M: The limbs are bent; the skull shows traces of violence. You find yourself wondering what could have happened to this horse. Was it involved in a conflict? A crime perhaps? Actually, it’s neither.
F: What you see here is a 7th century horse burial. It was excavated in 1959, at a burial site near the town of Beckum in the eastern Münsterland region. A famous, lavishly appointed princely tomb was discovered at the same burial ground. We’ll come back to that later.
M: The relationship between horses and humans has always been special. But more than 5,000 years ago, it underwent a profound change. People began to tame wild horses – and they became one of humanity’s most important companion animals. The horse could be ridden, but it was also a working animal. It gave people mobility and made working in the fields efficient. Horses went along to war and gave their rider status and fame.
F: Horses also played an important role in religion. In the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote about how the Germanic peoples treated their horses:
M: "It is a custom peculiar to the Germans to pretend to ascertain insights from the premonitions and manner of sacred horses. These animals, milk-white, are pastured in the same sacred groves and woods in which the gods are worshipped. The priests consider themselves, alone, as ministering to the gods, and the horses as privy to divine knowledge.”
F: Horses were regarded as intermediaries between human beings and the divine, and were said to have supernatural powers. To appease the gods, “valuable” horses were offered as sacrifices. They also accompanied the dead on their journey to the afterlife.
M: Evidence of that is provided by the numerous early medieval horse burials. According to the Germanic faith, a dead man had to fight many battles on his way to Valhalla. And who better to accompany him, than his faithful war horse? But only wealthy or noble warriors were buried with their horses. The higher the social rank, the more horses were included in the burial.
F: An impressive example of this rite is provided by the princely tomb at Beckum. We don’t yet know for certain which culture this warrior is from. But he must have had high social status, because his grave was richly furnished with weapons and other valuable grave goods. Several horse skeletons like this one were found in the area immediately surrounding the princely tomb. The animals were buried standing upright, and sometimes the head was placed in a hollow that was specially dug for the purpose. This horse was probably killed next to, or inside, the pit and buried without grave goods.
M: And then there’s the horse's head! Among the Germanic tribes, the head was sometimes severed and displayed on a stake. People believed the horse's head would protect them from harm and from evil spirits. You may remember the fairy tale "The Goose Girl" by the Brothers Grimm. It features the severed head of a horse called Fallada that hangs above the town gate – and talks.
F: If you look up, you’ll see several ornamental gables. They consist of intersecting wooden boards with carved horse’s heads. Many farmhouses in Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Westphalia still feature them even now. They’re meant to protect the house and the people who live in it, and bring good luck. But the decorative gables also had a very practical effect. They shielded the gable edges from wind and weather.
© Illustrationen Sabine Krauss
© Westfälisches Pferdemuseum
© Westfälisches Pferdemuseum