What Does a White Horse Mean?

Gustave_Dore_-_Death_on_the_Pale_HorseWant to know what was up with the white horse at the end of last night’s Game of Thrones episode? (Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking the season 8, episode 5 installment titled “The Bells”.) Me too, and so do a lot of other people. How do I know? Articles about it appeared in USA Today, Buzz Feed, Pop Sugar, and so on.

Most of these articles (I didn’t read them all. Who has the time?) say the horse is likely an allusion to the white steed mentioned in the Book of Revelations: “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on it was Death.”

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a snippet of the USA Today article:

Arya is left on the ash-filled streets of King’s Landing among the dead bodies of people she tried to save, and she sees a white horse, who has also survived and found her. She rides the horse out of the city, seemingly with the intent to avenge those who died there.

On a show like “Thrones,” a horse is not just a horse. The steed might be an allusion to the Book of Revelations in the Bible. The ending of the episode seems to imply that Arya is now Death, and she’s coming for Dany.

Maybe. Maybe not. As tempting as the connection to the Book of Revelations might be, the symbolism of white horses is more diverse than one might anticipate. Thus, while the symbology references in the Butter Lamb Reference Library’s collection do reference the pale horse in Revelations, they also associate such beasts with “victory” or “mastery” of the passions by reason — and if you saw last night’s episode, you know why this notion is relevant.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. I’ve provided the following excepts from the BLRL’s symbol references that mention white horses. To be fair, what appears here for each text is just a fraction or snippet of a much longer entry, and as J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols warns, “The symbolism of the horse is extremely complex.” That said, it’s worth noting the moments of consensus in the following excerpts.

The Herder Symbol Dictionary:

The white horse in particular was regarded as a solar and heavenly animal; it became the steed of the gods and a symbol of force subdued by reason.

The Mammoth Dictionary of Symbols:

According to the color of its coat, in Revelation, the horse is a symbol of victory (a white horse).

Black or pale, it is linked to the moon and water, and in the incarnation of the devil or the damned. White and winged (spirituality), it symbolizes self-mastery: the unicorn can only be captured by the virgin.

An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (Cooper):

The winged horse is the sun or the Cosmic Horse, as is the white horse, and represents pure intellect; the unblemished; innocence; light and life, and is ridden by heroes.

The Continuum Encyclopedia of Symbols:

With respect to light, the horse, primarily as a white horse, became a sun-like and heavenly animal, a steed of the gods, a symbol of strength harnessed by reason, or of joy and of victory ([horses have often been] depict[ed] on the graves of martyrs).

Dictionary of Symbolism (Biedermann)

In symbolic tradition, [the horse is] an embodiment of power and vitality … [however its] symbolic import often remains ambiguous, as we see from the gleaming white horse of “Christ triumphant” on the one hand and the mounts of the “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Book of Revelation) on the other. The early Church fathers found the animal haughty and lascivious; yet it appeared at the same time an image of victory (that of martyrs over the world).

Then we have the following from Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols:

[On the] bio-psychological plane … the horse stands for intense desires and instincts, in accordance with the general symbolism of the steed and the vehicle. The horse plays an important part in a great number of ancient rites. The ancient Rhodians used to make an annual sacrifice [of horses] to the sun …. The animal was also dedicated to Mars, and the sudden appearance of a horse was thought to be an omen of war.

An omen of war? Interesting ….

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s