The Great Myths #15: The Horse Sacrifice (Hindu)

Poetry Friday: The Great Year, Shakespeare, Eliot, Blake, Poems on Work & Poems on Mythology Human Voices Wake Us

Earlier this year, I thought it was possible to supplement this podcast with one weekly (and shorter) additional reading over at Substack; for many reasons, that ambition proved impossible to maintain. Since an illness has kept me from recording a new episode this week, I thought it worthwhile collecting those six weeks of shorter readings here: 3 Poems from my long work-in-progress, The Great Year: “The Autumn Village,” “I was in Iceland centuries ago, ” “Smith Looks Up the Long Road” Two readings from Shakespeare: “Of comfort no man speak” (Richard II, act II scene 2), “All the world’s a stage” (As You Like It, act II scene 7) 3 Poems on Work: Philip Levine (1928-2015): “Among Children,” Elma Mitchell (1919-2000), “Thoughts After Ruskin," Mary Robinson (1758-1800), “A London Summer Morning” Favorites from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets Three Poets & Mythology: Eavan Boland (1944-2020), “The Making of an Irish Goddess," Michael Longley (b. 1939) “The Butchers," Robert Pinsky (b. 1940), “The Figured Wheel” Blake & His Animals: Three passages from William Blake (1757-1827): one from Visions of the Daughters of Albion and the last two from Milton. I hope that plucking these three passages from his longer work can suggest how varied—not just how prophetic and opaque, but simply beautiful—so much of his poetry can be. Don’t forget to support Human Voices Wake Us on Substack, where you can also get our newsletter and other extras. You can also support the podcast by ordering any of my books: Notes from the Grid, To the House of the Sun, The Lonely Young & the Lonely Old, and Bone Antler Stone. Any comments, or suggestions for readings I should make in later episodes, can be emailed to — Send in a voice message: Support this podcast:
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Rig Veda 1:162 – The Sacrifice of the Horse

Mitra, Varuṇa, Aryaman the Active, Indra the ruler of the Ṛbhus, and the Maruts – let them not fail to heed us when we proclaim in the assembly the heroic deeds of the racehorse who was born of the gods.

When they lead the firmly grasped offering a in front of the horse that is covered with cloths and heirlooms, the dappled goat goes bleating straight to the dear dwelling of Indra and Pūṣan.

This goat for all the gods is led forward with the racehorse as the share for Pūṣan. When they lead forth the welcome offering with the charger, Tvaṣṭṛ urges him on to great fame.

When, as the ritual law ordains, the men circle three times, leading the horse that is to be the oblation on the path to the gods, the goat who is the share for Pupil goes first, announcing the sacrifice to the gods.

The Invoker, the officiating priest, the atoner, the fire-kindler, the holder of the pressing-stones, the reciter, the priest who prays – fill your bellies with this well-prepared, well-sacrificed sacrifice.

The hewers of the sacrificial stake and those who carry it, and those who carve the knob for the horse’s sacrificial stake, and those who gather together the things to cook the charger – let their approval encourage us.

The horse with his smooth back went forth into the fields of the gods, just when I made my prayer. The inspired sages exult in him. We have made him a welcome companion at the banquet of the gods.

The charger’s rope and halter, the reins and bridle on his head, and even the grass that has been brought up to his mouth – let all of that stay with you even among the gods.

Whatever of the horse’s flesh the fly has eaten, or whatever stays stuck to the stake or the axe, or to the hands or nails of the slaughterer – let all of that stay with you even among the gods.

Whatever food remains in his stomach, sending forth gas, or whatever smell there is from his raw flesh – let the slaughterers make that well done; let them cook the sacrificial animal until he is perfectly cooked.

Whatever runs off your body when it has been placed on the spit and roasted by the fire, let it not lie there in the earth or on the grass, but let it be given to the gods who long for it.

Those who see that the racehorse is cooked, who say, “It smells good! Take it away!”, and who wait for the doling out of the flesh of the charger – let their approval encourage us.

The testing fork for the cauldron that cooks the flesh, the pots for pouring the broth, the cover of the bowls to keep it warm, the hooks, the dishes – all these attend the horse.

The place where he walks, where he rests, where he rolls, and the fetters on the horse’s feet, and what he has drunk and the fodder he has eaten – let all of that stay with you even among the gods.

Let not the fire that reeks of smoke darken you, nor the red-hot cauldron split into pieces. The gods receive the horse who has been sacrificed, worshipped, consecrated, and sanctified with the cry of “Vaṣat!”

The cloth that they spread beneath the horse, the upper covering, the golden trappings on him, the halter and the fetters on his feet – let these things that are his own bind the horse among the gods.

If someone riding you has struck you too hard with heel or whip when you shied, I make all these things well again for you with prayer, as they do with the oblation’s ladle in sacrifices.

The axe cuts through the thirty-four ribs of the racehorse who is the companion of the gods. Keep the limbs undamaged and place them in the proper pattern. Cut them apart, calling out piece by piece.

One is the slaughterer of the horse of Tvaṣṭṛ; two restrain him. This is the rule. As many of your limbs as I set out, according to the rules, so many balls I offer into the fire.

Let not your dear soul burn you as you go away. Let not the axe do lasting harm to your body. Let no greedy, clumsy slaughterer hack in the wrong place and damage your limbs with his knife.

You do not really die through this nor are you harmed. You go to the gods on paths pleasant to go on. The two bay stallions, the two roan mares are now your chariot mates. The racehorse has been set in the donkey’s yoke.

Let this racehorse bring us good cattle and good horses, male children and all-nourishing wealth. Let Aditi make us free from sin. Let the horse with our offerings achieve sovereign power for us.

Rig Veda 1:163 – Hymn to the Horse
When you whinnied for the first time, as you were born coming forth from the ocean or from the celestial source, with the wings of an eagle and the forelegs of an antelope – that, Swift Runner, was your great and awesome birth.

Yama gave him and Trita harnessed him Indra was the first to mount him, and the Gandharva grasped his reins. You gods fashioned the horse out of the sun.

Swift Runner, you are Yama; you are Āditya; you are Trita, through the hidden design. You are like and not like Soma. They say you have three bonds in the sky.

They say you have three bonds in the sky, three in the waters, and three within the ocean. And to me you appear, Swift Runner, like Varuṇa, that is said to be your highest birth.

These are the places where they rubbed you down when you were victorious; here are the marks where you put down your hooves. Here I saw your lucky reins, which the Guardians of the Order keep safely.

From afar, in my heart I recognized your soul, the bird flying below the sky. I saw your winged head snorting on the dustless paths easy to travel

Here I saw your highest form eager for nourishment in the place of the cow. As soon as a mortal gets the food that you enjoy, the great devourer of plants awakens him.

The chariot follows you, Swift Runner; the young man follows, the cow follows, the love of young girls follows. The troops follow your friendship. The gods entrusted virile power to you.

His mane is golden; his feet are bronze. He is swift as thought, faster than Indra. The gods have come to eat the oblation of the one who was the first to mount the swift runner.

The celestial coursers, reveling in their strength, fly in a line like wild geese, the ends held back while the middle surges forward, when the horses reach the racecourse of the sky.

Your body flies, Swift Runner; your spirit rushes like wind. Your mane, spread in many directions, flickers and jumps about in the forests.

The racehorse has come to the slaughter, pondering with his heart turned to the gods. The goat, his kin, is led in front; behind come the poets, the singers.

The swift runner has come to the highest dwellingplace, to his father and mother. May he go to the gods today and be most welcome, and then ask for the things that the worshipper wishes for.

– translated by Wendy Doniger in her selection from The Rig Veda, 87-92

See also:The Ashvamedha (Horse Sacrifice)

Read the other Great Myths here