I've always loved the Uffington white horse. It was an important messagenger to me from Epona, a very long time ago, along with several of the more modern chalk horses which grace Wiltshire, where I spent a fair bit of time in the 1980s. At that time, I didn't know the history of any of these horses, or understand the vast difference in age between Oxfordshire's Uffington horse and the others. I certainly wasn't consciously devoted to Epona at that time, or involved with horses, either. But there is something about travelling down the road in a car, or on a bus, and suddenly you are looking at a large white horse in the landscape. Often it's distant and mysterious, occasionally up close and imposing. It just does something to me.
The Uffington Horse is about 3,000 years old. Britain's chalk hill figures are/were created by cutting away the upper layer of sod and soil and then are usually filled in with chalk rubble to make them uniformly white. This has to be renewed fairly regularly, or the sod will simly re-grow and the figure will disappear. It's possible that for every hill figure we see, there are many more which are lost forever, because if it takes a village to raise a child, the same can be said for maintaining a hill figure. Someone has to care enough to organise people to keep the figure looking good, and a lot more someones have to be willing to put in the hours to actually do the work. This makes the existence of the Uffington horse an amazing feat of continuity, if nothing else. Until sometime in the 19th century a fair was held during the scouring of the horse.
No one is sure who made the Uffington horse, or why. At over 300 metres long, it is too big to be appreciated from up close, but can be seen clearly from the other side of the valley, and from the air. It might be the symbol of a Bronze Age Celtic tribe, or devotional art to a deity (Epona, Rhiannon, and Bel/Beli Mawr have all been suggested). There are vaguely similar stylised horses on Celtic coins and in other Celtic art from the Iron Age, like the Silchester horse. If you look closely at these, you can get a sense of how the lower part of the face of the Uffington horse might have ended up so beak-like. There is evidence that the horse has changed shape and position quite a bit over time.
The Silchester Horse. Iron Age artifact.
However, it's not the history I want to talk about, but the motivation that people have felt to keep it alive for so long, and since the 18th century, to start placing other horses in the landscape. And when I say in the landscape, that's what I mean. To carve something directly into a hillside seems more imposing, to me, than just putting up a statue of a horse -- even a large one. As soon a one makes a realistic statue of something, it has a different impact on the psyche, I think, than something which is stylised and carved directly into the landscape, or which becomes a new feature of the landscape, like the 21st century Kelpies, in Scotland, or Sultan the Pit Pony, in Wales.
Another horse that intrigues me is The Black Horse of Bush Howe, in Cumbria. Whether it is wholly or partially a natural patch of black scree is among its mysteries, but there is folk memory of school children "trimming" it, to help keep its shape in the 1930s and 40s, and before that of local farmers setting aside a day to do the same. If that's the case, then people were either accepting of its shape being only vaguely horse-like, or it has deteriorated. I love this part of the world, which is home to semi-feral herds of Fell Ponies. Reading about the Bush Howe horse was part of the inspiration for my story The Wild Mare.
As I was thinking about this article, and wondering what to write, I was looking through images of some of these horse figures, and decided to post a few on facebook. It was just a few images and a couple of sentences of text, but it got huge attention. I wonder what people find so exciting, but it excites me, too, and I'm thrilled to see so many really beautiful and excellent new horses appearing.
(Click photos to enlarge.)
In another piece of synchornicity, some friends were discussing Sultan this week, and wondering whether such places would appeal as new places of pilgrimage - especially to devotees of the horse goddesses. One or two people felt that they lacked meaning because there is no devotional intent behind their creation. Personally, I disagree. First, because I don't think devotional intent is limited to religious or Pagan devotion. Many people feel a kind of devotion to horses as an idea of beauty and wildness, or alternatively as allies of humans in ventures like agriculture, war or coal mining. They want to offer homage and thanks for what horses gave, and gave up, to do this. (I personally think this is a bit like thanking slaves, but we won't go down that road any further today.)
The second reason that I feel that these new horses make sense as pilgrimage and devotional sites, is that I believe that they must be very appealing to horse deities as potential places for us to go to honour them, and to commune with them. If you put a giant, attention grabbing horse in the landscape, why would a horse deity not find ways to take advantage of it? It fills the eye and it hits people in the pits of their stomachs. It's brought them halfway to something potentially spiritual or devotional already. If those of us who already feel some devotion add our intent to the mix, who knows what the overall effect will be?
Postscript: This evening as I was finishing up this post, I watched a documentary about the making of the Kelpies, and two things struck me. First, the enormous amount of negative environmental impact that went into the making of this installation has to be acknowledged. Scenes of excavation for the foundations, laying of vast amounts of concrete and other use of materials can't be denied, and I don't feel great about that. The second is the huge effort that was put into this project by so many people. And, yes, they were probably all paid handsomely, but years of effort, especially by the artist must be acknowledged. This is the reality of our anthropocentric view of the world. We do some harm, we create something amazing, and we rationalize it.
I'm on YouTube!