I have written before about my personal journey with horse and them as guides in my reconnection with the earth. Along that journey the White Horse of Uffington constantly appears to me as some kind of totem or muse. What better embodiment of the idea of a personal equine connection to mother earth than one crafted from the very soil and bed rock of this ancient land.
However one views it; as a celebratory image carved in ages past; a beautiful artistic creation; a representation of no longer worship deities, or some other equally plausible explanation, this beak faced and heavily stylized image remains largely an enigma to scholars. We call it a horse – but is that because the animal that we recognize within the image it that of a horse (like one of those reading games with false characters and numbers); if it is a horse, it is also not a horse.
And its location, sufficiently close to the brow of the hill so as not to be visible from below – in fact on the ground it is nearly always impossible to view the full image – all of the recognizable images we see are taken from the air. And then in a time when man was as we understand land-bound. Could it somehow have been intended to be seen from above? A God’s eye view; a shaman’s totem or way marker.
As one looks deeper into this image – actually in person or more academically – it becomes clear that its age and folklore importance is profound. I want to explore this further with you dear readers further. Please read on.
The Uffington Horse is an immense creation by anybody’s standards. It is 374 ft long and 120 ft high and carved out of the shallow topsoil to exposure the clear whiteness of the underlying chalk. It sits on the ancient ridgeway path of southern England. Now maintained by National Heritage it was traditionally kept up by a 7 year cycle of scouring festivals – no longer undertaken, what a shame!
It is unlikely the image portrayed now in the Oxfordshire landscape is completely reflective of its original conception, for example modern archaeology has proved the image has changed subtly over years, and old 19th Century drawings portray it as a fully filled-in head with no eye and a “lumpy” back or top line (Jackson, 2006). Adapting and developing these images in the land is a familiar practice, for example the similarly stylised image at Bratton Hill, Westbury in Wiltshire has been changed very significant changed over the years, M Oldfield Howey (1922) provides a representation of the original White Horse, compare this with recent images taken from the internet.
The most popular and prevailing story of it’s creation dates back to 871 and a celebration of the great battle of Ashdown where King Alfred and his brother Aelthelred finally defeated the Danes, wrestling away their persons and pagan influences over the Britons. As we will see, this “defeat of paganism” is a recurring theme.
Modern Archaeology takes it much further back, circa 3000 years, based upon analysis of silts around the carving and ancient coinage finds bearing similar imagery. This work connects the Horse with the Belgae and most likely a local representation of the wider European horse goddess Epona, be it Rhiannon or similar incarnation.
Contemporary thinking generally positions it as some kind or totem or ritual association with the tribes that inhabited the hill fort that is Uffington Castle (on the Northern flank of the same high ground).
So an over view of the Horse’s construct begins to take shape, but as we have already stated nothing really stands as conclusive, and beyond the image we see in the hill when we are there (in books and on the internet), the real “Why” is certainly well without accepted definition.
And so the enigma endures. And with it the magic; and so it’s fascination. Solet us dig a little deeper.
The beak horse (or hen headed steed) is actually no stranger to the culture of the ancient Britons, the great celtic bard Taliesin’s work contains references to “Hen headed horses” and as we have seen contemporary coinage finds carry similar imagery.
Another battle reference is Mount Baden, Arthur’s twelfth and most decisive victory over the Saxons, giving birth the golden age portrayed in the tales of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table; this places the horse within Arthurian (and therefore Avalonian) tradition. At the very heart of the mythology of the Britain. And here we see another inferred linkage to the overcoming of pagan and pre-Christian belief.
Further ties to Arthurian legend cite Dragon Hill (at the foot of the escarpment of the horse) as the resting place of Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and often regarded as the bridging character between old world belief and Christianity – this theme was one developed by John Aubrey in Monumenta Britannica in 1670, developed on writings on Uther first outlined in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136). Pendragon meaning “Dragon’s head” or “Chief dragon” reportedly derives from the citing a comet in the heavens – either by Uther or his elder sibling Ambrosius Aurelianus.
Dragon Hill further etches itself into British lore in the name of the patron saint, St George. It is here that the celebrated hero battles the dragon and saves the princesses there enslaved. The dragon spilling noxious blood on its demise burns the ground such that nothing will thereafter grow in that place; marked still today by a patch of bare rock on the top of the hill where nothing shall grow. Much is written about George and whether he ever visited these shores, a Syrian mercenary (and local dragon slayer) whose name was adopted those in the holy lands on crusade, supposedly bringing back the name of their eponymous here in the Order of (or Knights of) St George.
The legends of St George and his Dragon slaying antics tie in with those of St Michael whose name Christianizes pagan places across Europe, e.g. Mont St Michel in Normandy France and Glastonbury Tor in Somerset, England.
The Royal Berkshire History website develops a line that the horse is actually a representation of the dragon their slain (or perhaps a dragon). Not an unreasonable proposition given the importance of the dragon in the beliefs and myths of the Britons. Dragon tales are in every sense a worldwide myth (ALL traditional civilizations acknowledge the Dragon. No other mythological beast is so omnipresent), however, individual tales are no more numerous and widespread as they are in the British Isles (Richard Freeman, 2006).
Finally, for the UFOlogists out there, the fields below the Horse are one of the most common locations for the manifesting of crop circles.
AND SO WHAT IS THIS ICONIC HORSE HIDING ……
We know that these white horses have changed over the years and so it remains plausible that what resides here is more dragon in origin than equine, reshaped or re-recognised as beliefs and cultures morph. The histories and mythologies here constantly refer back to the overcoming previous beliefs frameworks, and sadly always in a violent form. It is only contemporary western belief that positions the dragon as some beast to conquered, a very real metaphor for the spread and victories of the western monotheistic model of Christianity.
And whether dragons exist or not, whether they are pure fantasy or misunderstood interpretations of comets in the heavens, or something else; they still represent ethereal energy, the prima energies of mother earth. In my own shamanic experiences I have come across the same message on many occasions “the dragon’s lie sleeping within the horses”, this is not to say there has to be a dragon under this hill, or that there are dragons sleeping in our beloved equines, but there is an intimate link for us through our horses to essence of life on this planet. A forgotten connection to the land and the others that share it with us; but one we can connect with again, the resources lie within each of us. It is a question of will.
On a recent visit a friend observed that “the horse has no brain” – at once drawing our focus to the pure spirituality of the place. A place just to be, not to contemplate, theorise or define meaning. Personally, for me the site is about visioning – it is an opportunity for the spiritual to travel and reflect upon the form of their Gods or Spirits (Horse, Dragon or whatever) – as an English mirror (perhaps) of the landscape patterns of Nazca in Peru.
Dragon Hill is part of that creation, it’s shape strangely alien and angular in a landscape of otherwise gentle rolling scenery; perhaps it represents the place from which to travel to the Otherworld, a safe starting point, or the gateway to the heart of the spirits of Uffington and whatever they represent.
Whatever, for me, it is a place that inhabited by psyche long before I visited, its image a haunting chimera within both night and day dreams since I can remember. It is a place without questions, and yet a place full of answers.
In so many ways it is home.