Notes: The symbolism of white horse & black ox in the Indo-European and Indo-Greek spheres

On the symbolism of the sacrifice offering of a white horse and a black ox:

“The former represents light and the sun, whereas the black ox is the appropriate offering made to the God or Goddess of the Underworld. At first sight it might seem that in the sacrifice of a horse we have a survival of a funeral custom forbidden by the Emperors as far back as A.D. 992. In that year a decree was issued which specifically forbade the economic waste involved in placing precious articles in the tomb of the deceased, and in particular the slaying of horses at the tomb. …the underlying motive was to provide the dead man with horses to ride in the next world…    It is clear, however, that …for all that this funeral custom may have become linked to another idea and so helped to keep alive the custom of making the sacrifice. The horse has been regarded as sacred to various gods b y many races, and usually it was the animal of the Sky God, and especially of the Sun. thus the Greeks depicted Apollo as driving the Solar Chariot with its flaming white horses across the sky, and the horse was particularly sacred to Woden among the Teutons. It was regularly sacrified to Thor at Upsala, and the white horse cut in the chalk of the Berkshire hills is believed to be a Saxon monument in honour of either Woden or Thor, dedicated as a thank offering for some Saxon victory. The old nursery rhyme:–

Ride a cock Horse to Banbury Cross,

See a fine lady sit on a white horse,

Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,

She shall have music wherever she goes.

seems to be the worn down fragment of some long forgotten belief which was  associated with a white horse hung with bells. What that belief was it is difficult to say, but the fact that a white horse and bells are associated both in an English Nursery Rhyme and in the ceremony of the Hung Society oin China suggests that there is an underlying principle common to both which , if discovered, would throw considerable light on the whole subject.

It will be remembered that the White Cock represents Solar Power, and hence in China the Yang Principle, and hence an embodiment of the Yang Principle. It is clearly in antithesis with the black ox, which iin many countries is also associated with the Gods of the Underworld, or at any rate with the Earth Goddess. As in China the earth is the embodiment of the Yin, or Dark Principle, we see that in order to maintain the balance some creature sacred to the Sun should be sacrificed. As in China the earth is the embodiment of the Yin, or Dark Principle, we see that in order to maintain the balance some creature sacred to the Sun should be sacrificed. With this possible explanation before us, let us proceed to consider the White Horse as a creature sacred to the Sun, and see to what extent it is so regarded among other nations.


When we turn to the legends of Greece and Rome we find numerous indications that the horse was sacred and that white horses had a peculiar sanctity attached to them. Thus horses were sacred to Poseidon, and when Thesus called on him to avenge the supposed wrong that he believed his own son Hipploytus had done him, the God of the Sea sent a fierce bull from the waves as the young man drove his chariot along the shore. The horses, terrified at the bull from the waves as athe young man drove his charpt along the shore. The horses, terrified at the bull, bolted, and Hippolytus was flung from his chariot and killed. Diana, however, restored him to life with the aid of AEsculapius, and he subsequently dwelt with her at Nemi. The hero, as a thankoffering, dedicated twenty horses to AEscupapius.

In Mediaeval legends we find this ancient Greek hero transformed into an early Christian martyr under the name of St. Hippolytys, wherin he is said to have been dragged to death by horses on August 13th, that is to say, on Diana’s own day, a strange coincidence, and with him were slain 20 members of his household. Thus he ascended to Heaven accompanied by20 comapnions, himself making the 21st member of the band. We therefore find this legend incorporating the peculiarly popular Triad number of 21, and cannot fail to note that the Classical prototype of the Sait dedicated the same number of horses to AEsculapius. There are good reasons for suspecting that Hippolytus was originally a sacred horse, and not a human being. it has been suggested by S. Reinach that Hippolyts which means the loosed horse, was originally  “a sacred horse which was torn to pieces by his worshippers at the solemn sacrifice,just as Dionysus Zagreus was said to have been rent in pieces by his worshippers.”

Now the substitute for a man in the case of Dionysus was a bull, and according to the Classical legend it was a bull which caused the death of Hippolytus, may it not be that here we have a dim tradition of the sacriic e of a horse and an ox in Europe, one offered to Heaven and the other to Earth, or the Underworld? It will be noticed that in both cases there is a tradition of a God-man who was slain and rose from the grave, while the Hung ritual deals with the journey of the dead through the Underworld. We may not as yet be able to decide on this point, but it is certainly worth considering, for with Hipploytus were often associated Orestes and Diomede. the former was a matricide, who was cleansed of his  guilt before a Temple at Troezen, said to have been dedicated by Hippolytus to Artemis, who is a Goddess of the Underworld. Further, the cleansing water was drawn from a sacred fountain nearby, which was called the Horse fountain, and so we may suspect that Orestes was originally washed in the blood of a horse, just as in teh rites of Cybele candidates were washed in the blood of a bull to cleanse them from their sins.

But if Hippolytys was originally a sacred horse, was he white? There seems good reasons for thinking that he was. At Troezen, in addition to the Temple of Artemis, dedicated by the hero, there was one to Hippolytys himslef which was dedicated y Diomede. the latter was closely associated iwth hroses, and the Veneti, who dwelt at the head of the Adriatic and were famous horse breeders, had a sacred grove dedicated to Diomede. Here they wer offere wont to sacrifice a white horse in his honour, In short, we may suspect that Diomede and Hippolytus were originally closely associated, if not identical. Indeed it seems probable that Hippolytus was the sacred Horse of Diomede, who at a later date was transformed into a man, just as the reverse process occurred in the case of Dionysus, where instead of sacrificing a man, a bull was substituted.

If this be so, we shall probably not be far out if we consider that there was a great horse festival whereat the Sacred White horse, accompanied by twenty attendant common horses, was offered up as a sacrifice to some patron God of Horses, perhaps Diomede. The name Hippolytus, horse loosed, instantly brings to mind the great Indian Horse Sacrifice which is mentioned in Indian legends dealing with the heroic and epic period of indian history, and particularly in the mahabharata.

The Horse Sacrifice in india

If nay Prince thought that he was entitled to be regarded as Overlord of all India he set loose a horse which was followed by an army. Whwerever the horse  wandered the army followed, and the Kings through whose realms the horse passed had either to submit or to fight. If they allowed the anima l to pass without opposition they thereby acknowedged the Overlordshipof its  At the end of a stated period, usually a year, the horse was led back to the King who had sent it forth, accompanied by embassies from all the Kings who had submitted. Before the horse set out on its journey it was consecrated by means of a series of cermonies, of whichh one particularly important from our standpoint. ” A low caste man took a four eyed dog (i.e. with dark patches over each eye), killed it with a club of Sidhroka wood, and placing the body on a mat or hoop of rattan let it float under the horse, at the same time pronouncing a formula to ensure the destruction of anyone attmepting to hinder the consummation of the sacrifice.

Now it will be reembered that in the story of Yudishthira, and also in that of the Red Skin Warrior, the hero entered Paradise accompanied by his dog, who alone had gone the whole way with him. Therefore the horse in teh Asvamedha was in like manner accompanied by a dog when it, too, entered Paradise. If the horse originally represented a man we should have an almost exact parallel with these two legends, and the fact that one of thelegends is Hindu strengthens the position. May it not be that symbolically the dog represents Duty, which is fulfilled by the sacrifice fo the horse? When the horse returned home it was solemnly sacrificed, and the Rites performed were most elaborate, some, such as those perfomed by the Queen, being of a distinctly revolting character. They indicate, however, that  insome way the horse was considered the embodiment of the principle of Fertility, and that this principle was also connected with the Sun. In the Mahabharata it is Yudishthira who performed this sacrifice and was acknowledged as overload of all India.

Among the historical kings who performed the Asvamedha, or Horse Sacrifice, were Pushyamitra, Samudragupta, Kumaragupta, and several others. it should also be noted that after the horse had consecrated it was turned loose in a North Easterly direction, accompanied by 100 old horses. On its return it was slain by being smothered, and then the obscene rites took place wherein the Queen played the most prominent part. She “proceeded to lie down next to the dead horse and was covered with a cloak. In that position  she performed an obscene act wth the horse, symbolizing the transmission to her of its great powers of fertility. Menawhile the Priests and women took part in a series of questions and answers, usually of a very free nature.” … represented the 20 common horses which were slain at the same time as the white horse, it would seem as if the white horse in the Hung ritual vicariously represents the candidate, or the Vanguard as smbolising the candidate. That there is an inner, mystical meaning attached to the 21 who entered the boat is doubtless true…


excerpt taken from:

Hung Society Or the Society of Heaven & Earth 1925


Further notes on horse motifs in the kurgan culture:

Irk Bitig, a 10th-century manuscript found in Dunhuang is one of the most important sources for Turkic mythology and religion. This book is written in Old Turkic alphabet like the Orkhon inscriptions.

The 10th-century Irk Bitig or “Book of Divination” of Dunhuang is an important source for early Turkic mythology.
As a result of the nomad culture, the Horse is also one of the main figures of Turkic mythology; Turks considered the horse an extension of the individual -though generally dedicated to the male- and see that one is complete with it. This might have led to or sourced from the term “At-Beyi” (Horse-Lord). — “Turkish mythology” (Wikipedia)

One thought on “Notes: The symbolism of white horse & black ox in the Indo-European and Indo-Greek spheres

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s