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Riding To The Afterlife: The Role Of Horses In Early Medieval North-Western Europe

 Thomas Rowsell

Master’s Thesis, University College London, 2012

Abstract: In order to establish the role of horses in the pre-Christian religions of Anglo-Saxon England, Viking-Age Scandinavia and other Germanic regions in mainland Europe, this dissertation will look for evidence of burial, sacrifice and other rituals involving horses in both archaeological and literary sources. In the ideology which is reconstructed in this essay, the horse serves as a status symbol to Christian and pagan alike as well as an efficient means of transport. To pagans it was also a source of food and was connected to religious rites involving decapitation and ritual consumption. The analysis shows that the numerous examples of horse burials in north-western Europe serve a variety of functions: From status symbol in grave-goods, sacrifice to gods or ancestors and a means of posthumous transportation to another world.

By comparing the literary with archaeological ways in which horses are represented in Norse mythology and accounts of pagan rituals, I identify two main categories of divine function for the horse in this era. Firstly, high status, warrior burials, accompanied by horses, which are most identifiable with the cult of Óðinn. In these cases the horse functions both as status symbol and as a means of transportation in the afterlife, probably to Valhǫll. Secondly, other burials mainly involve the cremation of horses, sometimes accompanied by harnesses and bridles in which case they were also intended as transport in the afterlife and most seem to have spiritual significance related to the cult of the Vanir. Horses that were sacrificed and eaten may have been dedicated to the fertility god Freyr, just like living horses in Hrafnkels saga. Tacitus provides older evidence of the horse as a divine medium and I believe this rite is an earlier manifestation of the same one described by Adam of Bremen, and that this rite was also related to a Vanir horse-cult.

Analysis of semi-pagan medical charms from the tenth century as well as early Christian legislation regarding horses provides context which helps to distinguish what is genuinely pagan about horse related folk culture in early medieval north-western Europe.

Click here to read this thesis from Medievalists.net