Why a wooden horse?

- Why a horse?

- Why depict a horse?

- Why not a dog, hunting companion since the beginning of time?

- Or even a moose which was our ancestors' most important prey and source of food?

The wooden horse was from the beginning a toy for children and a sign of appreciation for workmates in the field and forest. To better understand the connection let's go on a historical journey which will tell us about an exciting episode in our shared cultural heritage.

Carved horses by Svensk, Bergkarlås

Different clues from the past woven together make an interesting pattern:

  • The area around Mora has remains of several Viking communities and burial grounds.
  • The horse was the sacred animal of the As - religion (The Vikings)
  • When Christianity reached Sweden the church attacked (among other things) the worship of the “unclean” horse since it was the As- religion's sacred animal. This well known method was a success in nearly the whole of Sweden, apart from the Northern part of Dalarna.
  • 1642 a sermon was written by bishop Rudbeckius where he condemned the selling of the ungodly wooden horse at markets.

We can read the notes from a court sentence in 17th century of a witch trial where a priest claims that the witches have used the wooden horses to steal the milk from the neighbours' cows. The county constable added to the accusations by stating that it was the devil himself who gave the children the wooden horses……

In spite of these attacks from the church on the horse as a living animal and a symbol, the power of the myth was unable to be broken. In the area round Mora, horses dating back to at least the 17th century have been found.

4th generation Julia with collection horse Sannarg

The first horse

The original horse lived 50 million years ago in North America. It was about the size of a fox and its hooves were soft. Today's tame horse is a cloven hoofed animal and a comparison between the two animals shows considerable differences. Eventually the horse died out in America but was re-introduced there in the 16th century.

The horse came to Europe across the land connection between America and the Bering Strait and eventually spread via Asia to our area. Before people learned how to tame the horse it was a well sought after prey.

The horse used as an instrument of force

About 4000 years ago, 2000 years B.C., the first horse came to Sweden. In 1990 archaeologists in Västergötland found the remains of a horse from the period known as the early Stone Age.

Contemporary findings showed even elegant axes which had the shape of a boat, which are said to come from the Russian nomads who had learnt to tame the horse and had spread terror as they proceeded on their military expeditions. The form of the axes which they handed down to posterity has given them the name “Boat axe people”.

Thus the first contact our ancestors had with the horse was when it was used in the service of violence, but soon it was shown how all the advantages of the horse stood out even in peaceful utilization.

Marija Gimbutas, professor of anthropology at the University of California, has spent a part of her life studying the Russian horse people and what it meant having the means of using the horse as a military force. Gimbutas was of the opinion that the peaceful, women dominated culture which had developed during a long period of time, was wiped out by the Indo European tribes. The riders came in waves and with weapons took over the power. What Gimbutas bore in mind and interpreted was the method of burial. The man began to be placed in the centre along with their weapons and the women and children on the other hand, more often were placed in insignificant spots.

The horse of the myths

The upheaval caused by trying to get access to the muscular strength of the horse and thus perhaps getting power over others has inspired the forming of many myths round the horse.

Pegasus (Greek Myth) the winged horse, a modern symbol for the inspiration of poets, “to mount Pegasus”.

The Centaur (Greek myth) was a sort of half person/ half horse, and according to the tales wild and with a fondness for wine and women.

The Unicorn, a fabulous beast from ancient times, a symbol for purity and virtue during the Middle Ages, could only be captured by a virgin.

Helios, the sun god, travelled with the sun in a carriage and four across the heavens.

Sleipner was Odin's eight footed horse which bore dead warriors to Valhalla, the Vikings equivalent to heaven.

Frejfaxe belonged to the As god Frö and powerful fertility myths have flourished around this horse. For instance how a king redeemed a farmer and his family from a heathen horse worship which is connected to a fertility theme is mentioned in the sacred story in Olav the Holy`s tale.

The four riders of Apocalypse, the messengers of death in the book of Revelations in the Bible which were said to predict war, famine, plague and death.

The horse of the God which suddenly became the horse of the heathens

We can see the horse depicted in caves (e.g. Lascaux about 20000 years old) on rock carvings, stone drawings and ship heads. In the As religion the horse was exalted as a holy animal and horse meat was eaten as a sacrifice in honour of the As gods.

As Sweden gradually reformed to Christianity, from the 11th century onwards the Christians tried to break the As – religion's hold over the people. One way was to attack the attributes which were sacred to the As religion and that was for instance the horse. The project wasn't that simple to carry out, especially in the North of Dalarna where the people on the shores of the lake Siljan obviously didn't uncritically accept the teachings of the church. There are several indications which show that the horse had a special standing there, partly from records of the so called spreading of prejudices around the horse slaughter which stemmed from as long ago as the 15th century and partly from the court records of the witch trials of the 17th century. Both phenomena make up parts of a strange puzzle around the wooden horse. Together with the knowledge that the areas around Siljan were used as settlements for the Vikings (several burial findings have been discovered) a picture emerges of a region which has had a long and strong history of respect and warmth for the horse, both as a living animal and a symbol.

Toys of the devil

Perhaps the most extraordinary document regarding the wooden horses is from the 17th century during a witch trial in Mora. The notes from the trial describe a statement from a witness, Mora's parish priest, Elavus Andre Skagge, who stated that the witches used a so called “baror” that is to say a magic wooden object in the shape of an animal (for instance, a wooden horse) to do the work of the devil. The county constable in Mora also stated that it was the devil himself who distributed small horses to the children.

The original fight for the souls against the As religion, had now actually developed into a regular persecution of people with the men of the church and the men in power as the instigators. A dark but not less important chapter on our way to understanding ourselves and our history.

North Dalarna free from horse prejudice.

Another interesting phenomenon has been described in Egardts book” The Slaughter of Horses and The Shame of The Devil“ In the book she describes how towns round the centre and northern parts of Dalarna were some of the few places in Sweden where the prejudice against horse meat and slaughter was not outspread. The area is called a relic of former times. In a record of traditions for the time from 1830 onwards, this area stood out as a clean spot on the map of prejudices.

What does this actually mean in clear terms? It means that the church's opinion of the horse as unclean, especially the banishment and the prohibition of having anything to do with slaughter and the meat – was not accepted by the people of North Dalarna.

An explanation can be that the farming people were socially homogenous (all were more or less poor and had the same standard of living) also having less class division than the rest of Sweden. The cities with a strong social hierarchy had possibly a greater need for those infamous creatures horse slaughterers (they were even in the service of the hangman) who found themselves on the lowest step of the social ladder.

Probably horses, living as well as dead, were treated as they had always been done, the decree to engage a special scoundrel for slaughter won no attention whatsoever.

Curiosa: Most people in Sweden are familiar with the expression “rackarungar”,(today the word is used to describe a mischievous child) a word which had a completely different meaning long ago. “Rackarens” (slaughterer´s) children had a difficult life, they were not accepted socially and other children didn't get to play with them.

Photo: K. Lärka, Mora Bildarkiv

What horses meant for the people round the shores of Lake Siljan

In an area of small holdings the most important task for the horse was to help with farming and forestry work and to transport goods and people

The real upswing in the forest arrived in the 1850s, when the demand for timber increased immensely in Europe, The choice lay between doing the work of making coal of the wood themselves or selling the forest to the steam sawers which gave a better profit for less work, the latter alternative obviously being the most popular.

The extensive and intensive forest work lead to the men having to on occasion live away from home. To help them with the hard work in the forest they used horses. During any spare time they carved figures out of wood for the children at home and often the figures represented the friend and workmate, the horse.

A wooden horse which hundreds of years later became a symbol for Sweden.

The horse in Falun´s copper mines

The horse was really valuable for transport in connection with charring and woodcutting, iron and copper ore transport.

Besides the first industrial place of work was in the county – Falu Copper Mine. According to analysis a certain amount of activity had already started in the ninth century and with certainty written sources say that production was definitely on the go in 1288. From the 16th century the men from the northern part of the county were employed in the mine and it was said that “almost everybody wanted work from the mountain men”.

The horse was even used down in the mine, where it was born, lived and died in the smoke filled and dark passages. In the 17th century there were 20 horses in the stalls at the same time down in the mine.

Apart from the Falu mine, ore was mined in several other places in south Dalarna. Mining needed large amounts of wood, for instance for shifting mountain sides (they lit the fires directly onto the mountain). From the 18th century onwards extensive wooden supports were needed in order to prevent collapse.

Vast amounts of charcoal for refining the ore was needed. A charcoal stack took 120 days to make and was enough for only two days in the blast furnace. In the 18th century there were 400 furnaces on the go. It gives you the idea of how many people and horses were working to keep everything going.

Photo: K. Lärka, Mora Bildarkiv

Thus a horse!

Lately it has been implied that a moose should be the national symbol for Sweden instead of the Dala horse.

That can be correct depending on how you look at it. If we look back to our Stone Age ancestors and their first attempts at survival it's perhaps not completely wrong. Prehistoric remains found in Norrland have shown that 75% of all bone remains on the rubbish heap were of moose. This shows if anything how indispensable game it was about 9000 years ago and thousands of years onwards.

However if we go back to the last 1000 years and onwards and try to imagine what the horse has meant for our well-being today, then the mind reels with gratitude.

A gratitude for all the hours through the centuries which the horse has faithfully served mankind.

Thus a horse!