horse is alive, so no need for a method of execution that leaves no marks. This does not prove that the smothering could not have been part of the PIE ritual; it only requires that the smothering be tied to the ritual order: killing before sex. [38] To project the smothering onto the PIE ritual therefore requires that the ritual order be projected onto the PIE ritual as well. This is not, of course, impossible, but it is difficult to prove. [39] We cannot actually be sure then of how the horse was killed at all. My point is essentially that it is difficult to extricate this one or any one difference from a nexus of differences. If we attempt to create a terribly detailed reconstruction we are hard pressed not to retroject entire complexes of regional idiosyncrasies onto the parent culture.

We cannot be sure of the gender of the horse or even of the human participant. In our most useful bodies of comparanda, the Irish and the Indian, there is no agreement. The Hittite vase, if it does reflect a similar ritual, is of no help since both of these participants are human, perhaps playing the part of horses. In a lengthy treatment of the issue, Doniger O’Flaherty argues that the aśvamedha itself contains vestiges of a previous version of the ritual in which a man did indeed copulate with a mare. She points to a ready identification of the horse with the king, mediated by frequent solar symbolism which is pertinent to both figures, and focuses especially on the sexual abstinence, of both the king and the stallion, practiced during the preparation for the ceremony. [40] The stallion not only cannot have sex while the ritual is being prepared but, before his release for the year of wandering, is shown a pen of caged mares, whose sexually charged whinnying is a desirable omen. Doniger O’Flaherty sees in this caging and avoiding of female horses and women a symbolically manifested anxiety toward female sexual power. She sees these ancillary ritual elements as later, perhaps compensatory, additions to a ritual that had once had female sexuality as its principal feature. She argues that this may also explain the other principal difference between the two rituals, the fact that the horse is killed before the sexual act in the Indian version but after this act in the Irish. The switch from mare to stallion would make the horse the active, or penetrative, partner, and a live horse could not be counted on to perform this ritual function. The killing of the stallion and the subsequent fiction that the stallion is merely sleeping is a practical solution. Although this reasoning is tempting, I prefer to plot a more conservative course. I prefer to avoid most specific details entirely and to focus instead on the ritual logic of that sacrifice, the pattern of thought to which it testifies. In order to ensure the utmost stability of our analysis, I believe that no conclusion can safely be drawn as to the gender of the PIE horse without some agreement among our sources, and thus no safe conclusion can be drawn about either the ritual order of the death or the sex of the horse.

The minimal, yet reliable deduction that we must work with, then, is that this evidence reflects a kingship ritual involving sex between a royal human and a horse, in which the king is identified with a stallion and the queen with a mare and in which the horse involved is killed at some point. The underlying ritual logic then is that of human/horse ontological overlap on a conceptual and ritualistic level.

Human Sacrifice and the Equus October

There is yet one more ritual that has often been suggested as a survival of the PIE horse sacrifice, that of the Roman Equus October. I have so far omitted it from this discussion because I do not think it is a direct descendant of that ritual, or least it cannot be confirmed as such. Yet it is worth discussing for two reasons. First, since other scholars have included it in their analysis, I ought to explain why I do not. Second, even though I think that it is impossible to prove a relationship to the ritual discussed above, it is nevertheless possible that practices concerning the Equus October still preserve evidence of early ideology regarding horses and humans that will be useful.

Our principal source is Festus, who says under his entry for “October Equus”: [45]

October equus appellatur, qui in campo Martio mense Octobri immolatur quotannis Marti, bigarum victricum dexterior. De cuius capite non levis contentio solebat esse inter Suburaneses et Sacravienses, ut hi in regiae pariete, illi ad turrim Mamiliam id figerent; eiusdemque coda tanta celeritate perfertur in regiam ut ex ea sanguis destillet in focum, participandae rei divinae gratia.

The right-most horse of the winning chariot team is called the October horse and is killed each year in the field of Mars in the month of October. It is customary that no small fight occurs over its head between the Suburnians and Sacraviens; the former fight to hang the head on the wall of the regia, the latter on the Mamilian tower. The tail is carried to the Regia with such speed that its blood may drip into the hearth fire, for the sake of propitiating the goddess.

Lindsay 1913:190

He also discusses it under his entry for panibus:

Panibus redimibant caput equi immolati idibus Octobribus in campo Martio, quia id sacrificium fiebat ob frugum eventum; et equus potius quam bos immolabatur, quod hic bello, bos frugibus pariendus est aptus.

Lindsay 1913:246

Differences between this and the horse sacrifices discussed above are quite apparent. The ritual takes place annually while there is no evidence from the Indian or Irish versions that justifies understanding the PIE ritual as anything but a special occurrence rising out of particular circumstances. There is also no sex, which, it must be admitted, is a salient feature of the other rituals. There is also no real kingship involved. It seems then the Equus October is lacking in almost every requirement for inclusion in the group of IE horse sacrifices that descend from the PIE horse sacrifice. These differences have not, however, prevented scholars from seeing these rituals as related.

This is potentially relevant in Rome and to the Equus Octoberspecifically only because, although there is no evidence of human sacrifice in Rome, there was a certain execution that was modeled on the Equus October. In 46 BC Julius Caesar, once a pontifex maximus, had mutineers decapitated in the Campus Martius and their heads hung up in the Regia, an odd procedure that is reminiscent of the sacrifice. Cassius Dio tells us that this was, in fact, done precisely in the manner of a sacrifice, and the Equus Octoberseems to be the sacrifice that is implied:

ἄλλοι δὲ δύο ἄνδρες ἐν τρόπῳ τινὶ ἱερουργίας ἐσφάγησαν. καὶ τὸ μὲν αἴτιον οὐκ ἔχω εἰπεῖν (οὔτε γὰρ ἡ Σίβυλλα ἔχρησεν, οὔτ’ ἄλλο τι τοιοῦτο λόγιον ἐγένετο), ἐν δ’ οὖν τῷ Ἀρείῳ πεδίῳ πρός τε τῶν ποντιφίκων καὶ πρὸς τοῦ ἱερέως τοῦ Ἄρεως ἐτύθησαν, καὶ αἵ γε κεφαλαὶ αὐτῶν πρὸς τὸ βασίλειον ἀνετέθησαν.

The other two men were slaughtered in the manner of a sacrifice. I am not able to explain the reason for this, for the Sibyl did not order it nor was there any other such oracle. They were sacrificed in the Campus Martius by the pontifices and the priest of Ares [flamen martialis] and their heads were dedicated at the Regia.

Cassius Dio XLIII 24.4–5

I do not claim that this reflects a shared methodology for human sacrifice in Rome and India at all, of course. I only point out that in each case, when a human sacrifice was imagined the logical ritual practice on which to model it was the sacrifice of a horse. The fact that horses occupied an ontological position that was closer to humans than other animals marked horse sacrifice as the most logical paradigm for human sacrifice. Even without direct relation then, the rituals may still testify to a similar ideological connection between horses and humans, an ideological connection that is a genuine inheritance, and that we have seen in our Greek poetic sources as well.

Horse Sacrifice in Greece

The fact that horse sacrifice is rare in Greece is not particularly surprising when one considers the fact that the eating of horse meat was taboo there, [54] and that sacrifices were in many ways religiously charged communal banquets. Thus, animals would not usually be sacrificed that would not then be eaten, a fact that shapes the Aeschylean description of the horror of human sacrifice in the case of the sacrifice of Iphigenia: θυσίαν ἑτέραν ἄνομόν τιν’, ἄδαιτον, “another sacrifice, unlawful, not to be eaten.” [55] This reluctance of Greeks to eat horsemeat, in apparent distinction from their PIE ancestors and Indian counterparts, even seems to have influenced the repartee between Hesiod and Homer in their legendary Certamen, in which Hesiod composes one line of verse and Homer has to compose the next. Hesiod composed lines for which it would be logically difficult to compose a companion line. In one instance, that difficulty seems to involve the taboo concerning the consumption of horse meat: Δεῖπνον ἔπειθ’ εἵλοντο βοῶν κρέα καὐχένας ἵππων, 107. This would lead the listener to expect the meat of the cows and the necks of the horses to be part of the meal. Finishing this line is a challenge because of the way that it plays on the cultural taboo of horse-eating. Homer, then, is quite deft to finish the couplet in a way that circumvents this problem with the line: ἔκλυον ἱδρώοντας, ἐπεὶ πολέμοιο κορέσθην, 108. This, then, renders the entire couplet as “they feasted on the meat of the cows and they loosed the sweating necks of the horses, since they had had their fill of war.” [56]

Homer’s need to alter the apparent semantic trajectory of the line grows partially out of the Greek disinclination to eat horse meat, but also coincides with a general unwillingness to sacrifice horses. It may, of course, seem odd that an animal that was once specially marked for important sacrifices becomes particularly unlikely as sacrificial victim. This need not be surprising, however, since it is possible that resistance to sacrificing a particular animal is paradoxically not unlike eagerness to sacrifice a particular animal. Each case reflects a designation of that animal as uniquely sacred. It is not hard to imagine the same reverence for an animal rendering it especially sacrificial in one time period and especially unfit for sacrifice in another. This very phenomenon is, in fact, evident in the transition from Vedic to post-Vedic attitudes toward the sacrifice of cows.

Horse sacrifice in Greece is not, however, completely unknown so much as uncommon. [57] There are, in fact, fascinating and potentially relevant references to horse sacrifices being performed to Poseidon Hippios in commemoration of his coupling with Demeter in the form of a horse herself, which was discussed above. Recall that she, in her wandering in search of her daughter, was pursued by Poseidon and took on the form of a horse to escape him. He chased her, in the form of a horse himself, and eventually he had sex with her. Whether these sacrifices or the myths that surround them have any relationship to the aśvamedha is certainly not secure. The Indian and Irish comparanda provide the essential elements needed for identification in the ritual itself, while in this case these elements appear partly in the ritual itself and partly in its mythological etymology. That is to say that the sex and hippomorphism are not in the ritual but in the myth that informs the ritual. It is not impossible that the PIE horse sacrifice was itself linked to a mythological etymon which is uniquely preserved in the myth associated here; Doniger O’Flaherty has, in fact, argued for just such a possibility. [58] I will not claim that this mythology ought to be treated as the continuation of cognate tradition without hesitation (and it certainly should not be used to inform our reconstruction of the PIE ritual) but it does reflect an overlap in ideology, that of hippomorphic transformation and sex.

Finally, Odysseus, the devisor of the strategy, is himself sometimes said to have been transformed into a horse.

ὅτι τὸ μὲν τῶν φαλαγγίων καὶ ὄφεων γένος Τιτήνων ἐνέπουσιν ἀφ’ αἵματος ἐζωγονῆσθαι, τὸν δὲ Πήγασον λαιμοτομηθείσης τῆς Γοργόνος ἀπὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς ἐκθορεῖν, καὶ οἱ μὲν Διομήδους ἑταῖροι εἰς θαλασσίους μετέβαλον ὄρνις, ὁ δὲ Ὀδυσσεὺς εἰς ἵππον, ἡ δὲ Ἑκάβη εἰς κύνα.

Sextus Πρὸς Μαθηματικούς I 264–265

Sextus mentions this story in the midst of a condemnation of what he saw as widespread scholarly reluctance to distinguish fact from fiction. Although Sextus mentions this story as if it was a normal topic of discussion among the educated, the obscurity of the other accounts among which it is mentioned may lead us to think otherwise. There are, however, other sources for this story. We find some corroborating data, for example, in Ptolemaios Chennos, who retells some useful pieces of information which, he claims, come from Herodotus:

Καὶ ὡς ἐν Τυρρηνίᾳ φασὶν εἶναι Ἁλὸς πύργον καλούμενον, ὀνομασθῆναι δὲ ἀπὸ Ἁλὸς Τυρρηνῆς φαρμακίδος, ἣ Κίρκης θεράπαινα γενομένη διέδρα τῆς δεσποίνης. Πρὸς ταύτην δέ φησι παραγενόμενον τὸν Ὀδυσσέα εἰς ἵππον μετέβαλε τοῖς φαρμάκοις καὶ ἔτρεφε παρ’ ἑαυτῇ ἕως γηράσας ἐτελεύτησεν.

And in the Tyrrhenian land they say that there is a tower of the Sea and that its name comes from a Tyrrhenian poisoner, “Sea,” who was a servant of Circe but who had left her mistress. He [Herodotus] says that when Odysseus came to her she turned him into a horse and looked after him until he died in old age.

Ptolemaios apud Photius Bibliotheca 150a16

Finally, we learn from Servius that Odysseus is said to have died when he, still in the form of a horse, was stabbed with a spear.

Necatur autem vel senectute, vel Telegoni filii manu aculeo marinae belvae extinctus. Dicitur enim, cum continuo fugeret, a Minerva in equum mutatus.

He was killed either by old age or by the spine of a marine creature at the hand of his son Telegonus. For he is said to have been turned into a horse by Minerva as soon as he fled.

Servius auct. Aeneid II 44

This particular source is especially tantalizing since the transformation is mentioned here as part of an essential, and fairly minimal, biography of the epic hero, as if this transformation was not terribly obscure to Servius. These scant bits of evidence, however, do not allow us to piece together a mythic narrative, nor even to be certain that they refer to the same story. They may, after all, simply refer to mythical variants linked through the common motif of Odysseus’ equine transformation. Even without an overarching narrative, however, it is still evident that Odysseus was said to have been the subject of equine transformation and that, at least according to Servius, he was sometimes said to have been killed while in horse form, stabbed in a way not dissimilar to Laocoön’s stabbing of the Trojan Horse.

Finally, as discussed above about India and potentially Rome, the depiction of human sacrifice in Greece can provide useful evidence to confirm this continuity of ideology. Our Greek evidence does not provide an obvious cognate with the Indian ritual but, again, presents a few important pieces of evidence. [65] The seventh-century burial at Lefkandi, for example, is often seen to document a human sacrifice, a satī, that may have accompanied the sacrifice of horses. [66] Greek literature provides evidence as well, in at least two prominent forms. The first comes in Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan youths at the funeral of Patroclus, at which the youths are hurled into the fire. This sacrifice is particularly interesting because it is accompanied by the slaughter of πίσυρας ἵππους ἐριαύχενας, “four strong-necked horses.” [67] Other animals were sacrificed as well, but it is the horses and the men to whom Achilles draws attention as he tells the other Greeks to remove the bones of Patroclus from the pyre. He says that Patroclus’ bones will be easy to distinguish because they are apart from the rest, which are ἐπιμὶξ ἵπποι τε καὶ ἄνδρες, “the horse and the men mixed together.” [68] Additionally, the dressing of the victims for the sacrifice is explicitly mentioned for the other animals, yet the horses and men are simply “thrown” on the pyre. [69] It is not impossible that the slaughter of the men and horses should be understood as having occurred before they are thrown on the fire, but it does seem as if they were thrown on alive. If this is true, the horses and men are treated in a uniquely similar way and truly marked out from the other victims.

Both in the actual liturgy of the puruṣamedha and in several other notable sacrifices in the PIE world there is a tendency to compare humans to horses. I believe that this preserves an inherited tendency toward the hippomorphizing of humans and anthropomorphizing of horses that is linked to a conceptual overlap of the species that is traceable to prehistoric times and the common culture of the Indo-European peoples. To return to the epic heroes, then, the similarity between horses and heroes reflected in both our Greek and our Vedic Sanskrit sources is not a fully isolated phenomenon, but one special realization of a broader tendency, one that is evident not only in our literary sources but in sacrificial practices continuous from distant antiquity.

The Horse Sacrifice and the Life of Pelopidas

The horse sacrifice described in Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas may bear special testimony to the ideological nexus described above. Since the passage has never, to my knowledge, been analyzed in the light of IE horse sacrifices, I think that it is worthwhile to attempt to examine it through the information presented above. The Greek legends of the Leuktridai and of the sacrifice offered to them on the eve of the Theban battle against the Spartans in 371 BCE contain descriptions of a horse sacrifice that is very infrequently discussed in scholarly studies but incredibly interesting in light of the PIE horse sacrifice and the symbolic logic between humans and horses to which it testifies. It does not, I think, constitute a direct Greek descendant of the famous PIE ritual, but it does reflect categories of ideological inheritance outlined above.

Pausanias and Plutarch both relate that on the eve of that battle a sacrifice was performed in honor of the girls. Pausanias offers no details about the nature of the sacrifice, but Plutarch says in two passages that it was a horse sacrifice and that it was requested by an image of the girls’ father that appeared to the Theban general in a dream. In the Amatoriae Narrationes (774D), Plutarch says that it was a white horse. He does not specify the age or gender of the horse but simply calls it a ἵππος, which may refer to either a mare or stallion. The Life of Pelopidas is much more detailed and differs markedly in the color of the horse: [76]

Ὁ δὲ Πελοπίδας ἐν τῷ στρατοπέδῳ κατακοιμηθεὶς ἔδοξε τάς τε παῖδας ὁρᾶν περὶ τὰ μνήματα θρηνούσας καὶ καταρωμένας τοῖς Σπαρτιάταις, τόν τε Σκέδασον κελεύοντα ταῖς κόραις σφαγιάσαι παρθένον ξανθήν, εἰ βούλοιτο τῶν πολεμίων ἐπικρατῆσαι….πῶλος ἐξ ἀγέλης ἀποφυγοῦσα καὶ φερομένη διὰ τῶν ὅπλων, ὡς ἦν θέουσα κατ’ αὐτοὺς ἐκείνους, ἐπέστη· καὶ τοῖς μὲν ἄλλοις θέαν παρεῖχεν ἥ τε χρόα στίλβουσα τῆς χαίτης πυρσότατον, ἥ τε γαυρότης καὶ τὸ σοβαρὸν καὶ τεθαρρηκὸς τῆς φωνῆς· Θεόκριτος δ’ ὁ μάντις συμφρονήσας ἀνεβόησε πρὸς τὸν Πελοπίδαν· ἥκει σοι τὸ ἱερεῖον ὦ δαιμόνιε, καὶ παρθένον ἄλλην μὴ περιμένωμεν, ἀλλὰ χρῶ δεξάμενος ἣν ὁ θεὸς δίδωσιν.

When Pelopidas lay down to sleep in the camp he seemed to behold these girls weeping over their tombs and cursing the Spartans. He also saw Skedasos [their father] commanding him to sacrifice to the girls a red-haired maiden, if he desired victory over his enemies.…A filly broke away from a herd of horses and ran through the camp, and when it had run right up to them, it stood still. While the rest of the men were admiring the shining fiery color of her mane, and her exultant nature, as well as the vehemence and boldness of her voice, Theokritos, the seer, reflected and cried out to Pelopidas, “Your sacrifice has come, sir. Let us not wait for another maiden, but accept and use the one that the god offers.”

Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas 21–22

The sacrifice was then made and the Thebans went on to victory.

The relevance of the discussion to this particular scene is presumably clear. The horse here is not just sacrificed instead of a girl but as a girl. The seer makes this explicit, and the horse and girl are the same gender, both young (it is a πῶλος), and they both have the same color hair (παρθένον ξανθήν; χρόα στίλβουσα τῆς χαίτης πυρσότατον). [77] The horse is sacrificed for girls who themselves have an equine element in their identity, at least onomastically, and the horse is offered as a substitute for a human girl whose identity it reflects. What we are seeing here is, in fact, sacrificial hippomorphism like that expressed in the Irish ritual, pervasive in the aśvamedha, and structural in the puruṣamedha. Even if this is not a real ritual it participates in the same logic that shaped the ancestral ritual. It is the same symbolic logic present in Achilles’ killing of twelve young Trojan warriors and twelve horses in Iliad book XXIII. This sacrifice does not deal with kingship, but it does deal with political power and patriarchal authority, as the aśvamedha does. There is no equine sex, but there is sexualization of different sorts, both in the initial rape and perhaps in the character of the girl and horse, or girl/horse, whose youth, gender, and general visual allure are erotically colored. Although this is clearly not a literal ritual continuation of the PIE horse sacrifice itself, it reflects the same ideological nexus that informed that ritual.

Early in this chapter I attempted to highlight a species boundary that is implicit in early Greek poetry, one that separates humans and horses from other animals. The existence of this boundary has widespread ramifications in Greek literature and informs human and equine poetic comparisons as well as mythical examples of hippomorphism. The fact that many of these phenomena are reflected in the related poetry and culture of India, as well as in other IE cultures, led me to propose that these are not purely Greek developments but instead local outgrowths of an ancient cultural ideology, inherited in Greece and common to other IE cultures. As proof of this I pointed to evidence concerning horse sacrifices in Greece and elsewhere. For in these rituals we find evidence of this phenomenon and proof that it appeared not just in daughter cultures but in the parent culture as well. Not only do we have evidence that an ontological overlap of horse and human was central to the kingly horse sacrifice, but even our human sacrifice texts seem to imagine human sacrifice as modeled on horse sacrifice specifically, in Greece as well as in related cultures. We have good reason to believe, then, that Greek mythic and poetic treatment of horses and humans developed out of inherited cultural tendencies.


[ back ] 1. Hippomorphism in IE texts is also discussed by Puhvel (1987:274). I use the term slightly more loosely, in discussion not only of literal, physical hippomorphism but of metaphorical hippomorphism as well, i.e. of poetic and ritualistic treatments of human shape or physicality as fundamentally like that of a horse. Similarly, I talk of anthropomorphism in cases wherein horses are treated in the same way, vis-à-vis humans.

[ back ] 2. The treatment of horse-taming as a measure of one’s heroic valor is also common in Greek epic, but I will not look at that topic extensively in this work. For a survey of the evidence, however, see Macurdy 1923.

[ back ] 3. Quintus Smyrnaeus VIII 242; Ovid Metamorphoses II 153–154; Stesichorus frag. 178.

[ back ] 4. See also Apollodorus III 77 and Hesiod Shield 120. Demeter and Poseidon are not the only deities to have produced a child while in horse form. Cronos is said to have mated with Phillyra while in horse-form as well. The union is part of one of the competing genealogies of the centaur Chiron, to be discussed in the appendix.

[ back ] 5. Iliad V 263–269.

[ back ] 6. The phenomenon of animals impregnated by the wind is documented in other Greco-Roman sources as well. For extensive treatment see Zirkle 1936.

[ back ] 7. Rare exceptions exist, such as the crow of Apollo who informed him of the love affair of Coronis. This, however, seems quite different from the role of divine horses, who exist as a broader class, yet are more individualized and have more developed mythologies.

[ back ] 8. Achilles and Hector are the only Homeric heroes with more than two horses attached to their chariots. It is noteworthy that the unique position of these heroes among their peoples and their unique relationship to each other, which comprises the narratological climax of the work, the battle between Achilles and Hector, is reflected by their abundance of horses. On the number of horses possessed by heroes both in the Iliad and elsewhere, see Delebecque 1951:143–144.

[ back ] 9. The participle ἐγκεράσασα could imply that she mixed the wine in a bowl or that she mixed it in with the food. The former makes better sense with the infinitive πιεῖν while the latter has seemed more reasonable to most readers; see Kirk 1990:313. In either case, that fact that the horses consume wine is remarkable and, I think, heroic.

[ back ] 10. Iliad IV 263, Odyssey viii 70. This formula also appears modified in Odyssey xvi 141, πίνε καὶ ἧσθ’, ὅτε θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀνώγοι, “He drank and he ate whenever the heart in his chest bade.”

[ back ] 11. Griffith 2006:315.

[ back ] 12. See Iliad V 192–203.

[ back ] 13. Iliad XVII 426.

[ back ] 14. Iliad XIX 404–417. On Xanthos as a conflation of other talking horses see Johnston 1992. Talking horses are not, of course, entirely rare outside of the Homeric epics. They are common enough in folk tales, such as Grimm Brothers’ Die Gänsemagd and Dapplegrim, and are quite well known in epic poetry outside of Greece. See Bowra 1961:165–169. The Ṛgvedic figure Dadhyac speaks in hymn 1.119.9 with a horse head having replaced his own.

[ back ] 15. Balios is unusual among epic horses in not having an etymologically transparent name. For a discussion of the possible Illyrian etymology see Athanassakis 2002.

[ back ] 16. The Harpies are themselves associated with the wind and, at times, are almost an expression of it: Odyssey xx 66–77. One of the Harpies, Ἀελλώ, even takes her name from the word for storm-wind, ἄελλα; see Theogony 267.

[ back ] 17. It will be noticed that Andromache and Pedasos both come from the same city, Thebe, which was controlled by Andromache’s father, Eëtion. The city was sacked by Achilles and his Myrmidons before the war at Troy. While Achilles took the horse from the city for himself, Andromache escaped, the sole survivor in her family, and fled to Troy, where she married Hector. In epic, women and horses are both treated, in some sense, as moveable property.

[ back ] 18. Although the horse genealogy considered here is by far the most common reflected in our sources, an account of Xanthos and Balios in Diodorus Siculus VI 3 claims that they were once Titans who were so ashamed of their relation to the other Titans that they asked Zeus to alter their shape.

[ back ] 19. MacDonnell 1898:148–149.

[ back ] 20. Sāyaṇācārya, ad Ṛgveda I.162.

[ back ] 21. Ṛgveda I.162.1.

[ back ] 22. Ṛgveda I.117.9, I.118.9.

[ back ] 23. See the Introduction for a number of examples of this phenomenon, page 4.

[ back ] 24. Puhvel 1987:269.

[ back ] 25. For early work see Dumont 1927; Koppers 1936; Negelein 1903. More recent bibliography will be cited throughout this section.

[ back ] 26. Ramachandran 1951, 1952; Mirashi 1963:xx.

[ back ] 27. Allan 1914:plate V.

[ back ] 28. XIII.2.6.1–XIII.2.9.9; XIII.5.2.1–XIII.5.3.7.

[ back ] 29. Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā XXIII. See also Śrauta-sūtra, Kātyayana-śrauta-sutra XX.5.1–XX.7.26.

[ back ] 30. Puhvel 1987:271.

[ back ] 31. A fuller description can be found in Fuchs 1996:17–28, and the authoritative and most exhausting account is Dumont 1927.

[ back ] 32. Puhvel raises the possibility that a more accurate description of the ritual would have produced even more traces of PIE ancestry (1987:275). I will add that one key difference between the two rituals, the fact that one involves actual sexual contact and one does not, has been challenged by Jamison (1996:65), who argues that the Indian ritual did in fact contain sexual contact.

[ back ] 33. Özgüç 1988.

[ back ] 34. Watkins 1995:267.

[ back ] 35. Dumézil 1954:73–91; Puhvel 1987:269–276; Doniger O’Flaherty 1980:149–212.

[ back ] 36. Puhvel 1987:272.

[ back ] 37. Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā XXIII.18. My translation here is based on that of Jamison (1996:67).

[ back ] 38. If Doniger O’Flaherty should prove correct in her suggestion that the original sacrificial horse was a mare and that the killing of the horse before the ceremony is an Indian innovation to circumvent the difficulty, and danger, of compelling a stallion to mate with a human woman, then the smothering must be an attendant innovation. Doniger O’Flaherty 1980:149–212.

[ back ] 39. Herodotus tells us at IV 71.4 of a Scythian practice in which a horse was sacrificed along with humans, one of which was a concubine who had been smothered. If this is true it is possible that this reflects a vestige of inherited IE sacrificial practice in which the smothering has been transferred from horse to human, but this is too speculative to include in my analysis above.

[ back ] 40. The king is required to share a bed with his favorite wife but forbidden to have sex with her. This is presumably to be connected with the showing of the mares to the sacrificial stallion, who is also prevented from having sex for the entire year before the sacrifice.

[ back ] 41. The original purpose of the ritual is also a matter of inquiry. The fact that it helped to perpetuate a kingship seems secure, but whether its applications were more specific is not made clear from our sources. See Puhvel 1987:273–274.

[ back ] 42. Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā XXIII.20.

[ back ] 43. Puhvel 1987:275.

[ back ] 44. Trans. E.C. Sachau; Albêrûnî 2002:548.

[ back ] 45. For the full details of the argument for a cognate relationship, see Dumézil 1954:73–91.

[ back ] 46. There is also a description from Polybius XII 4b: φησὶ τοὺς Ῥωμαίους ἔτι νῦν ὑπόμνημα ποιουμένους τῆς κατὰ τὸ Ἴλιον ἀπωλείας ἐν ἡμέρᾳ τινὶ κατακοντίζειν ἵππον πολεμιστὴν πρὸ τῆς πόλεως ἐν τῷ Κάμπῳ καλουμένῳ, διὰ τὸ τῆς Τροίας τὴν ἅλωσιν διὰ τὸν ἵππον γενέσθαι τὸν δούριον προσαγορευόμενον. “They say that the Romans even now commemorate the fall of Troy on a certain day by killing a war horse with a spear on the Campus because of the belief that the fall of Troy was brought about by a wooden horse.”

[ back ] 47. Dumézil 1954:73–91.

[ back ] 48. Dumézil himself rejects this idea, arguing that this is an offering of thanks to Mars for defending the land and thereby allowing a successful harvest. The import of this phrase is entirely martial, he claims. Dumézil’s vigorous stance is part and parcel of his broader critique of the possibility of an early “agrarian Mars,” a version of the deity who wielded influence over agricultural affairs in addition to martial (1954:78 and 1966:221).

[ back ] 49. A second Roman parallel to the aśvamedha has been suggested by Noonan (2006) in the form of the submersion of Mettius Curtius into the Lacus Curtius. Noonan argues that this submersion of the horse is related to the bathing of the horse prior to the Indian ritual. The bathing of the horse is indeed an important part of the Indian ritual and its procedure strictly prescribed, yet without testimony in the Irish account, it cannot be taken for granted in the PIE ritual and therefore the possibility of a cognate in the Lacus Curtius incident, though tantalizing, must also, at least for the moment, be omitted from our analysis as it also does not involve sex, kingship, or hippomorphism.

[ back ] 50. For fuller description see Fuchs 1996:28.

[ back ] 51. See Puhvel 1978 on the hierarchy of sacrificial animals in the PIE world and the possible place of humans in it.

[ back ] 52. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (1995) cite others rituals throughout the IE world that may testify this connection as well (402–403, 468, 469). They also discuss some Hittite law codes that treat humans and horses in similar ways (402, 464).

[ back ] 53. It is tempting to assume from this fact that horse sacrifice was rare in the IE cultures in general, yet this would not be entirely true. The Persians may have sacrificed horses to the sun regularly, and horse sacrifices among the Germanic peoples do not seem to have been uncommon. For a list of other horse sacrifices in the IE world, see Dumont 1927:xv.

[ back ] 54. Koppers 1936:292.

[ back ] 55. Agamemnon 151.

[ back ] 56. The line is a clever manipulation of an Iliadic line, itself from a feast scene: οἰ δ’ ἵππους μὲν λῦσαν ὑπὸ ζυγοῦ ἱδρώοντας, “and they loosed from the yoke the sweating horses” (VIII 543).

[ back ] 57. See Farnell 1977:4.13 and Kosmetatou 1993 concerning the evidence that we have for horse sacrifices from the Mycenaean period onward. It is sometimes said that Greeks made much less use of horses than their IE relatives because of the degree to which seafaring replaced agricultural production and land travel in Greece. This may also have influenced the relative paucity of horse-based religious symbolism. I would point out that the horse sacrifices that are documented in Greece occur most frequently in the central Peloponnese, where seafaring was less important than in many other parts of Greece. The Spartans, who did perform horse sacrifices, specially worshiped the Dioskouroi, the divine horsemen, and worshiped Artemis with hippomorphic votive offerings. Festus himself cites, as a possible antecedent for the Equus October, the sacrifice of a horse by the Spartans offered to the winds at Taygetus.

[ back ] 58. Doniger O’Flaherty 1980:149–152.

[ back ] 59. Pindar’s fourth Olympian ode also contains a description of Zeus, the god of kings, that is noteworthy in this context: ἐπεί νιν αἰνέω, μάλα μὲν τροφαῖς ἑτοῖμον ἵππων, “Since I praise him, he who is very ready in the raising of horses” (14).

[ back ] 60. Aeneid II 50–53; Odyssey viii 507; Burkert 1983:158–161.

[ back ] 61. Polybius confirms that this was indeed a common Roman explanation for the origin of the Equus October ritual; See XII 4b.

[ back ] 62. See also Sextus Πρὸς Μαθηματικούς 1.267, wherein appears the report that Odysseus died after being turned into a horse, ὅτι εἰς ἵππον μετέβαλε τὴν μορφήν.

[ back ] 63. See page 43, note 18.

[ back ] 64. The association between horses and kingship must have also been influenced by the expense required to maintain horses and the useful role of horses in displaying one’s wealth; cf. Griffith 2006. It is the son’s love for horses in Aristophanes’ Clouds that serves as touchstone for the economic and class anxiety of the work. In both Athens and Rome classes of rich men were designated as horsemen, the Hippeis and the Equites. The economic and social signification of horses is also documented by the use of equestrian statues for self-representation and aggrandizement among the wealthy.

[ back ] 65. For a full treatment of human sacrifice in Greece see Hughes 1991.

[ back ] 66. Hughes 1991:46–47.

[ back ] 67. Iliad XXIII 171.

[ back ] 68. Iliad XXIII 242.

[ back ] 69. Iliad XXIII 161–178.

[ back ] 70. Burkert (1983:159) suggests that the killing of Odysseus casts him as the sacrificed Trojan Horse and links the barb with which he was killed with the spear used by Laocoön to pierce the wooden horse. If this analysis is correct then this episode also reflects the pattern outlined above.

[ back ] 71. For a full review of potential sources see Schachter 1981:2.122. The principal ancient sources are Ailianos fr. 77; Diodorus Siculus XV 54.2–3; Pausanias IX 13.5–6, 14.3; Plutarch Life of Pelopidas 20–22, Amatoriae Narrationes 773B–774D, De Heroditi Malignitate 856F; Xenophon Hellenika VI 4.7.

[ back ] 72. The origin of this name is itself disputed by our sources: they are sometimes said to be the descendants of a man named Leuktros, but otherwise they are the daughters of Skedasos, in which case their name must derive from their place of origin. Pausanias claims that they are the daughters of Skedasos. Both Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas and the Amatoriae Narrationes call them the daughters of Skedasos, while De Heroditi Malignitate calls them the daughters of Leuktros. Diodorus says that they were the daughters of both men.

[ back ] 73. It is difficult to observe the name Leuktridai and the girls’ equine names and not think of the λεύκιπποι, or bright horses, the sons of Zeus who are generally thought to be the Greek manifestation of the IE divine horsemen. It seems safest to me, however, to treat this as coincidence.

[ back ] 74. In the Amatoriae Narrationes they are murdered by the Spartans. Their father is often said to have taken his own life as well.

[ back ] 75. See Fontenrose on the relevant Delphic prophesies, 146–148.

[ back ] 76. More detail may be given in this account in order to contrast the character of Pelopidas with that of Agesilaus, who had a similar vision and with whose biography Plutarch’s depiction of Pelopidas is paired. For commentary on this scene vis-à-vis Plutarch’s generally see Georgiadou 1997:161–172 and Westlake 1939:13.

[ back ] 77. It will be shown in Chapter 3 that hair is a very common focus in comparisons of human and equine form, especially in the case of eroticized comparisons.