I recently stumbled upon a South Korean myth about an eight legged horse (called The Heavenly Horse) – as one does. Further inspired by discussions with friends I very quickly realised that this was a more common theme that I might otherwise have realised; such is the incredible patterns of parallel and recurring themes that exist within mythology and folklore around the world. It seemed an interesting and appropriate option to share some of those tales and ideas here, I hope you agree.
Mythology provides an incredibly powerful insight into cultures and traditions long lost to us, whilst we may consign them to superstition and more uncivilized pagan practices, let us not forget these cultures in many cases existed for considerably longer, and with much more empathy to this land and those they shared it with, than this current age of science and reason which all around us is showing signs of collapse and decay.
What is to be lost in allowing ourselves time to glimpse this old world; and who better to guide us than horses.
This is the Sleipnir runestone. Sleipnir is really the Daddy (or should i say Mummy) of eight-legged horse myths and undoubtedly the best known. Sleipnir is the eight-legged mare of Odin – born of Loki (a shape-shifter) transformed himself into a mare and is impregnated by Svadilfari, a giant’s stallion. Odin would often ride Sleipnir on his journeys around the branches of the world-tree of Yggdrasil, he is also linked to the transportation of souls to that after – a frequent theme for the horse in traditional shamanic cultures.
Sleipnir also has some also left his mark on the physical world according to Icelandic myth; the horseshoe shaped canyon Asbyrgi located in Jokulasgliufur National Park, was formed by Sleipnir’s hoof. I have been to that canyon (a few years back) and its unique form certainly defies all the standard textbook geomorphological processes.
Some have also directly compared the “impression” of eight legs with the physical sensation felt when riding the Scandanavian (Icelandic) horses as they have a unique fifth gait called Tolt which creates a very smooth experience for the rider.
Travelling south-east we find we move into the realm of Slavic and Russian folklore – here we again encounter an excessively legged equine whose role is to draw the sun across the heavens each day. In Mongolia the eight legged horse appears within local shamanic tradition, this special horse being the means by which the shaman travels between the mortal and otherworlds to consort with spirit guides; in this case the shaman’s drum represents the physical manifestation of this horse, or the rhythmic beat of the horses hooves as it caries the shaman on his journey.
In a recently excavated chamber tomb at Cheonmachong, in Gyeongju, South Korea, a painting of a fiery eight legged creature was uncovered, dating back around 2000 years. Like in the Mongolian it is believed to have shamanistic links although it also serves as a representation of the souls journey to the afterlife. Given the very fiery nature of this Korean horse some studies have actually drawn the comparison of this figure more to the dragon than the horse. Again an incredibly strong link between the horse and the spiritual beliefs and customs of traditional cultures.
What these stories deliver to us is a strong message about the relationship between the horse and traditional cultures, one which develops far beyond utilitarian requirements or straight-forward nourishment. There was an acknowledgment of the horse as a sort of spiritual link between the physical and metaphysical planes; by any definition, this says much about the animal.
This imbues a respect that we no longer recognise – particularly in the context of our own largely organised religion and spirituality models. The natural world is vast and diverse and the horse but one beast, we must wonder why so many cultures chose for it to play such a key role in their belief system. I believe that this is much more than simply the domestic/working relation between human and horse, perhaps that functional theme created the opportunity to develop a different relationship, but function is not divine, so we must look further and deeper in our search. The horse has been an incredible partner to man for millennia, let us pause and look into both theirs and our own hearts – let us understand why; mythology offers the opportunity to think outside the box. I invite you to join me in that contemplation.
And one last visit to these spider-horses; there is also a very questionable folktale in the USA (unspecified state) dating back to the mid 1800s about people hearing a frantic galloping in the woods, which on one occasion presented itself in the form of an eight-legged horse to a working lumberjack, said lumberjack mounted his own horse and gave chase but sadly was not able to catch-up.