Across cultures and across time, the iconic image of horse and rider is ever familiar. By such images, the wars they brought and their conquest of kingdoms or wilderness is communicated in romantic invocation. We understand its meaning intuitively. We understand the increased capacity granted to mankind by domestication of the horse. Here we will explore in some detail the symbolic meaning of that horse and rider as an ontological category, and by contrasting it to the image of the Centaur, and its confused mixing specifically, we will examine the essential mechanism by which that which is below can participate in the manifest will of that which is above.
A Word About Symbolic Language
Often in these articles (JP’s article here does a great job), videos (Jonathan here), or in the space adjacent to The Symbolic World, we speak of things like hierarchy and category. It is perhaps helpful for those unfamiliar with the jargon to picture reality itself as a ladder which reaches both up and down. Lower down on the ladder we might see it descend into water, and rising above this sea of chaos and potentiality its rungs lay themselves out upward in earth and stone, plants, beasts, men, and gods (to highlight only a few of these categories). The rungs of the ladder (or the spaces between the rungs) represent the upper and lower limits of particular categories, with Man residing in a particular space in this ladder/hierarchy. A movement down the ladder is always “Earthward”, toward greater levels of chaos and potentiality. Any movement up the ladder is always “Heavenward”, toward greater levels of order and meaning. Thus Man interacts with that which is below his station in the hierarchy, as well as above. There are, however, rules of propriety that govern the interaction of that which below with that which is above. This is true of dogs, and trees, and rocks as well. That which is above is always masculine in relation to that which is below. That which is below is always feminine in relation to that which is above. The movement from any category into another (moving Earthward or Heavenward) is a masculine act, while the reception of such an act from above or below is always feminine.
Confusion will be my epitaph.
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back
But I fear tomorrow I’ll be crying 1
Centaurs (Κενταυροι) appear in Greek art at least as early as the 7th century BC. By the time of Pindar in the 5th century BC we find a well developed articulation of their origin in Hellenic myth:
…in the vast recesses of that bridal chamber he [Ixion] once made an attempt on the wife of Zeus. A man must always measure all things according to his own place. Unnatural lust throws men into dense trouble; it befell even him, since the man in his ignorance chased a sweet fake and lay with a cloud, for its form was like the supreme celestial goddess, the daughter of Cronus. The hands of Zeus set it as a trap for him, a beautiful misery. Ixion brought upon himself the four-spoked fetter, his own ruin. He fell into inescapable bonds, and received the message that warns the whole world. She bore to him, without the blessing of the Graces, a monstrous offspring—there was never a mother or a son like this—honored neither by men nor by the laws of the gods. She raised him and named him Centaurus, and he mated with the Magnesian mares in the foothills of Pelion, and from them was born a marvelous horde, which resembled both its parents: like the mother below, the father above. 2
The appearance of this bizarre creature at the margin of two categories, here those of man and horse, is a common enough tale in myth. Often precipitated by an improper encounter with a god, the offending being is forced lower, beyond the realm of ordinary man, and becomes confusedly mixed with a creature who is generally understood to dwell below. This is seen in the story of Acteon when he glimpses Artemis bathing (an excellent analysis of the Myth of Acteon by David Flores can be read here). Furious that this lower mortal would dare to gaze upon the unveiled divinity, she hurls water (often symbolic of chaos, and undoing) into the face of Acteon, and he is lowered from the being of mankind into confused union with a stag. This sort of thing is also echoed in the tale of Lycaon of Arcadia, who, testing the knowledge of Zeus, served the god the flesh of his own son. As punishment for this offence, Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf.
…I with my avenging bolt, overthrew the house upon its master and on his equally unworthy household of gods. The king himself flies in terror and, gaining the silent fields, howls aloud, attempting in vain to speak. His mouth of itself gathers foam, and with his accustomed greed for blood he turns against the sheep, delighting still in slaughter. His garments change to shaggy hair, his arms to legs. He turns into a wolf, and yet retains some traces of his former shape. There is the same grey hair, the same fierce face, the same gleaming eyes, the same picture of beastly savagery. 3
The origin of the Centaur is a similar sort of tale. Ixion, King of the Lapiths, burns with desire for Hera, the wife of Zeus. In order to trick the mortal king, Zeus fashions the cloud-nymph Nephele into the form of Hera, and Ixion lay with her. As punishment, Ixion is driven from Olympus, where he had been previously welcomed by Zeus after being cast out from all cities. The resultant child from this union of man and cloud is the deformed, but human, Centaurus. Finding no peace among other men, Centaurus fled to the mountains of Pelion and mated with the Magnesian mares. It is the offspring of this union that became the race of Centaurs.
The image of the Centaur should be familiar to most. It is a half-beast, half-man hybrid. It possesses the head, torso, and arms of a man, and the legs and body of a horse. As Pindar says: “…like the mother below, the father above”. We mentioned earlier that the movement from one category into another is a masculine act. The decision of Centaurus to mate with the Magnesian mares preserves the masculine nature of this action. The result of this descent is a confused mixing of categories, neither wholly man nor horse. The Centaur possesses qualities of both, but fits into neither category. Confused mixing of man and beast seems to be the hallmark of the divinely wrought punishment in each of the tales of Acteon, Lycaon, and Ixion. With Ixion, the resultant mixing of man and horse is of course a generation removed (at least in Pindar’s telling), but stands easily enough with the other accounts in basic structure.
Also in common among these tales, is the “perilous ascent” of the mortal into the domain of the divine. This unwelcomed masculine action on the part of the mortal is punished by the greater power of the god as the uniqueness of the divine identity is threatened by something not wholly unlike a virus which enters us from “below”. The offending mortal is expelled from the divine presence with a vengeance, perhaps in common with the fury with which we might swat a fly against a wall. The words of Pindar ring true for all three men, “A man must always measure all things according to his own place. Unnatural lust throws men into dense trouble“
Cautionary tales that these may be, there remain further examples of a proper ascent that is not spurned, but occurs with the participation of that which is higher.
The Horse And The Rider
Arise now, arise, Riders of Théoden!
Dire deeds awake: dark is it eastward.
Let horse be bridled, horn be sounded!
Forth Eorlingas! 4
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium, horses play no small role. More precisely, it is the Riders of Rohan that stand as a wonderful example of this relationship between man and steed. The image of the horse is emblazoned upon their shields, and the crests from their helms falls over their backs like the tails of their very mounts. Théoden is called “Horse Master”, and the power and fury which is summoned, coupled with the thundering earth under countless hooves as they charge to face the enemies of men, show us the meaning of such an epithet. As the King, Théoden embodies and represents his people to the greater world. While he is himself a masterful equestrian, the epithet refers also to the Rohirrim collectively. It is this people of the Riddermark who are the masters of horses, and it is they whose will is amplified throughout Middle-Earth by this mastery. Each warrior of Rohan is a competent man-at-arms, even dismounted. Upon their horses however, they become something more. Of particular importance to this exploration, however, is that the horses with the riders upon their backs become something more as well.
Horses in the wild are just that, wild. Their lives possess only the smallest degree of order, with females and young generally congregating around a single male stallion. They are carefree, a term given to describe in positive light what we might otherwise describe as careless in creatures with more responsibility. Alone among the beasts, the horse in its wild state yet possesses something akin to human nobility.
The domestication of the horse by humans is sometimes placed in the hands of the early Indo-European cultures, or perhaps it was older tribes of Asian nomads. In any case, the relationship that humans have had with horses is paralleled only by the peculiar friendship between humans and dogs. Where once the equine was ubiquitous across societies, the technological advances of the 19th and 20th centuries robbed their presence among us of much utility. With some few exceptions, the horse remains in developed societies as a mere romantic novelty of a bygone era. However, it was not always so.
Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, tells us a tale well known to the late classical world. That is the story of the taming of the horse Bucephalus by a young Alexander, and the relationship which emerges from this encounter shapes the presentation of Alexander in art and song for millennia.
Once Philonicus the Thessalian brought King Phillip II of Macedon a horse to sell, but the horse was vicious and unmanageable, and heeded the voices of none present. As they were ready to dismiss Philonicus and the worthless horse, a youthful Alexander offered to try his hand at managing the wild stallion.
“I could manage this horse,” replied he, “better than others do.” “And if you do not,” said Philip, “what will you forfeit for your rashness?” “I will pay,” answered Alexander, “the whole price of the horse.” At this the whole company fell a-laughing; and as soon as the wager was settled amongst them, he immediately ran to the horse, and taking hold of the bridle, turned him directly towards the sun, having, it seems, observed that he was disturbed at and afraid of the motion of his own shadow; then letting him go forward a little, still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.
Presently, when he found him free from all rebelliousness, and only impatient for the course, he let him go at full speed, inciting him now with a commanding voice, and urging him also with his heel. Philip and his friends looked on at first in silence and anxiety for the result, till seeing him turn at the end of his career, and come back rejoicing and triumphing for what he had performed, they all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport said, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.” 5
While humans reside higher up the hierarchy of being than horses and dogs, there is yet something magical which occurs when man moves earthward, and such beasts move heavenward. Something of symbiosis occurs, as any equestrian or long-time owner of a dog will doubtless agree. The being (being as a verb) of each is expanded, and the capability of the unified ontological unit is greater than merely the sum of its parts.
Man and horse are also unified in the Centaur after all, but such confused mixings result in a reduction in capacity. We don’t typically think of the Centaur as a humanified horse, but rather a bestified man. The greater meaning which man possesses is forced earthward into the body of a horse, and we are left with something that is lesser as a result.
In contrast, the union of horse and rider is not confused, and both creatures are all the better because of it. They are united, yet remain distinct. In the taming of Bucephalus, Alexander helps the horse to overcome the fear of his own shadow. In Jungian terms, the beastly aspect of the horse was keeping him from attaining to the higher capacity for nobility that lay within him. The conquest of that lower animality opens the door for the mounting of Bucephalus by Alexander, and the conquest of the known world is all but sealed. Alexander’s power is magnified, both by his breaking of Bucephalus, as it showed his father and others his inherent wisdom and capacity to inform potential, and that when mounted upon a majestic horse a man can move much more swiftly, and his crash into an enemy force is exponentially more powerful.
This analysis can show us something of the rules of propriety which govern movements earthward and heavenward across the hierarchy. If we attempt to ascend heavenward unwanted and unworthily, and we might well expect to be thrust down further than where we were when we began our perilous ascent. If however, that which is above reaches down, and that which is below takes hold of the divine hand, then the resultant union creates something new, with expanded capability. The lower creature is able to step away from its lower animality, and actually participate in a greater divinity than it can fully understand. The god, by reaching down to unite with the lower creature is “hosted”, and his will is capable of being manifested in a greater way than without such participation. Perhaps this is the image of an ultimate pattern, which scales heavenward and earthward equally and infinitely. Perhaps the alignment of the lessor with the greater leads to a new mode of being for the very cosmos itself. Perhaps this something like Theosis.
- King Crimson. Epitaph. Atlantic Records, 1969.
- Odes. Pindar. Diane Arnson Svarlien. 1990. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DP.%3Apoem%3D2
- Ovid. Miller, Frank, Justus. Metamorphosis, at 9. Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.https://www.amazon.com/Metamorphoses-Barnes-Noble-Classics/dp/1593082762/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=9781593082765&qid=1595022392&s=books&sr=1-1
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers, at 122. Houghton Mifflin, Inc, 2001.
- Dryden, John. Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, at 543. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 1952