Significance Of Horses In Zoroastrian Tradition

How, where and when horses were domesticated, is a matter of dispute among scholars and archaeologists. Though horses were carved in Palaeolithic cave-art as early as 30,000 BC, these were probably depictions of wild horses. Most of the available evidence supports the hypothesis that horses were domesticated in the Eurasian Steppes, in approximately 3,500 BC.

Horses In Greek Mythology

The Greek believed that horses were created by Poseidon (God of the sea). They were occasionally sacrificed to him by drowning them. Interestingly, Pegasus (sired by Poseidon) is a constellation in the northern sky, named after the winged horse – Pegasus. It was one of forty-eight constellations listed by the second century astronomer Ptolemy, and is one of the eighty-eight constellations recognised today.

In Greece, horses were used around 1,600 to 1,100 BC, first to pull chariots and later for cavalry. The use of chariots in battle is attested by the epic poet Homer, who mentions that the best horses were fed wheat instead of barley and even given wine to drink. However, horses did not play a major role in Greek warfare until the time of Macedonian king, Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC.)

Sun Divinity Depicted As Horse

Hindus praise the Sun Divinity with the mantra (sacred chant) “Saptāśva rathamārūḍham pracaṁḍam kaśyapātmajam śvēta padmadharam dēvam tam sūryam praṇamāmyaham,” meaning, “Salutations to the Sun Divinity, who rides on a chariot with seven horses, the brightest of lights, son of Sage Kashyapa, and who holds the white lotus flower.” Thus, the Divinity of the Sun, Surya rides his chariot led by seven horses or a single horse with seven heads (representing the seven colours of the rainbow) across the sky, dispelling the demon of darkness.

Ashva is the Sanskrit word for horse, equivalent to Avesta Asp. Just as Ashva is referred to in the Veda of the Hindus, Aspa is referred to in various Zoroastrian scriptures including the Khurshed Niyaes (litiny to the Sun) where we chant, “Khorshed amarg rayōmand aurvad-asp be-rasād,” meaning, “May the immortal, brilliant and the swift-footed aurvad-asp (Horse-Sun) i.e., Khurshed Yazata come (to my help)! Here the Divinity of the sun is depicted as brilliant and swift as a horse.


Sri Aurobindo, in ‘Secret of the Veda’, argues that Asva may not always denote the horse. He postulated that the words Asva and Asvavati symbolize energy. Energy is all around us and comes from many sources. However, one of the most important sources of energy is the sun, which is the original source of most energy found on earth. Hence, depicting the sun as Asva or energy, seems most appropriate.

Even today, we refer to output of an engine in terms of horsepower. Horsepower is a unit of power and power describes how fast energy is exchanged; a use of energy divided by how long it takes to use that energy.

In religious lore, horse symbolises strength and vigour. In fact, various Divinities are known to take the form of a horse. The Bahram Yasht enumerates ten forms in which Bahram Yazata appears and one of them is the form of a white horse and a muzzle of gold. In the Tir Yasht, Tishtrya (Tir Yazata) is seen to be in a cosmic battle against the drought-bringing demon Apaosha. While Tishtrya is depicted in the form of a white stallion with yellow ears and golden armour, Apaosha is depicted as a black stallion. As per legend, a white stallion stood over infant Zarathushtra and protected him from harm when he was thrown in the path of stampeding wild horses.

Avan Yazata and Sarosh Yazata are depicted in the Avesta as riding a chariot of four swift white horses.

In ancient Zoroastrian Iran, those belonging to the class of warrior were called Rathaeshtār, which literally means, “one standing on a (horse drawn) chariot”.

Importance Of Horse In Ancient Iran

Zoroastrians consider the horse as a beneficent animal (Gospand). Herodotus, regarded the ‘Father of History’, records that during Achaemenian times (around 500 BC), Persian children were taught, from age five, to speak the truth, ride a horse and use the bow and arrow.

In imperial Achaemenid ideology, knowledge of horsemanship was a requirement for the legitimization of the claim to the throne, since it displayed both, might and military valour. This is evident in Darius’ self-presentation, in the inscription at Naqsh-i-Rustam, on the façade of his tomb: “As a horseman, I am a good horseman (asabâra uvâsabâra amiy). As a bowman, I am a good bowman both afoot and on horseback (asabâra). As a spearman I am a good spearman both afoot and on horseback (asabâra).”

Kings and paladins of ancient Iran had their favourite horse. Rustom Pehlavan’s horse was Rakhsh, who was both faithful and very intelligent, saving Rustom from impending danger on several occasions. Behzad was the favourite horse of Shah Kai-khushru of the Kaian dynasty, while Shabdiz was the favourite horse of the Sasanian King, Khushru Purviz. At Taq-e-Boustan in Kermanshah, one can see the stone sculpture of King Khushru Purviz mounted on his horse Shabdiz in full battle gear.

Horses were used during the Achaemenian dynasty not only in battle, but also for relaying messages over the vast empire. Herodotus wrote: “There is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers, by the Persians’ skilful contrivance. It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey. These are stopped neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed. The first rider delivers his charge to the second, the second to the third, and thence it passes on from hand to hand, even as in the Greek torch-bearers’ race in honour of Hephaestus.”

Horse Sense

Asp or Aspaao also refers to our senses. In the eighteenth verse of Yasna forty-four, Asho Zarathushtra asks Ahura Mazda to reward him with ‘ten mares, one stallion and a camel’ (Dasaa aspaao arshnavaitish ushtremchaa). Dr. Irach Taraporewalla, in his monumental work, ‘The Divine Songs of Zarathushtra’, states: “The crux of this verse is in line 3, the ‘ten mares, accompanied by a stallion and a camel’ (Dasaa aspaao arshnavaitish ushtremchaa). Such is the ‘reward’ Zarathushtra is anxious to earn ‘through Asha’ (Truth); and after receiving this reward he hopes to understand what Perfection and Immortality might mean, and these he hopes to bring to all mankind.”

Taraporewalla cites the Kathopanishad, where the senses are called horses. He accordingly postulates that the reference to Dasaa aspaao in the Gatha is to the ten senses (five of perception and five of action) and the mind, as the Stallion.

Thus, what Asho Zarathushtra is asking for in the Gatha is control over his ten senses (symbolically referred to as ten mares) and the mind (symbolically referred to as a stallion), in order to lead himself and all mankind to a perfect eternal life, in the Divine Light of Ahura’s Truth!

Even the legend of Zarathushtra curing Shah Vistaspa’s horse, Asp-e-siha (black stallion), seems to be an allegory with deeper meaning. According to the legend, when Zarathushtra was imprisoned by the King on false charges by his cunning and insecure courtiers, the four legs of his horse, Asp-e-siha, got embedded in its stomach and no one could heal this horse. Zarathushtra offered to heal the horse and succeeded not only in healing the horse but also in proving his innocence. A mystical interpretation of this legend is Asho Zarathushtra succeeding in healing or illuminating the darkness of Shah Vistaspa’s mind.

Horse owners, riders and trainers often talk about the amazing bond between a horse and its human friend and the mutual respect and trust both develop for each other. Zoroastrians have known and experienced this since thousands of years!

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