October Horse Sacrifice

October Horse Sacrifice

Type of Holiday: Ancient
Date of Observation: October 15
Where Celebrated: Rome, Italy
Symbols and Customs: Blood, Horse's Head
Related Holidays: Parilia

ORIGINS

In ancient Rome, a two-horse chariot race was held in the Campus Martius (Field of Mars) on October 15. After the race was over, the right-hand horse of the winning chariot was killed with a spear as a sacrifice to Mars, the god of war. The HORSE ' S HEAD was cut off first, and decorated with a necklace of loaves or cakes. Then there was a battle between the inhabitants of two different quarters of the city to see who could seize the head and hang it up in a place where everyone could see it. Meanwhile, the horse's tail, still dripping with BLOOD , was rushed to the king's house, where the blood was allowed to drip on the sacred hearth. The rest of the blood was preserved until April 21, when the PARILIA (a festival in honor of Pales, the protector of shepherds and their flocks) was held. It would then be burned as part of a purifying ceremony, and both men and animals would leap over the fire.

Scholars find the beginnings of ancient Roman religion in the sixth century B . C . E . Roman religion dominated Rome and influenced territories in its empire until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the third century C . E . Ancient Roman religion was heavily influenced by the older Greek religion. Roman festivals therefore had much in common with those of the ancient Greeks. Not only were their gods and goddesses mostly the same as those in the Greek pantheon (though the Romans renamed them), but their religious festivals were observed with similar activities: ritual sacrifice, theatrical performances, games, and feasts.

Many of the rituals associated with the October Horse Sacrifice have their roots in ancient agricultural customs. Horse racing was a common activity on farms at certain seasons of the year, and a wreath-similar to the necklace of loaves-was often hung around the neck of the winning horse. The men and women who worked on the farm also raced against each other in pursuit of a calf, a kid, a sheep, or some other animal believed to represent the corn-spirit or goddess of vegetation.

While there is strong evidence that the October Horse Sacrifice was originally an agricultural fertility rite, some scholars believe that it was more of a military rite, designed to purify the army when it returned from its summer campaign. The fact that a horse was sacrificed (as opposed to an ox or some other farm animal) would seem to support this theory, since horses were closely linked to war in ancient times. It is also possible that what started out as a fertility rite later developed into a martial one, with army horses taking the place of farm horses. In any case, the blood, the hearth, and the necklace of loaves hung around the horse's head all have strong associations with the fertility of the fields.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Blood

The blood of the sacrificed horse was a symbol of life. When dripped on the sacred hearth or burned in the fires of the PARILIA, it was believed to purify and ward off evil. Anyone who breathed in the smoke of the fire in which the blood had been scattered would therefore gain new life and strength and avoid the evil forces that might otherwise hinder survival.

Horse's Head

The horse's head represents the corn-spirit. In ancient times, it was common after the harvest was over to hang up some object in a prominent place on the farm or in the village-usually a bunch of corn or flowers-and call it by the name of an animal. Eventually a real animal's head was used for the same purpose. Hanging a necklace of loaves around the horse's head showed that it was an object that possessed the power to make the fields more fertile.

FURTHER READING

Fowler, W. Warde. The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic. New York: Macmillan Co., 1925. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

October Horse Sacrifice

October 15
In ancient Rome, a chariot race was held in the Field of Mars on October 15. After the race was over, the right-hand horse of the winning chariot was killed as a sacrifice to Mars. The head was cut off first, and there was a fight between the inhabitants of two different quarters of the city to see who could seize the head and place it in a designated spot. As soon as the tail was cut off, it was rushed to the king's hearth so that the blood would fall on the hearth. The rest of the blood was preserved until April 21, when it was mixed with other blood in a special ceremony and given to shepherds to burn, since they believed that the smoke would purify their flocks ( see Parilia).
The symbolic elements of the October Horse Sacrifice—the race, the choice of the right-hand horse, the blood, the hearth, and the necklace of loaves that was hung around the horse's head—all have strong associations with fertility. Although the horse sacrifice may have started out as a fertility rite, it later became a martial one.
SOURCES:
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 811
DictRomRel-1996, p. 168
FestRom-1981, p. 193
OxYear-1999, p. 415