A Cut Off Horse-Head Delivers The Message

(Y)Our Ancestors, Ladies & Gentlemen!*

“Most tellingly, perhaps, at the site of Potapovka (N. Krasnoyarsk Dst., near Kuybyshev on the N. Volga steppe), a unique burial has been found.6 It contains a human skeleton whose head has been replaced by a horse head; a human head lies near his feet, along with a bone pipe, and a cow’s head is placed near his knees. This looks like an archaeological illustration of the Rgvedic myth of Dadhyañc, whose head was cut off by Indra and replaced by that of a horse.

The bone pipe reminds, as the excavator has noted, of the RV sentence referring to the playing of pipes in Yama’s realm, the world of the ancestors “

Via way of … a bit more explanation, here’s some of the relevant Shatapatha Brahmana verses [SB 14-1] dealing with the subject –

“18. Now Dadhyañk Âtharvana knew this pure essence, this Sacrifice,–how this head of the Sacrifice is put on again, how this Sacrifice becomes complete.

  1. He then was spoken to by Indra saying, ‘If thou teachest this (sacrificial mystery) to any one else, I shall cut off thy head.’
  2. Now this was heard by the Asvins,–‘Verily, Dadhyañk Âtharvana knows this pure essence, this Sacrifice,–how this head of the Sacrifice is put on again, how this Sacrifice becomes complete.’
  3. They went up to him and said, ‘We two will become thy pupils.’–‘What are ye wishing to learn?’ he asked.–‘This pure essence, this Sacrifice,–how this head of the Sacrifice is put on again, how this Sacrifice becomes complete,’ they replied.
  4. He said, ‘I was spoken to by Indra saying, ‘If thou teachest this to any one else, I shall cut off thy head;’ therefore I am afraid lest he should indeed cut off my head: I cannot take you as my pupils.’
  5. They said, ‘We two shall protect thee from him.’–‘How will ye protect me?’ he replied.–They said, ‘When thou wilt have received us as thy pupils, we shall cut off thy head and put it aside elsewhere; then we shall fetch the head of a horse, and put it on thee: therewith thou wilt teach us; and when thou wilt have taught us, then Indra will cut off that head of thine; and we shall fetch thine own head, and put it on thee again.’–‘So be it,’ he replied.
  6. Therefore it is concerning this that the Rishi has said (Rig-v. I, 116, 12), ‘That Dadhyañk Âtharvana, with a horse’s head, anywise spoke forth unto you two the sweet doctrine:’–‘Unrestrainedly he spoke this,’ is what is thereby meant.”

Dadhyank is a fascinating figure in His own Rite – and not least because of the array of latter materials detailing other roles and functions which He carries out in the mythology [a personal favourite is His appearance in the Vayu Purana, wherein He attempts in vain to warn Daksha that carrying out a sacrifice to the Greatest God … and pointedly not directing this to Shiva, is to court Ruin.] [although the better-known incidence is probably wherein Dadhichi is regarded as having allowed the use of His spine to form the Vajra of Indra – which, to my mind, I have wondered if this is some considerable extrapolation from a RigVedic citation [RV 6 16 14] for Dadhyank empowering [‘light[ing] up’] the Vritra-Slayer [in that verse, interestingly, it is Agni – so, piety, sacrifice … a seriously great weapon indeed!] in other ways] – but here, we are simply considering His as a more … allegorical saliency.

For what is communicated to us in these verses is an incredibly important set of the metaphysical principles of the holy rite. [And while, in particular, this is for a Soma ceremony – I would contend that in many regards, the most important of them apply equally to other Vedic rites and rituals, as well].

A rather frequent element we have encountered, across several Indo-European cultures and mythoreligious complexes, is the idea that a holy-man, when he is engaged in his role, is ‘not himself’. But rather, has been seized [in German, and with deliberate reference to Jung, we should say he is ergreiffed] ; and therefore, after a sort, speaks with the voice of another.

Now, this can be taken in one of two ways – and the answer is likely both. The first is in a direct and quite literal sense. The concept being that the appropriately inspired [and this really is at the heart of the Furor Poeticus concept] figure is in such direct communion with what is On High, that he is speaking, and it is Speaking through him.

The second, is perhaps a little less impressive – but much more ordinarily useful. And, drawing perhaps upon the concept of Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’ [it seems … rather curious to say that, given that the liturgy I am referencing dates from perhaps four thousand years prior to Eliade’s writings upon the subject, and intrinsically parses the same concepts], it means that the officiator of the rite in question, is adopting the mantle, the guise, the office, the position of another when carrying out the on-earth simulacrum of a rite first pioneered in the Heavens.

This is quite useful, as we can see encoded in the above aforementioned myth – as it means that any perils thusly resultant to the officiator while he is engaged in the duties in question, are not visited out directly upon him, in an enduring and potentially rather deathlily injurious sense … but rather, are accrued to the figure he is temporarily appearing as. And then, when the rite is over, he can become his former self again having evaded much of the danger which might otherwise have befallen him.

But speaking of the use of Voices – and in some rites, it is common to see several Brahmins, each adopting a ‘part’, as it were, in a dramatic, vocalized re-enactment as central to the performative recitation of the hymnal in question – it is vitally important to note another element of Shatapatha Brahmana commentary upon this figure. [SB 6 4 2 :3]

“‘Also the sage Dadhyañk, the son of Atharvan, kindled thee;’–Dadhyañk, the Âtharvana, doubtless is speech; and he did kindle him therefrom;”

This is the explanation given for the earlier mentioned RigVedic verse wherein Dadhichi empowers the Slayer of Vritra. As we can see, through Speech.

The idea being quite literally communicated here, is that it is Speech which makes the Sacrifice .. well .. a sacrifice. Rather than a rather ornate bout of pyromania [although given the RigVedic line it is explicating is also quite directly about turning up and setting on fire the settlements of another kind … well … it’s Veer-y Indo-European Conduct, even before it turns Sacrificial, I’ll put it that way!] – whether we mean Speech in this ‘performative’ sense, whereby it is, to mix metaphors, ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ [and also, as it is secret wisdom being communicated, perhaps ‘horse-sense’ into the bargain … or bhaga’in] and via our adoption of this sacred mantle; or whether we mean it more simply as … well … speech, and potential instruction.

It is, as with so many things in Vedic parlancy – both, man, both!

The final point I shall make, in terms of that extrapolation of principles from this incident in the Vedas, concerns that notion of ‘instruction’ – of teaching, and the transmission of secret knowledge on down the line.

The Shatapatha Brahmana verses in question go on [in the rest of 14:1 beyond those sections already quoted] to give a list of strictures upon such instruction, which are largely symbolic in nature. And yet, they come immediately after directly pointing out that Dadhichi’s action was to unrestrainedly pass on the information, the sacred learning and insight, which he held – albeit while taking a grave personal risk in the course of so doing.

There are a number of ways to read this, as well. One is that it is the particular material around the specific Soma rite which is held to be so closely guarded … and this, in particular, due to the rather personal mythopolitics around Lord Indra – or, perhaps more charitably to Him, due to a duty of Indra to act as a guardian for the conceptuary and efficious utilization of Soma in general.

Another, is that the strictures around transmission are to represent something of a ‘compromise’ between ‘nobody is allowed to learn this, ever’, and a complete openness of the information to all. The subtle yet important distinction between the “freedom of information”, so to speak, and the spread of information.

The third, is that when teaching, the teacher is, in much the same manner as previously mentioned for the carrying out of the rite itself, relying upon the mantle of a prior authority himself – which is, indeeed, how the later concepts of guru lineage have taken discernible effect.

But the fourth, is that the material in the Shatapatha Brahmana, as an explanatory document tentatively dated to perhaps as much as a thousand years after the compiling of the hymnals upon which it comments – may have gone off on a bit of a tangent in some particular areas; used to support injunctions which are not entirely in keeping with the explicit elements of the myth.

And therefore, the lesson of the tale of Sage Dadhichi teaching the Asvins this rite and being decapitated by Lord Indra – has been turned into a set of generalized prohibitions upon actually transmitting religious knowledge, which take an understandable principle around the caution in how this is done, and then turn it into a generalized set of prohibitions which don’t seem to necessarily derive directly from the original source, but rather the later interpolations of symbolic custom.

But, then, I would say that, wouldn’t I – I am a Corvid, and therefore I am enumerated, in some senses, amidst the list of those whom a teacher should not even look upon when engaged in the sacred acts of instruction [itself a bit of a curious one – as given what is being instructed, one would have thought that the manifestation of Pitrs in Corvid form, as YamaDutas, and the well-renowned Language of the Birds occurrence across several Indo-European mythoreligious complexes, would mean we’d … perhaps know it already – or, at least, be regarded with a little more kindness and renowned amicability/respect 😛 ].

So, there you have it. A few rather important metaphysical principles in explication, as sparked by my reading about the finding of a horse’s head turning up unexpectedly in a bed of eternal rest, as linked to a Godfather.

We shall close with another RigVedic quotation – this time, from an Ashvins hymnal [RV I 116 12] :

” That mighty deed of yours, for gain, O Heroes, as thunder heraldeth the rain, I publish,
When, by the horse’s head, Atharvan’s offspring Dadhyac made known to you the Soma’s sweetness. “


*Note: due to the location of the burial, probably not literally my ancestors

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