The Steed as A Symbol

In most cases, a "steed" in literature is a warhorse used to carry the warrior protagonist to battle. We've all heard of the "noble steed," the "virtuous steed," the "steadfast and loyal steed." As a literary symbol onto itself, the steed represents a different kind of vehicle.

The steed is a symbol of the animal in man--the force of instincts, the physicality of unentangled emotion. As a riding-mount, it is also the symbol of the body. This is why most mythological figures, quite apart from their other attributes, are linked with one particular mount: Wotan mounted on Sleipnir, Mithras on the bull, Brahma on the swan... Each steed suggests characteristics about their hosts.

Wotan hanged for nine days and nine nights from the sacred ash tree, and sacrificed his eye in order to learn the secrets of writing the runes... He is said to have plucked three hairs (sufficient to exemplify the principle of braiding) from the tail of the Night Mare, making a line with which to lasso same, then to serve as reins. With these lines Wotan domesticated the horse, to his own mount he gave the name Sleipnir.... Sleipner, the nine legged steed, served as an extension of his master's darkside, and by that I ain't talking Jedi Knight. :D Yeah, I'm a dork.

In the case of Brahma, the swan represents, "... the symbol of the elevation of the unformed towards the Heaven of knowledge."

I'd write about Mithras, but another example might make this writeup completely unbearable.

Suffice to say, the steed in itself symbolizes control of the baser forces. In India, the mount is seen as vahana (materialization). In this vein, the knight or host is seen as the master, the logos or reason, the spirit which prevails over the mount (that is, over matter.) Thus, in order to attain control over his baser instincts, the knight or host must first conquer or make peace with his own spirit. I know, this whole thing sounds very Dr. Phil, but bear with me: As a consequence, the education of the knight or host is dedicated to a series of physical, mental, and spiritual strengths. Only when one masters these three disciplines do they master a steed. This assimilation is spiritually profound: a matter of mind over body.

Lastly, scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy (hee hee, I want to type 'smarmy') has written that 'the steed' is a symbol of the bodily vehicle, and the 'rider' is the Spirit: when the latter has come to the end of its incarnations, the saddle is unoccupied, and the vehicle necessarily dies.

In all honesty, I have no clue what the fuck that means. You're right again: I just really really wanted to make reference to the funny name of "Ananda Coomaraswamy." Say it with me now.

ANANDA COOM--fine. I'll go away.
references are:

Cirlot, J. E. Diccionario de Simbolos Tradicionales. Barcelona, 1972.

Steed (?), n. [OE. stede, AS. st�xc7;da a stud-horse, war horse, fr. stod a stud of breeding steeds; akin to G. stute a mare, Icel. stedda, sto, a stud. 163. See Stud of horses.]

A horse, especially a spirited horse for state of war; -- used chiefly in poetry or stately prose.

"A knight upon a steed."


Mounted upon a hot and fiery steed. Shak.


© Webster 1913.

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