I rode a horse for the first time today, so I did a little bit of research beforehand. I discovered that there is a Chinese Horse God, called either Ma Wang (马 王 – Horse King) or Ma Shen (马神 – Horse Spirit).
Gift Horse Gallery tells an origin story for the Horse God:
Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (157-87 BCE) was a great lover of horses. […] He mounted several major military campaigns to acquire the legendary, superior “blood-sweating” horses from the Ferghana [in what is now Uzbekistan]. […] After four years, the troops returned with a selection of superior horses, which were named “Celestial Horses.” The lofty moniker took on the divine power and spirit of the Celestial Horse God. Moreover, the Celestial Horse was destined to become an aesthetic & enduring theme in Chinese art.
The name “Celestial Horse” and the idea the that breed in question is descended from supernatural horses are attested elsewhere, but I haven’t found other sources indicating that this is the origin of the Horse God.
The Horse God Temple at Juyongguan Pass is said to be the best-preserved historical Horse God temple, according to Jack Li at China Travel Depot:
The Horse God Temple, as the name implies, was built in honor of the Horse God in AD 1504 and renovated in AD 1792 during Emperor Qianlong’s reign. […]
The Horse God is in charge of all the affairs of the war-horses, so people established temples to show their respect for him, hoping that their war-horses would become stronger. In dynasties such as Tang, Song, and Qing, people even held grand ceremonies every year to honor the Horse God.
Many Horse God Temples were built during [the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644], including this one located at Juyongguan Pass. Inside the temple there is the shrine of the Horse God, the God of Rain and the God of Hay.
Juyonguan Pass, 48 kilometers outside of Beijing, is where the construction of the Great Wall began :
Juyongguan Pass deprives its name from [the] Qin Dynasty when Emperor Qin Shihuang dispatched a massive group of soldiers composed by criminals, young soldiers and migrant workers to build the Great Wall, which is called “徙居庸徒” [xǐ jū yōng tú] (literally means “Move the Common and Mediocre People Here”).
In Tainan City, Taiwan, “Directly across Yongfu road [from a temple to Guan Di] is a small old shrine dedicated to the horse god. Most [maybe in Taiwan?] Guan Di temples have a horse-god temple associated with them, and this one is just across the street.” This information was exciting to me because it supports what was previously an unverified personal gnosis of mine.
Guan Di was a deified human warrior, and it seems like for some reason he continues to be associated with the animal he rode into combat in life, rather than the more typical dragon or tiger mount of many of the other Chinese gods. Based only upon that circumstance, I thought that if I were to put a statue of an animal in his shrine in my room, it would be a horse.
Then a strange thing happened…I went to a park to hang out with a friend, and lying in the grass was the figurine of a horse! It ended up in Guan Di’s shrine, but attached to it was a quite a bit of uncertainty whether it belonged there or not. Finding at least one source supporting the association helped, somewhat.
ADDENDUM: According to the Chinese Gods of Wealth website’s post on Guan Di, “In many temples, a sculpture of his horse can usually be found.” So there are at least two sources that make the link between Guan Di and some sort of veneration of his horse/the horse god.
At the Seng Wong Beo Temple to the City God of Singapore, there is also an altar to the General Horse God. The blog describing the temple mentions that “horses in ancient time were used for sacrifice,” and suggests that this is the reason for their inclusion in the temple.
The practice of sacrificing horses is corroborated by archaeological evidence from the state of Qi (770-476 BCE) in what is now Shandong:
The site of sacrificed horses was found in the village of Yatou in the 1960s, where many tombs of the Qi’s emperors and aristocracies are still visibly seen on the plain.
In the No 5 tomb, 145 sacrificed horses on the northern side of the tomb were unearthed. And in 1972, on the western side of the tomb, 83 more buried horses were found. […]
According to archaeologists’ speculation, these horses were fed with a lot of alcohol and fell into unconsciousness [and were then killed].
I haven’t found any evidence for the link between their status as a sacrificial animal and their deification. In other contexts, James Frazer theorizes in The Golden Bough that “when an animal is sacrificed once and once only in the year, it is probably slain, not as a victim offered to the god, but as a representative of the god himself” (573). Similarly, in A History of Pagan Europe Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick describe the horse as the “totemic beast of Woden/Odin” and the eating of horseflesh as a “sacral meal” (139).
The sacrifices in the state of Qi seems less like a once-a-year sacrament and more like a once-in-a-king’s-lifetime one, where they are intended as guardians in the tomb. The China Daily article linked to above compares the horse sacrifices to the famous terracotta soldiers and horses found at Xi’an (ten of which are on display at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco).
Jones and Pennick list European occasions of horse sacrifice in a funerary context for kings and warriors (138-40), though they do not provide a theory regarding the practice.
It is important to remember that the sacrifices were performed at the funeral of Duke Jing of Qi, a military leader who successfully conquered other countries at a time when war chariots were a major determinant of military power. Also, Duke Jing’s funeral wasn’t the only one where someone was sent to the afterlife with a retinue:
When a favourite horse died, the horses’ raisers would also be killed and buried together with the horses for sacrifice. It was brutal, but it proves the important role of horses at that time.
So in a Chinese context, the reconstruction of the one custom would logically be followed by reconstruction of the second as well.
There is also a White Horse Temple in Hanoi, Vietnam, which houses the White Horse that is the city’s patron god. This is an entirely different deity than Ma Wang: the White Horse is “an incarnation of the river god, To Lich,” who himself was originally a deified human.
The story behind the White Horse Temple is a very interesting read, if you have the time. The temple also has the distinction of having miraculously survived three fires that each burned every other house on the street.
This site may also be of interest to readers who like horses: Heathens and Pagans for the Horses, a blog dedicated to ending horse-slaughter. It is run by Saigh, the person who also writes the Flying with the Hooded Crow and Dùn Sgàthan blogs.
Sources and Image Credits: Henceforth, I will link to the publisher’s webpage for the book I cite, and to the website where I obtain an image in the image caption. Here’s one more picture of a “Celestial Horse:”