Sunday, October 20, 2019

October Horse and Other Miscellany

I missed the feast of October Horse (Equus October in Latin), anciently held on the 15th of the month. I did so for a perfectly logical reason. I’d never even heard of this celebration! How could I observe it? It belongs to the oldest Graeco-Roman times; indeed, the Greek historian Timaeus (345 BC – c. 250 BC) was the first to mention it—and he got his explanation wrong. Timaeus lived in BC times; hence October Horse belongs to the very deep past.

To understand this festival (categorized as religious but more likely a vulgar entertainment), it might help to put it into modern dress. Imagine that every October 15 a massive auto race were held. No limits would be placed on the size and power of the engines used, hence some really fast and weird cars would race with predictably many hair-raising accidents along the way. At the end of the race, the fastest and therefore the winning car would be displayed with masses of spectators present. Then men with powerful hammers and saws would attack it. They’d cut into its engine compartment and extract the engine any which way—and never mind if it was damaged. Others would attack its rear end and saw away its exhaust pipe.

Both teams, front and back, would then rush away in a fleet of trucks, each truck going in another direction. They would carry the engine and exhaust pipe, hiding each. Which trucks did these end up in? Nobody in the massive audience could know. The very expensive vehicle, the winner of the famous race, would, of course be left behind, an un-drivable wreck.

Our explanation is only half finished, at this point. In the real October Horse, the race was run by chariots drawn by horses, two to each chariot. The left-hand horse of the winning chariot would be sacrificed, i.e., killed by a spear. Then its head would be cut off—and also its rump with the tail. These would be carefully hidden someplace in the city.

But let’s go on. The contributions of the spectators now began. They were divided into two groups. The first were drawn from inhabitants of a huge neighborhood in Rome, Subura. Subura was a slum, in a way, inhabited by the poor, miserable: red light districts, and so on. The other group was drawn from a wealthy neighborhood in Rome’s best area, the Via Sacra. Off these people raced, running in masses. Their job was to find the Head (engine) and Tail (exhaust pipe) of the Horse (car). If these groups clashed along the way and fell into violent battles, why that was just part and parcel of Equus October. Those who found the Head displayed it for the next year; those who found the Tail, likewise. If one group found both—why the next year would be glorious—until October Horse returned again on the ides of October. Image source.

Now did I get this all correctly? Of course not. Even Timaeus had failed. But I can add what both of us now know. The festival was held on October 15 because it was the end both of military activities and of agricultural labors. So it was a festival of Mars, the god of war, and agriculture, the Sustainer of All.

It’s best to absorb even the few details I’ve managed to put forth. Destroying (i.e. sacrificing) a very expensive vehicle or horse—just for the hell of it? Letting the poor and the rich fight each other for ownership of the engine? Vast masses assembled to take part in the “fun”? October Horse was something even worse than we see all around us. But our festivals are on the social media. And the destruction is harder to see but much easier to cost out using Big Data and 5G.

Now for some miscellany. I discovered October Horse because I thought I’d find some festival in October beyond the well-known “celebrations”—like beer consumption at the October Fest or the children’s Halloween. My mind produced “The Rites of Spring” as an example, the ballet composition. I asked Google to display what it had stored under “The Rites of October.” In due course, I chanced across two entries on October Horse. Whaaat? October Horse? Discoveries then followed.

I also found an article titled “The October Horse.” That is the title of a novel by the Australian writer Colleen McCullough. Her novel is based in Rome. The sacrificial horse of her novel is Julius Caesar. Caesar was certainly, as a political figure, one of the best, brightest, and thus one of the swiftest. And at the beginning of his reign, if we may call it that, he was sacrificed by being stabbed with a knife. Et tu, Brute?

The image I show is Laocoon spearing the Trojan horse—an act from which Timaeus derived the October Horse festival. Both ancient and modern historians think he was wrong. And when you think of it, the horse shown is not exactly huge—or wooden. Never mind. The Trojan war has at least as many landmines as does Equus October.

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