Long before horses became tourism figures, they played a vital role in humankind’s myths, cultures, and legends. Humans use horses as companions, battlefield weapons, and beasts of burden in agriculture, making it perhaps the most intrinsic and vital domesticated animal known to human evolution. In some stories, the central figure isn’t a horse, but it has a horse-like appearance. Here are the most famous mythological horses.
Pegasus is one of the most famous mythological creatures. It stars in the Greek gods’ stories as a white-winged immortal horse and gets memorialized as a constellation.
According to Greek mythology, Pegasus sprung up from Medusa’s neck after her death. With the support of a goddess, Pegasus was first tamed by a Greek hero, Bellerophon, who tried to ride on the winged horse toward Mount Olympus. Pegasus got eventually stabled by Zeus and headed his thunderbolt chariot. Pegasus supposedly struck its hoof on a rock on Mount Helicon to create a spring called Hippocrene.
Widow-Maker is an American mythological horse which features in several tall tales that started around campfires.
Pecos Bill had a horse called Lightning, also known as “Widow-Maker.” This name was a result of the horse not allowing anyone except Pecos Bill to ride on it, and its dislike for Bill’s bride which made it buck her off, causing an end to their marriage. Pecos Bill preferred to ride a mountain lion to prove his toughness.
In Turkic mythology, the term “tulpar” refers to a winged horse. The tulpar appears in several Central Asian myths and legends. One legend reports how a Tuvan hero, Ösküs-ool, invented the first fiddle using his beloved tulpar. The tulpar first emerged as a symbolic combination of a bird of prey and a horse, both of which were hunting tools of Central Asian inhabitants. Tulpars are so vital to the cultural identity of Central Asia that the symbol appears on both Mongolian and Kazakhstan state emblems.
In ancient Greece, Bucephalus was owned by Alexander the Great and is among the most well-known horses that existed. The horse had a black coat and a massive white star on its forehead. Around 344 BCE, twelve-year-old Alexander had a bet with his father, claiming to tame the wild horse. To win the bet, Alexander, who had discovered that Bucephalus feared its own shadow, made the horse turn its back to the sun.
Bucephalus probably died of agedness, although some historians claim it got knocked down from battle wounds. Alexander founded the city, Bucephalus, which was named after the beloved equine.
The Islamic tradition believes that Al-Buraq is a stallion responsible for conveying prophets. The name originates from “Buraq” (Lightning), an Arabic word. The most common story that involves Al-Buraq is in the Islamic Quran, where it transported Prophet Muhammad, along with the angel Jibril (Gabriel), to Jerusalem and heaven to speak with Allah. Though often portrayed as having a human face literally, most people describe Al-Buraq as being white with two wings on its thighs.
In Scotland, a shape-shifting spirit, Kelpie, mostly has the appearance of a horse. There are kelpie stories in almost all large water areas in Scotland, but the most common is in Loch Ness. The first recorded kelpie appearance occurred in 1759.
Kelpies are lovely creatures, as they’re related to human sacrifices. However, some kelpie stories give the creature credit for keeping children away from risky water bodies.
Kelpies can also transform into other creatures apart from horses, including humans. In such cases, the human reportedly retains horse hooves.
Four Horses of the Apocalypse
Mentioned in the book of Revelations (in the Bible), the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are figures of the Last Judgment. They represent conquest, famine, war, and death. These four horses with white, red, black, and yellowish/pale green colors respectively are central symbols in eschatology for the millennium reign.
While many Christians believe these symbols have a prophetic nature, some interpret them as symbols for happenings during the first hundred years of Christian history.
The hippogriff is a creature with an eagle-like front and horse-like back. It represented Apollo (a god) in the Greek times, but had a first recorded appearance around the sixteenth century in “Orlando Furioso.” In Legends of Charlemagne by Thomas Bulfinch, it had an eagle head, feathered wings, clawed talons, and a horse body. The potentially ‘evil spirit’ creature is incredibly fast.
The hippogriff is currently more recognizable from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, where it features as Buckbeak.
The two kinds of unicorns that exist in mythology are from Asia and Europe. The European unicorn has a pure white appearance with a long, spiraled, and slender horn on the head but initially looked more like a goat. Its horn is said to be magical, as it can save a poisoned fellow, but the animal is a rare sight and almost impossible to capture.
The Asian unicorn has a horse-like appearance (more like a deer) with its body covered with scales (reptilian-like). However, a single horn still protrudes from its forehead. According to legend, an Asian unicorn was last seen by a Chinese philosopher, Confucius. Its rare appearance indicates a just and wise ruler.
Translated as “thousand-li horse,” Chollima appears in several East Asian cultures. A “li” is a unit of distance in traditional Chinese. In the past, a thousand “li” equaled about 400 kilometers. Hence, the winged Chollima could cover up to 400 kilometers in a day. The mythological Chollima originated in the third century BCE with Bole, a legendary retainer and horse-tamer of Duke Mu, ruler of Qin.
However, the horse has gained more popularity in the last few decades after its adoption as a symbol of economic development and progress by the government of North Korea.