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Of Horses and Civilization

An image of a centaur and Greek soldier possibly of the Greco-Parthian kingdom, 250-225 BCE. This image comes from a woolen hanging from the Sampui Tapestry, Lop County, Xinjiang, China. Public Domain.

I love all animals. I grew up in a Greek village where domesticated animals were part of my family. We had chickens, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, donkeys and mules.

I rarely saw a horse because horses then, now, and in antiquity were and are possessions of rich people. However, while a teenager, I did have the pleasure of riding a horse a few times. I still remember that experience of becoming almost one with that magnificent animal.

Horses were fundamental to the Greeks.

The Greek god Poseidon was the king of the seas, earthquakes, and horses. The Greeks had imagined a race of horse-men they called centaurs. These were wild, savage monster-like forest animals with a human voice, being half human and half horse. They lived between mount Pelion and Mount Ossa in Thessaly.

One of those horse-men was an exception. He was very much like a superb craftsman: a master in music, archery, hunting, healing, and natural philosophy. This was Cheiron, a gentle and wise centaur. He was as ancient as the gods. He was the immortal son of the Titan Cronus and the Ocean goddess Philyra. He lived on Mount Pelion in Thessaly. Tradition has it that he introduced medical knowledge to Hellas. Greek kings and famous people sent their sons to Cheiron for education. Jason, the hero who led the Argonauts to Asia for the golden fleece, and Achilles, the greatest Greek hero of the Trojan War, were pupils of Cheiron. So was Asclepius who became god of medicine.

To this day, Pelion, the kingdom of Cheiron, is a sanctuary for rare medicinal plants and extremely valuable biodiversity.

Homer speaks of Balios and Xanthos, the divine horses of Achilles. They wept over the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend. Achilles asked the horses why they failed to save Patroclus. After all, they were faster than the West Wind, which men thought was the swiftest. Xanthos replied that a great god, son of Leto, Apollo, killed Patroclus. Xanthos warned Achilles that his hour was near. A god was about to kill him, too.

Homer says Troy was famous for breading horses. The “wooden horse” of Odysseus doomed Troy.

The founders of the Olympics, and other Panhellenic religious and athletic competitions and festivals added the chariot and horse races to the games.

In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus said horses were the “crowning glory” of rich men. They were the pride of those who could afford them. In his Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles speaks of the Athenian owners of horses who formed a distinct class of knights and came from the district of Colonus.

Athena, daughter of Zeus and patron goddess and protector of Athens, invented the bridle that made the domestication of the horse and other animals possible.

In Macedonia, we have King Philip II (Philippos, lover of horses). Philip was a great leader who united Greece for the first time. In addition, he prepared the way for his son Alexander the Great to conquer Persia. Alexander, a brilliant strategist and student of Aristotle, spread Greek civilization to the world. He lead his armies to battle always glued to Bucephalus, a horse whose head was like the head of an ox.

These are a few examples of the mythological, cultural and military importance of the horse in Greek history. Moreover, the horse supplemented the ox, mule, and donkey in the cultivation of the land.

Other rural and pre-industrial societies probably have similar stories of the vital significance of the horse in the growth and survival of their civilization.

In modern times, starting with the mechanization of everything in the nineteenth century, the horse in the West survived in the cavalry of the armed forces, in horse racing, and as luxury pets.

In the tropics, those who can afford horses, employ them in farming and horse racing.

The tragedy of the modern age is the dismantling of ancient traditions and respect for animals, including the magnificent horse.

In 1928, Henry Beston published The Outermost Housein which he expressed a philosophical understanding of the hazards of his age. He lived alone in a tiny wooden shack facing the ocean lapping the coast of  New England.

I read Beston’s book long time ago, but I never forgotten its reflections:

“We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. They are not underlings; they are other nations.”

Beston spoke to the winds.

In the United States, animals, both domesticated and wild, continue to be underlings for food, the zoos, laboratories, and extermination. Domesticated animals are grown fat for mechanical slaughter. Others, like cats and dogs, survive for pets. And wild animals are furiously pushed to extinction.

In the United States, one rarely sees horses, unless one watches military parades or lives in a cowboy country like Texas.

If, however, one is addicted to betting on racing horses, one goes to Kentucky, a kingdom of impoverished Americans ruled by oligarchs of horses and whiskey.

Horse racing has been a banality since Roman times. Now, in 2019, it is like casino gambling. Here, rich and poor, bet money for more money. The owners of the horses are so devoted to the winning of their thoroughbreds that they drug them and, in unfathomable ways, push them to exhaustion and death. In 2018, about 493 thoroughbred horses died in the United States. The National Geographic describes horse racing as “a dangerous sport.”

At the very least, we should protect the surviving horses from abuse and exploitation. We owe them that much.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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