I’m going to start 2019 with a continuation of how I ended 2018: The Homeric epic. Having seen how horses were described and used with chariots in The Iliad, I now want move to the perspective of the horses themselves and their living conditions.
The agency of horses
Homer’s horses are not simply passive tools used by humans in their violent conflict. They are instead perceived as social actors who are both brave and cowardly, and who have invested interests in the well-being of their owner and driver -not to mention, a great desire to win. They are fearsome yet make mistakes or refuse to perform certain tasks.
For example, horses are described as being afraid,
… not even
[Hector’s] swift-footed horses would attempt it for him, but stood
whinnying loudly at its very edge: the wide ditch
Book 12, l. 50-52
As we saw in Part I, horses form strong bonds with their human owners and trainers, and when losing them, they may feel corresponding levels of grief. This happens when Patroclus dies and the horses of Achilles are devastated:
But the horses of Aeacus’ grandson, far from battle,
had been weeping ever since they heard that their charioteer
had fallen in the dust at the hands of man-slaughtering Hector.
Automedon, the stalwart son of Diores, kept lashing them
with repeated blows of the swift whip, and many times
he spoke to them with soft words, and many times with threats;
but they had no wish either to go back to the ships by the broad
Hellespont, or to join the Achaeans in the fighting,
but as a grave-pillar that stands over the burial-mound
of a dead man or woman stays in place, firmly fixed,
so they stayed motionless, harnessed to the beautiful chariot,
their heads drooping to the earth; and hot tears
flowed from their eyes to the ground, as they mourned
in longing for their charioteer; and their thick manes were soiled,
hanging from the yoke-pad along both sides of the yoke
Book 17, l. 425-440
Horses are also attributed with ‘personhood’ and individuality. This is perhaps best expressed in the explicit naming of horses. Here we can stay with the horses of Achilles
So Automedon led the swift horses under the yoke for him –
Xanthus and Balius, a pair who flew with the winds’ blast,
whom Podarge the storm-mare had borne to the West Wind
as she grazed in a meadow beside the waters of Ocean.
In the trace-reins he harnessed the blameless Pedasus,
the horse that Achilles carried off when he took Eëtion’s city;
though it is mortal, it could keep up with immortal horses.
Book 16, l. 148-154
Xanthus and Balius are immortal horses, the offspring of divine beings. They are of course fitting for Achilles, who himself has a divine mother. But obviously a horse does not have to be immortal to be famous, as Pedasus proves. In the above quotation, Automedon speaks to the horses. This happens a number of times, and Xanthus even replies:
Then from under the yoke the glancing-footed horse Xanthus
spoke to him; it had bent its head down, and all its mane
was drooping to the ground from the yoke-pad beside the yoke,
and the goddess Hera of the white arms had given it speech:
‘We shall surely bring you back safe this time, huge Achilles;
but the day of your death is near at hand, and it is not we who
will be its cause, but a great god and your powerful destiny.
It was not through our sloth or carelessness that the Trojans
stripped the armour from the shoulders of Patroclus
Book 19, l. 404-412
Hector also speaks to his horses – rather confusingly, one of them is Xanthus’ namesake (the name probably refers to the light colour of the coat, but is also used for humans). Interestingly, we hear that were at least partly in the care of Andromache, Hector’s wife. Not only does she serve them wine (!), she also prioritises them above Hector, at least in this particular instance:
So he spoke, and summoned his horses, and said to them:
‘Xanthus and you, Podargus, Aethon and bright Lampus,
now is the time when you must repay me for the lavish care
that Andromache, daughter of great-hearted Eëtion,
gave you, serving you mind-cheering wheat, and mixing it
with wine, to drink when the spirit urged you, before she
served me, I who am proud to be her tender husband.
So come, press on as fast as you can …
Book 8, l. 184-191
It is important to note here that these are human impressions. I am not here making any claims about how horses experience their world. This is about how Homer – and by extension the ancient Greeks – perceived horses as having agency. That is, as experiencing feelings, having desires and intentions, and acting upon them, with greater or lesser success. It is an entangled (if unequal) relationship where both parties actively influence the world of the other.
Mares and stallions
It’s often assumed that only stallions are suitable for warfare and that they are the most prestigious. The Iliad features both mares and stallions, as we have already seen in several instances. There is no indication that stallions are preferable to mares. When lineages are recounted, both dame and sire are mentioned. Mares and stallions take part in the battle,
Meanwhile Neleus’ mares, sweating, were carrying Nestor
out of the battle, and with him Machaon, shepherd of the people.
Book 11, l. 597-599
… and we saw how both mares and stallions are named and can be fast enough for chariot racing:
soon the swift
mares of Pheres’ grandson Eumelus broke into the lead, and
keeping pace with them came the stallions of Diomedes,
the horses of Tros.
Book 23, l. 375-378
Donkeys and mules
Horses are not the only equids in The Iliad. But Homer’s donkeys and mules do not get to go to war or compete in races. They get to haul heavy loads of wagons and plough the soil. They get to carry the dead back from the battlefield at the end of the day.
A donkey makes a rare appearance in a rather unflattering simile as being stubborn and gluttonous:
As when a stubborn donkey, passing a cornfield, defies the boys,
driving it, and though many sticks have been broken on its sides
it goes into the field and causes havoc in its deep crop, and
the boys beat it with sticks, but their strength is weak, and they
drive it out with difficulty, only when it has had its fill of food
Book 11, l. 558-562
Mules are not painted in a much better light. The only real compliments they receive are that they are better at ploughing the soil than oxen (Book 10, line 352) and that they are very strong (Book 17, lines 742-743). Their star role is when they help bring back the body of Hector when Priam goes into the Achaean camp to beg for Achilles’ mercy. Neither donkeys nor mules are ever named or otherwise individualised.
The hardships of being a Homeric horse
Being a horse in Homer’s world could be tough. There may be times when they would get to graze in large herds in green pastures. But references to how horses are treated when pulling the chariot do not point a particularly pleasant picture:
So [Agamemnon] spoke, and his charioteer whipped the fine-maned horses
towards the hollow ships, and they flew willingly on;
their chest were covered in foam and spattered beneath with dust
Book 11, l. 280-282
Not much is said about the specifics of everyday training of horses in Homer, but passages like these provide a hint as to the methods used. The realities of war is an altogether different category.
War is ugly. The Iliad is in many ways a long, detailed narrative of the gore of war. Limbs are torn off, bones broken and brains mushed. For horses too, it is far from a pretty affair. In one instance, the gods have been interfering on both sides but then left the battle to sit next to Zeus and simply watch. Achilles is left to continue his mad rampage, slaughtering the Trojans and their single-hoofed horses (Book 21, line 351).
We get an explicit description of the death of Achilles’ trace horse when Patroclus has borrowed the chariot and horses to go fight in Achilles’ place:
Sarpedon threw second at him with his shining spear and
missed Patroclus, but hit the horse Pedasus with the spear
on its right shoulder; it screamed as it grasped its life away,
and fell bellowing in the dust, and the life flew from it.
Book 16, l. 466-469
As if the violence of battle wasn’t enough, humans subjected horses to yet another type of untimely death: that of sacrificing them (and other animals) to supernatural beings. Horses were probably not the most common sacrificial animal, but their deaths must have been quite a spectacle. When Achilles kills Lycaon and throws him into the river, he says to him,
Not even this clear-flowing, silver-swirling river will help you,
this river for whom you have for many years sacrificed bulls
in plenty, and hurled single-hoofed horses alive into its eddies.
Book 21, l. 130-132
Of course the most notorious sacrifice in The Iliad is the one performed by Achilles at Patroclus’ funeral. This large sacrifice included “many strong sheep and shambling, crook-horned cattle”, four strong-necked horses which were “hurriedly flung onto the pyre”, nine dogs whose throats were cut, and 12 young Trojan men (Book 23, lines 161-177). There is a slightly different rationale behind the sacrifice of each animal here. Sheep and cattle are standard sacrificial animals, and it is particularly important that their fat is distributed in the prescribed manner. The dogs were Patroclus’ own, and seem to have been sent with him (or perhaps assumed to not want to live without him). The Trojans were sacrificed as a fairly basic kind of revenge for Patroclus’ death. The horses are less clear given that they are not the ones Patroclus drove in life. Those would be Achilles’ own divine horses, and he is obviously not willing to part with them. Instead, the ones actually sacrificed were probably substitutes.
It is possible that in some instances, it was considered a great honour to be a sacrificial victim. There is no indication of that in this particular event, and as a wise man (i.e. Nietzsche) once remarked, no one ever let the animals speak for themselves.
It’s not all bad news for Homer’s horses. We are told of how they are fed and something apparently happily munching away at their manger. There is even an awareness of the realities and practicalities of war, where there is not always enough supplies for everybody. This was the concern of Pandarus when he decided not to bring his horses and chariots to the war:
Here I do not have horses, or a chariot that I can mount;
yet in Lycaon’s halls you must know that I have eleven chariots,
fine ones, freshly built, brand new. Over them cloths
are spread, and next to them pairs of horses
stand, champing on white barley and emmer wheat.
wanting to spare my horses, in case they ran short of fodder in
places where men are crowded together, and they used to plentiful food.
So I left them behind, and I came to Ilium on foot
Book 5, l. 192-196, 202-204
During the horserace that Achilles puts on at Patroclus’ funeral games, Menelaus attempts to spare his horses for fear that they and their chariot will be hurt (Book 23, l. 433-437).
Horses are even at times spoiled, as when Andromache took care of Hector’s horses, or when Patroclus groomed Achilles’ horses:
a kindly man, who would often pour smooth olive oil over
their manes after he had washed them down in bright water
Book 21, l. 281-282
Note, though, how it is not their owner taking care of them, but a helper, groom or charioteer.
Homer’s horses were not given a choice as to whether or not they wanted to take part in the Trojan war. Other than that, they are every bit as versatile in their mood and actions as their human – and divine – counterparts.