No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 3]


Image: Tatum/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

(Continued from Part 2…)

Straight from the Horses Mouth

Ultimately, what comes across from a (relatively!) brief survey of the range of archaeological, historical and etymological material are the following commonalities:

  • Widespread distribution of archaeological evidence for horse activity, iconography and ritual associated with high status figures and burials in late prehistoric Europe.
  • Widespread attestation of horse motifs, symbolism and metaphor associated with sacral and ancestral kingship/inauguration in late antiquity/early medieval Europe.
  • Widespread ecclesiastical condemnation of horseflesh and equine attributes in later medieval literature
  • Widespread ecclesiastical adaptation and transformation of horse/kingship motifs & traditions in sources pertaining to secular royal authority and legitimacy.

In terms of depicted pre-christian ritual associated with royal inauguration, certain motifs and cultural components appear frequently:

  • Outdoor assembly/meeting/burial locations
  • Public performance & display; power, authority, legitimacy
  • Horse/King sacral & symbolic union; association, attributes, metaphor
  • Horse sacrifice & consumption
  • Communal feasting and drinking
  • Large cauldrons/containers/receptacles to facilitate communal participation
  • Reiteration and renewal of royal/tribal prosperity and fortune

Why the Longue Face?

Viewing the Irish evidence against the European backdrop allows us to glimpse a longue durée of successive Christian reactions against, and subsequent manipulations of, various cultural traditions and literary motifs involving such secular/sacral kingship. What appears to have been an initial Christian disapproval of pagan ritual seems to have developed into a more concerted effort to effect the very meaning and underlying symbolism involved in the social memory of such traditions. This is despite archaeological indications that horse consumption in Ireland was neither popular nor common. If the populace at large was not regularly engaging in such practices, then why the continued concern on behalf of ecclesiastical authorities? Perhaps the answer lies in where, and when, such activity may have ‘traditionally’ taken place.

(Get off your) High Horse

A curious aspect of early medieval Irish society, despite thorough Christianisation and ecclesiastical integration within secular society, is a certain distance maintained in matters of secular inauguration. While similar royal ceremonies in Europe appear to have gravitated more and more towards churches; the Irish equivalent remained outdoors at ancestral burial mounds and assembly places. Ecclesiastical presence at such events is well attested and is not under question; nor indeed, should there be any suggestion of the more lurid activity as depicted by Gerald. Nevertheless, such a separation from the precinct of a church must have surely rankled with ecclesiastical authorities who wished to consolidate and maintain their dominant social position.

The public performance of secular power and authority in dynastic festivals and  assemblies is also well attested in early medieval sources; as is communal feasting, commerce and judgements. The rights of kings to ‘judge’ legal matters was no doubt seen as an important extension of their authority; parallel by an ecclesiastical equivalent in matters of the church. The complexities and occasional conflicts arising between secular and ecclesiastical author is an over-riding feature of the literature that survives from the period. In a society where ecclesiastical and secular dynasties were intrinsically and routinely entangled in each others affairs; it is to be expected that an ongoing tension surrounded the very concept of perceived authority and influence. Attacking the very foundation of secular authority therefore, was an ecclesiastical activity intended to erode the same.

At the heart of the matter was the age-old conflict between secular and ecclesiastical influence. The holding of secular gatherings outside ‘the church’, on ancestral sites intimately connected with the distant past was an important mechanism for secular power expression. The legitimacy derived from such traditional activity was based on that of a pre-Christian past; and as such, was an indirect but potent challenge to the ecclesiastical ‘present’. Indeed given the opportunity, church authorities are known to have, on occasion, interceded directly to halt such proceedings.

Hold your Horses

In 811 AD, the monastery of Tallaght managed to prevent the holding of a secular festival, the Oenach Tailtiu (‘Fair of Tailtiu’) after the Uí Neill dynasty had violated the sanctuary of their church. Such squabbles were not just conflicts arising from perceived slights and insults, or even a deliberate attack on the festival itself. The primary aspect was manipulating the authority of the Ui Neill king to call for, and host, such a festival. Embarrassing the same into a position of being unable to do so, for fear of nobody attending, was a successful portrayal of superior ecclesiastical authority. The actual wording of the annal entry is particularly interesting. According to the Christian author, the fair of Tailtiu was prevented from being held ‘so that there arrived neither horse nor chariot on the part of Áed mac Néill’.

In recording the festivals cancellation, the annal author was not only utilising the event in terms of emphasising ecclesiastical authority, but was also taking advantage of the opportunity to demean secular legitimacy. By emphasising the horse metaphor, he was adding insult to injury. The continuing authority of the Uí Neill king was not only tarnished; his future authority was symbolically diminished by the absence of what his horses and chariots represented. With no public re-iteration and renewal of his legitimacy in traditional secular terms; his rule was now therefore under question. All in all, it is an appropriate example of ecclesiastic emasculation of secular power, subtly framed within the insular horse/kingship motif.


St Martin’s Cross, Iona (Image: jemasmith / Flickr/Wiki Commons)

Ecclesiastical ‘appointment’: Seventh Century Hagiography

If some of the earliest historical evidence for Irish ecclesiastical manipulation of the above motif is to be found in Patrician hagiography (see part 1); then perhaps contemporary Columban hagiography supplies an example of more practical concerns that are evident in the later period. Written more or less at the same time as Muirchú’s Life of Patrick (late seventh century AD); Adomnán’s Vita Columba (Life of St. Columba) is an equally impressive work which sets out to promote the Iona based saint within a narrative framework of prophecy, miracles, secular kingship and legitimacy. Iona’s physical position on an island crossroads between Ireland, Scotland and Northern Britain afforded the community an eminent cultural and political position within the early medieval period; and its interest and activity lay in such spheres.

In terms of early ecclesiastical attempts to integrate aspects of kingship inauguration with ecclesiastical legitimacy; we can find several examples of idealised portrayals within Adomnán’s text:

At another time, before the above-mentioned battle, the saint asked King Aidan about his successor to the crown. The king answered that of his three sons, Artur, Eochoid Find, and Domingart, he knew not which would have the kingdom after him. Then at once the saint prophesied on this wise, ‘None of these three shall be king, for they shall fall in battle, slain by their enemies; but now if thou hast any younger sons, let them come to me, and that one of them whom the Lord has chosen to be king will at once rush into my lap.’

When they were called in, Eochoid Buide, according to the word of the saint, advanced and rested in his bosom. Immediately the saint kissed him, and, giving him his blessing, said to his father, ‘This one shall survive and reign as king after thee, and his sons shall reign after him.’ And so were all these things fully accomplished afterwards in their time. For Artur and Eochoid Find were not long after killed in the above-mentioned battle of the Miathi; Domingart was also defeated and slain in battle in Saxonia; while Eochoid Buide succeeded his father on the throne.

Reeves (1874) Life of St. Columba, Book 1: Chapter 8

Here, the saint is not only portrayed as being involved in the consideration of future secular succession, but also the origin of prophetic announcements as to who shall actually succeed. In addition, his own person conveniently provides the vehicle through which the Lord’s blessing/selection is expressed. Situated and proclaimed years before he is to do so, the secular heir and his future descendents are therefore ‘appointed’ and legitimized ‘in the past’; without apparent reference to secular tradition or public acclamation. Of course, Adomnán was well aware of such symbolism, and it is hardly coincidence that two of the Kings sons are named Eochaid (‘Horse’; see part 2); the eventual victor in the succession, Eochoid Buide, being well and truly highlighted in etymological and traditional terms.

Another example later on in the text (but dealing with the above King Aidan’s own succession) provides an even more explicit portrayal of ecclesiastical ‘appointment’:

On another occasion, when this eminent man was staying in the Hinba island (Eilean-na-Naoimh), he saw, on a certain night, in a mental ecstasy, an angel sent to him from heaven, and holding in his hand a book of glass, regarding the appointment of kings. Having received the book from the hand of the angel, the venerable man, at his command, began to read it; and when he was reluctant to appoint Aidan king, as the book directed, because he had a greater affection for Iogenan his brother, the angel, suddenly stretching forth his hand, struck the saint with a scourge, the livid marks of which remained in his side all the days of his life. And he added these words: ‘Know for certain,’ said he, ‘that I am sent to thee by God with the book of glass, that in accordance with the words thou hast read therein, thou mayest inaugurate Aidan into the kingdom; but if thou refuse to obey this command, I will strike thee again.’

When therefore this angel of the Lord had appeared for three successive nights, having the same book of glass in his hand, and had repeated the same commands of the Lord regarding the appointment of the same king, the saint, in obedience to the command of the Lord, sailed across to the Iouan island (Hy, now Iona), and there ordained, as he had been commanded, Aidan to be king, who had arrived at the same time as the saint. During the words of consecration, the saint declared the future regarding the children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren of Aidan, and laying his hand upon his head, he consecrated and blessed him.

Reeves (1874) Life of St.Columba, Book 3: Chapter 5

Adomnán was certainly not shy in painting extravagant portrayals of ecclesiastical legitimacy. The rightful king is named by angelic messenger bearing his ‘appointment’ in a book from heaven. Naturally, the saints initial reluctance (an added detail to stress Columba’s non-partisan role in his selection) goes through the requisite triple appearance (a common hagiographical motif) before finally accepting the heavenly direction. Aidan is subsequently consecrated by the laying on of saintly hands within an ecclesiastical setting on Iona.*

Internal Detail, Gundestrup Cauldron (Plate E) (Image: Malene Thyssen (Wiki Commons / CC Licence)

Internal Detail, Gundestrup Cauldron (Plate E) (Image: Malene Thyssen (Wiki Commons / CC Licence)

A Horse of a Different Colour

What the early Patrician and Columban hagiographical depictions illustrate is a seventh century Irish effort to portray and manipulate secular kingship as reliant on, if not subservient to, ecclesiastical legitimacy. They can perhaps be seen as early precursors to the slightly later vernacular textual tradition of principum specula (instruction manuals for royal behavior). The ensuing centuries see a continuation of such efforts as evidenced in eight century ecclesiastical texts, ninth century annals and tenth-twelfth century literature and sculpture; all of which utilise the kingship/horse symbolism to one extent or another. The reference by Gerald, ironically the most ‘complete’ portrayal in terms of ‘details’, conveniently bookends the period concerned. Five centuries of ongoing ecclesiastical efforts to portray the ‘traditional’ celebration of secular kingship in derogatory terms.

Ecclesiastical disapproval of horseflesh consumption was overwhelmingly derived from, and linked to, its underlying secular kingship association. The eating of the flesh itself was not so much the main concern, but rather, what the act of its consumption represented to Christian sensibilities. The provision of such meat, as part of a public ritual that re-enforced secular authority, came to be seen as an affront to Christian authority itself. As long as such rituals lay outside an ecclesiastical setting and encompassed communal feasting designed to symbolically represent a king’s legitimacy and future prosperity of his people; such activities would have acted as a counter-point to the very idea of an earthly Christian kingship under a metaphysical heavenly dominion.

Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth

It is perhaps not surprising then, to find the motif of the cauldron as a commonly associated component of sacral/kingship metaphors in the later insular literary evidence. The image of the cauldron was certainly recognised as a popular metaphor for martial strength, kingship, royal provision and bountifulness throughout Irish and Welsh myth. We need only look to the most prominent example, that of the magical cauldron closely associated with the mythical Dagda (aka…Eochaid Ollathir, ‘Eochaid the all-father’; a familiar name!) to see the ongoing cultural resonance and symbolic connection.

Glancing back to the late prehistoric evidence (see part one) we find large cauldrons and receptacles present in European royal graves alongside the equine related equipment; as well as ritual depositional contexts in Ireland and Britain. Although the Irish examples could equally be associated with bull motif/sacrifice (again mirrored in later Irish myth), it nevertheless shares many of the same residual characteristics and connections to ritual feasting associated with kingship prophecy/martial power.


Germanic Chieftains Grave, Mušov, Czech Republic [2nd Cent. AD] Image: Bullenwächter (Wiki Commons/CC Licence)

No Horses for (Christian) Courses

The continuing presence of large cauldrons/containers in association with the portrayed kingship/horse traditions within later literary sources finally brings us to what may be considered the crux of the matter, when viewed through an archaeological lens.  In terms of any fare provided to a large public assembly, such cauldrons, especially high status metal examples, would have been not only functional, but no doubt also viewed as manifestations of royal power and plenty. The provision and facilitation of communal feasting involving large quantities of meat/drink would have been an essential part of any such celebration (then, as now).

If horsemeat played a part in the menu at such ritual feasts, then it would have not only served as an expression of ‘traditional’ horse/kingship symbolism; but also that of extreme conspicuous consumption. The deliberate slaughtering of any numbers of horses for such an occasion  would have been a staggering display of wealth and status, considering their ‘live’ agricultural and economic value. Whether their killing was part of a public ritual, or privately prepared in advance, their provision and consumption as part of any celebration of secular kingship would have been particularly significant at any stage of the medieval period.

From an ecclesiastical perspective then, the very concept of secular acclamation, legitimacy and authority was inherent in ritualized equine display/consumption. Illogical and impossible as it was to eradicate such public festivities, the challenge seems to have been to identify, appropriate and gradually reduce in importance, the underlying traditional symbolism and attributes imbued in ‘the horse’. In order to do this, early Christianity needed to both maintain the residual cultural memory of the metaphor; whilst simultaneously denigrating any original status with implications of impropriety, malformation and at times, even bestiality. (Indeed, it is entirely possible that such zoophilia depictions and motifs originated within Christianity itself, as an effort to combat the authority inherent in equine/secular kingship metaphor).

Flogging a Dead Horse

The fact that later ecclesiastical literature continued to assign equine attributes to representations of kingship perhaps illustrates the extent of early medieval success with condemning the practice of horse consumption. Such continual references points to an ecclesiastical deepening and re-emphasis of the associated metaphors; a process which would surely not have been undertaken unless the populace at large had already begun to view the same within a Christian cultural framework. Ironically, such evidence which seems, on one level, to point to a residual trace of pre-Christian ritual, may actually imply quite the opposite; being instead indicative of an exaggerated but intelligent manipulation/creation of cultural motifs from fertile Christian imaginations.

In any case, the distant origins of any modern-day cultural horror of horseflesh undoubtedly lie within the early medieval period and early efforts to disassociate the practice from Christian identity. The underlying motivation for such a condemnation  appears to have revolved around aspects of secular royalty/ecclesiastical authority and the early struggle for social dominance and influence within a highly stratified and hierarchical society. Closely linked, at least from the earlier phase, was a Christian attempt to influence the traditional nature of secular inauguration; and ultimately, to replace it with an ecclesiastical role in the public expression of sacral legitimacy.

I mean, really. It’s not as if early Christians had a problem with the symbolic consumption of flesh & blood to commemorate and exalt a higher power in order to ensure continued protection, blessing and guidance…


animated gif by Aaron Fever


*On a complete aside, the ‘Book of Glass’ reference in Reeves translation may provide further evidence of ecclesiastical ‘overkill’ on Adomnán’s part. The original Latin terms used by Adomnán are vitreo/vitreum, which I take to mean ‘translucent/transparent’. Aside from the symbolic image of a ‘transparent book’; the Latin term occurs only twice in the Sacra Vulgata. Both occasions are in Revelation (Apocalypsis 4:5-7 and Apocalypsis 15:1-3.) and each refer to ‘seas of glass/transparent seas’. The former example is suspiciously appropriate to Adomnán’s story; being Johns vision of the ultimate heavenly throne surrounded by golden crowned elders on their own thrones (with the sea of glass before them, along with the four symbols of the evangelists for good measure). The elders are prophesied as eventually throwing off their golden crowns to bow down in worship of the ultimate heavenly throne. It hardly needs noting that such a passage would have been seen as particularly appropriate biblical reference in a narrative framework seeking to depict a Christian kingship/authority derived from heaven.


(First past the) Post Script

Recent serendipitous developments in the news headlines provide a deliciously appropriate metaphorical ending to the entire business at hand. Ongoing investigations into the matters of horse meat have continue to cry foul (or should that be foal?) and you can perhaps imagine my amusement earlier today when I stumbled across the following headline:

Horsemeat scandal leaves Burger King facing a whopping backlash

It’s as if we were back in the early medieval period. Oh, and by the way, note the journalists name and official desk. As we say here in Ireland…

Sure, you couldn’t make it up‘.



Bhreatnach, E. (1995) Tara: a select bibliography. Royal Irish Academy for the Discovery Programme, Dublin.

Bray, D. (1999) ‘Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship’, in Cusack, C. & Oldmeadow, P (eds.) This Immense Panorama: Studies in Honour of Eric J. Sharpe. Sydney Studies in Religion, University of Sydney, 105-116.

Doherty, C. (2005) ‘Kingship in Early Ireland’ in: Bhreathnach, E (eds). The kingship and landscape of Tara. Dublin, Four Courts Press, 3-29.

Edwards, N. (1990) The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: BT Batsford.

FitzPatrick, E. (2004) Royal Inauguration in Gaelic Ireland c.1100–1600: a Cultural Landscape Study. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

Gleeson, P. (2012) ‘Constructing Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland: Power, Place and Ideology’, Medieval Archaeology 56, 1-33.

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.

Nilsson, S. E. (2007) ‘Miracle Stories and the Primary Purpose of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae’, The Heroic Age 10: Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. Available at:

Sharpe, R. (1995) (tr.) Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba. London.

Simmons, F. J. (1994) Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.



3 thoughts on “No Horses for Courses: Christian Horror of Horseflesh in Early Medieval Ireland [Part 3]

  1. It seems that great minds think alike. Coming soon: ‘Horses for Courses? Religious Change and Dietary Shifts in Anglo-Saxon England’, by Kristopher Poole, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(3), Aug 2013. I look forward to it.


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

Leave a Reply to vox hiberionacum Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s