Horses at the Gates of the Otherworld

Happy Celtic New Year! Tonight is the night when the gates open between the worlds, and the dead–and anything else that has a mind–can travel back and forth freely.

Mostly when people think of Halloween, they think of black cats and witches on broomsticks, plus vampires and werewolves and the rest of the feral fauna of monster movies. Horses are definitely bit players. The Headless Horseman rides one. The Wild Hunt gallops on skeletal mounts. Modern horsekids dress up their ponies as everything from Bo-Peep’s sheep to Lady Godiva’s transportation through the streets of Coventry.

But horses have a long history in lore and magic. In China the horse is an astrological beast, a repository of male energy, often seen in relation to the dragon. The real-world “horses of Heaven” were a breed of exceptionally beautiful, strong, sturdy animals, much prized.

The Mongols built their culture on the backs of their tough little horses: rode them, drank their milk both fresh and fermented and their blood in times of famine, and more rarely but still to some extent, ate their meat.

In India, horses have been the mounts or the chariot teams of gods and heroes for millennia–a tradition that found its way westward to the sacred steeds of Poseidon and Achilles’ immortal horses.

In Arabia, of course, the horse is a royal beast, beloved of the Prophet. She (this culture much prefers the mare–she’s quieter on raids, and less likely to give the game away with stallion noise and drama) even has a Surah of the Koran, “The Coursers,” which is dedicated to her.

North Africa follows the Arab tradition of horse culture to a great degree, but horses have been in Egypt since long before the Arab invasions, drawing Pharaoh’s chariot and even being buried, mummified, in tomb of a female Pharaoh’s architect (and perhaps lover).

Across the Atlantic, some native tribes of North America took to the horses escaped from the Spanish Conquista and evolved their own Plains culture of horse warriors and horse spirits. The horse had been extinct on the continent for at least ten thousand years, but as soon as it came back, humans gravitated toward the partnership between the large, strong, fast but fundamentally cooperative animals and nomadic (and warlike) tribes.

That other tribe of wanderers and warriors, the Celts, worshipped the horse as a goddess; the Romans took her over, as was their habit, but she was there long before them. Epona was a fertility goddess, but she also guided souls into the Otherworld. Later she subsided somewhat into a mount for the goddess Rhiannon, who rode a white mare.

She has ample company in the magical bestiary of the British Isles. The Kelpie is the water horse that lures fools and innocents into its river or lake and drowns them–or else carries them off into the Otherworld, which is much the same thing. Its cousin is the Pooka: the spirit of mischief that shows itself sometimes as a black cat, sometimes as a dog, and sometimes as a wild colt that runs in chains through the hills.

Which brings us back around to All Hallows’ Eve, with its black cats and its female magic and its spirits passing back and forth through barriers that, the rest of the year, are shut. Horse magic is a definite part of that, with a long and varied history.

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Judith Tarr also writes as Caitlin Brennan. The paperback edition of her novel for young readers of all ages, House of the Star, will be published on the Day of the Dead. Magical horses, real Arizona, and journeys through the Otherworld–all in one place. See the trailer (and Judith with her own magical white horses) here.

At Book View Cafe, she offers two forms of horse magic: fictional, in A Wind in Cairo, and nonfictional, in Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right–available DRM-free in all formats.

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Horses at the Gates of the Otherworld — 6 Comments

  1. I think the deep-grained sexism of her world skeeves more recent readers out. It’s absolutely merciless to and about women.

    But she wrote wonderful horses. And those stars!