In early times it was customary to use horses' heads as talismans, by means of which also the ancient heathen nations practiced various magical arts. Grimm says in his "Teutonic Mythology" that the Scandinavians had a custom of fastening a horse's head to a pole, with the mouth propped open with a stick. The gaping jaws were then turned in the direction whence an enemy was likely to come, in order to cast over him an evil spell. This contrivance was known as a spite-stake, or nithing-post. In Mallet's "Northern Antiquities" (p. 156, 1890), it is related that Eigil, a famous Icelandic bard, on being banished from Norway in the ninth century, fixed a stake in the ground and fastened thereon a horse's head, saying meanwhile: "I here set up a nithing-stake, and turn this my banishment against King Eirek and Queen Gunhilda." Then pointing the horse's head toward the interior of Norway, he uttered a solemn imprecation against the protecting deities of the land, invoking evil upon them, and expressing a wish that they might be compelled to wander about and never find rest until they had driven forth the hated king and queen. In these cases the horse's head was magically employed as an instrument for working evil upon an enemy, but later the same symbol was widely used among northern peoples as a talisman against evil.
Not alone in remote antiquity, but throuchout the Middle Ages, the old pagan device of the spite-stake continued to be employed by the Teutonic peopIes: and even after the Reformation, as late as the year 1584, a mare's skull placed upon a pole was a favorite means for driving away rats and other vermin in Germany. The principle involved appears to have been always the same, namely, the power of averting evil supposed to be a magical attribute of horses' heads; and this power was not only effective against human enemies, but likewise against the spirits of evil.
When the Roman general Caecina Severus reached the scene of Varus's defeat by the German tribes under their chieftain Arminius, in the year 9 A.D., near the river Weser, he saw numbers of horses' heads fastened to the trunks of trees. These were the heads of Roman horses which the Germans had sacrificed to their gods.
In the fifteenth century a savage tribe known as the Wends had a practice of placing a horse's head in the crib or manger to counteract the influence of evil spirits, and to prevent their horses from being ridden by the Night Hag. And in many countries analogous notions, veritable relies of paganism, exist in full force to-day. Thus in Mecklenburg and Holstein it is a common usage to place the carved wooden representations of the heads of horses on the gables of houses as safeguards, and when fixed upon poles in the vicinity of stables they are thought to ward off epizoötics. In Mecklenburg, also, horses' heads, when placed beneath the pillows of the sick, are believed to act as febrifuges, and in Holland they are hung up over pigsties. The fore-parts of horses are to be seen on the gables of old houses in the Rhaetian Alps, "carved out of the ends of the intersecting principals."
The use of horses' heads as talismans is thought to have some connection with the ancient pagan sacrificial offerings of horses. Adherence to the latter custom was formerly regarded as a pledge of loyalty to heathenism, and conversely its renunciation was a sign of adopting the new religion. In the tenth century the Norwegian king Hakon Athelstan, known as "Hakon the Good," endeavored persistently to extirpate heathen idolatry in his kingdom, but without much success, owing to the vigorous opposition of his people. At one of their great Yule-tide festivals the king was urged to eat some horse's flesh as a proof of devotion to the old faith, and on his refusal to do this they wished to kill him.
On another occasion King Hakon so far yielded to the importunities of his people as to inhale the steam from a kettle of horse-broth. He also drank some Yule-beer, holding the cup in his left hand, while with his right he made the sign of the cross, which the pagan mind conceived to be the symbol of Thor's hammer. Finally he was even induced to eat a couple of mouthfuls of horse-flesh, an act which his people accepted as a satisfactory guarantee of his orthodoxy.
Among the newly converted Northern nations the use of horse-flesh as food fell into disrepute, and the practice was looked upon as a secret sacrifice to the old idols, while those indulging in it were punished as obdurate pagans.
The employment of horses' heads as talismans, a custom doubtless originating in heathendom, has been thought not only to suggest the sacrificial offering of a horse, but also to symbolize the religious dedication of a building placed under the protective influence of such a symbol. For among the ancient Teutons the horse was held to be the most holy of animals, and auguries were derived from the neighings of white horses in their sacred groves. There exists, moreover, among German peasants a widespread belief that the placing of carved wooden representations of horses' heads upon house-gables is an act of homage to the Deity, whose blessing and benediction are thereby invoked upon the dwellings thus adorned, and upon the inmates as well. When, however, the heads are directed outwards, in order to ward off evil, the principle involved is evidently akin to that of the pagan spite-stake, of which mention has been made.
Professor Christian Petersen, of Hamburg, who investigated this subject some years ago, expressed the belief that among the pagans every dwelling was protected by three talismanic emblems, namely: (1) on the gable a horse's head, or the representation of some other animal or bird; (2) by the side of the entrance door a broom, as a preservative against lightning; and (3) on the threshold a horse-shoe.
The German botanist, Karl Friedrich von Ledebour, who visited the Altai Mountains early in the present century, wrote that among the Kalmuks, a nomadic people inhabiting that region, he observed numerous horses' heads and hides, relics of sacrifices, placed upon scaffolds; and the direction of the horses' heads, pointing east or west, indicated whether the sacrificial offering was made to a good or evil deity.
Formerly in some parts of Germany, especially in the north, it was customary to place a horse's head above the stable door; sometimes also horses were killed and their bodies buried beneath the corner-stone of a building, in order to bring good luck. In the same region the association of horses and horse-sboes with lucky influences is everywhere apparent: a horse-shoe when found is either carried about as an amulet, or placed on the chamber wall or threshold; and a young girl who finds a certain number of horse-shoes in a year, or who sees a hundred white horses within the same period, will be married before the year is out.
In Moldavia the head of a horse or of an ass is much esteemed on account of its reputed magical properties, and is believed to be a powerful agent not only for the production of witchcraft, but conversely as a powerful antagonist of evil. Inclosures where animals are kept are very commonly protected by one of these talismans placed upon a forked stake; and the same device is popular as a safeguard against wolves and robbers. In Roumania the skull of a horse is placed over a courtyard gate as a preservative against ghosts, and in Tuscany it is also used as a charm.
The Christmas festivities at Ramsgate, in Kent, formerly included a peculiar feature called "going a-hodening." A horse's head fixed on a pole was carried through the town by a party of young people, grotesquely attired and ringing hand-bells. By pulling a string attached to the lower jaw, the horse's mouth was made to open and shut with a snapping sound. In this case the horse's head was typical of the good Demon, threatening and overcoming the powers of darkness.
It appears that a modern counterpart of the ancient heathen practice of hanging equine heads upon trees, as tributes to Wodan, still exists in Sussex, where the bodies of horses are suspended by the legs from horizontal tree-branches, as a means of bringing luck to the cattle. And the evident analogy between the two customs of widely separated epochs, the sacrificial offering of horses upon trees in order to avert evil or to invoke protection, has not escaped the attention of modern writers.
The Ostiaks of southern Siberia were wont to suspend horses' heads from the branches of trees, and to protect bees from witchcraft they also placed them near the hives.
In Bulgaria and among the Osseten, an Asiatic tribe, the same talismans are affixed to the palings inclosing farmyards. The ancient Teuton placed a horse's head on the weather-vane of his barn, while he hung up a horse-shoe in some consecrated place, as a deprecatory offering to the god of thunder and storms; and the Tartars of the Chinese province of Koukou-Nor seek to protect their bees from the "evil eye" by hanging up near the hives either a skull, a foot, or in fact any bone of a horse.
In Mecklenburg one remedy for the delirium of fever consists in placing a horse's skull under the bed; and in some parts of Prussia certain spinal affections of children are treated by bathing the patient in rainwater in which a horse's head has been dipped thrice daily for three successive Thursdays. In a curious old work by M. Fugger (1854), the writer says that a mare's skull, fixed on a pole and placed in a garden, has a wonderful effect in promoting the growth of plants and vegetables, and, moreover, insures freedom from rats and caterpillars.
The Magyar shepherds place horses' and asses' skulls as talismans about their sheepfolds to keep wolves away from their flocks, and also to prevent herbaceous animals other than their sheep from eating the grass of their pasture lands. Also when, as occasionally happens, some hill or upland region gains an unsavory reputation among the peasants as an alleged meeting-place of witches, horses' skulls are placed there in order to prevent such unseemly orgies, for, according to the popular report, where witches meet grass will not grow. Whoever has the courage to visit such a place on the midnight of Good Friday with a so-called Luciastuhl, a peculiar chair or stool made during Christmas week, may see the witches at their revels, and may easily disperse them by throwing a horse's skull into their midst.
The gypsies inhabiting lands bordering on the eastern Danube are wont to fasten the skulls of horses and cattle upon the fence-palings which surround their farmyards, to prevent witches and evil spirits from entering the inclosures. So, too, the Transylvanian gypsies bury horses' skulls beneath the floor of the earth caverns which they occupy in winter; and the tribes of southern Hungary place similar talismans upon the graves of their kindred, that no witch may tread upon the sanctified ground.
The wizards and conjurers of the Shamans pretend to be experts in sorcery, and to possess a secret knowledge which enables them to control the actions of evil spirits. They wear a long elk-skin robe adorned with many fetich objects, such as bells and pieces of iron; and to assist them in their magic rites they carry staves, whose tops are carved into the shape of horses' heads, and by means of these staves they are enabled to leap high into the air.