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The Folklore of Horses in Battle


2014/03/07


An example of the Marwari Horse. This stallion “Humayun” is owned by Mr. Virendra Kankariya of Ahmedabad. Marwari is a rare breed of horse from the marwar (of Jodhpur) region of India.
By Leigh Ballard

Throughout history many horses have achieved legendary status. Often these horses are associated with the exploits of their riders. Especially in war and battle, horses become part of the folklore of bravery, loyalty and courage. As comrades and partners in the lives of their hero riders, these horses have sometimes been given equal acclaim for having won the battle, saved the king, or some other equally laudable deed. Many of these horses are the source of inspiration and are immortalized in paintings and statues, often depicting them in dramatic action with their rider. The stories of these horses, whether real or mythologized, portray the horses as noble, courageous, and loyal steeds.

Greek Mythology

Pegasus was a horse in ancient Greek mythology, described as a pure white, winged stallion. He lived in the palace of Zeus, king of the gods, and served Zeus by bringing him lightening and thunder from Mount Olympus. Pegasus is seen on coins and works of art from the early Greek period - often portrayed as a symbol of inspiration. He is reputed to have caused the well of Hippokrene at Mt. Helikon, home of the Muses, to spring forth from the ground with a strike from his hoof. In addition, he was involved in some heroic battles. From the moment of Pegasus’s birth, he became embroiled in battle action. The myth says that the Greek hero, Perseus, set out to slay the Medusa, a hideous monster with snakes for hair. Finally, after much hardship, Perseus was able to chop off the monster’s head, and Pegasus was born from her neck. Pegasus allowed Perseus to fly away on his back to escape the horrible violent mess. Then, along the journey home, Persues was able to rescue his lover, Andromeda, with the help of the flying horse.

In another mythical exploit, the Greek hero Bellerophon was tasked with killing the dreadful fire-breathing Chimera. The goddess Athena helped Bellerophon to capture and tame the horse Pegasus. Then, with help from the fabulous winged horse, Bellerophon was able to kill the monster, a creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and tail of a serpent.  Riding Pegasus was dreamlike, flying to the heavens. Bellerophon wanted to fly to Mt. Olympus after his glorious defeat of the Chimera, but his arrogance angered Zeus.  Zeus caused Pegasus to buck and throw Bellerophon to the ground. Generally, Pegasus is portrayed as kind and helpful, but only allowed two mortals to ride him.  Zeus’s gift of immortality to the winged horse was to turn him into a constellation.

Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander the Great, is a horse that is part myth, part legend, and part historical figure. He carried Alexander through many battles and exploits, some real, some magical. The legend of Bucephalus begins in 344 BC when Alexander was only 13 years old. A horse trader offered the large black horse with a big star to Alexander’s father King Phillip II. Because no one could tame the unmanageable horse, Alexander’s father was not interested. But, to the surprise of everyone, Alexander was able to use what we would now call “horse whisperer” magic to subdue the horse. Legend says hespoke soothingly and turned Bucephalus towards the sun so that the horse could no longer see his own shadow, which had been frightening him and making him wild.

The relationship between Alexander and his horse has been greatly romanticized and their exploits together sometimes exaggerated to the point of a fantastical reputation. Afghan chiefs later claimed that they were descended from Alexander, and their horses descended from the great Bucephalus. It is said that Bucephalus never let anyone but Alexander ride him, and Alexander was devoted to his horse, who survived many battles where thousands of other horses died.

Together they endured grueling campaigns, as Alexander conquered the world. In one campaign, the enemy stole a large number of horses from Alexander’s army, including Bucephalus. Alexander was so enraged that he threatened devastation to the entire area if the horse was not returned. The thieves returned the horse.

Bucephalus served Alexander well and died at the old age of thirty. Different sources disagree about his cause of death: he could have died from old age and weariness. But legend says Buchephalus died from fatal injuries received at the Battle of Hydaspes in June , 326 BC. In this battle, Alexander's army defeated King Porus. Alexander founded a city, Bucephala, in honor of his horse.

Marwari Horses

About a thousand years ago in India, the Marwari horse was discovered. This breed was a native treasure, and the beauty, stamina, spirit, intelligence, and loyalty of the horse was found to be amazing. Soon, the breed was unparalleled in its royal status. Only the warrior castes and the Rajput (ruling) families were allowed to ride these horses.

In the mid 1500’s, a ruler called Maharana Pratap Singh had a war horse named Chetak, who was a Marwari horse of epic courage and loyalty. Folklore tells us that Chetak was a blue coated horse, and Rana Pratap is sometimes called Rider of the Blue Horse in folk songs. There is a dramatic historical account of the final battle involving Chetak. Maharana Pratap was defeated in bloody and fierce fighting that lasted four hours. During this battle, the war horse Chetak carried Pratap into direct combat with the enemy leader who was riding an elephant. Chetak reared up and landed his hooves on the head of the elephant, trying to help Pratap kill the enemy. In the chaos of the fight, Chetak’s hind leg was ripped by the tusk of the elephant, but that did not stop the horse. He faithfully carried his master away from the battle, even though he was wounded and exhausted. He finally collapsed and died while trying to leap across a stream some distance from the fighting. The tale has become a folk legend with various versions of the king’s weeping over the loss of his true friend Chetak, the width and depth of the river Chetak attempted to cross, and other wonders the horse achieved. But mostly it is a tale of loyalty and sacrifice and how Chetak was true to the high standards of his breed. There is a monument memorializing Chetak that was erected on the site where he fell.
 

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