Welcome, dear readers, as always.

Two weeks ago or so, I was working on the posting which I called “Horsing Around”, all about white horses in The Lord of the Rings (uploaded 5 April).

Among the horses which I mentioned was Theoden’s Snowmane.

(Joon Tulikoura)

The other horses, including Shadowfax,

(Angus McBride)

seem to have weathered the last tense moments of the War of the Ring and survived.  Snowmane, however, was a different matter:

“But Snowmane wild with terror stood up on high, fighting with the air, and then with a great scream he crashed upon his side:  a black dart had pierced him.  The King fell beneath him.”  (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 6, “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields”)

(Craig J. Spearing)

Because he had fallen in battle, even though his fall had brought down Theoden, Snowmane was honored with a mound, like those of the Rohirric kings which lined the approach to Edoras,

adding to it

“a stone upon which was carved in the tongues of Gondor and the Mark:

Faithful servant yet master’s bane,

Lightfoot’s foal, swift Snowmane.”

And so the association of Rohan, white horse, and death, had stuck with me for the next week or two.  And then I came upon this:

“In Anglo-Saxon times the natives of Worcestershire and Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, and many other counties, would have told anyone who asked that they lived in the Mark, and also their own particular Shire:  names and at once both ancient and modern, indeed unchanging.  As for the white horse this is the emblem of the Mark, like Bree and the Barrow-downs it lies less than a day’s walk from Tolkien’s study, and the White Horse of Uffington,

cut into the chalk a short stroll from the great Stone Age barrow of Wayland’s Smithy.”   


(Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien:  Author of the Century, 92)

(Shippey mentions the White Horse as the boundary marker for the Mark again in The Road to Middle-earth, 132.)

Although he doesn’t draw a direct parallel, I think that the suggestion here is that the Uffington White Horse might have been an inspiration for Tolkien for the emblem of the Rohirrim,

(Matthew Stewart)

as it is for the area of England which includes the counties Shippey mentions in his list (which would have also been included in what is known as Anglo-Saxon Mercia, itself a Latin form of Old English Marc.)

If  you’re not familiar with it, the White Horse is a huge (360 feet—110 metres–long) image cut into a chalky hillside about a 30-minute drive south from Oxford.

The latest dating of the site places it between 1380 and 550BC and it may be linked to the image on pre-Roman coins—

(for a cheerful brief article on the Horse, see:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/3000-year-old-uffington-horse-looms-over-english-countryside-180963968/ )

This horse appears to have been an inspiration for other horses cut in hillsides, like the Cherhill horse, cut in 1780,

like that at Osmington, created in 1802,

or, at late as 1999, the Devizes White Horse, a celebration of the Millenium.

No one knows why the horse was originally cut into the hillside at Uffington—one theory is that it’s a tribute to the sun-chariot and its horse

(possibly a representation, possibly just a chariot warrior?  2nd century BC)

as seen in the so-called “Trundholm sun chariot” of c.1400BC—

(for a 360 degree view of this and more on the chariot, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trundholm_sun_chariot )

One might also wonder about the description of a kingship ceremony celebrated in Celtic Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in his 12th-century Topographia Hibernica:

Est igitur in boreali et ulteriori Ultonite parte, scilicet

apud. Kenelcunuil, gens quaedam, quae barbaro

nimis et abominabili ritu sic sibi regem creare solet.

Collecto in unum universo terrae illius populo, in medium

producitur jumentum candidum. Ad quod sublimandus

ille non in principem sed in beluam, non in

regem sed exlegem, coram omnibus bestialiter accedens,

non minus – impudenter quam imprudenter se quoque

bestiam profitetur. Et statim jumento interfecto, et

frustatim in aqua decocto, in eadem aqua balneum ei

paratur. Cui insidens, de carnibus illis sibi allatis,

circumstante populo suo et convescente, comedit ipse.

De jure quoque quo lavatur, non vase aliquo, non manu,

sed ore tantum circumquaque haurit et bibit. Quibus

ita rite, non recte completis, regnum illius et dominium

est confirmatum.

“There is, therefore, a certain people in a northern and remote part of Ireland, that is at Kenelcunuil [glossed as Tirconnel, modern Donegal], which is accustomed to create a king for itself by a ceremony [which is] extremely barbarous and revolting.  When the whole people of that land has been gathered into one body, a shiny white mare is brought out into the midst.  To which [place] that one to be raised [to the throne] approaching like an animal [probably meaning “on all fours”] openly to all, not less shamelessly than rashly, he confesses himself [to be] a beast, as well.  And immediately, when the mare has been killed and, [cut into] pieces, has been cooked, a bath is prepared for him [the candidate] in the same water.  Sitting in which, with the populace standing around, and sharing with him, he himself eats some of the flesh brought to him.  By law, as well, he drains and drinks from which he is bathed not by any vessel nor with his hand, but only with his mouth from every side.  Thus, when these things have been completed by ritual, not by propriety, the kingship and lordship of that man has been confirmed.”

(Topographia Hibernica, Distinctio III, Capitulum XXV—my translation–if you would like to see the whole chapter in Latin, see:  https://archive.org/details/giraldicambrensi05gira/page/168/mode/2up ; in English:  https://ia800301.us.archive.org/5/items/historicalworkso00girauoft/historicalworkso00girauoft.pdf )

Could it be that that horse was placed there on that hillside to remind people of a similar British Iron Age ceremony?

(For more on horse sacrifice, see:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_sacrifice If you love horses, as I do, this is not recommended reading!)

Then I picked up this, from a WIKI article on “White Horses in Mythology”:

“The white horse is a recurring motif in Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, making use of the common Norse folklore that its appearance was a portent of death. The basis for the superstition may have been that the horse was a form of Church Grim, buried alive at the original consecration of the church building.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_horses_in_mythology )

A horse sacrifice is already grim—but what’s this? I wondered.  A “Church Grim”?  if it’s “common Norse folklore that its appearance was a portent of death”, then is that meaning of “Grim” related to the Old English word grima (2), “a spectre, goblin, nightmare”?  If so, where might we find something about “common Norse folklore”?  I went to Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology (3 volumes, London, 1851), where, in Volume II , we find:


Heathen superstition did not fail to show itself in the construction of Christian churches. In laying the foundation, the people would retain something of their former religion, and sacrificed to their old deities, whom they could not forget, some animal, which they buried alive, either

under the foundation or without the wall. The spectre of this animal is said to wander about the churchyard by night, and is called the Kyrkogrim, or Church-grim. A tradition has also been preserved, that under the altar in the first Christian churches a lamb was usually buried, which imparted security and duration to the edifice. This is an emblem of the genuine Church-lamb, the Saviour of

the world, who is the sacred corner-stone of his church and congregation. When any one enters a church at a time when there is no service, he may chance to see a little lamb spring across the quire and vanish. That is the Church-lamb. When it appears to a person in the church yard, particularly to the gravediggers, it is said to forebode the death of a child that shall be next laid in the earth.” (page 102)

(if you’d like to read more, these three volumes are available at the wonderful Internet Archive.  Here’s the LINK for Volume II:  https://archive.org/details/northernmytholog02thor )

So, if we put all of this together, might we imagine that, for the Rohirrim, after Theoden’s death, that white horse on their banner may have taken on added meaning:  not only symbol of their land, but also of sacrifice, both of their king and his white horse, in order to protect that land from future invasion, as the Church Grim defends the church and its burying ground?

(Matthew Stewart)

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Churchyards at night?  Probably not.

And remember that, as always, there’s




Just a footnote—another meaning of grima in Old English is “mask”.  Perhaps this is why JRRT chose that as the name for Theoden’s traitorous counselor?

(Alan Lee)