The dowdiness of steppe horses in no way conforms to their role in the history of civilization. This does happen – the modest appearance conceals the true grandeur from eyes with blinkers on. These little horses have neither grace of Arab horses, nor aristocracy of English breeds, nor strength of big Russian breeds. And if our old friend d’Artagnan went to the arrogant Paris riding the similar horse, he would become a laughing stock in his native Gascon. But…
The riders of death
But just because of these stocky sloggers’ trot the great Eurasia was shaken periodically. From time to time they carried wild hordes of odd, unexpected, and horrible riders somewhere from the infinite Great Steppe, and these riders symbolized impending death and unavoidable calamities for the people of Sunset.
“There before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hell was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine, plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth…”
Thus they took it at the West. But not only this way. Back in the days of the Scythians (long before Huns, Turks, and Mongolians) there emerged in Europe the image of the rider that amalgamated together with his horse – Centaur. Just with these, unrestrained and wild creatures that according to the legend were born by the black cloud, Greeks-Lapiths fought for their wives. But they also taught such great heroes of the ancient world as Heracles and Jason to be wise.
The reality of centaurs was an undisputable fact for ancient Europeans. And in the lands of Asia this “centauric scheme” was an essential form, meaning, and security for existence. A man of the Steppe was born, lived, and died in the perpetual fusion with his horse. And without a horse he wasn’t a human at all. It is not without reason that steppe residents were taught to ride first, and only after this to walk and to speak. And thus they became true centaurs in point of fact.
“They are as if adhered to their horses, sturdy but ugly in appearance…Day and night they spend horseback, sell and buy, eat and drink, and then embrace their horse’s steep neck, fall asleep and sleep so soundly that even have dreams” , wrote Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman author, about Huns.
“As dappled as frozen dew”
Horse’s culture and cult in the Great Steppe is like a song. In nomads’ scale of values the horse was on such a top that all that was left to do for their wives was to be jealous of them. For steppe residents the horse was as important as legs, arms, and head. Not in vain a century ago the blood revenge among Kazakhs, for instance, meant namely to steal horses. And Togons-and-Teleuts of Qaidam (who bred famous dappled horses of the “dragon breed” back in the early Middle Ages) regarded the murder of a horse equal to the murder of a rider. And they punished such criminals by death.
The attitude of the steppe inhabitant towards his four-footed friend was expressed the most eloquently in the number of paints that nomads operated with. In the Chinese sources of the Tang period there mentioned steppe horses of such breeds as “dappled as frozen dew”, “dappled as hanging light”, or “red as running rainbow”.
But Chinese were the long way off to Mongolians. Just like inhabitants of tropical forests in Vietnam identified many dozens of tints of green, and like Chukchi had as many terms to define the state of snow, residents of Central Asian steppes made use of 300 definitions for their horses’ paints!
The victim… of the hind quarters
The centaurism of a steppe resident and indivisibility of the two constituents of his is particularly clearly seen in the peculiarity of the blood vengeance in the Steppe. The horse part of a nomad was often responsible for the affront he put on the human essence. Before barymta had degenerated into the trivial horse-stealing, the driving away of an offender’s horses was a peculiar form of the steppe satisfaction.
And when the human part of a centaur died, his horse part followed him into the nothingness. According to Herodotus, 50 best horses were killed and put into the grave of the Scythian king together with his loyal servants and favourite hetaeras. Backwashes of those sacrifices survived literally to our days.
“Having arrived at the burial place (…), they kill his (the deceased’s) horse, cook the horse’s meat and eat it, and as for its bones, they burn them down right at the grave”, Aleksey Levshin wrote.
And here is one more typical example, which another famous researcher of Kazakh ethnography N.I. Grodekov writes about:
“If a bride complains to her mother that a bridegroom has copulated with her before the wedding, then they will tear his dress and rip his horse’s belly open…”
Although, as it may seem, how does a horse come into the picture?