Magical, Mythical, Mystical Horses
A horse is a horse, of course, of course. That is, of course, unless the horse has wings, or is half human, or has a horn sprouting from its head, or can, like the famous Mister Ed, speak English in a gruff cowboy drawl. Throughout history, humans have imagined horses with magical powers and conferred mystic meaning onto horses and outlandish horselike beings. Sometimes we even accord them the status of gods.
In the modern imagination, winged steeds are stately, decorous and pure. Witness the “Pastoral” section of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia. Near the start of that sequence, set to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” winged horses soar majestically through the sky, trailed by a cute little herd of airborne foals. Setting down on water, they swim with swanlike grace. It’s all very lovely—and very sentimental. Greek myths, including those about the white winged horse Pegasus, by contrast are bloody-minded. Sired by the sea god Poseidon, Pegasus is born of the blood spurting from the neck of his mother, the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa, when the hero Perseus beheads her. Pegasus later serves as mount for another murderous hero, Bellerophon, carrying him off to slay the fire-breathing Chimera. The Greeks valued horses as vehicles for killing and conquest, and none was more lethal than the colossal wooden horse the departing Greek army abandoned on the shores of Troy. Or appeared to abandon: Secreted inside the massive Trojan Horse was a platoon of assassins led by the wily Odysseus. Convinced that the horse was a victory trophy, the Trojans wheeled it into their city. They made a lethal mistake.
Don’t trust a horse somebody just leaves behind. That’s a lesson to be drawn from the ancient story of the Trojan Horse and from 1960s sitcom Mister Ed. When the Trojans idiotically decided to bring the big wooden horse inside Troy’s gates, a few voices rose in protest: The priest Laocoön implored his fellow citizens to beware Greeks bearing gifts, and King Priam’s daughter Cassandra prophesied the city’s fall. But nobody listened to them, and, come nighttime, slaughter ensued.
Mister Ed substitutes farce for tragedy. When architect Wilbur Post and his wife, Carol, move into their country house, they discover a palomino abandoned by the previous tenant in the stable out back. Carol wants to get rid of the horse, but Wilbur resists, especially after “Ed” starts talking to him. Across six seasons Ed directs Wilbur’s destiny, getting his ostensible master into jams, then cleverly rescuing him. It was the lightest of lightweight TV fare—but might Mister Ed have concealed a demonic secret? Some have idiotically thought so, believing that the show’s famous theme song, when played backward, reveals the hidden message “Sing the song for Satan.”
Long-term, existentially exclusive relationships between one horse and one person are the stuff of legend, fiction and occasionally reality. Often such trans-species friendships are forged when the person trains the animal. Before he became “the Great,” 13-year-old Alexander of Macedonia tamed the enormous, supposedly untamable horse Bucephalus, which later carried Alexander on his conquests. That narrative arc is retraced in Enid Bagnold’s 1935 children’s novel National Velvet (film adaptation, 1944), in which a 14-year-old girl trains a horse called the Pie, then rides him to victory in England’s Grand National steeplechase. Joey, the equine protagonist of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s book War Horse (film, 2011), forms an unbreakable bond with the teenage boy who tames him. And the theme also surfaces in the film Seabiscuit (2003), about the true-life bond between jockey Red Pollard and his champion Thoroughbred. In such stories, the horse willingly submits to its rider, just as the kingly stallion Shadowfax, who understands human speech, permits only the wizard Gandalf to ride him in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Shadowfax yields to Gandalf’s bidding, but the man-over-beast hierarchy is upended in Mister Ed, in which the talking horse, not his human friend, holds the metaphorical reins.
Employing a plot device common to several 1960s TV comedies, Mister Ed presents viewers with a nonhuman creature who’s savvier than the human he nuzzles (My Favorite Martian and My Mother the Car had similar topsy-turvy premises). The human, Wilbur Post, is an affable semi-moron, socially awkward and physically klutzy. His talking equine pal Ed (voiced by cowboy-movie actor Allan Lane) continually tries to instill some horse sense in Wilbur. But sitcom characters never grow wiser, and Ed’s pupil proves ineducable.
The upshot of another fictional encounter between a man and talking horses provokes a bit more thought. In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), narrator Lemuel Gulliver is stranded in the country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses who teach him their neighing language, rationalist philosophy and simple, harmonious way of life. Conversing with his Houyhnhnm “master,” Gulliver comes to realize that human beings are barely better than the Yahoos—the savage, filthy, violent humanoids who roam the Houyhnhnms’ land. Formerly an optimist and humanitarian, Gulliver can no longer abide the company of people after returning to England, so he buys a couple of horses, contenting himself by chatting with them. They “understand me tolerably well,” he concludes.
Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms aren’t particularly plausible: Not only do they speak, but they use the hollow behind their hooves like hands and are dexterous enough to thread a needle. And then there’s their sangfroid personality. Houyhnhnms are utterly rational beings, undisturbed by any emotion, even loyalty. They are, in short, unhorse-like—the farthest imaginable cry from the great horse god Equus, who jealously rules the psychic universe of the disturbed young protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play. In Equus, horses represent all that is irrational—sexual desire, religious passion, freedom from civilized restraint—and the young man, Alan Strang, has been profoundly in their thrall since boyhood.
Alan has, however, sinned grievously against his spiritual overlords. His shocking crime? He blinded six horses at a stable where he worked. This brutality lands him in a mental hospital, where he is treated by psychiatrist Martin Dysart (played by Richard Burton in Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation). The play unravels the mystery of Alan’s unspeakable act, but it leaves powerfully intact the mystery of why some people feel so deep a bond—erotic, even ontological—with horses.
As demonstrated by images from antiquity on, centaurs are really sexy. A 2008 TV commercial for an Old Spice bodywash capitalized on their everlasting appeal by featuring a buff centaur. Even Walt Disney was not immune to the creatures’ eroticism. In the “Pastoral” section of Fantasia—which also includes winged horses, as well as some impish unicorns—hunky centaurs romp with seductive “centaurettes,” who briefly appear bare-breasted. Although ancient depictions of centaurs usually show males, female centaurs do occasionally appear in Roman-era literature and art. But the centaurettes are about as bawdy as early Disney cartoons ever got.
Male centaurs are, by definition, hung like horses, but their magnetism transcends zoophilia, residing instead in their bodies’ yoking of opposite natures. That wedding of human soul and animal flesh is what Alan Strang, the troubled stable boy of Peter Shaffer’s Equus, so ardently desires. Bent on achieving it, Alan takes his charges out at night to ride them bareback, while he’s also naked. Onstage nudity had the critics whinnying excitedly in 2007, when actor Daniel Radcliffe—then still filming the Harry Potter series—portrayed Alan in a revival in London’s West End and, later, on Broadway.
Like centaurs, unicorns are composite creatures. Typically, the unicorn has the head and body of a horse but is differently accessorized: Its hooves, unlike a horse’s, are cloven; its tail resembles a lion’s; and its chin sometimes sports a goatee. And then there’s the long spiral horn jutting from its forehead.
Also like centaurs, unicorns have an erotic dimension, but one more ambiguous than the centaurs’ man-beast synthesis. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, unicorns symbolized chaste courtly or divine love. Unicorns were allegedly attracted to virgins, and some accounts stipulated that capturing a unicorn required a virgin as bait. The unicorn would approach the seated maiden, lay its head in her lap and promptly fall asleep. But the imagery of a stiff-horned beast entranced by a virgin’s pelvic region hardly seems chaste. Granted, this wasn’t the only strategy. In most of the magnificent Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters collection, unicorn hunters use less mystical means, stalking their quarry with hounds and wounding it with lances. But the set also includes two tapestry fragments in which the unicorn is indeed lured by a virgin, perhaps representing the Virgin Mary.
Symbols can be overdetermined, possessing many associations that may change over time and even conflict with one another. Ancient stories of Pegasus identify him with several gods, including Poseidon, Athena, the Muses and even Zeus, who ultimately transforms the winged stallion into a constellation. In modern iconography, Pegasus has appeared in the logos of such diverse firms as an airline, an oil company, a movie studio and an investment bank. If anything, the welter of meanings attached to the unicorn is even greater. The intricate tapestries constituting The Hunt of the Unicorn at New York’s Cloisters museum of medieval art probably first belonged to three sets of hangings, each illustrating a different allegory. In one, the unicorn is a romantic, wounded by love; in another, it is Christ undergoing the torments of the Passion; the third (in two fragments) is an allegory of the Incarnation, with the unicorn representing Christ becoming a human being through his mother, the Virgin. Viewers continue to invest new meaning in these splendid artworks: One online video presents a New Age slant on the tapestries, interpreting the whole group as symbolizing Jesus’s “true teachings” about the “sacred marriage” between the divine masculine and divine feminine.
Symbolically speaking, a white horse is a horse of a different color. Since ancient times, white horses have been held in awe, appropriate mounts for heroes and other powerful riders both human and superhuman. Pegasus was dazzlingly white. And the visionary author of the biblical book of Revelation exclaims, “Behold a white horse,” when the Lamb unleashes the first of four apocalyptic horsemen. Joan of Arc’s warhorse was white, as was William the Conqueror’s, as were those ridden by medieval Spanish warrior El Cid, French soldier-emperor Napoleon and U.S. Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. The good-guy white hats on heroes of TV and movie Westerns have often matched the horses’ coats: Examples include Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger. In the latter’s latest iteration—the 2013 Jerry Bruckheimer epic starring Armie Hammer—his white horse, Silver, represents the masked ranger’s supernatural metamorphosis. So does the white horse in the Lord of the Rings films. When the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) is resurrected as Gandalf the White, he trades his pony cart for swifter, more symbolically suitable transport—astride Shadowfax, the lord of all horses.