Authors: Judith Tarr
Tags: #prehistorical, #horses, #Judith Tarr, #Epona Sequence, #White Mare, #Old Europe, #Horse Goddess
LADY OF HORSES
The Epona Sequence, Vol. 2
Book View Café Edition
April 29, 2014
Copyright © 2000 Judith Tarr
“[The first ride on the back of a horse] probably occurred
very shortly after the horse was domesticated, around 4000 B.C…. I think some
kid—some brave, thrill-seeking adolescent—climbed aboard a docile mare who was
accustomed to humans. All it took was one successful ride, and everyone wanted
to do it.”
—Prof. David W. Anthony
Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies
EQUUS 248 (June, 1998), p. 110
In the grandfathers’ time, when few yet living had been
born, the People worshipped the horse, and served him, and took the gifts that
he gave them: his meat, his hide, the milk of his mares. But he had not yet
granted to men the greatest gift of all: the gift of riding on his back, and
racing the wind.
There was in that time among the People a prince of great
beauty and strength, a child of kings, a god among men. He was the greatest of
the hunters, the best of the dancers. No one was swifter of foot than he, or
mightier in battle. Even before the beard had sprouted on his cheeks, he had
led the young men of the People in war against their enemies, and taken skulls beyond
count, so that every one of his women had a cup from which to drink, and all of
his father’s women, and even a handful of his younger brothers. When the People
gathered to dance their deeds and to sing their prowess, he danced foremost,
and his voice rose above them all, chanting his glory.
One day in the morning of the world, this prince walked out
among the herds of horses. Such a thing only a man grown and proven could do,
for horses were sacred, beloved of the gods. They were tended by priests and acolytes,
warded with great magics. The prince was a priest of the horse god, but of the
second order, as a prince must be—for he cannot both serve the horse god in all
things, and rule the People.
He was thinking on this as he walked, while the mares grazed
and the foals played in the fields of grass. The Stallion who ruled them, the
great king of horses, stood on his hill as he liked to do, with the wind
streaming in his mane, and watched over them all.
Men, even priests, even princes, did not trouble the
Stallion in his eminence. The Stallion in his turn took little notice of men,
as was fitting; for he was greater than them all.
But on this day in the dawn time, in this bright morning of
spring, the Stallion came down from his hill. He walked among his mares and his
children, who gave way before his presence. He approached the prince.
The prince had paused at the Stallion’s coming. No fear
troubled him; he was a great warrior, a lord of the People. And yet he knew the
welling of awe.
The Stallion stood before him. And he spoke as gods speak,
in a voice like wind in the grass, like thunder on the steppe—the thunder of
the herds over which he was king. “A gift I give,” he said, “by the gods whose
kin I am. Rise up, O man. Mount on my back.”
The prince was a great man and proud, but even he was not so
proud as to dare what the Stallion commanded. He spoke as humbly as a prince
may, as a man before a god: “O lord of horses, how can I do that? I am but a
man, and mortal. How can I mount on your back?”
“Mount on my back,” said the Stallion. “Taste the wind. Take
my gift and be glad.”
Then the prince knew that the gift was freely given, of the
Stallion’s own will. And he did as he was bidden. He mounted on the Stallion’s
back. He tasted the wind. He became, for that while, like a god—and that was
the Stallion’s will, and his gift, and his great good pleasure.
Then the Stallion bade him choose companions, the greatest
warriors and hunters of the People, its lords and princes, and offer them the gift
in turn. “But have a care,” said the Stallion, “that you choose only the best
to be men, and never demean yourselves with lesser creatures; and let every man
sit astride a stallion, but for boys keep the geldings. And let no woman at
all, whatever her rank, trespass here where only men may go. This command I lay
on you, and this gift I give: to be lords of the wind, and rulers of the
And so it was. The prince, who had been a lord of men, was
now also a lord of horses, swift as wind in the grass, and more terrible than
ever in battle. And his people prospered and grew, and spread far across the
steppe. Every tribe that they met, they conquered, for they were swifter far
than any man afoot, and could travel farther, and fight harder, and never
succumb to weariness.
And the world changed; and men changed with it, borne on the
backs of horses.
The Grandmother told the tale as she was dying, told it as
it had been told in the gatherings of the tribe since time out of mind—since,
in fact, she was a girl.
“For I remember,” she said. “I remember that prince. He was
Sparrow knew that. Everyone knew it, though most chose to
forget. The Grandmother was only the Grandmother, ancient and shrunken and,
most thought, either mute or close to it. She never spoke where people could
hear. Except to Sparrow. To her, who was her daughter’s daughter’s son’s
daughter, she had long told stories, wonderful stories, stories of the morning
of the world.
Now that she was dying, she seemed little more than a voice
and a spate of stories. Sparrow could not make her stop. She would barely sip
water or the mare’s milk that was the best sustenance of the People. She would
not eat at all. She lived on the words she spoke.
“That story,” she said as the sun sank low into evening,
when the winter had closed in and the cold come down, and the earth lay deep in
snow, “you know better than any. All you children do. It’s the one story you
live by—how the prince rode the Stallion, and made his men lords of horses.
“And that story is a lie.”
Sparrow had been warming a cup of mare’s milk over the fire
in the Grandmother’s tent, cherishing that warmth, for the cold was bitter. At
first the words meant little. But as they sank in, she started, and nearly
spilled the milk.
She mastered herself, careful of the cup, turning, holding
herself steady. The Grandmother lay swaddled in furs, a tiny, shriveled
creature—not even as large as Sparrow, who had nine summers. The life burned
low in her. All that there was, was gathered in her eyes. Those were large still
in their web of wrinkles, clear grey like rain, bearing in them all the memory
of what she had been: great lady and great beauty, prince’s sister, wife and
mother of shamans.
“That story is a lie,” she said in her whisper of a voice.
“Oh, not that he was a great warrior and all the rest of it—that is true
enough. But the Stallion never came to him and offered the great gift, the gift
of the wind. That gift he took. He stole it, if you would know the truth. He
seized it from the one to whom it was truly given.”
Sparrow was not exactly horrified. The Grandmother had told
her such truths before—hard truths, truths that laid bare the myths and deceits
that men laid like veils over the world. But this one—this was the greatest of
the myths, the one that surely must be true.
“There was a gift,” the Grandmother said, “and it was freely
given. But not to any man. It was given to a woman. And it was never a stallion
who gave it. The men dream that stallions rule the herds; but anyone with eyes
can see that stallions give way before the mares.”
Sparrow knelt in front of the Grandmother, cradling the warm
cup. The Grandmother let herself be fed a sip, then two; but no more. She was
too full of words, and her life was too short. She could not waste it in
drinking mare’s milk.
“It was a mare who gave the gift,” the Grandmother said. “A
queen of mares, ruler of the herds, to be sure; and when she gave it, she was
great with foal. One morning when the priests were far away, not long before
she foaled, she offered the gift to a small and headstrong girlchild. She let
the child clamber onto her broad warm back, and carried her about as she
grazed. It was a quiet giving, with no words in it; but what need have horses
ever had of words? Horses speak with their bodies. And she said, as clear as a
voice in the air, ‘Come, child. Mount on my back. Sit at the summit of the
Sparrow, in the furs beside the Grandmother, understood what
she had been meant to understand. “You. The child was you.”
The Grandmother nodded just visibly, a bare inclination of
the head. “Yes. It was I. I rode the mare before my brother ever rode the
Stallion. I rode her till she foaled, and after. And when she was strong again,
she carried me far and fast, as a horse can—she gave me truly the gift of the
“Then one day as I rode the mare, when I had grown arrogant
with safety and forgotten to be cautious, one of the priests caught me. That
priest, of course, was my brother: the prince who would be a legend. He was
gentler to me than one of the others would have been—for what I had done was a
terrible thing, a great sacrilege. I, a female, had sat on the back of a horse.
To be sure, it was only a mare, but I had done it. And worse: I had done it
over and over, for the whole of that long bright summer. I had not only been
given the gift, I had taken it with both hands.
“There was nothing for it, my brother thought, but to take
that gift from me. To claim it as his own. To become a legend, and to cause my
part in it to be forgotten—for if the rest of the priests had known what I had
done, they would have buried me under the earth. Nor would they have troubled
to take my life first.”
Sparrow shuddered. Priests still did that to people who had
done terrible things, things too appalling for any lesser punishment.
“So you see,” the Grandmother said a little wryly and not
too bitterly, “how my brother took a truth that was less than endurable, and
made it into a legend.”
“It’s still a lie,” Sparrow said.
The Grandmother sighed, a bare whisper of breath. “Sometimes
lies have to be. Men especially—they need them. Just as they need to believe
that the stallion is the lord of the herd. Their spirits have little strength
to bear the truth.”
“That’s not fair,” Sparrow said.
“You are young,” the Grandmother said. “Now go. Let me
Sparrow intended to obey, but not before she had seen the
Grandmother wrapped as warmly as possible, and fed a trickle of milk. The
Grandmother was failing: she did not try to fend Sparrow off. Already her body
was growing cold, though her spirit lived in it still, like an ember in a heap
She wanted to die in peace. Sparrow meant to let her; but it
was hard to leave, harder than she had thought it would be. The Grandmother had
been mother to her when her own mother died, had raised her when no one else
would, and taught her most of what she knew. Sparrow had learned things from
her that women were never supposed to know: arts and magics, prayers, powers
over the world and its creatures.
A woman could not be a shaman. It was forbidden. And yet the
Grandmother was a shaman, and perhaps more. To most of the People she was only
the Grandmother, the eldest of the tribe, granted no such power or presence as
the elders of the men were given, and accorded respect only insofar as she was let
live when she could have been left on the steppe to die. And she had permitted
it, because, she said, it was better to be ignored than to let the men know how
much more power she had than any of them.
“You, too,” she said now, as Sparrow steeled herself to go.
“You have power. You are like me. The gods speak to you.”
“No,” Sparrow said. “No. They never do that.”
“Don’t lie to me,” said the Grandmother. Her voice was
remote, as if she spoke already from the far side of the sky. “I knew when you
were born, what you would grow to be. You are of my blood, child. You are the