Wild Horses

Despite domestication, true wild horses continued to live in Eurasia for the following millennia. I don’t mean the horses in North America that we call wild. These are domesticated horses that escaped human control and went feral. The wild horses of Eurasia had the more robust skeletons, heavier hair, and an almost uncanny skittishness of humans. (One of the traits that was bred into horses was an increasing tolerance of humans.) Forrest reports that wild horses were captured and bred into the more domesticated herds. One mare submitted to a halter but left her foal behind when she fled back into the steppes in early spring. The final wild horse was declared officially extinct in 1969. Who would have guessed it would be so recent?

There are has been an effort to reestablish horses in Mongolia with the Takhi, horses that still bear the genetic signature of the original wild horse breeds,  on the steppes,. This is part of an effort to repopulate the steppes with some of its original inhabitants. Other animals included in this effort are the red maral deer, Mongolian gazelles and argali sheep. Like the original wild horses, these are very wary of human. I suspect that trait may help them survive.

Next: Why horses are important.



More about Horses

As humans began using horses for transport – and war-horses rapidly became very valuable. Forrest quotes a Mitanni horseman as saying a trained horse was worth twice as much as an ox and even an untrained horse twice as much as a cow. For many cultures horses became too valuable to eat. The first talking horse in literature, (in cuneiform dating from the seventh century) the horse says ‘My flesh is not eaten’. He has become too valuable and not just in money. A horse lends prestige.  A trained horse was essential for warfare (the horse is a ‘glorious creature’ clothed in copper armor). Where would the chevalier be without his steed?

By the time of the Old Testament, horses were forbidden flesh.  Romans, who happily consumed dormice and ostriches, would only eat horse meat in extreme poverty. Christians, who moved away from the strict dietary restrictions and ate pork and shrimp, kept the one forbidding horseflesh. There are cultures now who eat them. True. When Christianity moved into pagan German and east to the steppes of Eurasia it moved into territories where the horse had been eaten for centuries. It took a long time to establish the taboo. Among these ‘barbarians’, horses played a mythological role and were sacrificed and eaten as part of the rites. Like the bull in Ancient Crete. horses were divine. After sacrifice they were eaten, partly because it was believed eating sanctified flesh took the divinity and the other attributes of the animal into the human body.

In France, in an effort to encourage eating horseflesh, horse banquets were arranged in the middle 1800s.

To this day, people in some countries such as the U.S. and Great Britain do not eat horse meat. In France, however, horseflesh  turns up on menus, sometimes to the chagrin of a diner whose French is not up to the translation. This happened to a friend who, when she discovered what was on the plate in front of her, went supperless. I share her revulsion even though I will happily consume chicken.I cannot imagine myself eating either horse or dog, the two companions that have shared our journey through history.

Early horses

I picked up a book called The Age of the Horse: an Equine Journey through Human History by Susanna Forrest. It confirmed most of what I remembered from my childhood but also included so much more information. So much I am still trying to organize it in my head. This is what happens in research: one starts on one thread and then is drawn into many different paths.

Eurasia is the only place where the wild horse survived after the last Ice Age. A lot of archaeological digs have taken place here but because of the many milennia that have passed there is a lot of uncertainty about the when of certain milestones. For example: when was the horse truly domesticated?

Besides Forrest, I also looked at some other sources. A Natural History article by Sandra L. Olsen (a zooarchaeologist from Carnegie Mellon)  confirms that after hominids arrived cut marks on the bones made by stone tools begin appearing.

These early horses – and I use the term loosely since there were several different species – shared some common characteristics. Heavy heads, heavy hair and round bellies. Skeletons indicate they did not vary much from one another. There is no recognizable ancestor of the Shire horse or the Arabian. (Of course humans had a hand in creating horse breeds. Once horses were domesticated, humans began selective breeding for favored characteristics).

So the wild horses were hunted first. When were they domesticated? It is thought they were first domesticated – or beginning to be domesticated – about 6000 years ago. Some archaeologists believe a culture called the Botai were the first (although I suspect domestication was one of those jumps forward that took place in many places).  It is hard to know. The arguments rest on interpretation of skeletons and teeth wear. This was the Copper Age but the Botai may not have had copper. Although archaeologists believe the wear on some of the skeletal teeth and jaws indicate use of bits, they were probably from rawhide and no trace of them remains. Proof of bits and bridles, however, means that horses were herded and maybe ridden.

We do know the Botai ate horses. 90% of the bones found at their villages were from horses. The remnants of horse blood and mares’ milk has been found in their pots so some domestication must have occurred.

The Amazing Horse

Although horses are not as important to our civilization as they once were – Will Rees of my Historical murder mystery series – could not have functioned without his horses, they bear a weight of history and myth that is probably greater than a dog’s. And dogs have had a long history as special partners to humans.

When I first began my research for my Bronze Age series, I was astonished to find that horses did not arrive on Crete until sometime in the Middle Bronze Age. There is a picture of a man in one of the one-sailed Cretan ships with a horse in the bow. No one knows if that is actually how horses reached Crete of if the artist was employing creative license. I mean, who doesn’t visualize the amazing chariot race in Ben-Hur (set many hundreds of years later) or even the importance of horses in the Iliad (again later). The giant wooden horse represented a creature so familiar to everyone no even questioned it.

But I digress.

Here’s what I recall from my childhood dinosaur phase. First, the proto horses certainly did not foretell their importance in later millennia. They were small, about the size of a rabbit. But they survived when the mastodons and other enormous mammals did not. Fossils from these early horses have been found in Wyoming. (And in Eurasia where they became extinct.) But how can that be when there were no horses here until they were brought by Europeans? Well, as the climate changed, changing from forest to grasslands, the proto horse changed with it. Four toes evolved into into a large central toe and then into hooves.

Then what happened? They passed over the land bridge from what is now Alaska back to Eurasia – which turned out to be a good thing for these early horses. In North America, the change in climate and fauna brought woodland. Now the land bridge was submerged and they could not escape. So they died out on this continent. But they thrived in Eurasia.

Now fascinated with  this amazing animal, I began researching them, not how they interacted with humans – although I couldn’t really avoid us – and discovered they have a pretty astonishing  history of their own.

Princess Helen

My knowledge of Helen is taken from popular culture: movies, myths and the like. I began to realize that I actually knew very little of the story. I picked up a biography by Bettany Hughes called: Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore.

Very interesting.

One of the things that has always puzzled me is the description of the God Apollo – the sun God. He has blond hair. Why?  This is Greece after all.  Helen is always described as blond. And Menelaus is described as having red hair.

Like all of the countries in Europe, Greece has seen regular influxes of new people. In the Neolithic and Paleolithic such movements populated islands like Crete. But once a area is populated a wave of new people is viewed as an invasion.

The Mycenaeans were one such group. Described by archeologists as an Indo-Duropean culture, they swept onto the Greece mainland and then to Crete. By around 1500 B.C. the pottery and architecture on Crete, although heavily influenced by the Minoans, was now Mycenaean. And they were a warrior patriarchal culture.

But I digress.

These Mycenaeans apparently carried genes for both blond and red hair.

Helen is also described as fair and white-skinned.  Pale skin certainly goes with blond hair, that is true, but I think the association with fair skin and beauty has a much longer history. Both Egyptian and Cretan art color males as reddish-brown. The women, even the bull-leapers wearing loincloths like their male teammates, are white. White lead for the skin has been found in tombs. (So white lead to whiten the skin has a long history – take that Queen Elizabeth I.) Some of the frescos and cult figures show women with that unnaturally white skin. Red circles are painted on their cheeks and chin and the scarlet suns are surrounded by dots.  The research I have done suggests these decorations had some religious meaning but I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

Anyway,  Paintings of Helen right through the Middle Ages portray her with an almost corpse like pallor.  Why is that considered beautiful?  Because she clearly did not toil in the fields?

The other cosmetic used throughout the Mediterranean is kohl. We are familiar with the frescos that show both men and women with the heavy black lines around their eyes. The use of kohl actually had a practical purpose: it protected the eyelids from sunburn and acted as an insect repellent. A recipe for kohl includes charred almond shells, soot, and frankincense. It must have been incredibly sticky. However, it was probably necessary.

In the well-known bust of Nefertiti, one eye is blind. Is the statue damaged? Or is this an accurate representation of Nefertiti? Caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, trachoma is easily spread through direct personal contact, shared towels and cloths, and flies that have come in contact with the eyes or nose of an infected person. If left untreated, repeated trachoma infections can cause severe scarring of the inside of the eyelid and can cause the eyelashes to scratch the cornea (trichiasis). In addition to causing pain, trichiasis permanently damages the cornea and can lead to irreversible blindness.

One other note. Writings from that time, including Homer’s Iliad, describe Helen as ‘shimmering’ and ‘glittering’. Besides the jewelry she wore, Helen would have been dressed in the finest of clothing. According to Hughes, the linen clothing of that time would gave been brushed with olive oil which leaves a shiny residue. So she actually would have glittered. Who knew?


the Minotaur

I’m sure most of us know something about Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s the backstory. The Greeks revered Zeus. Poseidon wanted to be honored too so he sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete. Minos’s wife Parsiphae fell in love with the bull. She tasked Daedalus (yes, the inventor with the wax wings whose son was Icarus) to build a special wooden box in the shape of a cow. Once inside the box, she had intercourse with the bull. Nine months later she bore a half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur.

The myth reeks of patriarchy and a desire to, in modern parlance, throw shade on Cretan beliefs.

First, in Crete Zeus was not the primary God. He was an upstart, more akin to a harvest God, who died and was reborn.

We also don’t know if Crete had a King. Certainly it was a goddess centered, matrilineal culture. Many archeologists have assumed Crete had kings, but for decades these archeologists were men. Men, moreover, who lived with a strongly patriarchal structure. It is possible the Priestess’s consort acted as a wanax, or governor. Kingships came with the Mycenaeans.

Third several ancient cultures revered the bull or, in Indo-Europe the horse. One of the rites was mock intercourse with this symbol of fertility by the Queen/Priestess. This act was supposed to guarantee good crops, lots of livestock and of course healthy children for the coming year.

But what about the Minotaur?

Well, many many ancient and not so ancient cultures employ masks in religious rites. Animals are a frequently the subject.  Is it so far a stretch to believe that the Minotaur is a masked man involved in a religious rite?

Besides painting Theseus as a hero (which I dispute but more about that later), this myth spins Crete as decadent and deserving of conquest. By the Myceneans, naturally.

Bronze Age Crete – High Civilization

Bronze Age Crete is frequently termed Minoan from King Minos. He may or may not be mythical. He is the King in the Theseus story with the Minotaur, the Labyrinth and the ball of string from Ariadne. Minos is reputed to be the King who demanded seven youths and seven maidens from Athens for the bull-leaping ceremonies.

This is Bronze Age Crete refracted through mainland Greek culture, a warlike patriarchal society quite different from the culture on Crete. There was bull-leaping – that’s true – and perhaps bull masks were used to suggest half-man, half-bulls. And the famed labyrinth is now thought to be based on the interlinked dwellings of Crete.

Unlike the mainland towns, the Cretan cities did not have protective walls surrounding them. (They did, however, have an excellent navy). They traded with Egypt as well as the civilizations on Anatolia and opened up trading routes almost to the Black Sea. The archaeological records suggests they were invaded though; Knossos and some of the other cities were sacked and burned more than once. One of the theories regarding the destruction of this wonderful civilization suggestions the explosion of Thera (Santorini) was responsible.

A cultured civilization renowned in the Ancient World for its metal working, art works and frescos, pottery and more, the Cretans also had indoor toilets and bathtubs.The remnants are visible on Akrotiri, a site on a neighboring island buried by ash and now excavated. I am writing about approximately 1450 B.C. but this civilization lasted several hundred years before and after. Such amenities were lost and had to be re-invented thousands of years later.