The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Uffington White Horse

Hill Figure


From my reading of 'The White Horses of the West of England - With Notices of Some other Ancient Turf-Monuments' by the Rev. W C Plenderleath MA. (1885?).

He mentions that the Great Western Railway passes the hill about 2 miles away, yet because the horse's outline is very narrow and because you have to be at just the right angle to see it properly, "it would not easily be found by anyone who did not know exactly where to look for it." I've noticed this myself from the train and thought it odd. Even in fine weather it's quite difficult to make the horse out. Other contributions above comment on the less than obvious placing of the figure on the hill. Westbury horse, for example, is very obvious, and can be seen from miles and miles away (perhaps aided by the landmark of the smoke belching out of the cement works, who can say).

People trying to date hill figures understandably look to old documents to see if they're mentioned. The Reverend has a very sensible word to say on the matter. Only one medieval document seems to allude to the horse "But this does not in the least throw doubt upon its existence at the time they wrote; for not only they, but the Saxon and Roman chroniclers as well are equally silent [about] Silbury Hill, the largest solid earthwork in Europe, which was indubitably in existence in their time, and close to which all travellers by the western high road must have passed." Right on Rev! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Incidentally, the medieval document it is mentioned in is a 'cartulary' of the abbey of Abingdon, written around the reign of Henry II. It's about some monks and their inherited lands: "One of them, Godric, becoming possessed of Spersholt, near the place commonly known as the White Horse Hill" (locum qui vulgo mons albi equi nuncupatur).

The following made me smile too. Dr Francis Wise published a letter in 1738 putting forward the idea that the horse (the emblem of Hengist, which means stone horse) was carved in 871 to commemorate Alfred being victorious over the Danes at Ashford. Two years later a reply appeared by 'Philalethes Rusticus' entitled 'The Impertinence and Imposture of Modern Antiquaries Displayed.'
PR disputed that the carving even depicts a horse. And as for any significance of its colour:
"I may venture to hold [Dr Wise] a small wager, that should the Horse scape a scouring but two seven years more his Dapple would become a Green One, which would be a still greater Rarity for all true Lovers of Antiquity."

Another theory about the horse derives from its strange 'beak'. Some Celtic coins show horses and birds with a similar beak. In Taliesin's medieval (?) poems the horses of Ceridwen are sometimes referred to as 'hen-headed steeds'. Ceridwen is said to have assumed the form of a white mare, and was also known as the 'high crested hen'. Hence the suggestion that the Uffington horse could be a representation of Ceridwen??
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
25th September 2002ce

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