Let Them Eat Horses

by Dr. David Anthony

(Original print at NEWSLETTER - Institute For Ancient Equestrian Studies, No. 4/Summer 1997

Why do most Americans and Europeans find the idea of eating horses so unappetizing! Horseflesh is, after all, extremely nutritious--it is particularly rich in vitamins, iron, and abbumnnodds-and can be very tasty. It is eaten enthusiastically in Kazakstan and other Central Asian countries, as well as in some parts of Europe and French-speaking Canada.

The aversion felt by most modern Americans and Europeans originated as a religious taboo in the early Middle Ages. The sacrifice of a horse and the consumption of its sanctified flesh were central parts of very widespread pagan rites in ancient Europe. The early Christian church forbade the consumption of horseflesh because it was so regularly associated with preChristian ceremonies. Pope Gregory III (AD 731-741) banned the eating of horses as "an unclean and execrable act."

Although the papal ban seems to have greatly reduced the consumption of horseflesh in most of Europe, the ritual sacrifice of horses continued for a surprisingly long time. Horses were slaughtered at the funerals of King John of England in 1216 and the Holy Roman Emperor Karl IV in 1378. As recently as 1781, during the funeral of cavalry General Friedrich Kasimir at Trier, his horse was killed and deposited in his grave. Even more surprising, churches were sanctified with horse sacrifices, perhaps conducted secretly by the workmen who built the church buildings. Modern construction workers found horse bones embedded in the floor of St. Botolph's at Boston, Lincolnshire, and in the belfry of a church at Elsdon, Northumberland. Eight horse skulls were discovered in 1883 in the stonework of the pulpit at Bristol Street meeting house in Edinburgh, Scotland; others were discovered embedded in the foundation of the choir stalls at Llandraff Cathedral, Wales. As late as the 18th century, Dutch peasants would place a horse skull on the roof to keep bad luck away from the home.

Why were horse sacrifices so widespread in ancient Europe, and why did rural Europeans cling to these superstitions for so long?

In prehistoric Europe and Asia, supernatural spirits and powers were thought to reside within fire, water, mountains, thunder, the vault of the sky, rocks, and trees. We still recognize the god that inhabits trees when we "knock on wood." The power and beauty of horses was easily translated into divinity. In the myths of the Romans, the Greeks, the Celts, and the Germans, we can detect common and extremely ancient horse rituals that are paralleled in rituals described in the Rig Veda. The Rig ~eda was a religious text compiled in northern India and Pakistan before 1000 B.C. (possibly as early as 1500 B.C.) by people who called themselves Aryans. It is quite possible that some of the horse rituals that appear both in the Rig Veda and in pre-Christian Europe originated before 3000 B.C. among the speakers of Proto-Indo-European. This language, now long dead, was the mother of most of the languages of Europe, as well as those of ancient Iran and India.

In the Rig Veda horses were closely linked with specific gods, and the sacrifice of a white horse or a champion racer was associated with events such as the consecration of a new king. After the sacrifice the flesh of the horse was eaten, and its head and legs were laid out or erected on a pole as an offering to the gods. Here are selected verses describing the Vedic horse sacrifices, translated from the Sanskrit by Prof. Wendy Doniger: - His mane is golden; his feet are bronze. He is sre~ifr as thought, faster than Indra.
- The celestial coursers, reveling in their strength, fly in a line like wild geese when the horses reach the racecourse of the sky.
- The racehorse has come to the slaughter, pondering with his heart turned to the gods. The goat, his kin, is led in front; behind come the poets, the singers.
- You do not really die through this, nor are you harmed You go to the gods on paths pleasant to walk on.
- Let this racehorse bring us good cattle andgood horses, male children and all-nourishing wealth. Let Aditi [a goddess] make trsfreef~om sin. Let the horse ~e~ith our qfferings achieve sovereign power for us.

The horse's head was thought to be a source of power by itself, an idea that seems to have survived among the peasant cultures of Europe. One of the most intriguing myths in the Rig C~eda concerns a man, Dadhyanc Atharvan, who learned from Tvastr, the maker god, the secret of making mead, an intoxicating honey drink. The Asvins, or the Divine Twins who are themselves occasionally represented poetically as a pair of young horses, insisted that Dadhyanc tell them the secret of the mead. He refused. They cut off his head and replaced it with the head of a horse, through which he became an oracle and told them the secret they desired. In other hymns in the Rig Veda horse heads flowed magically with honey.

These ritual themes have been investigated archaeologically by the IAES and its sister organization in Samara, Russia, the Institute for the History and Archaeology of the Volga. Excavations led by Dr. Igor Vasiliev have unearthed ritual deposits of horse heads at Syezh'ye, a Copper Age cemetery dated about 4500-5000 B.C. in the Samara River valley in Russia. On the ancient surface above a group of nine Copper Age graves, Vasiliev's team found two horse skulls lying with various ornaments, broken ceramic pots, and stone tools within a redstained patch of powdered red ochre. The horses obviously were part of a funerary offering, the oldest of its kind yet found. At Dereivka on the Dnieper River in Ukraine, the now-famous horse with bit wear on its premolar teeth was part of a head-and-hoof deposit at the edge of a settlement dated about 42003700 B.C. It was found with the remains of two dogs, which probably were part of the same ritual offering. In a grave in the Elista steppes, south of the lower Volga in Russia, excavators found the skulls of 40 horses deposited in a Catacomb-culture grave dated about 2500 B.C. But the most fascinating discovery of this kind was a find that could have been the grave of Dadhyanc himself.

At Potapovka, near Samara on the Sok River, excavations conducted from 1985-1988 exposed four burial mounds, or kurgans, dated about 2200-2000 B.C. Beneath kurgan 3, the central grave pit contained the remains of a man buried with at least two horse heads and the head of a sheep, in addition to pottery vessels and weapons. After the grave pit was filled, a human male was decapitated, his head was replaced with the head of a horse, and he was laid down over the filled grave shaft. This unique ritual deposit provides a convincing antecedent for the Vedic myth.

Discoveries like these help us to understand how human attitudes toward horses have been molded by the history of religion. The IAES will continue to explore the origins and development of ancient horse cultures when we return to the field in Russia in 1999.


The Rig Veda; an Anthology One hundred and eight hymns, selected, translated, and annotated by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. Published by Penguin Books, 1981.

The Religion and Philosophy of the I/eda and Upanishads. By Arthur Berriedale Keith. Published by Motilal Banarsidass in Delhi, Patna, and Varanasi, 1925. Authorized reprint as Volume Thirty-one of the Harvard Oriental Series in 1970.

"The Tale of the Indo-European Horse Sacrifices." By Wendy Doniger (at The University of Chicago) in Incognita (Leiden) 1:1-15, 1990.

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