The Ritual Power of Horses

Horses were among the most sacred animals to the ancient heathens. Testament to this fact was their nearly ubiquitous use in burial goods and sacrifices. Admonishments against eating horse flesh appear in a papal ban on the practice by Gregory III. The purpose of the ban was to ultimately enlighten the Germanic pagans. It falls directly before a ban on sacrifices to the dead. It is no coincidence that the two fall together, they are inextricably linked. It is that connection, between death and horses I would like to elaborate on.

The horse appears in the Rune poem as the rune Eh. No matter how you feel about the use of runes in divination, the runes have power and meaning. The poem for Eh reads:

Eh byþ for eorlum æþelinga wyn,
Hors hofum wlanc, ðær him hæleþ ymbe,
Welege on wicgum, wrixlaþ spræce,
And biþ unstyllum æfre frofur.

The last section, “biþ unstyllum æfre frofur” to me speaks to the horse’s qualities after death. Unstyllum could translate as unwaveringly or tirelessly or restlessly. You could translate the last line then as “and is (and shall be) restlessly, unwaveringly, always a comfort (consolation).” The word unstyllum to me hides the implication of being active even after it should be still. Biþ is simultaneously “is” and “shall be” and differs from the earlier use of byþ. So you have this creature which is a joy and comfort in life, what use could they hold afterward?

Archaeology has granted us the understanding of much that was located at the burial site. We know dogs and horses were cremated as burial goods very often. Later, the use of a horse’s teeth are found in burials. Their role there? Death is not a straight shot, it is the first step on a journey. The implication has been there all along, why bury goods at all if they’re going somewhere they have all they need? The horse’s function is like that of a boat, it speeds the journey, and it even helps guide the journey in the horse’s case. See such work as Saxo Grammaticus’ story of Hadding for a look into the journey.

The horse has powerful role to play for the deceased. If I were to spell it out most plainly, you can take it with you (but only if you can carry it). Our usual final resting place, Hell, we have to get there first. Why else are boats and horses involved at all? Why should you have a horse if travel is not involved? Why a boat if you’re not going somewhere in it? Essentially, the horse is an aide to the deceased on their journey.

Now to the terrible truth of our world, we cannot afford to sacrifice horses in today’s society. We’re left with then the use of votive offerings. There’s plenty of historical examples which show that votive offerings were meaningful to the ancient heathens and the greater pagan world. The votive can take the place of a sacrifice. No one I know can spare a horse, but a votive offering of a horse? That’s manageable.

Recently there was a death in the local heathen community. We gathered and all brought gifts to cremate. I made a votive horse of bread as an offering to burn. My hope is that the horse (with the Eh rune on it) would manifest itself to the intended offering recipient as a horse and not as a bread horse. I further hope that even if it doesn’t do that, it will carry the ritual power of a horse to help guide and speed their journey to the halls of their ancestors.


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