In the nomadic tradition, the horse is one of the mythological animals, embodying the connection with the other world, with the supernatural.
The horse, exceptionally white, has always been associated with the sun, with daytime clarity, with fire, air, sky, water, solar heroes, as an expression of good human aspirations in daily work and struggle against difficulties. The white sun horse is an attribute of divine forces that are constantly fighting against evil — an opposition to death.
In the beliefs and rites of the nomads, first, the horse itself, second, its separate parts — the skull, cervical vertebrae, skin, hair, and third, objects associated with it — bridle, clamp, sweat, reins, whip, fallen horseshoe, image, etc., act as the patroness and protector of people. The horse is seen to have the ability to drive out evil forces from the human body.
A vivid evidence of this is an artifact found in the Northern part of China in the early twentieth century, finished in the form of a horse. Dating of the artifact revealed that it was created in the period between 4th and 1st century BC.
Heavenly horse 天马. A Chinese ancient ceremonial bronze finial with a standing horse, 4th-1st century BC
It is the only one in the world that was found in the entire territory of the Eurasian steppes — a bronze top with the image of a horse, which was used in rituals dedicated to the cult of Heavenly Horses. According to the unanimous conclusion of experts, this find is a ritual tip, and it was also a symbol of the ruler’s power. The Heavenly Horse of the nomads corresponded to the image of the Pegasus in ancient Greek mythology. The discovery of the top is difficult to overestimate, as nothing of its kind was ever found.
It represents the rarest cult object and corresponds in value to the Royal Standards of Egypt and Babylon. When the rulers were moving, placing bets, holding certain festivals and rituals, the use of the top of this kind in various ceremonies is undoubted. Such regalia-like power was most likely inherited and could only belong to the king.
The horse breed on the bronze top is very similar to the horses of Fergana — one of the centers of horse breeding in the Ancient East. These horses were highly valued since they had an elegant and graceful appearance and were much faster and more durable than the breeds that were common at that time in China and Mongolia.
Fergana “Heavenly” horses belong to one of the world’s earliest known cultural racehorse breeds of a fast-and-light eastern type. They are the ancestors of all the best Asian horse breeds: Arab, Turkmen (Akhal-Teke), and modern Kyrgyz.
Heavenly horses — different cultural interpretations of the same image
The first major difference between the two artifacts found in Northern China is how the image of the heavenly horse was perceived in the eyes of both cultures. Nomadic tribes perceived heavenly horses as having certain spiritual value, while the rulers of China saw them as material goods. The two artifacts found express this difference vividly. The second difference is the different significance of the two artifacts — the Ordos horse served as a cult object for nomadic tribes, while the galloping horse reflected the philosophical and aesthetic preferences of the Chinese people in the ancient times.
To date, there are only two significant artifacts in the world that are dedicated to heavenly horses. One of them is a bronze horse galloping and a bird, found in the Gansu province, which is kept in a museum in Lanzhou, China. The second is a bronze top horse from Ordos, which was found in the North part of China in the early twentieth century. Dating of the top revealed that the artifact belongs to the period between the 4th and 1st century BC. The artifact is kept in a private collection.
It is quite possible that a bronze top horse would also be included in the list of significant historical artifacts prohibited for export to exhibitions outside China due to its high historical importance for the history of modern China. According to historical documents, the government of the Han dynasty later ordered the establishment of horse breeding centers in the Gansu province in the hope of introducing the best genes of “heavenly horses” to Chinese breeds.
Thus, the role of horses in the development of Chinese civilization is huge. By understanding the strategic importance of horse breeding and breeding the best varieties of horses, the Han empire was able to continue the development of its civilization. With the use of elite breeds of horses, the art of warfare was modernized, thereby making it possible to give a decent response to the raids of nomadic civilizations neighboring the empire. International trade received a new impulse in development: the Great Silk Road was laid.
The significance of the role of the horse is clearly reflected in the works of art of the Han period. The figure of the horse belongs to those times when Han began to spread its influence in the territory of Gansu and Ordos, where the nomadic civilization challenged them. It was necessary to obtain an important military and strategic resource — the best horses, ready to compete with the cavalry of nomads. The Han empire accepted the challenge. China was on the verge of new civilizational transformations, which were brought to it by Heavenly Horses.