Spring Fest is (or rather, was) here, and while I do not particularly dislike it or the activities it entails (it’s unbearably noisy, to be sure, but I also get to gorge myself on various confectionaries, so my attitude toward our annual festival is neutral overall), I have been more occupied with an event of a wholly different nature. One of the countless online games I play (and I do mean countless; I have been at it since the heyday of Ragnarok Online some ten years ago, and have probably sampled the majority of the big-name MMORPGs out there) has recently released a new expansion, and I have been eschewing food, drink and sleep in favor of industrialized monster slaughter. This, combined with the research duties that I am expected to perform (which I wisely refuse to abandon, as no skill or gear will save you from an advisor’s wrath), meant that I could not attend the various off-topic seminars that I tend to frequent, and unfortunately, there was one in particular that I greatly regret missing. “Galloping History,” a three-day symposium on horses and their importance throughout the ages, was full of excellent scholarship on a topic I am rather interested in, though I managed to miss the entire event.
So, as a penance of sorts, this column will be on horses, and particularly on those famous enough to have earned a name in myth and folklore—and infamous ones as well, such as Caligula’s steed, Incitatus, for whom the eccentic emperor arranged birthday parties and lavish receptions, and whom he reportedly planned to make a priest or a consul (which is not all that unusual—in Heike Monogatari, if memory serves, the Japanese emperor is so impressed with the behavior of a crane that he makes it a high-ranking official; a bear served in the Polish army during World War II; and the British Army currently has a cashmere goat enlisted). Given that Caligula most likely wasn’t insane, but did in fact have a morbid sense of humor, this act was less a display of madness and more of a gesture of ill will toward the Senate, conveying the idea that Caligula’s horse was about as effective as the average Roman statesman (the same concept has been the theme of various modern political protests, sometimes very successfully—the rhinoceros Cacareco, for example, received so many votes in the ’58 São Paulo elections that he would have won had he been an official candidate). Caligula’s obsession with his horse also referenced Alexander the Great’s fondness of his own steed, Bucephalus, which in turn emulated the relationship between Achilles and his horses.
Alexander is said to have been born and died the same moment as Bucephalus, and tales of unusually mighty steeds linked by fate to their owners are abundant in folklore—and invariably include the story of their first meeting. Lü Bu, undisputedly the greatest warrior of the Three Kingdoms period (which is rife with warlords who are capable beyond measure in one aspect and utterly incompetent in another—Yuan Shao commands vast resources but can’t make a good decision to save his life; Lü Bu is an unparallelled warrior and an unparallelled fool; Liu Bei is a shrewd diplomat crippled by his compassion for his sworn brothers; and Cao Cao is an efficient ruler who, despite not being one, comes across to everyone he meets as a ruthless psychopath), acquired his equally legendary steed, the Red Hare (famously called a thousand-li horse—a thousand li is around 400 kilometers, which the Red Hare was said to cover in a single day), by murdering his own master; Bellerophon captured Pegasus by ambushing the animal as it alighted to drink from a well; and Rakhsh was chosen by the Persian hero Rostam as the only horse capable of matching his superhuman strength.
While the Red Hare and Pegasus brought only doom to their masters, Rakhsh was also famed as a particularly intelligent animal who saved his rider on several occasions—the most famous of which is the incident when a lion attempted to attack the sleeping Rostam, only to be attacked himself and slain by the monstrous horse (I’ll also note that Rakhsh is described and sometimes depicted remarkably like a giraffe—perhaps intentionally, since giraffes were quite likely familiar to Ferdowsi, and the gigantic ruminant would have made a fitting steed for the mighty hero). And although horses were often portrayed as heroic, there were villainous equines as well—a prominent example is the kelpie, a Celtic spirit (I initially thought that it was Welsh, but found it suspicious because the name sounds easy to pronounce—unlike the average name in Welsh mythos, which includes such linguistic wonders as “Gwrhyr” and “Annwvyn”) that takes the form of a regal steed—but anyone who tries to ride the animal will find themselves stuck to the beast as it makes a beeline for the nearest water source, in which the unfortunate victim will be drowned.
…Good grief, writing about horses does quite a number on one’s self-confidence. All these horses have their own Wikipedia pages, while I am bereft of one.