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Horse sacrifice

File:Asvamedha ramayana.JPG
Illustration of the Hindu epic Ramayana depicting Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice) by Sahib Din, 1652. Kausalya is depicted slaying the horse (left) and lying beside it (right).

Many Indo-European religious branches show evidence for horse sacrifice, and comparative mythology suggests that they derive from a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) ritual.



In most instances, the horses are sacrificed in a funerary context, and interred with the deceased. There is evidence but no explicit myths from the three branches of Indo-Europeans of a major horse sacrifice ritual based on a mythical union of Indo-European kingship and the horse.[1] The Indian Aśvamedha is the clearest evidence preserved, but vestiges from Latin and Celtic traditions allow the reconstruction of a few common attributes.

Some scholars, including Edgar Polomé, regards the reconstruction of a PIE ritual as unjustified due to the difference between the attested traditions.[2]


The Gaulish personal name Epomeduos is from ek'wo-medhu- ("horse + mead"), while aśvamedha is either from ek'wo-mad-dho- ("horse + drunk") or ek'wo-mey-dho- ("horse + strength").


The reconstructed myth involves the coupling of a king with a divine mare which produced the divine twins. A related myth is that of a hero magically twinned with a horse foaled at the time of his birth (for example Cuchulainn, Pryderi), suggested to be fundamentally the same myth as that of the divine twin horsemen by the mytheme of a "mare-suckled" hero from Greek and medieval Serbian evidence, or mythical horses with human traits (Xanthos), suggesting totemic identity of the Indo-European hero or king with the horse.

Comparative rituals

Vedic (Indian)

A coin struck by Samudra Gupta commemorating an Ashvamedha ritual.[3] The tethered horse is depicted on the left and the queen, carrying ritual equipment, is on the right.

The Indian Ashvamedha involves the following:

  1. the sacrifice is connected with the elevation or inauguration of a member of the warrior caste
  1. the ceremony took place in springtime
  1. the horse sacrificed was a grey or white stallion
  1. the stallion selected was one which excelled at the right side of the chariot
  1. it was bathed in water wherein a sacrificed dog had been deposited
  1. it was sacrificed alongside a hornless ram and a he-goat
  1. the queen underwent "mock-coupling" with the stallion
  1. the stallion was dissected and its portions awarded to various deities


The Roman Equus October ceremony involved:[4]

  1. the horse was dedicated to Mars
  1. the sacrifice took place in September to October (corresponding to the Indian "month of the yoked horses" (ashvayuja))
  1. the horse sacrificed was a stallion which excelled at the right side of the chariot
  1. the slaughtered stallion is dismembered and various parts (head and tail, and possibly the penis) are sent to different locations


Geraldus Cambrensis recorded a ceremony among the Irish:

There is in a northern and remote part of Ulster, among the Kenelcunil, a certain tribe which is wont to install a king over itself by an excessively savage and abominable ritual. In the presence of all the people of this land in one place, a white mare is brought into their midst. Thereupon he who is to be elevated, not to a prince but to a beast, not to a king but to an outlaw, steps forward in beastly fashion and exhibits his bestiality. Right thereafter the mare is killed and boiled piecemeal in water, and in the same water a bath is prepared for him. He gets into the bath and eats of the flesh that is brought to him, with his people standing around and sharing it with him. He also imbibes the broth in which he is bathed, not from any vessel, nor with his hand, but only with his mouth. When this is done right according to such unrighteous ritual, his rule and sovereignty are consecrated.[5]

The major points of comparison involve:

  1. The king (most likely; Geraldus is somewhat indirect) couples with the mare to be sacrificed;
  1. The horse is dismembered and cooked in a cauldron, and consumed by the king who is also sitting in the cauldron.


The Norse ceremony according to the description in Hervarar saga of the Swedish inauguration of Blot-Sweyn, the last or next to last pagan Germanic king, c. 1080:

  1. the horse is dismembered for eating
  1. the blood is sprinkled on the sacred tree at Uppsala.

The Völsa þáttr mentions a Norse pagan ritual involving veneration of the penis of a slaughtered stallion.[6] A freshly cut horse head was also used in setting up a nithing pole for a Norse curse.[7]


The primary archaeological context of horse sacrifice are burials, notably chariot burials, but graves with horse remains reach from the Eneolithic well into historical times. Herodotus describes the execution of horses at the burial of a Scythian king, and Iron Age kurgan graves known to contain horses number in the hundreds. There are also frequent deposition of horses in burials in Iron Age India. The custom is by no means restricted to Indo-European populations, but is continued by Turkic tribes as the cultural successors of the Scythians.


  1. Mallory & Adams (2006:437).
  2. Dearborn (1997:278, article "Horse").
  3. Hoernle (2006:57-58).
  4. Frazer ( 553-557).
  5. Est igitur in boreali et ulteriori Vltoniae parte, scilicet apud Kenelcunil, gens quaedam, quae barbaro nimis et abhominabili ritu sic sibi regem creare solet. Collecto in unum universo terrae illius populo, in medium producitur, iumentum candidum. Ad quod sullimandus ille non in principem sed in beluam, non in regem sed exlegem, coram omnibus bestialiter accedens, se quoque bestiam profitetur. Et statim iumento interfecto, et frustatim in aqua decocto, in eadem aqua balneum ei paratur. Cui insidens, de carnibus illis sibi allatis, circumstante populo suo et convescente, comedit ipse. De iure quoque quo lavatur, non vase aliquo, non manu, sed ore tantum circumquaque haurit et bibit. Quibus ita rite, non recte completis, regnum illius et dominium est confirmatum: English translation from Jaan Puhvel, "Aspects of Equine Functionality," in Analecta Indoeuropaea (Innsbruck, 1981), pp. 188–189.
  6. DuBois (2006:76).
  7. Mallet (1847:155-157).


  • Dearborn, Fitzroy (1997). J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams (eds.), Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture.

See also

  • Animal sacrifice
  • Parilia
  • Proto-Indo-European religion


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