by Tim Baber
The Magical Power Of Names
In regard to the origin of these mystical animal names, another possibility (supported by Tolkien in his Oxford days) is that these were actual warriors who donned such an identity or guise, to take on the admired qualities of the totemic animal, evoke the relevant cult among their followers, and inspire superstitious dread among potential rivals or enemies. Ancient warriors certainly wore the skins of certain animals as headpieces and shirts. The Viking ‘berserker’, literally “bear shirt” was a warrior famed for being without fear, something that suggests a conviction the warrior had become the animal in question, fearless and bloodthirsty when he donned its mantle. (Some have suggested the British war leader Arthur was originally Arth-Vawr or “Great Bear,” a figure from an even older shamanistic bear cult.)
The native tribes of North America are now regarded as cousins to the northern Asian peoples from whom they separated during the last Ice Age, with shamanism common to both. The identification with certain animals, the use of totems, the wearing of animal headpieces, the adoption of animal “power” names, is perhaps more familiar from popular depictions of the North American native tribes, where such practices survived into modern times. Indeed, their most famous war leader had an equine name: Tashunka Witka - Crazy Horse. Anthropological writers like Mircia Eliade, in his standard text Shamanism, have extended the reach of the relatively new field of comparative mythology back into the Stone Age, exploring the shamanistic roots of the horse cult.
The name Kurgan used today to describe this ancestral culture comes from the word for a burial mound of a type common across Europe. It was the practice of burying warriors with ‘grave goods,’ which could include horses and saddles, inside these burial mounds that inspired the tales they held golden treasures, and often led to their being looted. “Scythian” mounds recently unearthed showed that warriors were in fact often buried with their horses. That the proto-English buried heroes in such mounds is attested by the finale of the epic poem Beowulf (in which a character named Hengest appears), where warriors ride horses around the dead hero’s burial mound in some now-forgotten ritual. It’s been suggested Hengistbury got its name out of antiquarian fancy among local Freemasons that the Head, which has several ancient burial mounds, was just like the one in the poem - described as ‘by wave-farers widely seen’, i.e. a prominent coastal feature. The Anglo-Saxons of that era relied more on boats than horses, but the horse remained sacred to them, as it did to other coastal peoples. In Homer’s epic of Troy, we get a glimpse of this with the fall of Troy via a giant wooden horse which is considered a tribute to the sea-god Poseidon. A relic of this association between horses and the sea can be seen in the term “white horses” we still use for powerful waves which display a crest akin to a horse’s white mane. (One old map of the Head shows “A Loose shifting Sand call'd the Horse” – perhaps so-named as it caused ‘white horses’ i.e. wave crests to form.)
Just as a ‘guerrilla’ warrior often adopted a ‘nom de guerre’ (and authors and bloggers today use pen names or pseudonyms), leaders in ancient times might adopt a totemic “power” name to protect themselves from curses as well as physical reprisals. It was standard in some cultures for a person to be given a different name on reaching adulthood, one which referred to his protective totemic animal. It is common in ancient warrior cultures for a young man to go off alone into the mountains on a “vision quest” to discover his individual totem animal as a necessary rite of passage. Crazy Horse had trance visions, and there is a suggestion Genghis’s early success was based partly on a similar ability to foresee the future, developed as a young man living in lonely exile in the mountains. As the narrator of the film Mongol puts it, 'Some believe the shamans helped him.' In the case of a warrior cult built around a totemic animal, the idea was the warrior would actually take on the admired qualities of the totemic animal. But the idea a leader could actually take on the appearance of the totemic animal enters the realm of the shape-shifting shaman. According to early travellers’ accounts, shamans could use hypnotic powers to transform themselves into an animal, using a form of mind control lost to modern Western civilisation. (Werewolf tales may be a distorted relic of this.)
In the West, such practises were eventually stamped out by the Church. Around 600 AD, St Augustine preached a sermon recommending severe punishments for those who dressed up ceremonially as a stag or a horse. In the 7th C., St Aldhelm, the patron saint of Dorset, was shocked
by the local practice where on certain days groups of men dressed up in animal skins pictured
. Darker practices also continued for some centuries. In the late 8th-century, church delegates reported back to Pope Hadrian that pagan rites still surviving in England included the mutilation of horses and the eating of horseflesh. It also survived in Celtic Ireland into mediaeval times, where tribal coronation ceremonies are described as involving the sacrifice of a mare, with the new king bathing in a cauldron of its broth. The Mongols had similar practices of horse sacrifice, harking back to ancient shamanistic ceremonies designed to magically capture the power of the stallion. Horses being the dominant animal in Mongolia, the shaman would often carry as an insignia a stick with a horse’s head. And outside the village, poles would be erected at an angle and skins of horses would be mounted on them, with the head mounted on the end of the pole, a custom which can still be seen there today.
The pole with a severed horse's head or skull mounted on it was also a feature of Nordic-Germanic culture, known as a Nid-stang or Nith-stang, meaning a curse or hex pole (nid means malice, while stang may be related to mustang). These poles could be planted on a hill or held up like a banner pictured
during the calling out of the curse ‘hexing’ someone’s household, the curse text being carved into the post with runic symbols. The horse being sacred to Odin, god of runes, the idea was that elemental powers rooted in the earth would be channelled up the runestave pole and project themselves in the direction the horse faced, “disempowering the accursed's will and delivering him or her to the forces of destruction.” The Nid-stang was shown in the 2005 film version of Beowulf, filmed in Iceland, Beowulf & Grendel.
‘Guising’ (the word is related to ‘disguise’) customs are thought to be survivals of ancient pagan rites, maintained as village festival entertainments. One was the Hoden or Hooden Horse – a man wearing a horse’s head made of wood and cloth with moveable snapping jaws, who went around Kent villages frightening women on Christmas Eve. These died out a century ago, though since revived like other such rites in a panto-style village-fair version. The origin of “Hoden” is unknown, though one speculation is that it is a disguised version of Woden, the Germanic deity listed as ancestor of English kings. The Hoden Horse custom is thought by some folklorists to be a relic of an ancient midwinter horse sacrifice.
The film Mongol has a scene showing a wooden donkey in the midst of the encampment, which is evidently used for punishing offenders. (Presumably they just have to sit on it for a deignated period, though in the film, the oppressive local warlord threatens to nail the young Genghis to it, where he says it will take a week to die.) A possibly related custom was the ‘skimmity’ ride, a villagers’ vigilante exercise, described by Hardy, to shame individuals guilty of a perceived wrong. This was done by putting them on a horse backwards, perhaps with an animal’s headgear, and parading them through the street. Disney’s 1952 Robin Hood shows this, when Robin sends the captured Sheriff of Nottingham away mounted backwards, with stag antlers on his head. The stag was the older totemic animal in northwest Europe, going back to the Stone Age, some early depictions even showing stags as horse substitutes, with shamanistic figures actually riding stags (as the Lapland Sami have been known to do with reindeer). The horse as a totem is most likely a later introduction after it was tamed and used for war as well as transport - essential to life on the vast open steppes.
In Britain, though relics of such traditional practices ceremonies survive in token form, with men dressed as ‘hobby’ horses and the like in local parades, the original power and meaning of the symbolism is lost. (The nid curse may have inspired the choice of a severed horse's head to show the family’s almost magical abilities to instil terror in The Godfather.) The name Hengist became the basis of ‘henchman,’ the villain’s right-hand man, who held his horse for him and performed villainous deeds which his superior was unable or unwilling to do himself. (In the film Mongol we see a masked shaman with painted drum at father's funeral, and later, an old man who may be the same shaman helps the young dispossessed Temudgin survive, he later being rewarded with 100 horses and a position by Genghis’s side.) The pole with a horse’s head atop it became an inn sign, The Nag’s Head. In Victorian times it became a child’s toy, a pretend ‘horsie.’ The phrase riding one’s hobby horse came to mean a favourite activity that goes nowhere.