• Ali Isaac

The White Horse in Irish Mythology

Updated: May 10, 2020

This post was inspired by an interesting twittercon with @Huk_fin about the role of the white stallion in ancient kingship rituals.

Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, 1146-1223, Archdeacon of Brecon) wrote in his Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland, 1187) of a ceremony among the Irish:

“There is in a northern and remote part of Ulster, among the Kenelcunil, a certain tribe which is wont to install a king over itself by an excessively savage and abominable ritual. In the presence of all the people of this land in one place, a white mare is brought into their midst. Thereupon he who is to be elevated, not to a prince but to a beast, not to a king but to an outlaw, steps forward in beastly fashion and exhibits his bestiality.
“Right thereafter the mare is killed and boiled piecemeal in water, and in the same water a bath is prepared for him. He gets into the bath and eats of the flesh that is brought to him, with his people standing around and sharing it with him. He also imbibes the broth in which he is bathed, not from any vessel, nor with his hand, but only with his mouth.
“When this is done right according to such unrighteous ritual, his rule and sovereignty are consecrated.”

Although we have to accept that the values of ancient civilisations may have differed from our own, this does sound particularly brutal and hideous, doesn’t it?

In fact, Gerald of Wales was known for his dislike of the Irish, and for his habit of wandering into the realms of fantasy, at times. In this instance, it’s not clear if this was something he actually observed, or he was just repeating a a folktale which he felt adequately expressed the savagery of the native Irish.

Profile of head of beautiful wild horse with sea in background

Judging by the aggressive language he displays in the above excerpt, his feelings towards the pagan Irish are quite clear. And although he was Welsh, he was a known supporter of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. It therefore seems to me that his writing can only be taken as nothing more than anti-pagan, anti-Irish, pro-colonialist propaganda.

But where, then, could the idea of mating with a white mare and then eating it have come from? No smoke without fire, right? You’ve probably read that statement before on this very blog.

Well, the similarity between Irish myth and Vedic teachings has been commented on by many. These Proto-Ind0-European (PIE) people lived in the late Neolithic period, and spoke a common language. It is from this common ancient source that our cultures are believed to derive.

The Vedic ceremony known as Ashvamedha involved the sacrifice of a white stallion, a hornless ram, and a billy goat in order to inaugurate a warrior. The Romans sacrificed a white stallion to their God of War, Mars, and interestingly, used the same method of selection as the Vedic: the chosen stallion was the right-hand horse of the winning pair in a chariot race. Portions of the sacrifice would then be distributed amongst the deities.

Archaeology has frequently unearthed horse burials accompanying the remains of humans all around the world, from early prehistoric times through to the late Iron Age. Sometimes, these were accompanied by the burial of chariots, too. Clearly, this indicates the importance ancient people placed on their horses.

In Ireland, it was common practice during late Medieval times to bury horse skulls under the floor of new buildings to bring the occupants good luck. You can read about these discoveries on Irish Archaeology.

In Irish mythology, the Tarbfeis is often mentioned as a Kingship ritual, in which a bull is slaughtered, and a Druid wrapped in the skin while he makes a prophesy regarding the selection of the future King.

The High King was considered sacred, as he was required to ‘marry’ the Sovereignty Goddess, be free from blemish, follow particular rules and protocols, and avoid his symbolic geasa (taboos).

'Marry' may be a bit of a loose term here; relationships between men and women prior to Christian times were quite fluid, with both parties moving between marriage, divorce, and lovers without guilt or shame.

Life was about survival;  fertility, of the land, of plants, animals and of the people themselves, was considered vital, and revered. Perhaps in this light, intercourse would be a more accurate word.

Similarly, the relationship with the Goddess of Sovereignty is of interest. Who was she, exactly? Many names are put forward: Eriu, of the three Queens of Ireland killed in the invasion of the Milesians, and after whom Ireland (Eire) was named; Danu, the supposed mother Goddess of the Danann; the Morrigan, and even Queen Medb of Connacht.

Another suggestion is Macha. She was the wife of King Nuada who led the Tuatha de Danann into Ireland. She was said to have died fighting the Fomori Giant-King Balor in defence of her husband at the Second Battle of Moytura. However, there is another Macha from Ulster who was forced to race against horses during her late pregnancy, and who died in childbirth shortly after winning.

In some stories, it is said it was she who gifted Cuchulainn with his two great chariot horses, Liath Macha (grey of Macha) and Dub Sainglend (black of Saingliu), although in others, it was said to be the Connacht Queen, Medb.

In any case, she has thus been linked with horses, and as a horse Goddess, is seen to be synonymous with Epona (the Great Mare), Celtic European protectress of horses and a fertility goddess,  and Rhiannon, Welsh goddess also strongly associated with mares and foals.

The sacred marriage between the King and the sovereignty Goddess existed in many ancient cultures. In Sumerian lore, for example, the King mated with the Goddess Inanna’s priestess. The white mare in Gerald’s story may well have represented the fertility and sovereignty goddess, Macha.

I might also add at this point, that perhaps the coupling between the King and the horse represented something else. Perhaps it was more spiritual than physical. In shamanism, a white horse will often guide the shaman on his journey into the Otherworld. The white horse, seen as a symbol of purity and spirituality by the Celts, could have been a totem animal, and the coupling a misinterpretation of the bonding or union between them.

In Irish mythology, the white horse is mentioned often. The well-known story of Oisin and Niamh of the Golden Hair tells how she arrives from the Otherworld carried by a white horse, declares her love for Oisin, and asks him to return there with her. After some deliberation, Oisin agrees, leaps up onto the back of the horse with her, and they gallop off together.

Aonbhar of the Flowing Mane was a white horse belonging to the Sea-God Manannán. He was said to have been able to travel across water as if it were solid ground. As Manannán is thought to be Niamh’s father, it is quite likely Aonbharr she rode to meet Oisin.

Similarly, when Cliodhna fell in love with Ciabhán, she appeared on a white horse from over the sea. In some stories, Manannán is given as her father, in others, her father is the Sea-God’s Druid. In any case, it seems she may have borrowed/ stolen Aonbharr to meet with her lover.

Cliodhna’s Wave is one of my favourite Irish myth stories. I leave you with a small excerpt from my retelling.

“Come away with me to my Dun. I will protect you.”

She turned to him then, sadness tugging at the small smile which curved her lips. “Your eagerness gladdens my soul, but you cannot defend me against Gebann and Manannán. No one can. Besides, I would receive no welcome from your mortal kin. I must go back to the lands over the sea, to Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, my home. No mortal may follow me there.”

She got to her feet, and gave a shrill whistle. The roar of the ocean became the pounding of hooves, the mournful cry of seabirds traded for a wild equine whinny, and out of the foaming surf thundered ghostly Aonbhar, a giant among horses. His eyes were azure blue, his hooves gleamed gold, and his proud white tail swept the sand like a pennant.

Warily, Ciabhán eyed the creature as he cantered over the pebbles towards them, pulling up short and rearing skywards. He dropped back to earth with a snort and waited, his nostrils flaring pink.

Cliodhna ran her hand over the horse’s neck and shoulder, then grabbed a handful of shaggy mane and performed the steed-leap onto his back, a feat Ciabhán had only ever seen carried out by warriors.

She gazed down at him. “Manannán will be furious when he finds I have stolen Aonbhar to keep a tryst with a mortal man,” she murmured. “But being loved by you is worth the consequences.”

As Aonbhar turned towards the sea, Ciabhan darted forward with a cry, leaping up and catching hold of his lover’s hands as they rested in her mount’s mane. “Wait! Will I see you again?”

She sighed. “I will come when I can. But Manannán and my father will be watching me closely on my return. It may be sometime before we can be together again.”

He let his hands drop to his side. “Better to have never loved at all, than to have tasted its sweetness so briefly.”

Cliodhna kicked Aonbhar forward, her eyes beseeching. “I must go. The wrath of Manannán is not something I would have brought upon you. Please forgive me.”

The great steed gathered his strength and launched himself from the shore, plunging below the sea one moment, then leaping above it the next, springing nimbly from wave to wave, the surface of the water solid as the earth beneath his hooves. Cliodhna clung to his back, her golden hair streaming behind her. She never looked back. It only took moments for Aonbhar to carry her from his view.

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