No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 2]

(Continued from Part 1…)

Heavy Horses: Armagh’s Stone Sculptures

If the horse/kingship motif can be detected in some of the earliest patrician hagiography depicting the foundation of Armagh; then the ecclesiastical centre itself also provides us with firm archaeological evidence of its survival and continuity throughout the later medieval period. Two strange medieval stone carvings are known from the area of the cathedral/church, both of which depict a human figure with horses ears. Thought to be a medieval sculptural representation of earlier Irish literature involving kingship figures, the stone sculptures have also been interpreted as an ecclesiastical re-working of insular tales modeled on the classical mythology of King Midas.

Two insular versions of the tale are known from medieval literature; the earlier one (thought to be eight century) involving the ancestral king of the Leinstermen identified as Labhraidh Loingseach and the later one (thought to be 10th-11th century) involving an offaly king called Eochaid. The story is much the same, despite the different figures; and is well-known as a modern children’s fairy tale.

Armagh - Horses ears

Armagh Figure with Horses Ears (Image: eelcowest / Flickr / CC licence)

Irish Kings with Horses Ears

In the narrative, a king hides the terrible fact that he has horses ears by judicious application of a crown/long hair and the immediate execution of every barber who attends him. Sparing the life of one young barber, the promise of keeping the Kings secret eventually proves too much for the youth, who whispers it into the bark of a tree. The same tree is subsequently cut down to make a harp, which is then played in the king’s presence and miraculously sings/plays his secret for all to hear: ‘The king has horses ears!‘ The King ultimately reveals his horses ears for all to see and is suitably remorseful for having deceived his people.

The tales clearly contain an enshrined association with horse symbolism and kingship as well as an overt Christian moral commentary towards royal behaviour. Although clerics do not play a role, the unquestioned power and authority of the secular king is ultimately exposed and laid bare by lesser subjects.  An interesting aspect is the depiction of the horses ears as a blemish/malformation; undoubtedly a cultural reference to other early Irish literary motifs concerning the suitability of a Kings fitness to rule if carrying facial and bodily disfigurement.

In presenting them as such, medieval authors were dabbling in several traditional metaphors, cleverly contrasting one against the other. Although the horse/kingship symbolism is readily facilitated; it is done so within the parallel framework of insular traditions that questions the legitimacy of those deemed ‘disfigured’ (An amusing by-product of such activity are the inventive nicknames with which medieval authors used to cast dispersion on ancestral figures e.g. Endae the Bent, Echaid One-Ear, Ailill Kettle-Face). The equine attributes of the King are therefore presented as an embarrassment. Once again, as with hagiography, there is a discernible tension between the portrayal of Christian and secular authority, with an underlying challenge to symbolic legitimacy.

A Man Called Horse: Etymological Parallels

The widespread occurrence of different versions of the above tale in contemporary medieval cultures is particularly interesting; especially when compared to the Irish version involving King Eochaid. In Brittany, the tale involved a King Porzmarch; and in Wales, the King was named Mark. Both names are etymological reflections of insular words (Breton ‘Marc’h’ and Welsh ‘March’) meaning ‘horse’, ‘stallion’. The same etymology is behind a similar word in Old Irish, Marc; but it is the more usual Old Irish Ech (meaning ‘Horse, Mare, Steed’) that is enshrined within the Irish name in one of the tales. Indeed, there is an obvious relationship between Ech and the Old English word Eoh, both of which are cognates of Latin Equus. It is no coincidence then, that Ech forms the main linguistic component of the name Eochaid (‘Eochu, Eocho‘). It’s strong popularity as a name for many different Irish and Scottish kings, (mythological & pseudo-historical) throughout the early medieval period  illustrates an ongoing metaphorical continuity; one which is also apparent in medieval Irish myth & lore.

The senchus na senmarc (‘the lore of steeds of old’) in providing an explanation for Loch da Gabor (‘The lake of the two horses’), Lagore lough, Co. Meath; depicts the involvement of a Munster king called Eochaid Marc-Cend/Eochaid Cindmairc (literally meaning ‘Horse – Head/Chief Horse’!). King Eochaid presents the king of Tara with two steeds (who are then ritually drowned) as a sign of submission. Lagore lough is just a few miles south of Tara and is well-known in Irish archaeology because of an excavated early medieval royal residence (crannóg) within the lake itself.

Within the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the mythical figures of Queen Medb and her warrior lover Fergus Mac Roich are generally understood to represent metaphorical associations and sexual union between king/ruler and female fertility goddesses. The name of Fergus (‘virility’) son of Roich (Ró-ech: ‘great horse’; or possibly even, Rí-Ech: ‘horse king’) supplies further evidence of the continuing etymological subtext associated with ech/eochaid names. (Those familiar with modern Irish politics will find it particularly appropriate that the later Irish version of the name, Ó hEochaidh, lies behind the modern anglicised surname of Haughey).

The transmission of the medieval tale of Labraidh/Eochaid throughout Europe and its insular Irish parallels  not only illustrates a common ancestral origin; it also demonstrates that the symbolic association of the horse/king/name was a key component which continued to be reflected in its various etymological versions. It indicates a widespread conceptual association with kingship and horse symbolism alongside that of a later Christian manipulation of the same elements  in order to portray opposing attributes. Not only was such an effort to be found in literary re-workings, it could also be found in visual monumental expression, as evidenced by the Armagh sculptures. If anything, Irish ecclesiastics seems to have been content to continue the symbolic association between kingship and horse metaphor in multiple media forms; as long as it came with alterations of underlying meaning.

Early Christian Pillar Stone, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal. (Note the warrior figure with possible horse-like ears) Image Credit: (Copyright, Used with Permission)

Changing Horses in Midstream: Christian Transformation

A good example of such transformation is contained within the middle Irish text Geinemain Moling acus a Betha, ‘The Birth and Life of St. Moling’, an account of the Carlow based saint that is likely to date in and around the twelfth century AD. The saint and his servant seek hospitality in unfriendly territory and eventually find respite in a poor household:

The woman brought him a cow’s milking which she had earned by needlework: for there was no other food in the house save what she was earning by needlework. Then Moling quaffed a drink out of the cup, and gave it to his gillie, who drank a drink out of it, and not the less were the contents thereof. In comes the man of the house and bade them welcome. No food was found for them then save that a horse-steak which was in the house should be put for them into the cauldron. The cleric blessed the house and the cauldron, for he knew that what was therein was the flesh of a horse. Now when the charge in the cauldron was turned, what was there was a quarter of mutton! It was brought before the cleric. He divided it to them so that they were satisfied. After that Moling blessed the household, so that from them thenceforward is the lordship of Leinster.

Stokes, W (1907) The Birth and Life of St Moling

This portrayal manages to depict Christian disapproval of the practice of horseflesh consumption; whilst simultaneously utilising its association with concepts of a successful, powerful kingship. Through the miracle of the saint, the household responsible for serving it (note the emphasis on their poverty, as well as the presence of a cauldron again) is spared the transgression of eating it whilst simultaneously enjoying the same benefits associated with its traditional practice. The blessing of the saint replaces not only the horsemeat, but in actuality, becomes a new legitimate channel for ensuring future dynastic authority and prosperity.

Christian pagans and pagan Christians: Norse Saga

A similar European cultural association and manipulation of kingship and horse symbolism can be traced in various other later medieval representations of pagan figures and rituals. The mythical leaders of the original Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain were portrayed by later Christian authors as Horsa and Hengist. Both names carrying meanings of ‘horse’ and ‘stallion’, with the former example giving us the modern-day English term. Pervasive in Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Frisian folklore, the two characters are represented in a variety of early medieval sources; and Hengist is even referenced in the Old Norse Prose Edda. Indeed, within Old Norse mythology, a thirteenth century account of a tenth century figure Haakon Haraldsson (aka ‘Hakkon the Good’) is particularly interesting. In the story, as a son of the King of Norway, Haakon is fostered by the saxon king Athelstan and raised as a Christian. Following the death of his father he returns to claim the kingship of Norway.

A significant motif in Haakon the Good’s saga is the opposition of norse nobles to his attempts to introduce Christianity; and his efforts to avoid consuming sacrificed horse meat. The details contained within several excerpts are again long, but merit quoting in full for context:

Sigurd, earl of Hlader, was one of the greatest men for sacrifices, and so had Hakon his father been; and Sigurd always presided on account of the king at all the festivals of sacrifice in the Throndhjem country. It was an old custom, that when there was to be sacrifice all the bondes should come to the spot where the temple stood and bring with them all that they required while the festival of the sacrifice lasted. To this festival all the men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them was called “hlaut”, and the vessels in which it was collected were called hlaut-vessels. Hlaut-staves were made, like sprinkling brushes, with which the whole of the altars and the temple walls, both outside and inside, were sprinkled over, and also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was boiled into savoury meat for those present.

The above depiction contains interesting elements worth bearing in mind; a sacrificial rite at a festival presided over by the King; ritual slaughter of horses; and communal feasting and the boiling of large quantities of horse-flesh for the gathered assembly.

The harvest thereafter, towards the winter season, there was a festival of sacrifice at Hlader, and the king came to it. It had always been his custom before, when he was present at a place where there was sacrifice, to take his meals in a little house by himself, or with some few of his men; but the bondes grumbled that he did not seat himself in his high-seat at these the most joyous of the meetings of the people…

 The next day, when the people sat down to table, the bondes pressed the king strongly to eat of horse-flesh; and as he would on no account do so, they wanted him to drink of the soup; and as he would not do this, they insisted he should at least taste the gravy; and on his refusal they were going to lay hands on him. Earl Sigurd came and made peace among them, by asking the king to hold his mouth over the handle of the kettle, upon which the fat smoke of the boiled horse-flesh had settled itself; and the king first laid a linen cloth over the handle, and then gaped over it, and returned to the high-seat; but neither party was satisfied with this…

Hakkon the Good’s Saga (18)

Again, important additional elements of the depiction include the nobles attempts to force the king to ingest or imbibe any or all forms of the sacrificed horsemeat; from the flesh, to the ‘gravy’ (boiled liquid) and the ‘fat smoke’. Not only does this seem to suggest that the kings consumption of the same was ritually and symbolically important for the well-being of his people; it also seems to suggest several methods by which this could have been happily achieved.

Now, when King Hakon and Earl Sigurd came to More with their court, the bondes assembled in great numbers; and immediately, on the first day of the feast, the bondes insisted hard with the king that he should offer sacrifice, and threatened him with violence if he refused. Earl Sigurd tried to make peace between them, and brought it so far that the king took some bits of horse-liver, and emptied all the goblets the bondes filled for him without the sign of the cross; but as soon as the feast was over, the king and the earl returned to Hlader.

Hakkon the Good’s Saga (19)

The above extract details the relenting of the Christian King under threat of violence from the pagan masses and the consumption of both meat and blood/liquid derived from sacrificed horses. The entire depiction itself provides us with a later Norse version of similar European traditions previously discussed, and in particular, contains several important elements that may reflect residual social memory of ritual practice. A key component to the festivities portrayal seems to have been the provision of large amounts of horse meat in broth within containers from which goblets could be filled and shared.

The author of the text seems not only to have been familiar with such ancient traditional customs, but intent on capitalizing on the underlying metaphors of the same; suggesting that such metaphors would have been clearly understood by his intended audience. It is certainly not a reflection of thirteenth century ritual practice. However, in harnessing the past to reflect contemporary political legitimacy, the author seems to have made full use of existing Christian imaginings of a ‘pagan past’. Most importantly, the overall portrayal of and participation in the pagan ritual is depicted as offensive to Christian sensibilities and illustrates a late twelfth/early thirteenth century literary fashion for the same in northern Europe.

Flogging a Dead Horse: Norman Condemnation

Such a literary fashion is almost certainly similar to that found in what is perhaps the most ‘infamous’ of such accounts known from medieval Ireland. The Cambro-Norman author and cleric Geraldus Cambrensis, writing in the twelfth century about the ‘barbarous practices of the native Irish’, includes the following portrayal of a royal inauguration:

There is in the northern and farther part of Ulster, namely the Kenelcunill (Cenél Conaill), certain people which is accustomed to appoint its king with a rite altogether outlandish andabominable. When the people in that land had been gathered together in one place, a white mare is brought forward into the middle of the assembly. He who is to be inaugurated, not as a chief, but as a beast, not as a king, but as an outlaw, has bestial intercourse with her before all, professing himself to be a beast also. The mare is then killed immediately, cut up in pieces, and boiled in water. A bath is prepared for the man afterwards by all his people, and all, he and they, eat of the meat of the mare which is brought to them. He quaffs and drinks of the broth in which he is bathed, not in any cup, or using his hand, but just dipping his mouth into it around him. When this unrighteous rite has been carried out, his kingship and dominion have been conferred.

Gerald of Wales, Topographia Hibernica (McCormick, 2005; after O’Meara, 1982)

One of the main motivations behind Gerald’s account was to promote and justify the conquest of Ireland by members of his own family. As such, his portrayal of the native Irish should be taken with a large pinch of salt (and perhaps several pints of Guinness). Gerald has traditionally suffered, understandably, from very bad press by Irish scholars in the past; who could not see past the apparently whimsical inclusion of outrageously far-fetched tales. However, a deeper (modern) reading of his text reveals an underlying complexity of metaphor and symbolism, with several literary agendas at play. Such ‘stories’, for the most part, carry many aspects of parables.  Throughout his writings, there is a constant thematic interplay between the nature of man/beast & associated human/animal symbolism.

Wild Horses

His works should therefore be seen in their twelfth century context; the product of dedicated Norman propaganda towards native inhabitants, written by an extremely learned ecclesiastical figure who was well versed in literary technique and metaphor. In addition, he was obviously interested in, and more than capable of, seeking out curious traditions and folk tales and spinning them into his own narrative for his own purposes. It is interesting to note that the above passage occurs just before chapters which set out to castigate the native Irish ecclesiastical culture of the day, particularly its higher  authorities. (One of the reasons cited by the Normans for their coming to Ireland, was apparently to reform the native Irish church; and Gerald’s depiction has perhaps more to do with this agenda than anything else).

Equally, his depiction of the inauguration rite should not be taken as contemporary evidence of such rituals. However, it does bear important witness to the survival of horse symbolism/motif in traditional culture and lore. Moreover, the component details supplied tally closely with many of the attributes previously discussed. As a piece of propaganda, it is totally spurious. Its real value lies in it being a stratified textual witness to the continued transmission of insular cultural memory and metaphor. The role of horse/kingship symbolism in narrative tradition, like the examples in contemporary norse mythology, were seemingly alive and well in twelfth century Ireland.

Inter-ecclesiastical propaganda

Ironically, Gerald’s literary use of the depiction is entirely similar to previous Irish ecclesiastical efforts. The only difference being, rather than denigrating aspects of secular authority by framing it in ‘pagan custom and tradition’; he was using the same avenue to castigate insular Irish ecclesiastical authority. Presenting the ‘fact’ that such a barbarous rite could still be happening was one of several ‘proofs’ that the higher Irish clergy were failing in their duties and that the native Irish needed ‘civilising’. What better way to do this, then by taking an existing cultural motif (with a history of insular ecclesiastical disapproval) and presenting it as contemporary tradition.

(To be continued…)

Animated Gif by Aaron Fever

* My thanks to Neil Jackman of Abarta Heritage for kind permission to use his picture of Carndonagh Pillar Stone (DG011-035007)



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Bray, D. (2002)  ‘Sacrifice and Sacrificial Ideology in Old Norse Religion’, in: The Dark Side: Proceedings of the Seventh Australian and International Religion, Literature and the Arts Conference, 123-135.

Breathnach, E. (2002) ‘Observations on the occurrence of dog and horse bone at Tara’, Appendix 3, in: Discovery Programme Reports 6. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy.

Carey, J. (2008) ‘From David to Labraid: sacral kingship and the emergence of monotheism in Israel and Ireland, in: Ritari, K. & and Bergholm, A. (eds) Approaches to religion and mythology in Celtic studies. Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2–27.

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Hencken, H. &  Price, L. and Start, L. (1950/1951) ‘Lagore Crannog: An Irish Royal Residence of the 7th to 10th Centuries A.D.’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 53, 1-247.

Meyer, K. (ed) (1903) ‘King Eochaid has horse’s ears’, Otia Merseiana 3, 46–50.

McCormick F. (2007) ‘The horse in early Ireland’, Anthropozoologica 42 (1), 85-104.

Ni Chathain, P. (1991) ‘Traces of the cult of the horse in early Irish sources’, Journal of Indo-European Studies 19, 123-131.

O’Meara, J.J. (1982) (tr) Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland  Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Porter, A.K. (1931) ‘A Relief of Labhraidh Loingseach at Armagh’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 1, No. 2, 142-150

Shenk, P. (2002) To Valhalla by Horseback? Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, Master’s Thesis in Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture, University of Oslo. Available at:

Sikora, M.  ‘Diversity in Viking Age horse burial: a comparative study of Norway, Iceland, Scotland and Ireland’, Journal of Irish Archaeology 12/13, 87-109.

Wood, H.L. (2000) ‘Dogs and Celtic Deities: Pre-Christian Stone Carvings in Armagh’, Irish Arts Review Yearbook 16, 26-33



2 thoughts on “No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 2]

  1. Pingback: Udder the Bó Walk? St Marcan’s Lough, Rosclave, Mayo – A Rejoinder | vox hiberionacum

  2. Pingback: No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 1] | vox hiberionacum

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