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Horse Articles :: Horses in Art, Mythology & Literature


Horses in Art, Mythology & Literature

Few animals have influenced the history of human culture like the horse. These four-legged running machines gave us food, mobility, and enhanced success at hunting hard-to-catch animals. And the influence goes both ways: archaeologists say that horse skeletons dating from 2000-2500 BCE already show differences from those of wild horses that attest to the effects of breeding and (partial) domestication, while scientists theorize that the adoption of horses by Late Ice Age-era Eurasian tribes may well have saved these horses the extinction that befell their North American counterparts.

But with all else they've given us, horses have symbolized grace and power for thousands of years. Paleolithic cave art is some of the oldest known art on earth; what inspires awe, however, is - bluntly - that it's as great as it is old. Here at the dawn of art history we find images of animals so subtle in their artistry, in the mixing of the colors and in their observed details, and yet so grand in size and conception that they still transfix observers today.

The Lascaux cave paintings of southwestern France, near the village of Montignac, represent the most famous examples of this branch of art. Discovered in September 1940 by four French teenagers and a dog, these caves hold nearly 2000 figures, including animals (an estimated 900, of which 605 have been identified), some faint dot configurations which may represent constellations, and a single human.

The caves' bison paintings may rank among its most famous - one bison is 17 feet long, while another, "The Crossed Bison," shows a use of perspective that doesn't recur in painting again until the 15th century CE - but a visitor to Lascaux would see more horses than any other kind of animal: 364, in fact.

"Would see" because the caves were closed to the public in 1963 after twenty-three years of tourism left the paintings visibly damaged by carbon dioxide. However, the images can be easily found in books and on the Internet, while tourists to France can visit Lascaux II, a replica of two cave halls that opened in 1983.

Horses rear their powerful heads in much of ancient culture and literature; references to horseback riding appear, for example, in Mesopotamian documents that represent some of the earliest written remains of human culture. But no one could forget the myth of the Trojan Horse - the gigantic horse replica wrought by Epeius and presented as a peace offering to the unfortunate Trojans, who didn't realize this "gift" was stuffed to its pointy ears with heavily-armed Greek warriors determined to end the ten-year Trojan War with a sneak attack.

The origins of this myth, as with the larger narrative of the Trojan War, are shrouded in mystery, though it's possible that they reflect at least some genuine history. (Some modern commentators suggest that the Greeks might simply have made a horse-shaped battering ram, and that the story of the giant hollow horse arose from later oral historians' misunderstanding of surviving veterans' descriptions of a "horse."

Ancient Assyrians, after all, often gave animal names to their siege machines.) In any case, the story comes down to us from a brief vignette in Homer's Odyssey (the hero of which, Odysseus, came up with the scheme in the first place), and, most of all, from Virgil's achingly vivid depiction in Book II of his Aeneid. Here we learn of Laocoon's brave effort to warn his fellow Trojans - "Don't trust this 'horse,' Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear even gift-bearing Greeks" - and the midnight raid on Troy, from which Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome, escapes with his life (but not, alas, his wife).

Among ancient painters of horses, the Tang Dynasty artist Han Gan deserves special praise. Hailing from Chang'an (the province of China we now know as Xi'an), or perhaps Shaanxi or Henan - accounts differ - the young painter came to the attention of the great Buddhist poet Wang Wei, who, like a modern-day Guggenheim Foundation or National Endowment For the Humanities, paid for Han's education.

He became a painter in the Han court, working with many subjects; however, he's most famous for his paintings of horses. His reputed ability to paint not only the body, but the spirit of a horse earned him the privilege of painting the Emperor Xuanzong's favorite horse, "Night-Shining White," among many others.

Finally, horses recur in Norse mythology, where they are as closely associated with particular gods and heroes as Silver with the Lone Ranger. There's Heimdallr and Gulltoppr, Odin and eight-legged Sleipnir. Little wonder, then, that horse racing is viewed, from time immemorial, as the "sport of kings."

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