The ‘Horse’ nomenclature is particularly overt when we turn to Hengist & Horsa – the latter being so clear as to not require translation, whilst the former effectively means ‘Stallion’.
So, ‘Stallion’ and ‘Horse’, then. At least in the British chronicles upon the subject. Other accounts from further into the Germanosphere differ somewhat upon this score – some naming only Hengist, and others identifying various other pairs of ‘Hero-Twins’ Who act in seemingly similar roles in the leadership and leading to new homelands of Their respective peoples. These include the Ibor (sometimes Ybor) and Aio or Aggi and Ebbi of the Lombards, and the Alcis twins of the Naharvali mentioned in Tacitus’ Germania. The last pair are explicitly cited by Tacitus as being equivalent to Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, in the Interpretatio Romana rubric of the day.
Unfortunately, the extant state of the various Germanic mythologies in question is fragmentary at best, and we are forced to extrapolate considerably from what we know of the Hero Twins from other Indo-European sources in order to gain more than the merest glimpse of these figures via the secondary materials that we have to hand. Thank The Gods – and, of course, the Brahmins – for the preservation of The Vedas and other such materials which make even this comparative reconstructive framework possible!
That being said, I do think there is some probative value in taking a look at what one of these secondary sources in particular has to say upon Hengist and Horsa. That being Nennius’ History of the Britons, written in the 9th century by a man of Celtic origins apparently living rather outside of the (spear)pointedly Germanic sphere then-extant in Britain. The reason for this, is because Nennius’ account shows us something which we do not so often see in our Indo-European canonical materials from elsewhere – namely, the Hero-Twins from the other side of the fence. As enemies, adversaries, underhanded backstabbers, usurpers, cruel conquerors and villainous vanquishers – rather than as allies, comrades, wise counsellors, righteous regents, courageous commanders and valiant warriors. That is to say in Nennius’ chronicle (and the subsequent British works which are based closely thereupon – including more than a few King Arthur retellings) , we get to see the Horse-Twins almost from a non-Indo-European perspective. That of the ‘targets’, that of the ‘enemies’, that of the ‘prey’.
The only other instance I can think of where this happens in its most extreme form – not presenting the Horse-Twins as merely opposed to one’s group in this particular instance, but still nevertheless part of the Pantheon and relevant to one’s own Indo-European cultural descendant – occurs in the Zoroastrian corpus … wherein we find mention amidst the lists of particularly hated demons of the feared ‘Nanghaithya’. This is clearly the fruits of the same process which turned Indra and Rudra into foremost ‘Daevas’ [itself a distortion and inversion of meaning from ‘Deva’ , ‘Deus’ – i.e. ‘God’ – to ‘Demon’], or the (Proto-)Sanskrit ‘Sena’ (‘Army’ – in this context, our Army) into the Zoroastrian ‘Haena’ [‘Enemy Army’, Raiders, Thing To Run Away From]; and represents the Zoroastrian recollection of a time when the Wrath of the Gods and the Gods’ human worshippers was a great scourge upon their woefully misbegotten heresy.
Hence, just as Hengist and Horsa, the Helper/Hero Twins of the Germanics are presented by Nennius as malefic and malign in relation to the Britons … so, too, are the Vedic Nasatyas portrayed (oddly enough in the singular) as the direly demonic foe of the Zoroastrians. Because, you see, they remember.
But to return to these secondary perspectives upon Hengist and Horsa … what is it which they actually tell us about the Twins?
Well, for a start, the differential between the names [‘Stallion’ versus ‘Horse’] is potentially significant – Hengist tends to be singled out as being the greater and more chiefly figure of the two. There is some potential precedency for this amidst the Greek presentations of the Dioscuri, wherein in some (but importantly, not all – and with the ‘opposing view’ preserved amidst the oldest texts that we have available to us) tellings, it is only one of the Dioscuri Who is ‘properly’ Divine, the other effectively being something of a ‘half-brother’. We shall discuss this in more depth and detail in the next part of the series, but suffice to say that while this would partially accord with one brother being greater than the other in the Nordic reckoning (or, indeed, in just about any other) – it is my belief that the ‘split paternity’ for the Dioscuri is a later interpolation. It occurs neither with the Asvins [despite some recent academic attempts to infer otherwise based upon a single word in a single RigVedic Verse’s misapprehension] nor with Hengist and Horsa.
However, the question of ‘paternity’ is an interesting one – for the consistent feature of these generally heavily euhemerized accounts of the Germanic Twins is that They are regarded as being grandsons, even great (…) grandsons of Odin – Who is Himself occasionally presented as being a mortal ruler, albeit of ultimately divine ancestry. Now it is important to note that this is not really a significant divergence from our Indo-European Horse-Twin typology. The patrilineal descent from the Sky Father is still in-tact – it has just been ‘extended’ in generational terms from one of direct paternity, to a more ‘grand'(parent) ancestral relationship.
The reasons for this difference are pretty clear to see. The chronicles which we have access to were prepared by Christian writers, often with a vested interest in ‘de-mysticizing’ and ‘disenchanting’ the world around them. At least as applies the Gods of their adversaries. So Odin becomes a mere human tribal chieftain of the yet-more-distant past, whilst the Horse Twins go from (demi-)gods to particularly gifted men of perhaps slightly more recent antiquity.
And that imposition of a time – a specific time – and place for the Horse Twins is also important. For it is part and parcel not only of the euhemerization, the de-sacralization of Myth into mundanity – but an important part of making the events and personages in question relevant for the chronicler’s own culture and the story which they are trying to tell.
It is, you might say, a co-option and an appropriation from the mythology of one culture (in this case, the invader) so as to provide a fitting (if ‘fittingly’ depowered) bete-noir for the emerging human-authored popular/national mythology of another. And, in the process, turning Gods Who are implicitly ‘above’ petty human conceits of ordinary time and space, capable of appearing amidst Their people(s) as They see fit … into figures just as constrained by these dimensions as the rest of us. It had to be, in order to be plausible for the audience.
Which represents a marked contrast with the Classical era – wherein the Greeks had no such trouble believing that The Helping Hero-Twins had appeared from On High to personally aid Their People in military matters (and we have a number of historical occasions upon which this was said to have occurred) … yet evidently, a thousand years later in Northern Europe, such enthusiasm, piety (or, if you prefer, ‘credulity’) was in far shorter supply.
In any case, the various accounts prominent in Britain affix the Horse Twins to the mid-400s AD, and portray Them as leading figures amidst the Saxons of the day. Now, whether this is a case of a ‘syncretic mythology’ having been generated which seeks to introduce more authentically mythological elements into the folk-remembrance of (pseudo)historical events, or whether it is a case of there actually having been two Saxon brother-chieftains bearing the names and the deeds in question perhaps in overt imitation of the real Horse Twins, or indeed whether the real Horse Twins did appear among the Saxons in Britain all those centuries ago … who can say. All we can do is look at what has been passed down to us, and how this aligns with the broader Indo-European typology which we have been establishing.
Which has, of course, emphasized certain aspects to the Helping Hero Twins’ expression, while de-emphasizing or even outright omitting others. We therefore do not find mention of an overt mastery of medical charms or the resurrection of the dead, for instance. And why would we – these are not things likely to have been witnessed by the adversary, yet which would have been much more abundantly recollected by the People who had benefited directly or indirectly therefrom. They also would have conflicted somewhat with the ‘euhemeric’ and ‘disenchanted’ / ‘de-mysticized’ presentation of the Horse Twins. Still, some of these mythic touchstones nevertheless live on in altered format – the facility with magical potions may be recollected in Hengist and Horsa’s utilization of alcohol to accomplish the outcomes which They require. The beseeched bestowal of guidance and wit and wisdom to the Folk finding echo in the early relationship of Hengist and the Briton leader Vortigern. You get the idea.
The precise manner of Hengist & Horsa’s help involves three not unrelated elements – the application of cunning and intelligence, violence and threat, and capacious quantities of alcohol. The beneficiaries, particularly of the first two, are the Germanic people arriving in England during the rule of King Vortigen – and then, following just such a convivial, alcohol-lubricated entente, King Vortigen himself; to whom Hengist declares that should he follow His counsel, “you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever” [Nennius’ History of the Britons, Chapter 38]. This fits, again, with what we know of the Horse-Twins from the Vedic account – wherein They are most certainly capable of fighting directly, but also work most expeditiously by providing advice and counsel to guide figures They favour to triumph.
Of course, the tale of the relationship between Vortigern and Hengist also shows the other side of things, as well. After their entente breaks down due to the intervention of an ironically named Christian bishop ‘Germanus’, a protracted conflict ensues which costs Vortigern both of his sons – and Hengist His Brother Horsa. But Vengeance and Victory is ultimately to be Hengist’s. For He feigns interest in a peace deal, and invites Vortigern and his men to a feast in order to ratify same – as it turns out, in blood. The plan is to get the Britons drunk, and then at a pre-arranged signal [Hengist’s loud shout of ‘Nimed eure Saxes’ – ‘Get your Knives!’], the Saxons shall make use of the blades they have cunningly smuggled in to the festivities by concealing them under their feet. Interestingly, the familial linkage of Hengist to Vortigern (via the latter having wed Hengist’s daughter earlier, something also reportedly facilitated via Hengist’s influencing of Vortigern via alcohol and ‘the instigation of the devil’ per Nennius) is invoked by Hengist as a reason not to visit similar fate upon Vortigern as inflicted to three hundred of his nobles that night – along with the fact that the now-captive king can ransom his freedom by providing significant bounty and lands to the Saxons that they should otherwise have to fight to attain. As I say – Violence AND Cunning !
Nennius’ chronicle, however, then takes a curious turn; and has the aforementioned St Germanus again intercede to propel Christian values. This is done at first by having the Saxon army routed into the sea via the power of (Christian) prayer alone ; and then by having Vortigern’s castle where the latter has taken refuge along with Hengist’s daughter, being razed by heavenly fire conjured by Germanus et co praying and fasting for three days outside its walls.
It would be tempting to read this as simple triumphalism – ‘cope’ we would nowadays call it – on the part of a defeated people on the back foot. Or a surface expression of the religious dimension to the Germanic-Celtic/Christian conflict which Hengist and Horsa have become irreducibly tied to in the ‘folk history’ of the matter. That is to say, that Christianity is inserted into the narrative as a means to provide some simulacrum of ‘victory’ to the victims of the Horse-Twins’ onslaught-insurgent campaign.
But I think that there is something deeper going on. Something which does, indeed, have the ring of ‘truth’ to it – at least in symbolic, if perhaps even ‘mythic’ terms.
For you see, what’s happening in these twin episodes [detailed in chapter 47 of Nennius’ History of the Britons], is a metaphorical recollection of the Christianization of the oncoming Germanics. The notion of a Saxon army being routed into the sea via mere prayer alone is … unlikely. But the notion of the Saxons stopping to be, in the essentialized and mythic sense, the Saxons (by which I mean truly ‘Germanic’ in their religious belief) as the result of the compulsive power of Christian civilization? That seems more likely. It is their ‘Saxon-ness’, not the Saxons, which has fled off into the Sea. The ‘Mer de Noms’ wherein Proto-Indo-European ‘Mer’ is doing its double-duty as both ‘body of water’ and ‘death’.
And similarly, while we are quite well acquainted with the notion of Priests gathering together, carrying out pious rites, and fire raining down to suitably obliterate the foe, here in the Hindusphere [it occurs several times in the RigVeda, for a start] … I am not sure that this is best read as a ‘literal’ account of the fate befalling Vortigern’s castle. Instead, it is the symbolic vanquishing of those Briton [that is to say, ‘Celtic’] elements who had either themselves directly remained ‘in touch’ with their own religious heritage, or were fine making accomodation and ‘backsliding’ via the new reintroduction of Indo-European religion as an active concept by the invading Germanics. We find some measure of support for this in the manner in which Germanus (accompanied by “all the British clergy”) keeps showing up proximate to Vortigern – rebuking the latter for his disregarding of Christian conduct (said disregard being represented, in part, via Vortigern’s incestuous relationship with his own daughter), and for being under the “instigation of the devil” when he is under the influence of the Horse Twins. But I digress.
There is one further element of some interest in Nennius’ History of the Britons, for our purposes here; and that is contained in this line:
“But Hengist, in whom united craft and penetration, perceiving he had to act with an ignorant king, and a fluctuating people, incapable of opposing much resistance, replied to Vortigern, “We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us leave, we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight for you and your subjects.” Vortigern assenting to this proposal, messengers were despatched to Scythia, where selecting a number of warlike troops, they returned with sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist.”
Why is this interesting? Because look at where Hengist is summoning His best warriors from – and also where His daughter is to be found. “Our Country”, for the Horse-Twins, appears to quite directly mean “Scythia”.
It would be inordinately tempting to write this off as being the result of some mere monkish sustained geographical ignorance on the part of the writer. Presuming that, as occurs at various other points in Christian documentation, that ‘Scythia’ simply means whatever furthest-flung barbarian wilderness the writer may happen to imagine. ‘Beyond the Pale’, ‘The Sticks’ [if not, perhaps, ‘The Styx’ – Cimmerians, perhaps, notwithstanding], ‘The Outer Darkness’, ‘The Wild West’ … you get the idea.
Except that doesn’t really hold up upon close analysis. Nennius most definitely does know that the Saxons are not ordinarily from Scythia. We can tell this, because he repeatedly has the main bodies of recurrent men for the Germanic invaders coming from “Germany”. It’s only this one specific instance of Hengist’s daughter and what we can probably surmise to be some of the better (and Household) troops available to the Horse-Twins, that features the ‘Our Country’ origin-point of Scythia.
It’s possible, of course, that Nennius was drawing upon Scythia’s customary horse-warrior associations in Classical texts when conceiving of a strange and almost otherworldly ‘origin point’ for the Horse-Twins, yet this does not seem especially compelling in light of the historical evidence from the Germanic peoples’ own texts [as pointed out to me by my colleague, Tristan Powers]. Which place ‘Hreidgotaland’ – the ‘Land of the Riding Goths’ – in Eastern Europe, amidst the general vicinity of, or later right on top of, Scythia.
We find multiple points of ‘triangulation’ for this amidst both the Nordic sagas detailing the conflict with the Huns occurrent in this area, and the work of Jordannes (himself a Goth in ethnic origin, albeit rather removed from the matter by both time and ‘civilization’) concerning the Gothic southward migration through to Scythia. There is even archaeological support for Germanic peoples moving into the area of modern Poland and then south to the Black Sea in the time period in question [from the 1st to the 4th centuries A.D.; the Wielbark and then Chernyakhov cultures, respectively]; and we further know of strong Germanic presence in the area following the collapse of Atilla’s Hun confederacy in the mid-400s. Which is, subject to the rather .. variable dating for Hengist and Horsa’s exploits in Britain given by Nennius, exactly when we are talking about; and, given the alleged successes of these Goths against the retreating Huns occurring specifically in this area, exactly where we should be expecting to find some seriously (mass) battle-hardened Germanic warriors.
All of which together means that when Nennius states that Hengist and Horsa were bringing over family and quality troops from Scythia in the late 400s, we have no reason to disbelieve him. On the contrary, we have considerable reason TO believe him. Because each of the sources we can draw upon serves to confirm the plausibility of what he has said, in the manner that he has said it. Upon this particular score, at least. Which may perhaps lend some potential heft to a reading of Hengist and Horsa as being historical human individuals.
Or, mythic individuals, divine individuals, appearing in human shape. Which also segues to how part of me would have liked to interpret the reference to Scythia. That is to say, as the Horse-Twins being fundamentally, foundationally Indo-European deities – Brothers to the Progenitor Twins Man(n)us and Yama – and similarly irreducibly linked to the Indo-European People(s) as our teachers, our guardians, and our allies. And therefore, hailing also from the Proto-Indo-European Urheimat. Which we now know in the modern day to be broadly commensurate with the area known in antiquity as Scythia. So, therefore, Hengist and Horsa having home and hearth and household there would align with this – would entail that when They came to the aid of the Germanics in Britain, that They had stepped, as it were, out of our own archaic past and ancestral sphere to be with Their People in the then-contemporary time of need. There is something powerful in that, to be sure – but it is simply my personal ‘poetic’ reading of things; and is unnecessary somewhat in light of the evidence supporting a more ‘solidly’ historical meaning.
In any case, the accounts of Hengist and Horsa are remarkable. Not so much because of the manner in which They have been transposed to the role of pseudo-demonic villains by Their victim-peoples. But rather precisely because even this curious combination of euhemericism and demonization has been unable to erase the essential narrative nature and characteristics of Who and What They Actually Are. Myth, as we say, myth finds a way.
The various more overtly ‘mythic’ elements may have been discarded, de-emphasized, or simply never heard about by the chroniclers in question in the first place. Yet somehow, the difference between what we do see in these accounts, and what we should expect to see, is not so great. In the latter case, it would be two Sons of the Sky Father Who have profoundly impressive powers to bestow wisdom, the victory-granting elixir, and aid one’s circumstances as a people upon the field of war. In the former case, it is two pagan noblemen, several generations removed from any direct ‘divine’ descent (which is, in any case, presented virtually as being ‘demonic’ by Nennius), unquestionably martially capable, who advance their people’s aims via clever diplomacy, profound violence, cunning subversion and malign manipulation, as well as the strategic employment of the beguilement of alcohol and/or the persuasive powers entailed in the “instigation of the devil”.
The only real difference – the only real difference worth commenting upon and taking at face value, at any rate – is in the perspective. One is a slanderous vilification which yet cannot manage to quite dim the inherent nobility (indeed, Divinity) of the Horse-Hero-Twins. The other is a mythic understanding, continually reinvigorated and reinfused by subsequent revelation and the revanchism of our heritage. It is amazing what modern comparative analysis is able to facilitate in this particular regard. When the Horse-Twins ride forth again in the current age – it shall almost certainly be with Their Teaching aspect of great relevancy. ‘Knowledge’, as we can see from the Vedic Asvins, is an incredibly powerful weapon. And wise counsel, guidance, as we can see from the Germanic Hengist and Horsa, is the same.
As Hengist Himself puts it:
“I will be to you both a father and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust”
That, then, is the Indo-European Way: Listen to The Gods (in this case, the Heroic Helping Horse Twins), and Triumph. Or, as the example of Vortigern shows – betray Them at your peril.