The White Horse in Irish Mythology

This post was inspired by an interesting twittercon with @Huk_fin about the role of the white stallion in ancient kingship rituals.

Geraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales, 1146-1223, Archdeacon of Brecon) wrote in his Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland, 1187) of 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.”

Although we have to accept that the values of ancient civilisations may have differed from our own, this does sound particularly brutal and hideous, doesn’t it?

In fact, Gerald of Wales was known for his dislike of the Irish, and for his habit of wandering into the realms of fantasy, at times. In this instance, it’s not clear if this was something he actually observed, or he was just repeating a a folktale which he felt adequately expressed the savagery of the native Irish.

For example, he also claimed that he had never seen so many blind or deformed people as he saw in Ireland, and that it was their depravity and heathen ways which had manifested in physical deformity as punishment by God.

Judging by the aggressive language he displays in the above excerpt, his feelings towards the pagan Irish are quite clear. It seems to me that this piece can only be taken as nothing more than Christian propaganda.

But where, then, could the idea of mating with a white mare and then eating it have come from? No smoke without fire, right? You’ve probably read that statement before on this very blog.

Well, the similarity between Irish myth and Vedic teachings has been commented on by many. These Proto-Ind0-European (PIE) people lived in the late Neolithic period, and spoke a common language, now lost to us. It is from this common ancient source that our cultures are believed to derive.

The Vedic ceremony known as Ashvamedha involved the sacrifice of a white stallion, a hornless ram, and a billy goat in order to inaugurate a warrior. The Romans sacrificed a white stallion to their God of War, Mars, and interestingly, used the same method of selection as as the Vedic; the chosen stallion was the right-hand horse of the winning pair in a chariot race. Portions of the sacrifice would then be distributed amongst the deities.

Archaeology has frequently unearthed horse burials accompanying the remains of humans all around the world, from early prehistoric times through to the late Iron Age. Sometimes, these were accompanied by the burial of chariots, too. Clearly, this indicates the importance ancient people placed on their horses.

In Ireland, it was common practice during late Medieval times to bury horse skulls under the floor of new buildings to bring the occupants good luck. You can read about these discoveries on Irish Archaeology. Sadly, the reasoning behind such superstitious acts has long been lost.

In Irish mythology, the Tarbfeis is often mentioned as a Kingship ritual, in which a bull is slaughtered, and a Druid wrapped in the skin while he makes a prophesy regarding the selection of the future King.

The High King was considered sacred, as he was required to ‘marry’ the Sovereignty Goddess, be free from blemish, follow particular rules and protocols, and avoid his symbolic geasa (taboos).

Marry may be a bit of a loose term here; relationships between men and women prior to Christian times were quite fluid, with both parties moving between marriage, divorce, and lovers without guilt or shame.

Life was about survival;  fertility, of the land, of plants, animals and of the people themselves, was considered vital, and revered. Perhaps in this light, intercourse would be a more accurate word.

Similarly, the relationship with the Goddess of Sovereignty is of interest. Who was she, exactly? Many names are put forward: Eriu, of the three Queens of Ireland killed in the invasion of the Milesians, and after whom Ireland (Eire) was named; Danu, the supposed mother Goddess of the Danann; the Morrigan, and even Queen Medb of Connacht.

Another suggestion is Macha. She was the wife of King Nuada who led the Tuatha de Danann into Ireland. She was said to have died fighting the Fomori Giant-King Balor in defence of her husband at the Second Battle of Moytura. However, there is another Macha from Ulster who was forced to race against horses during her late pregnancy, and who died in childbirth shortly after winning.

In some stories, it is said it was she who gifted Cuchulainn with his two great chariot horses, Liath Macha (grey of Macha) and Dub Sainglend (black of Saingliu), although in others, it was said to be the Connacht Queen, Medb.

In any case, she has thus been linked with horses, and as a horse Goddess, is seen to be synonymous with Epona (the Great Mare), Celtic European protectress of horses and a fertility goddess,  and Rhiannon, Welsh goddess also strongly associated with mares and foals.

The sacred marriage between the King and the sovereignty Goddess existed in many ancient cultures. In Sumerian lore, for example, the King mated with the Goddess Inanna’s priestess. The white mare in Gerald’s story may well have represented the fertility and sovereignty goddess, Macha.

I might also add at this point, that perhaps the coupling between the King and the horse represented something else. Perhaps it was more spiritual than physical. In shamanism, a white horse will often guide the shaman on his journey into the Otherworld. The white horse, seen as a symbol of purity and spirituality by the Celts, could have been a totem animal, and the coupling a misinterpretation of the bonding or union between them.

In Irish mythology, the white horse is mentioned often. The well known story of Oisin and Niamh of the Golden Hair tells how she arrives from the Otherworld carried by a white horse, declares her love for Oisin, and asks him to return there with her. After some deliberation, Oisin agrees, leaps up onto the back of the horse with her, and they gallop off together.

Aonbhar of the Flowing Mane was a white horse belonging to the Sea-God Manannán. He was said to have been able to travel across water as if it were solid ground. As Manannán is thought to be Niamh’s father, it is quite likely Aonbharr she rode to meet Oisin.

Similarly, when Cliodhna fell in love with Ciabhán, she appeared on a white horse from over the sea. In some stories, Manannán is given as her father, in others, her father is the Sea-God’s Druid. In any case, it seems she may have borrowed/ stolen Aonbharr to meet with her lover.

Cliodhna’s Wave is one of my favourite Irish myth stories. I leave you with a small excerpt from my retelling of it in mine and Jane’s book, Grá mo Chroí, Love of my Heart, Love Stories from Irish Myth.

“Come away with me to my Dun. I will protect you.”

She turned to him then, sadness tugging at the small smile which curved her lips. “Your eagerness gladdens my soul, but you cannot defend me against Gebann and Manannán. No one can. Besides, I would receive no welcome from your mortal kin. I must go back to the lands over the sea, to Tir Tairngire, the Land of Promise, my home. No mortal may follow me there.”

She got to her feet, and gave a shrill whistle. The roar of the ocean became the pounding of hooves, the mournful cry of seabirds traded for a wild equine whinny, and out of the foaming surf thundered ghostly Aonbhar, a giant among horses. His eyes were azure blue, his hooves gleamed gold, and his proud white tail swept the sand like a pennant.

Warily, Ciabhán eyed the creature as he cantered over the pebbles towards them, pulling up short and rearing skywards. He dropped back to earth with a snort and waited, his nostrils flaring pink.

Cliodhna ran her hand over the horse’s neck and shoulder, then grabbed a handful of shaggy mane and performed the steed-leap onto his back, a feat Ciabhán had only ever seen carried out by warriors.

She gazed down at him. “Manannán will be furious when he finds I have stolen Aonbhar to keep a tryst with a mortal man,” she murmured. “But being loved by you is worth the consequences.”

As Aonbhar turned towards the sea, Ciabhan darted forward with a cry, leaping up and catching hold of his lover’s hands as they rested in her mount’s mane. “Wait! Will I see you again?”

She sighed. “I will come when I can. But Manannán and my father will be watching me closely on my return. It may be sometime before we can be together again.”

He let his hands drop to his side. “Better to have never loved at all, than to have tasted its sweetness so briefly.”

Cliodhna kicked Aonbhar forward, her eyes beseeching. “I must go. The wrath of Manannán is not something I would have brought upon you. Please forgive me.”

The great steed gathered his strength and launched himself from the shore, plunging below the sea one moment, then leaping above it the next, springing nimbly from wave to wave, the surface of the water solid as the earth beneath his hooves. Cliodhna clung to his back, her golden hair streaming behind her. She never looked back. It only took moments for Aonbhar to carry her from his view.

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36 Comments on “The White Horse in Irish Mythology

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  2. I’m wondering about his comment regarding blind or deformed people, and whether in those days, it was usual in Ireland for people with disabilities to be accepted and integrated into communities – and instead of being treated as outsiders or hidden away, they were just part of the fabric of life? Just a thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Cate, I believe there is something in the Brehon laws about taking care of the disabled, but I think it may be more to do with warriors injured in battle. Later, in the 19th century on, Ireland has a horrible history of institutionalising and brutalising those who did not conform to societal norms, from the poor, to orphans, the sick, the elderly, and women regularly put in homes for the insane. Gerald of Wales was very disparaging of the Irish, he supported the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, and was writing propaganda to win support from the British people. He had nothing good to say about the Irish, except that he quite liked their music! 🤣😄🤣


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  4. Loved your telling of the story. Thank you for telling it the way it should be told and not tailoring it to fit modern christian squeamish sencibilities Am shocked at all weak-kneed comments horrified by un-censored mythology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. 😊 I think we have to accept that life was different in tbe past. People lived closer to the land and seasons than we do, and to life and death. Their survival depended on it. So their values were bound to be different to ours. We live a weak, soft life in comparison. Having said that, because of the harshness of their lives, I think they were probably much more spiritual than we are. Personally, I dont believe a word Gerald of Wales wrote. He was an ardent supporter of the Anglo-Normans, and a Christian, and as such, prejudiced against the Irish and a complete propagandist. Undoubtedly though there were rituals that we today would not understand, perhaps with aspects we would find repugnant. What most Christians seem to ignore is that during mass the bread and wine are ‘transformed’ into the body of Christ. Its not symbolic… unless you’re a Protestant. But if you are a true believer, you have to accept that transformation really happens. In which case, not only are you condoning human sacrifice, but also partaking in cannibalism. Personally I find that rather repugnant, even if its only symbolic. But Christians dont seem to find anything wrong with that at all. Arrogance, or ignorance? Certainly double standards. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, appreciate it. 😊


  5. There’s nothing quite so romantic as violent ritual, is there? Someone needs to make films about this stuff. Not the Gerald of Wales stuff. The other stuff. The Gerald of Wales stuff never needs to be seen by anybody ever. I wonder if he was a rugby fan.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I missed this one! The savage Irish and the savage Picts!! Blood sacrifice was very powerful. I love horses and their symbolism and stories in legend- but bestiality omg! I suppose there must be some truth to poor Gerald’s accounts, not that the Christians were any less savage. They flayed alive Hypatia of Alexandria- a most enlightened woman, astronomer/mathematician of the time and teacher of Platonic philosophy. Humans to this day can resort to extreme savagery. But- I love your love story and must get that book!


  7. Haha, I am with Hugh, that beginning is horrific. I had to re -read it to make sure I was seeing the horror I thought I was. Wowza. I kept being reminded of the matrix oddly. Because they have that phrase ‘follow the white rabbit’ strange where things take you.


  8. I thought somebody had hacked your blog when reading the first part of this post, Ali. It was like reading one of my horror stories.
    I don’t know anything about Gerald of Wales (apart from what you’ve written in this post and what Jane has said about him) but he sounds a very nasty chap to me.
    So now I know why Ireland is also referred to as Eire. Any reason why it’s not used very much?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, I think old Gerald was being a little too creative with his writing – trying to make something which was probably quite sacred and wonderful into the profane, simply because it didn’t fit his Christian viewpoint. There are white horses carved into the hill across the UK, as you know, and they feature in legend so much, there must have been a significance. Sad that it has been mostly lost. And the excerpt from your book was lovely, such beautiful imagery 🙂


  10. Pretty gnarly images there indeed, Ali. At least there’s some wildly vivid imagination going for that tale even though that’s horsing around far above and beyond any reason or reality. 🙂 I’m with you on believing it’s Christian propaganda. Your story of Cliodhna is incredibly beautiful. I was very moved by your descriptions. Yes I always assumed that the horse Niamh had with her was her father’s. I wish we had more of an understanding of the link between horses and sovereignty though– there could be mondane associations but I think most likely there was some symbolism. And I am not sure what it was.


  11. Wow! This is some tale! Mythology is always full of sacrifice and sacrificial ceremonies, but this has piqued my interest. More please.


  12. Fascinating, Ali. The human/horse soup I could do without, but the magical white horse running across the waves – that would be a sight to see.


  13. Whenever the only account comes from our friend Gerald, I take it with a handful of salt, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all that there were tribes who linked themselves physically to perfect and highly symbolic animals as well as mentally. Interesting post, Ali, even if it does leave rather unpleasant images in the mind. It’s these little details that make me realise just how very different our ancestors were from modern people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, Jane. Its hard to get your head around. But. I agree with you about Gerald. I dont take his account seriously, though many have. He was a high ranking Christian who wasn’t at all fond of the native Irish. He wanted to paint a poor picture of the savage native Irish. I haven’t found any reference to such a ceremony, or any kingship ritual involving horses in any of the stories I’ve read, which is a bit surprising. Its a bit like the human sacrifice thing. One mention by a less than credible ‘observer’ and suddenly it becomes real, because people love to believe in the sensational and macabre.


      • Much as I dislike Gerald, he’s one of the historical figures I’d most like to meet. He has the makings of a really good villain, and I’m intrigued by the way his mind worked.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well I don’t know much about him, apart from what Wikipedia says, put I just downloaded a couple of his books, including the Topographical Hibernate to check him out for myself… it’s free! I suspect much if what he wrote was actually second hand rather than actual personal observations. Eg. he wrote about birds he ‘saw’ in Ireland and then gave descriptions like it only has one leg, when if he’d seen it, he’d know that was just folklore, and not true. I want to read that for myself and make up my own mind.


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