So the horse has eight legs!

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.

Sleipnirstone   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.

 Odin and Sleipnir, painting by Arthur Rackham.sleipnir

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.

220px-Korea-Silla-Cheonmado-01The Heavenly Horse of Cheonmachong, in Gyeongju, South Korea clearly displaying his eight fiery legs.

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.


3 thoughts on “So the horse has eight legs!

  1. Maybe the eight legs of shamanic horses originated with an ectopic pattern. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Haidinger brush’ could be interpreted as an eight legged something seen against the sky.
    ‘Haidinger’s brush is an entoptic phenomenon first described by Austrian physicist Wilhelm Karl von Haidinger in 1844.
    Many people are able to perceive polarization of light. It may be seen as a yellowish horizontal bar or bow-tie shape (with “fuzzy” ends, hence the name “brush”) visible in the center of the visual field against the blue sky viewed while facing away from the sun, or on any bright background. It typically occupies roughly 3–5 degrees of vision, about twice or three times the width of one’s thumb held at arm’s length. The direction of light polarization is perpendicular to the yellow bar (i.e., vertical if the bar is horizontal). Fainter bluish or purplish areas may be visible between the yellow brushes (see illustration).’

    Odin is often pictured in the sky leading ‘the wild hunt’ on Sleipner, his eight legged horse. So maybe Odin is the faint bluish area seen between the yellow brushes. Or maybe the idea started even earlier than the ‘wild hunt’.

    Shamanic horses are often pictured with eight legs. So maybe it is something often seen by shaman.

    Shaman can mediate looking up at the sky, I conjecture. Hey, anybody riding a horse on the Siberian steppes would be spending a great deal of time looking at the sky. I imagine that they would tend to look away from the sun, which would hurt even a shamans eyes.

    They would see the Haidinger brush even without drugs. Common people would ignore such wonders. However, a shaman would be trained to look for phenomena that are both subtle and marvelous. So a faint pattern reliably observed on the bright blue sky would catch a wizards interest. He could even point it out to ordinary people during a ceremony. A fantastic audiovisual prop, provided by the gods themselves.

    So I imagine many shaman riding a horse saw the Haidinger brush against the bright blue sky. A faint yellow bow tie with another blue bow tie crossing it. It would always appear at nearly 45 degrees deviation from the sun itself because that is where the linear polarization is strongest. Of course, it would tend to rock back and forth with the galloping of the horse because of stress on the eye.

    Scientists have documented this phenomenon for only a century or two. It is related to the polarization of scattered light, not spirits in the sky. Or maybe the spirits manifest themselves as polarized light. Some people in the ancient past must have noticed the Haidinger brush even if they didn’t know about polarized light. So maybe it worked its way into mystic folklore.

    Yes, I am speculating, conjecturing, and fantasizing. I am sure many have suggested entopic patterns as an explanation, before. However, I don’t think many people have considered Haidinger patterns in particular.

  2. I just realized there is an even more plausible source for the eight legged shamanist horse than the Haidinger brush. Maybe the shamans were inspired by the double rainbow!

    Rainbows are often seen in pairs especially in arid climates. Although the primary rainbow is more common than the secondary rainbow, both primary and secondary rainbows are simultaneously visible in places where the visibility is very good. The primary rainbow comes from a single reflection at the back of a raindrop, while the secondary rainbow comes from a pair of reflections within a raindrop.

    Double rainbows are very dramatic. I have seen many when I lived in southern New Mexico. A dark region of sky is seen between the two rainbows, which is currently referred to as Alexander’s band. Both rainbows are seen opposite the sun in the direction of a rainstorm. Often, the top of such rainbows is invisible since the rainstorm doesn’t cover the complete sky. So after a rainstorm, one often sees four columns sticking out of the ground with a dark region between two of them.

    So the eight ‘legs’ are the four columns of the rainbow seen above the ground and their imaginary projections below the ground. Alexanders band is the body of the horse. The horse has four legs that extend into the heavens where the gods live while the four legs below sink into the netherworld with the dead.

    The double rainbow is most easily seen in dry and cold climates where visibility is very good. So eight legged horse is often drawn in places like Scandanavia, the Siberian steps, North Korea, and so forth.

    Sleipner is a horse that often rides on Bifrost, the rainbow bridge. Now Bifrost is more likely to represent the Aurora Borealis than the rainbow. However, I suspect that the rainbow bridge and the aurora borealis may have often been seen together! They are not mutually exclusive. Or maybe Snorri thought of the two as being similar, so he integrated the two images in the Prose Edda.

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