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White horse (mythology)

File:White horse from air.jpg
The 3,000-year-old Uffington White Horse hill figure in England.

White horses (which are rarer than other colours of horse) have a special significance in the mythologies of cultures around the world. They are often associated with the sun chariot,[1] with warrior-heroes, with fertility (in both mare and stallion manifestations), or with an end-of-time saviour, but other interpretations exist as well. Both truly white horses and the more common grey horses, with completely white hair coats, were identified as "white" by various religious and cultural traditions.


Portrayal in myth

From earliest times white horses are mythologised as possessing exceptional properties, transcending the normal world by having wings (e.g. Pegasus from Greek mythology), or having horns (the unicorn). As part of its legendary dimension, the white horse in myth may be depicted with seven heads (Uchaishravas), eight feet (Sleipnir), sometimes in groups or singly. There are also white horses which are divinatory, who prophesy or warn of danger.

As a rare or distinguished symbol, a white horse typically bears the hero- or god-figure in ceremonial roles or in triumph over negative forces. Herodotus reported that white horses were held as sacred animals in the Achaemenid court of Xerxes the Great (ruled 486-465 BC),[2] while in other traditions the reverse happens when it was sacrificed to the gods.

In more than one tradition, the white horse carries patron saints or the world saviour in the end times (as in Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam), is associated with the sun or sun chariot (Ossetia) or bursts into existence in a fantastic way, emerging from the sea or a lightning bolt.

Though some mythologies are stories from earliest beliefs, other tales, though visionary or metaphorical, are found in liturgical sources as part of preserved, on-going traditions (see for example, "Iranian tradition" below).

Mythologies and traditions



In Celtic mythology, Rhiannon, a mythic figure in the Mabinogion collection of legends, rides a "pale-white" horse.[3] Because of this, she has been linked to the Romano-Celtic fertility horse goddess Epona and other instances of the veneration of horses in early Indo-European culture.[4]

White horses are the most common type of hill figure in England. Though many are modern, the Uffington White Horse at least dates back to the Bronze Age.

In Scottish folklore, the kelpie or each uisge, a deadly supernatural water demon in the shape of a horse, is sometimes described as white, though other stories say it is black.


In Greek mythology, the white winged horse Pegasus was the son of Poseidon and the gorgon Medusa. Poseidon was the creator of horses. He created them out of the breaking waves.


Copper engraving of Kalki from the late 18th century..

‎White horses appear many times in Hindu mythology. The Vedic horse sacrifice or Ashvamedha was a fertility and kingship ritual involving the sacrifice of a sacred gray or white stallion.[5] Similar rituals may have taken place among Roman, Celtic and Norse peoples, but the descriptions are not so complete.

In the Puranas, one of the precious objects that emerged while the devas and demons were churning the milky ocean was Uchaishravas, a snow-white horse with seven heads.[5] (A white horse of the sun is sometimes also mentioned as emerging separately).[6] Uchaishravas was at times ridden by Indra, lord of the devas. Indra is depicted as having a liking for white horses in several legends - he often steals the sacrificial horse to the consternation of all involved, such as in the story of Sagara,[7] or the story of King Prithu.[8]

The chariot of the solar deity Surya is drawn by seven horses, alternately described as all white, or as the colours of the rainbow.

Hayagriva the avatar of Vishnu is worshipped as the God of knowledge and wisdom, with a human body and a horse's head, brilliant white in color, with white garments and seated on a white lotus.

And Kalki the tenth incarnation of Vishnu and final world saviour, is predicted to appear riding a white horse, or in the form of a white horse.[5]


In Zoroastrianism, one of his three representations of Tishtrya, the hypostasis of the star Sirius, is that of a white stallion (the other two are as a young man, and as a bull). The divinity takes this form during the last 10 days of every month of the Zoroastrian calendar, and also in a cosmogonical battle for control of rain. In this latter tale (Yasht 8.21-29), which appears in the Avesta's hymns dedicated to Tishtrya, the divinity is opposed by Apaosha, the demon of drought, which appears as a black stallion.[9]

White horses are also said to draw divine chariots, such as that of Aredvi Sura Anahita, who is the Avesta's divinity of the waters. Representing various forms of water, her four horses are named "wind", "rain", "clouds" and "sleet" (Yasht 5.120).


File:Ardre Odin Sleipnir.jpg
The Tjängvide image stone is thought to show Odin entering Valhalla riding on Sleipnir.

In Norse mythology, Odin's eight-legged horse Sleipnir, "the best horse among gods and men", is described as gray.[10] Sleipnir is also the ancestor of another gray horse, Grani, who is owned by the hero Sigurd.[11]


In Slavic mythology, the war and fertility deity Svantovit owned an oracular white horse; the historian Saxo Grammaticus, in descriptions similar to those of Tacitus centuries before, says the priests divined the future by observing leading the white stallion between series of fences and watching which leg, right or left, stepped first in each row.[12]


Kanthaka was a white horse that was a royal servant and favourite horse of Prince Siddhartha, who later became Gautama Buddha. Siddhartha used Kanthaka in all major events described in Buddhist texts prior to his renunciation of the world. Following the departure of Siddhartha, it was said that Kanthaka died of a broken heart.[13]


The war god in Hungarian mythology was Hadúr, who wears pure copper and is a metalsmith. The ancient Magyars sacrificed white stallions to him before a battle.[14] Additionally, there is a story (mentioned for example in Gesta Hungarorum) that conquering Magyars paid a white horse for Moravian chieftain Svatopluk I (in other forms of the story: Bulgarian chieftain Salan) for a part of the land that later became Kingdom of Hungary.[citation needed] Actual historical background of the story is dubious because Svatopluk I was already dead when the first Hungarian tribes arrived. On the other hand, even Herodotus mentions in his Histories an Eastern custom, where sending a white horse as payment in exchange for land means casus belli. This custom roots in the ancient Eastern belief that stolen land would lose its fertility.[citation needed]



Sirat al-Mustaqim means the straight path of God in Islam, and refers to a narrow path (no wider than a rope) 3,000 miles long that the souls of the dead must cross to reach paradise. In one version of the tale, the souls of the virtuous are helped to navigate it because their good deeds turn into a white horse they can ride to the end.[citation needed]


File:George novgorod.jpg
A 15th-century icon of St. George from Novgorod.

In the New Testament, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse include one seated on a white horse [15] and one on a pale horse - the pale horse carried the rider, Death.[16] However, the Greek word translated as pale is often interpreted as sickly green or ashen grey rather than white. Later in the Book of Revelation, Christ rides a white horse out of heaven at the head of the armies of heaven to judge and make war upon the earth.[17]

Two Christian saints are associated with white steeds: Saint James, as patron saint of Spain, rides a white horse in his martial aspect.[18][19][20] Saint George, the patron saint of horsemen[21] among other things, also rides a white horse.[22] In Ossetia, the deity Uastyrdzhi, who embodied both the warrior and sun motifs often associated with white horses, became identified with the figure of St. George after the region adopted Christianity.[23]

Gesta Francorum contains a description of the First Crusade, where soldiers fighting at Antioch claimed to have been heartened by a vision of St. George and white horses during the battle: There came out from the mountains, also, countless armies with white horses, whose standards were all white. And so, when our leaders saw this army, they ... recognized the aid of Christ, whose leaders were St. George, Mercurius, and Demetrius.[24]

Far East


A huge white horse appears in Korean mythology in the story of the kingdom of Silla. When the people gathered to pray for a king, the horse emerged from a bolt of lightning, bowing to a shining egg. After the horse flew back to heaven, the egg opened and the boy Park Hyeokgeose emerged. When he grew up, he united six warring states.


The city of Pangantucan has as its symbol a white stallion who saved an ancient tribe from massacre by uprooting a bamboo and thus warning them of the enemy's approach.


The city of Hanoi honors a white horse as its patron saint with a temple dedicated to this revered spirit, the White Horse or Bach Ma Temple (in Chinese, formerly used by the Vietnamese for literary or poetic purposes, "bai/bach" means white and "ma" is horse). The 11th century king, Ly Cong Uan (also known as King Ly Thai To) had a vision of a white horse representing a river spirit which showed him where to build his citadel.[25]

Native American

In Blackfoot mythology, the snow deity Aisoyimstan is a white-colored man in white clothing who rides a white horse.

Popular culture

The statue of the "fine lady upon a white horse" at Banbury Cross.

The mythological symbolism of white horses has been picked up as a trope in literature, film, and other storytelling. For example, the heroic prince or white knight of fairy tales often rides a white horse. Unicorns are (generally white) horse-like creatures with a single horn. And the English nursery rhyme "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross" refers to a lady on a white horse who may be associated with the Celtic goddess Rhiannon.[26]

A "white palfrey" appears in the fairy tale "Virgilius the Sorcerer" by Andrew Lang. It appears in The Violet Fairy Book and attributes more than usual magical powers to the ancient Roman poet Virgil (see also Virgil#Mysticism and hidden meanings).

The British author G.K. Chesterton wrote an epic poem titled Ballad of the White Horse. In Book I, "The Vision of the King," he writes of earliest England, invoking the white horse hill figure and the gods:

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.[27]

More contemporary examples include Terry Pratchett's choosing white as the colour for Death's horse Binky in his Discworld series, or J.R.R. Tolkien's choice of white for Gandalf's horse Shadowfax in The Lord of the Rings. In film and television, the Lone Ranger rode a white horse. In the Shrek series of films, the cowardly Donkey turns into a noble white steed as part of a running joke in the second film.

See also

  • Sun mythology
  • White Horse (disambiguation)
  • White Horse Stone
  • White horse of Kent
  • Leucippotomy


  1. The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder, Chronicle Books, 2005, ISBN 9780811847674, page 241. Google books copy
  2. "White Horses and Genetics". Archaeology.about.com. http://archaeology.about.com/b/2008/07/20/white-horses-and-genetics.htm. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  3. The Four Branches of the Mabinogi: The Mabinogi of Pwyll by Will Parker (Bardic Press: 2007) ISBN 978-0974566757. online text. Retrieved November, 2008.
  4. Hyland, Ann (2003) The Horse in the Ancient World. Stroud, Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-2160-9. Page 6.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend by Anna L. Dallapiccola. Thames and Hudson, 2002. ISBN 0-500-51088-1.
  6. The Vishnu Purana, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, John Murray: 1840. Chapter IX. online edition at Sacred Texts. Retrieved November, 2008.
  7. The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa: Book 3, Vana Parva. Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, 1883-1896.Section CVII. online edition at Sacred Texts. Retrieved November, 2008.
  8. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam Canto 4, Chapter 19: King Pṛthu's One Hundred Horse Sacrifices translated by The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc.
  9. Brunner, Christopher J. (1987), "Apōš", Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 161–162 
  10. Faulkes, Anthony (Trans.) (1995). Edda, page 36. Everyman. ISBN 0-4608-7616-3
  11. Morris, William (Trans.) and Magnússon, Eiríkr (Trans.) (2008). The Story of the Volsungs, page 54. Forgotten Books. ISBN 1605064696
  12. The Trinity-Троjство-Триглав @ veneti.info, quoting Saxo Grammaticus in the "Gesta Danorum".
  13. Malasekera, G. P. (1996). Encyclopaedia of Buddhism. Government of Sri Lanka. 
  14. Peeps at Many Lands - Hungary by H. T. Kover, READ BOOKS, 2007, ISBN 9781406744163, page 8. Google books copy
  15. New Testament: Book of Revelation, Ch 6:2 (NIV)
  16. New Testament: Book of Revelation, Ch 6:8 (NIV)
  17. New Testament: Book of Revelation, Ch 19:11-6 (NIV)
  18. "Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by E. Cobham Brewer, 1898". Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/81/11639.html. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  19. The Pilgrimage to Compostela in the Middle Ages by Maryjane Dunn and Linda Kay Davidson. Routledge, 2000. Page 115. ISBN 9780415928953. Google books copy. Retrieved November, 2008.
  20. The Arts in Latin America, 1492-1820 by Joseph J. Rishel and Suzanne L. Stratton. Yale University Press, 2006. page 318. ISBN 9780300120035. Google books copy. Retrieved November, 2008.
  21. Patron Saints Index: Saint George. Retrieved November, 2008.
  22. The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky. St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982. ISBN 9780913836996. page 137. Google books copy. Retrieved November, 2008.
  23. The Religion of Ossettia: Uastyrdzhi and Nart Batraz in Ossetian mythology. Retrieved November, 2008.
  24. Gesta Francorum:The Defeat of Kerbogha, excerpt online at Medieval Sourcebook. Retrieved November, 2008.
  25. "1995 article with images by Barbara Cohen". Thingsasian.com. http://www.thingsasian.com/stories-photos/1067. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  26. "A Possible Solution to the Banbury Cross Mystery". Kton.demon.co.uk. http://www.kton.demon.co.uk/banbury.htm. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 
  27. "Chesterton, G.K.Ballad of the White Horse (1929) (need additional citation material". Infomotions.com. 2001-12-31. http://infomotions.com/etexts/gutenberg/dirs/etext99/botwh10.htm. Retrieved 2010-04-29. 


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