Horses of Myth and Legend

Pegasus, he is the mythical horse we have all heard about!
Credit : Library

Wednesday 15 November - 18h09 | Lulu Kyriacou

Horses of Myth and Legend

Every culture has it's myths and legends and it is unsurprising how often horses are featured in them, when you consider the close ties between humans and equines. In this article, we look at few of those mythical animals.

 - Horses of Myth and Legend

Xanthos and Balios, horses of Achilles by Henri Regnault
Credit : Art Now

Pegasus - The pure white winged stallion and his human brother Chrysaor  sprang to life when the snake haired  head of the Gorgon Medusa was chopped off by Perseus.  The stallion was so magical he was said to create springs of fresh water wherever his hoof touched the earth.   Untamed, he was only captured by Bellerophon when the goddess Athena gave him a golden bridle and the information  where the horse alighted to earth to drink.  Thus armed, Bellerophon threw the golden bridle over the head of the horse and tamed him.  Together they fought the Chimera, a fire breathing hybrid animal part lion, part snake that was causing havoc.  Having successfully killed the beast, Bellerophon was under oath to release his winged partner  who continued on his journey to the stables of Zeus. After many years of faithful service, Zeus honored Pegasus by transforming him into a constellation of stars.

Balios and Xanthos-Two of the three horses that drew the chariot of the hero Achilles. They were gifts from Poseidon, god of the seas   to the father of Achilles, Peleus, and unusually for Greek mythology, they were immortal. Their part in the great tragedy known as the Illiad  comes in the last days of Troy, when after the death of their former groom and Achilles  friend Patroclus, they stood on the field of battle and wept for the man who had shown them kindness.  This so moved Hera, Queen of the Gods, that she broke divine law and gave the gift of speech to Xanthos sh he could tell Achilles who was behind the killing. Despite the help of his mighty  horses, Achilles was killed by Paris of Troy before the Greeks finally took the city using the Trojan Horse.


Horses of gods and warriors......

Horses of gods and warriors...... - Horses of Myth and Legend

Odin and Sleipnir on an 8th century tablet in a Stockholm museum
Credit : Archive

Sleipnir- From Norse mythology, Sleipnir  was the grey horse of chief god, Odin. He was born when the evil God Loki took the shape of a mare and was made pregnant by the stallion of a giant who was building a wall at Asengard, the home of the Norse Gods.  He famously had eight legs and was considered to be the best of all horses.  He is, like the  Valkyries,  one of Odin's spirit helpers. The Valkyries carved runes into his teeth  and men were always amazed at his strength and speed.   On one occasion he jumped over the gates of Hell, somewhere he visited several times with Odin, whilst being ridden by another god who was visiting the Kingdom of the Dead to bargain for another's life.   An interesting point to note about Sleipnir is how often the motif of an eight legged horse appears in ancient texts and writings, demonstrating how far the Vikings travelled.

Gringolet- King Arthur and his knights are a famous British legend. The knights performed many heroic  feats while on quest and were reliant on their trusty steeds for transport. Gringolet origins are disputed but he became the charger of Sir Gawain, also known as the Green Knight.  Gringolet was very sturdy and thought to be white or grey in colour with very distinctive red ears! He was such a great war horse that many of Gawain's victories were down to his horse. Their most famous feat is mentioned in the legend call Percival in which Gawain is on the quest of the Bleeding Lance  ( one of the Holy Grail legends.  On the way, they encountered the Haughty Maid of Logres  who encouraged Gawain  to try and cross a ford which had no-one had been able to cross and live.  Setting Gringolet into a gallop at the ford,  the horse made a mighty leap but landed in the water some feet short of dry land.  Defying cold and current he managed to swim the last few feet until his hooves touched the bank and he jumped out in one bound up the steep sides.  The Maid seemed content with this effort,  but Gawain thought that by swimming the last few feet, he had not properly met the Maid's challenge and so presented Gringolet at the obstacle again, which he cleared perfectly this time!

A cowboy and his horse.......

Widow- Maker - This horse is a relatively modern myth.  He was the equine partner of a legendary cowboy, Pecos Bill who, according to the story, was raised by coyotes after falling from a wagon train as a baby. The young Bill found a colt near death wandering in the desert and a pertnersip was born. Bill named the colt Widow-maker as no other man could ride him and live to tell the tale. Together the pair had many adventures including lassoing  a twister tornado down to earth. Pecos Bill came close to being married but his bride to be, called Sue, decided she wanted to ride Widow-Maker  to the ceremony.  The horse was apparently jealous of being usurped in Bil's affection and would have none of it, bucking her off so violently she started bouncing uncontrollably on the bustle of her dress and had to be lassoed by Bill to stop the bounce. Although Widow-maker was afterwards contrite, and apologised,  Sue decided that marriage was not for her after all! Bill and Widow-maker have been immortalised in comics, books, music and film,  including a Disney animation.  You can  listen to their story below.

Further reading...