The Horse Amongst the Celts
by Saigh Kym Lambert (copyright 2000, 2012 © Saigh Kym Lambert, all rights reserved do not republish anywhere)
Along with the hound, cattle and boar, the horse is probably the animal most strongly associated with the Celtic culture. Certainly horses were vital to the lives of all Indo-European cultures. We can only imagine the circumstances that first took humans from hunters of horses for meat, to raisers of horses for meat, milk, packing, haulage and riding. We have evidence that the horses were domesticated in the western Eurasian Steppes, with wild horses continually being bred into the domestic herds making for a great deal of diversity, about 5,500 years ago. This is about 1,000 years earlier than had been previous believed. (Mystery of the Domestication of the Horse Solved, Archaeologists Find Earliest Known Domestic Horse). Evidence has now been found that the unique Arabian may have been domesticated 9,000 years ago in Saudi Arabia. (Discovery points to roots of Arabian breed, Evidence for horse domestication)
It is clear that this relationship with the horse drastically altered cultures as they came in contact with the animals, it is the horse we owe much of our history. Hunting, herding, migration and warfare were all enhanced by the greater speed we gained when we took to horseback.(pg. 193-224, and throughout, Anthony) In many ways, the horse defines the Indo-European cultures as much as their groupings of language, the Celtic speakers were no different. We know that the Gauls were considered excellent horse people, Gaulish cavalries used as mercenaries by Rome. (pg. 11, 22, 141 Speidel). Strabo noted “Although they are all fighters by nature they are better a cavalry than infantry…” and Arrians noted that the Romans adopted Celtic horsemanship exercises in their cavalry training. While the German and Celtiberians dismounted to fight on foot, other cavalry bands fought from horseback with spear or sword. (pg. 44- 46 Ritchie, also pg. 74-80 Green 1992)
According to literature, Irish horse-related warfare seems to be focused on the chariot. These were actually also widely used in Britain and on the continent, including the Gauls. (Gaul pg. 80-87 Green 1992, Steppes pg 371-411 Anthony) We can be sure that the chariot used was not the scythed chariot described in the Táin Bó Cúalnge, as the archaeological evidence that we do have doesn’t quite match. (pg 148, 150 Mallory) Although many reproductions of the Irish war chariot show the shafts down between the horses even though this means that due to the type of yokes that would have been used the shaft would have to curve up to meet them. Little evidence of the chariots has remained, after all, as most of he key parts would have been of wood (pg. 104-106 Raftery) . However, this video shows a model with the shaft rising above the horses’ backs, allowing them to make tight turns unknown in most wagon designs. This concept is provocative as it would allow for a great maneuverability that would be a great aid in battle.
Cú Chulainn, was indeed a chariot warrior. Therefore he had two horses, Liath Macha (the Grey of Macha) and Dubh Sainglend (Black Sainglenn). Both horses arose from lakes, Slievh Fuáit and Lough Dubh Sainglend, and Cú Chulainn wrestled each until he won over them. (pg. 38-40, Henderson) When Cú Chulainn went to his last battle, Liath Macha protested and initially refused to be harnessed, mortally wounded he defended the wounded Cú. After Cú Chulainn’s death Liath Macha cried tears of blood and laid his head upon his master’s breast (and likely died himself). (pg. 239-240, 244 O’Grady 1 pg. 253, 258-261 Stokes 1)
Despite what seems to be some preference for chariots in the literature, some tales, such as Togail Bruidne Da Derga, do mention horsemen who are clearly riding as well as chariots. (TBDD) There is also the widespread finds of single bits, nearly identical to modern French link snaffles if a bit more ornate, which may indicate riding. As no saddles would have been used and bridles and riding cloths would not survive the centuries well, we have little else for archaeological evidence. (pg 107, 109-110 Raftery, pg 149-151 Mallory) We do know that by the 14th century there certainly were mounted warriors Ireland, carrying lances and as well as swords and knives, just as found among other Celtic cultures. (pg 99 Simms). It seems unlikely that there would have been a long period without. Whether they fought from horseback or dismounted is perhaps a question, but practicality might suggest that being able to do both would be an important talent. One might also consider than during the actual act of raiding cattle, ridden horses would be far more practical than chariots.
While the Fianna are typically portrayed as foot-soldiers only, there are several, references to them having horses as well. In a 12th century lay a dispute is arbitrated by citing “to every warrior is due his good horse.” (pg. 103 Simms) There is also the mention of Blar Aghan (“White Front”) as “the strongest and best horse which the Fianna had…” killed while transporting crops from wet ground. (pg. 75 Campbell) Another indication is a poem mentioning the need to distribute the warriors among households in winter along with their dogs and horses. (pg. 123 Patterson) There is the story, obviously late, of the Fianna gaining two horses from King Arthur in payment after he steals Fionn’s hounds Bran, Sceolan and Adhnuall. This stallion and mare produced the horses of the Fianna, supposedly the first they had. (pg. 5-8 O’Grady 2, pg. 224-225, Gregory) The Fianna did seem to ride the horses, although we again are unclear in or only to battle, however, one woman warrior in Goll’s Fian did use a chariot. (pg. 33 O’Curry)
Other female figures in other areas are also thought to be Horse Goddesses, often considered identical to or related to Epona. This is an area we may wish to be careful about however. The Welsh Rhiannon clearly has horse associations. She is first seen by her future husband Pwyll riding a horse that, while it never appears to go faster than a walk, can not be caught until he finally thinks to just ask her to stop. Later when her son Pryderi is born a colt is born at the same time. Every year when a colt was born to this mare it would disappear, on the night of Pryderi’s birth he is also abducted and then when the creature goes to take the colt it is confronted by the farmer; it not only fails to take this foal but leaves the boy in the stable. The boy’s nurse makes it appear Rhiannon killed her own son. Rhiannon is punished for this alleged infanticide by having to sit at the gates, tell her tale to all guests and carry them, like a mare, on Her back until Her son becomes one of these guests and She is absolved. In a later tale she is forced to wear a horse collar in the Otherworld. (Gantz) While Rhiannon’s name relates to *Rigantona, whether she is a truly a Goddess or related to Epona is called into question. Her story does not relate to any of the information we have on Epona and she does so neatly fit the “Innocent Persecuted Heroine” model that is found in fairy tales. It may be that she contains some hints, but with heavy later influence. (Wood)
Étaín Echraide is thought to also echo a horse Goddess in her name, as well. “Echraide” means “horse riding. One of her husbands is also named Eochaid Airem or Eochaid Feidlech, the first name meaning “Horse.” (TE, TBDD) Tochmarc Étaíne is also one of the places here the Dagda is referred to as Eochaid Ollathair. (TE) However, other than these names, there has been nothing I can find to relate her to horses. I find that she also fits the “Innocent Persecuted Heroine” model Wood ascribes to Rhiannon above. The name may, indeed, indicate a shadow of a Horse Goddess whose story itself may be lost.
Macha is even better known as a Mare Goddess. This is actually one of many female figures who is named “Macha” and it is far from conclusive as to whether they are all the same and that all are Goddesses, although in this case She is clearly supernatural. Macha ingen Sainrith meic Inboith husband Crunnchu or Crund attends the Lughnasadh horse races. Watching them he bragged that his wife, pregnant and near term, could beat the king’s horses. This was reported to King Conchobhar who demanded She be brought forth and prove Her unwise husband’s boasts. She ran and won the race, only to drop down in labor at the finish. She gave birth to twins, cursed Ulstermen to have labor pains anytime Ulster was in danger. (pg. 308-311 MD, pg. 44-46 Stokes 2 , pg. 480-481 Stokes 3) Other beings named “Macha” do not have equine related stories so it might seem a stretch to claim Macha as a Horse Goddess, yet the fact that She does lend Her name to one of Cú Chulainn’s horses may be telling as well.
The Mare as Goddess may be, as many propose, the reason for the 12th century Donegal ritual Giraldus Cambrensis reported where the new king mated with a white mare which was then sacrificed and fed to all. While many think there is some basis for this, and the sacrifice of horses would be a likely part of Celtic religious life (sacrifice means you give up your best), it can’t be forgotten that there were political reasons to give such a shocking account. We can’t really know what it was that Giraldus witnessed or to what extent he created details, but we should remember that we are talking well into the Christian period which might further bring the story into question. (pg 81 Raftery)
It is romantic to believe that the native pony breeds of the British Isles are the same as these early Celtic horses might have been. It is likely that they do carry the blood of them, however, there is a great deal of influence since then. (pg 27-28, 32 Hughson) Hughson discusses the horses on the Pictish stones, noting that there is little similarity between any of the modern British pony breeds those horses, aside from the small size. Still, she also points out that there is a wide variety in the conformation and styles of the horses depicted, indicating several different types. (pt 25-28, 32 Hughson) None of the modern breeds tend to be amblers, although many on the stones are as are shown on the Hilton of Cadboll stone. This ambling gait likely points to the veracity of the claim that Icelandic Horses are also descended from these horses. (pg 37-38 Hughson)
Horses are evocative of the past and connect us with Goddesses and heroes, many Celtic Pagans find a deep love for them even those who may not encounter them in their daily lives. I have seen some suggestions for those who want to have some contact to go to horse races as horse racing was such an important part of Irish life, but I personally feel that the modern version is far too rift with abuse and the use of the horse slaughter industry to make it a very spiritual event. I instead suggest to those who can’t have horses themselves, to consider what they can do for the horses as a way of honoring the Mare Goddess. As I noted above, Rhiannon, Étaín and Macha’s stories are those of tragedy and abuse, they may invoke in us some message of what the horse is going through today. Becoming involved in anti-slaughter advocacy, volunteering or donating to horse rescues and education about Premarin and PMU can become acts of worship. Perhaps sponsoring a horse at a sanctuary if you can’t own your own. Many of us who own horses have opted to go through rescues or find other horses in need, rather than buy into industries which over breed. One of ours came from Spring Hill Horse Rescue Farm in VT, the others have been in need in other ways. Today “horse warrior” often means those of us who fight to defend the horse, in this way we may be on a different road, but it is one to honor the sacredness of the horse and what this species has brought to us from the time of our ancestors to today.
If you found this of interest or use, please do consider the work put into it and help out
You may also be interested in my Warriors for the Horse Goddess
Eugene O’Curry, ed & tr, Cath Mhuighe Léana or The Battle of Mag Léana together with Tochmarc Moméra or the Courtship of Moméra, The Celtic Society, 1855
George Henderson,ed & tr, Fled Bricrend: The Feast of Bricriu, Irish Text Society, 1899
Eleanor Hull, ed., The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature: being a collection of stories relating to the Hero Cuchullin, David Nutt on the Strand, 1898 (Standish Hayes O’Grady, trans., “The Great Defeat on the Plain of Muirthemne before Cuchullin’s Death,” Whitley Stokes, trans., “The Tragical Death of Cochulainn”)
Standish Hayes O’Grady, trans., “The Colloquy with the Ancients”
Whitley Stokes, trans. The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindshenchas (English) Irish
Sioned Davies and Nerys Ann Jones, ed., The Horse In Celtic Culture: Medieval Welsh Perspectives, University of Wales Press, 1997 (Irene Hughson “Horses in the Early Historic Period: Evidence from the Pictish Sculptured Stones, Juliette Wood, “The Horse in Welsh Folklore: A Boundary Image in Customs and Narrative”)
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