Horses have been the close and useful companions and servants of humans for many millennia, and over that time they have become associated with a number of symbolic properties. But what is the symbolic significance of the horse in literature and mythology?
Let’s take a closer look at the symbolism of horses down the ages.
Horse symbolism in classical myth
In classical mythology, horses are often depicted pulling chariots of important deities. Because of their speed and strength, horses were the ideal animals to pull the sun across the sky for Phoebus Apollo, although similar chariot-stories surround Mithras in ancient Rome and Elijah in the Old Testament. In the Second Book of Kings, it is said that Elijah was taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire.
Probably the most famous horse in classical myth is Pegasus, the flying horse, offspring of the sea-god Poseidon which he sired with one of the Gorgons. Horses were often associated with the Underworld and, by association, with dark primal forces (including the beastlike energies residing in humans). Pegasus joins this symbolism with divine and skyborne connotations of flight and the heavens. Pegasus represents man’s ability to rise above his base origins and attain creative and imaginative flight. Indeed, the winged horse is often used as a symbol of poetic inspiration. Curiously, the name of Pegasus is close to the word pege, meaning ‘spring’, and Pegasus is often said to have been born at the Ocean springs. Thus the creature combines water with air: springs and wings both suggest creativity and elevation.
We say the most famous horse in classical mythology is Pegasus, but there is one that is more famous – although it probably wasn’t actually a horse, even a wooden one. We’re talking about the Trojan Horse, the wooden horse of Troy which the Greeks hid inside and drove up to the gates of Troy so they could infiltrate their enemies’ city.
But if we believe the myth had its basis in some real practice (an approach to mythology known as euhemerism), it perhaps makes more sense to conjecture that the ‘Trojan Horse’ was really a giant battering ram or siege engine, used to breach the city walls of Troy in a more forceful, and less sneaky, manner than wily Odysseus’ plot. The device may well have looked a bit like a horse, inspiring the later story. According to Michael Wood (in his In Search of the Trojan War), the Assyrians at this time liked to give their siege engines animal names, strengthening the idea that the ‘Trojan Horse’ may well have been a poetic name, of sorts, even before it first appeared in an actual poem.
We have discussed the curious story behind the Trojan Horse in more detail here.
The myth of centaurs
Where did the myth of the centaur come from? Centaurs were half-man and half-horse, usually depicted with a horse’s body and a man’s head, arms, and torso. They symbolise lust and the bestial side of man – although it’s worth noting that, in myth, centaurs were both male and female, even if it’s the male ones we tend to hear more about.
It was the Central Asians who first domesticated the horse so the animal could be ridden across vast distances, and the ancient Greek idea of the centaur is thought to have originated as a response to the Greeks’ first sighting of these nomadic riders charging over the hill. It must have been a terrifying sight, as if man and horse had indeed merged to create one super-creature. (Hans Biedermann, in his informative The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference), observes that the native peoples of Central America, when they first saw Spanish conquistadors, similarly believed these European arrivals to be part-man, part-animal.)
Centaurs were often associated with the abduction (or attempted abduction) of local women: for example, it was said they tried to make off with the women who lived in Thessaly in the mountains (the mythical Lapith tribe). Once again, this links to the settled Greeks’ fear of nomadic foreigners arriving on horseback to plunder and ravage their lands.
That said, it was possible in some cases for the human half to tame the wild bestial half of the centaur, and probably the most famous centaur in Greek myth is Chiron, who was known for his wisdom and who tutored both Jason and Achilles. Indeed, after Heracles accidentally struck Chiron with a poison arrow, the immortal centaur chose to give up eternal life and rise into the heavens, where he became the constellation Sagittarius.
Horses in everyday language
Indeed, although since the days of classical Greece people have got used to the sight of a man on a horse, the relationship between horse and rider has continued to inspire fascination and has influenced the language we use. Knights on horseback are known for their chivalry, a word derived from the French for ‘horse’ (cheval); it is related to the word cavalry, the collective term for horsemen in battle. But knights didn’t always behave in a chivalrous manner, and sometimes gave people the cavalier treatment: another word ultimately derived from ‘horse’.
The popular boys’ name Philip means ‘lover of horses’, while the word for the hippopotamus comes from the Greek for ‘river-horse’. The part of the brain associated with navigation is known as the hippocampus because its shape is supposed to resemble the sea-horse – and that is what ‘hippocampus’ literally means.
Horses in poetry
In his poem ‘At Grass’, Philip Larkin reflects on old racehorses which are ‘put out to grass’. Do memories of the races they won fifteen years ago ‘plague their ears like flies’? Well, these retired racehorses have ‘slipped their names, and stand at ease’.
A number of major twentieth-century poets have written poems called simply ‘The Horses’. Beginning with the Hopkins-esque line ‘I climbed through woods in the hour-before-dawn dark’, Ted Hughes’ poem of this name is about Hughes watching a team of horses as light comes to the world at dawn, and reflecting on how different the animals look at such a grey and forbidding time of day.
But perhaps the best-known poem called ‘The Horses’ is the masterly post-nuclear poem of 1956 by the Scottish poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959). Muir tells us about a war that lasted seven days and ‘put the world to sleep’. Barely a year (‘twelvemonth’) later, ‘strange horses’ came. Muir then immediately goes back to the immediate wake of the war, when humans were first confronted with a silence so unnerving and new that even listening to the sound of their own breathing made people afraid.
Then the horses returned. People were scared of the horses at first, because they had turned their backs on the creatures, but eventually they approached them and rediscovered their relationship with them, a relationship based on ‘servitude’ (the horses are, after all, put to work in the fields) but also, more positively, ‘companionship’. The return of the horses signals the ‘beginning’ of a new way of life for the survivors in this post-nuclear landscape.
We have analysed this moving poem in more detail here.