The myth of the horse in various legends and cultures

The divine horse in Greek mythology

I named this blog after Pegasus [Πήγασος Pēgasos, lat. Pegasos] in Greek mythology. He was a divine stallion and his parents were none other than seagod Poseidon and the gorgon Medusa. There are several religions and cultures around today which has created their own myths about the horse and its functions within the divine realm. The divine function of the Pegasus was to bring forth thunder and lightning from Mount Olympus were the gods resided. After his birth in Okeanos he rode straight up into the heavens to serve under Zeus. Finally a hero named Bellerophon managed to tame Pegasus with the help of wise Athena. Bellerophon rode the Pegasus when he defeated the creature Chimaera and the Amazons. The muses also used the Pegasus on various occasions. Luckily Pegasus also got married to a mare named Euippe and had two pegasus-children by her. In greek mythology any human who managed to tame a Pegasus got a lifelong friend and servant. The horse would stay as long it didn’t die or got badly injured. Pegasus-horses was said to live on high mountains or in the green wide meadows. They are described as very shy creatures with the ability to fly. Through the ages of mankind the myth of Pegasus come to symbolize various virtues such as wisdom in the Western tradition. During the middleage Pegasus became a symbol of poetry and a source of inspiration to poets. There’s a strong connection between him and the arts. Especially literature.

The divine horse in norse mythology 

Just as in Greek mythology the norse legends of the divine horse Sleipnir (meaning the slipper, or slippery) puts him in a special connection to the gods [asirs] as a servant. Sleipner is a grey horse with eight legs who’s able to fly in the heavens and over the seas. He’s faster than any other horse on earth and stronger than any wind. Sleipnir is the horse of Allfather Odin (germ., Woden, Wotan) and is very beloved by him. According to one icelandic source Odin carved magic runes into the teeth of Sleipnir (Sigdrivómal). The horse has a divine origin and is the son of the evil Loke and a horse named Svaðilfari. Sleipnir has two fathers since Svaðilfari [icelandic., ‘Unlucky traveller’] is a stallion. Loke transformed himself into a meer and gave birth to Sleipnir.

Sleipnir has two famous brothers and a sister – Fenrir, Jormungandr and Hel. Fenrir is the monstrus wolf while Jormungandr is the great Midgard serpent. Hel is the guardian of the place Hel in Niefelhem. Going to Hel in norse mythology means ‘to die’. She resides in the underworld with many servants and has a key role in the supposed resurrection of the god Baldr. While Hel is reserved for ordinary people, warriors go to Valhalla. According to one tradition Sleipnir will carry a defeated warrior into the halls of Valhalla.

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Odin, the All-Father or a slained warrior on Sleipnir. A valkyria [left] is greeting him with some mead. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Sleipnir is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by bishop Snorri Sturluson. Snorri was a Christian so his works on the norse myths are somewhat influenced by his own system of belief. Therefore norse myths in some cases highly resamble a likeness to christian beliefs on the apocalypse [in Norse mythology – ragnarök ‘The Fate of the Gods’] and the friendly light-god named Baldr somewhat assembles the Christ in his martyrdom. The vikings never left any written testimonies of their beliefs other than small runic messages or images on carved stones. Norse myths and sagas were solely interpreted and written down by christian priests. Unlike the christian clergymen who came to Mexico and South America to destroy the remains of Maya and Aztec cultures and religions the icelandic priests thought it was important to study, preserve and write down the myths of the pagan norsemen. A lot of studies has been done on most of the icelandig texts. Most of the myths and legends are preserved in Codex Regius written in the 1270s. It contains 45 vellum leaves. One of the most famous texts is the VölupsáThe propecy of the Völva.  (A nice translation into English can be found here.)

The divine horse in islamic mythology

As in the myths of the ancient greeks and the norse legends islam also houses a myth about a divine horse named al-Buraq [لبُراق , al-Burāq]. In islamic art he’s sometimes depicted as a bewinged horse with a human face; despite hadiths make no such descriptions of al-Buraq having a human face. Al-Buraq is a white steed and he’s smaller than any mule and bigger than any monkey. Al-Buraq transports the prophets who are the messengers of a divine revelation from Allah. Sometimes through the islamic history of art he’s depicted with a woman’s face with long ears and peacock feathers as a tail. His most famous rider was prophet Mohammad who recieved the horse from Djibril himself. On al-Buraq Mohammed was able to make his famous Night journey and he also travelled on him through the seven heavens and to Jerusalem.

On his nightly journey [isra wa miraj] from Mecca to Jerusalem Mohammed meets with several other prophets from the judeo-christian tradition in a religio-political attempt to prove his religion islam is valid and in connection with a long tradition of previous prophets. In the book Journeys in Holy Lands : The Evoloution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis (1990) Rueven Firestone points to Ibn Ishaq (704-767) who wrote a lenghty biography om Mohammad. According to Ibn Ishaq the bewinged al-Buraq transported the prophet Abraham when he visited Hagar and Ishmael. That tradition states that Abraham lived with one wife, Sarah, in Syria, but al-Buraq would transport him in the morning to Mecca to see his family there and take him back in the evening to his wife in Syria (Firestone 1990, p. 117). In the entry on Al-Buraq in The Encyclopedia of Islam (2012) Christiane Gruber also make a reference to Ibn Ishaq Sirat Rasul Allah. I think Gruber’s text is the very best and the most comprehensive in a scholary perspective. Gruber also make a comment on the androgynous sex of the Buraq. This seem to be clear looking into the etymology of the word al-Baraq. However, in modern Turkey the name Buraq is a male name.

Because of the strong connection between al-Buraq and Jerusalem there are legends about the place were Buraq was tightened by Mohammad on the night of the miraj (you can watch a youtube-video from the Temple Mount here). UNESCO recently renamed the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, into al-Buraq Plaza in a new resolution. The resolution has caused much political controversy and viewed by many as ignoring the judeo-christian roots to the place. The US, Germany and several other states voted against it. The Western Wall is also known as the most holiest place in Judaism.

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Mohammad riding on al-Buraq, persian art (Photo:Wikipedia).

Resources

Buraq : Islamic legend Encyclopedia Brittanica

Firestone, Reuven. 1990. Journeys in holy lands: the evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael legends in Islamic exegesis. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Gruber, Christiane “Al-Buraq” in The Encyclopedia of Islam, third edition 2012

MuhammadEncyclopedia Britannica

Sleipnir – Encyclopedia Britannica

The Temple Mount – wikipedia.org

UNESCO : Executive Board – PDF-file, presenting the resolution on renaming the Western Wall (2016).

UNESCO resolution denying Jewish, Christian ties to Temple Mount – JNS.org