Equine Poetics

I’d like to provide an overview of my current research project, a book length study of several aspects of the debt that Greek literature owes to inherited ideologies and artistic methodologies that have to do with horses and horsemanship in the Indo-European world. The importance of the horse to the development and movement of the Indo-European peoples is, of course, a famously well-worn topic and one that holds a central place in Indo-European studies. My ambition is not to rewrite that research itself but to apply it to particular problems and texts in Greek literature, especially poetry, that may be aided by this sort of analysis.

The first section deals with Homeric equine formulaics. It is an analysis of the behavior of oral formulas involving horses, beginning with ὠκέες ἵπποι. The history of this phrase and of ἵπποι in particular has been well studied, of course, and the Indo-Iranian parallels, Sanskrit āśávas áśvās and Avestan āsauuō aspåŋhō, make the PIE ancestry of the phrase a near certainty. I am not, however, as interested in the phrase’s deepest antiquity, as I am in elucidating the avenues through which the phrase survived in Greek poetry throughout its phonetic developments. This requires a view extending beyond this formula itself to all formulas of similar meaning, of which there are several. Ultimately, I am interested in identifying a shared history of many of these formulas, in showing that several of them (including the enigmatic epithet of Hades, κλυτόπωλος) developed as a network that becomes visible when viewed through the lens of historical linguistics and oral theory.

The second section deals with Greek horse mythology, with special attention to the connection between horse and hero in Greek myth that is embedded in the famous PIE horse sacrifice ritual. There is a line to be traced from PIE ritual practice to the mythopoetic treatment of human-horse parallelism, and hippomorphism in Greek myth. The importance of human-horse identification to Greek sacrificial myth can be seen both in representations of human sacrifices, such as Achilles’ slaughter of the twelve Trojan youths along with several horses, and those in which an equine substitute is employed for a human, such as the sacrifice of a horse instead of a young woman in Plutarach’s Life of Pelopidas.

Finally, I examine an array of inherited poetic devices that deal with charioteering. The exact organization of this section is still in flux, but topics that will be included are the evolution of the chariot race as marriage ritual, the meta-poetics of charioteering, and an exploration of the potential economic connection between horses and poetry. These are all fruitful avenues of cross-cultural analysis because of uniquely relevant evidence for each topic that if furnished by early Indo-Iranian poetry. The metaphor of poet as charioteer, for example, is particularly common in Rgvedic and Avestan poetry and evidence can be found in each for the giving of horses as short-hand for poetic payment. Several passages from Homer should benefit from this study, but the biggest pay-off should come in Pindar.