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.


The world of the ancient Greeks did not arise ex nihilo but developed from earlier cultures, which are harder to evaluate because of their extreme age. The last century or more of research has, however, proven that most of the languages of Europe, the Near East, and India all descend from a common language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE), and that the various cultures of the Indo-European (IE) world, including the Greek, descend in some way from that of the speakers of that language. Although the world of the prehistoric IE peoples is very difficult to study, linguistic and archeological research allows us significant insights, and thanks to that research we know much more about the prehistory of Greek culture than we did even a short time ago. My intention here is not to contribute directly to that study itself, however, but rather to investigate certain facets of the earliest recorded Greek poetry in ways that draw on that research meaningfully and, I hope, innovatively. Specifically, my work is a literary analysis of the treatment of horses and horsemanship in early Greek poetry that incorporates elements of what has been revealed about prehistoric treatment of horses to explain unique and heretofore puzzling elements of Greek verbal art.

I begin this study with a review of Homeric equine formulas, focusing on ὠκέες ἵπποι. My analysis of the special position of this phrase in Homeric poetry grows out of an evaluation of our evidence for its existence in pre-Homeric poetry, from the distant ancestors of the Greeks to Greek poets who lived just before the advent of alphabetic writing. I work to show how certain prehistoric developments in the phrase affected its proliferation in Homer and to reveal its relationship to several seemingly disparate equine formulas. Chapter 1 con-cludes with a study of the word κλυτόπωλος, a somewhat perplexing epithet of Hades, the origin of which is, I believe, inextricably bound to the deep history of the these formulas, as well as the history of Homeric horse formulas generally.

In Chapter 2 I turn to horses themselves and to their relation to epic heroes. There I focus not only on the similarity of treatment accorded to them in epic verse but also on the fact that they share with humans a unique relationship to the gods: they can descend from the immortals, and they are capable of deriving semi-divine status from them. This extreme similarity of horses and humans, at a deeply ontological level, has parallels elsewhere in the IE world and reflects inherited ideology that ought to color our analysis of Homeric horses. I strengthen this assertion with a survey of evidence for horse sacrifices in the IE world that testify to a long tradition of thinking of humans and horses in uniquely similar ways.

In Chapter 3 I examine Greek lyric comparisons of horses and humans, which, unlike epic comparisons, often involve both male and female subjects and frequently have erotic overtones. After discussing the phenomenon itself I again turn to our evidence for horse sacrifices, which testify to a long cultural history of using horses to think about sex and power. I ultimately suggest that the sexual element of the symbology of the horse provides a key to understanding the metapoetic deployment of the image of the charioteer in Greek poetry.

Finally, in Chapter 4 I address the role of chariots in Greek and Indian marriage myths. This analysis reveals methodological distinctions between equine phenomena that are directly inherited from the parent culture and those that evolved independently but can still be meaningfully understood through an appreciation of inherited poetic practice.

Preliminary Evidence and Preliminary Assumptions: Horses and Proto-Indo-European Culture

The foundations upon which my work does stand should be made clear at the outset of this study. These assumptions are, I believe, beyond serious dispute and constitute sufficient basis on which to build an argument. The most elemental of these is simply that the PIE community was itself aware of the horse and that the horse was not individually encountered by each of the descendant IE communities in subsequent cultural phases as use of the domesticated horse spread throughout Eurasia. This assumption rests primarily on the linguistic evidence of a shared equine vocabulary among several descendant IE languages. The PIE h1ék̑u̯os, ‘horse’, yielded Hieroglyphic Luwian a-su-wa, Sanskrit aśva, Avestan aspa, Tocharian A yuk, Tacharian B yakwe, Greek ἵππος, Latin equus, Venetic eku, Anglo-Saxon eoh, Gaulish epo-, and Old Irish ech, as well as Lithuanian ashvienis (stallion), Old Church Slavic ehu-skalk (horse-groomer), and Mitanni a-as-su-us-sa-an-ni (horse-trainer). [2] Had these cultures encountered horses individually, after the dissolution of the PIE community, they would have created their own innovative terms for the animal, which they did not do, or borrowed vocabulary from the same communities from whom they acquired knowledge of the animal itself. If they had borrowed this vocabulary, even if they had borrowed it from other IE languages, this would be clear linguistically. For example, the English word “marshal,” descends from the borrowed Frankish word “marahskalk” and displays clear English phonetic development on top of old Frankish phonetic development. Hence, it is discernible as a borrowing, even though it was borrowed long ago from a related language. This is not the case, however, with IE equine vocabulary. These words, then, individually descend from the same PIE word, reconstructable as *h1ék̑u̯os. [3] The simple presence of horses in the Proto-Indo-European society may, therefore, be taken for granted.

The high status of horses in that society is also to be assumed, although I am aware that this assertion, despite its prevalence in scholarly tradition, lacks definitive archaeological verification. [4] Even without such archeological evidence, however, the likelihood of such a status is strongly suggested by such phenomena as the frequency of words for horse utilized in Indo-European personal names, such as Indic Aśva-cakra, Avestan Vīśt-āspa, Greek Hippo-lytus and Phil-ippos, Gaulish Epo-pennus, and Old English Eo-maer, to list but a few. There also exists a pair of so-called Indo-European Divine Twins, who are frequently and specially associated with horses and who appear in wide enough manifestation in the religious systems of Indo-European cultures to justify the assumption that the figures themselves, as well as their hippological associations, are of genuine Proto-Indo-European antiquity. [5] The Greek Dioskouroi (known as the λεύκιπποι, bright horses), the Anglo-Saxon Horsa and Hengist (Horse and Stallion), the Indic Aśvins (horsemen), and the Lithuanian Dieva dēli (sons of the sky) furnish the clearest evidence of this fact. [6] I believe that these facts render secure the assumption that horses were in the parent culture a symbol of high social status. Prehistoric Indo-European artistic treatment of horses is also remarkably consistent cross-culturally, especially in the particular treatment of horse heads and legs, [7] and the special place of horses in kurgan graves of the Yamnaya culture, identified by Gimbutas as an, if not the, early Indo-European people, may also lend credence to this assumption. [8]

A final set of concerns that often attend IE horse research regard the purpose to which these domesticated horses, provided that they were indeed domesticated, were put and, specifically, whether they were used as draught animals. The conclusion that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had wheels and wagons is rendered beyond doubt by the linguistic evidence: English wheel, Greek κύκλος, and Sanskrit cakram all derive from the same PIE word *ku̯eku̯lo– (an apparently reduplicated nominal derivative of *ku̯el-, ‘to turn’, perhaps connoting some-thing like a “turny-turn,” which perhaps reflects the repetitive nature of the thing described [15] ). Additionally, Latin rota, Irish roth, German rad, and Lithuanian ratas all also mean ‘wheel’ and derive from the PIE root *ret- ‘to roll’. [16] The PIE root *u̯egh- yielded English wagon, Greek (ϝ)όχος, Latin vehiculum, Lithuanian veźimas, Sanskrit vāhana, and Avestan vāśa. The words axle and nave are also widespread and traceable to PIE. [17] Current archaeological evidence, however, does not permit the conclusion that horses were used in the drawing of these chariots, since no harness suitable for horses, rather than oxen, is known to have been invented before the breakup of the PIE speakers, however that event is to be understood or dated. [18] It is probable, then, that the domesticated horse was kept by the IE peoples for some time as a food and as a riding animal without being put to the harness. This assumption need not, however, have significant impact on the current discussion—most of the argumentation in this work deals with horses themselves and not with the chariots which they draw. When my argument does address charioteering itself, as occurs in the third and fourth chapters, I adduce what I think is a new argument, that poetic depictions of charioteers throughout the IE world evolve independently, and subsequent to the breakup of the IE community, but in logical and stable ways from treatments of horses that predate the use of the yoke.

In summary then, whether Indo-Europeans developed horse domestication themselves or acquired it from neighboring peoples, it is clear that they did employ domesticated horses at a very early period, and, regardless of the very first purpose to which horses were put (they were probably food before anything else), they were certainly employed before the breakup of the Indo-European speaking community.


[ back ] 1. For an extended review of these debates, see Drews 1988:121–57. For the issue of the Indo-European homeland see Mallory 1993. Although beyond the scope of this project, the field of genetics is bringing new perspectives on these subjects, using approaches that are so recent that they are not considered in most of the bibliography that will be cited in this work; see Haak 2015. Throughout this work I will be using the traditional term, Proto-Indo-European (PIE), to refer to the common language from which both the Anatolian and the non-Anatolian daughter languages descend. For the purposes of these arguments it may be considered essentially synonymous with other terms that have been proposed for the earliest reconstructible phase of the parent language, such as “Indo-Hittite” (Hamp 1990) or even “Proto-Indo-European I,” proposed by Adrados (2007).

[ back ] 2. See Mallory 1989:119 on these and other cognates. An extensive overview of what is known about the horse across the IE cultures may be found in Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1995:463–479.

[ back ] 3. It should be stated clearly that the Greek ἵππος is the most surprising of these forms and that its spiritus asper is still perplexing, but that its relationship to the same root as these other words mentioned is nevertheless clear, and fully supported by Mycenaean evidence. For the difficulties in its etymology, see Frisk 1960:1.733–5. Furthermore, work by A. Kloekhorst (2008:237–239) and by Michiel de Vaan (2009) suggests that the PIE antecedent of Greek ἵππος may, in fact, have been a u-stem noun rather than an o/e-stem as has generally been speculated and is assumed here.

[ back ] 4. Fortson 2004:41–43; Mallory 1981: 205–226; cf. Anthony 1986.

[ back ] 5. Mallory and Adams 2006:432.

[ back ] 6. Fortson 2004:23–24. For special attention to the Baltic tradition and the ways in which it testifies to the deep cognition of the group see Frame 2009:72.

[ back ] 7. Maringer 1981.

[ back ] 8. Gimbutas 1997. It should be noted that Gimbutas’s findings, although influential, have been widely criticized; cf. Mallory 1981.

[ back ] 9. Anthony 2007:193–224.

[ back ] 10. Anthony 2007:201–206.

[ back ] 11. Anthony 2007:206–213.

[ back ] 12. Mallory 1981.

[ back ] 13. This sacrifice is discussed at length in Chapter 2.

[ back ] 14. The horse-training treatise of the Mitanni, although late, also warrants mention in that it proves that the Hurrians took their horse-training vocabulary from the Indo-Aryans and thus reflects a unique Indo-Aryan expertise in horse-training, which, in light of other evidence, reflects a genuinely ancient tradition. See Dent 1974. For text and commentary see Kammenhuber 1961.

[ back ] 15. For a similar phenomenon, cf. Aristophanes Frogs 1313–4: αἵ θ’ ὑπωρόφιοι κατὰ γωνίας / εἰειειειειειλίσσετε δακτύλοις φάλαγγες; “[spiders] who in the corners under the roof tu-tu-tu-tu-turn the threads with your fingers.”

[ back ] 16. Rix and Kümmel 2001:507. Sanskrit ratha also descends from this word and has synecdochally come to mean “chariot.” Pairs or groups of synonymous or nearly synonymous PIE words preserved severally in later languages are not unusual. For example, the triplet group, *man-, *u̯iro-,* ner– (all roughly meaning ‘man’) yielded English man, Latin vir, and Greek ἀνήρ.

[ back ] 17. It is interesting that these words are both metaphorical, meaning ‘shoulder’ and ‘navel’, respectively, a fact which has been seen to suggest that the devices were late inventions in PIE culture which attracted innovative names; see Fortson 2004: 38.

[ back ] 18. Raulwing 2000:98–99; Anthony 2007:402–403.

[ back ] 19. See Clackson 1994. Although Clackson ultimately argues against this view himself, his work is, to my knowledge, the most extensive study of the subject and contains the most thorough bibliography.