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 ….

Art of the Dictionary (Vol. 2)

If you haven’t noticed, I’m rather focused on words. What they mean, where they come from, how they’re used–I’m interested in all of it. This, I suppose, is why I’ve been filling my home with dictionaries and other references for the past few years and, as far as I can tell, this obsession shows no sign of letting go.

Be that as it may, tonight I’m going to do something a little different. Instead of finding a word to dig into on the digital pages of this blog, I’ve decided to focus exclusively on the graphics, illustrations, and images found alongside the words in some of the references that line the Butter Lamb Reference Library’s shelves.

As you’ll see below, I should do this more often.

1) An illustration found within the section on horse racing in The Slang of Sin


“Horse racing has been a fixture of American popular culture since the earliest days of European immigrants. The first race conducted in what would become the United States was held in Hempstead Plain, New York in 1665…. But–WAIT–do not forget! Because of the gambling component inherent in horse racing, it is a vice and a sin…. Either we learned our lesson or we forgot it.”

2) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Harrowing of Hell” in the Encyclopedia of Hell


“During the the three days between the time Christ’s death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell and freed the souls of the just who had died prior to his crucifixion. This event, called the harrowing of hell, is not included in the Bible, but it has been taught by religious scholars from the earliest days of Christianity…. Some accounts of the harrowing include a trial held in the underworld to determine whether Christ’s action is just.”

3) Illustration accompanying the entry for “Hedgehog” in the Dictionary of Symbolism


Hedgehog – The animal that is “armed, and yet a hero of peace,” respected throughout the areas, in the Old World, where it is found. In antiquity its spines were used to roughen cloth, and its meat to make herbal medicine, e.g., against hair loss, since its spines evoked the image of resilient hair. The skin of a hedgehog hung from a grapevine was through to ward off hail. The shrewdness of the hedgehog as a storer of food was extolled by Pliny the Elder.”

4) Illustration accompanying the entry for “gremlin” in the Dictionary of World Folklore


“Gremlin – Modern mischievous spirits of machinery, diminutive imps first identified by airforcemen in World War I, but only widely recognized in World War II…. Gremlins delight in plaguing humans by causing tools and machinery to malfunction, loosening a screw here and blocking a pipe there to cause maximum disruption at the most critical moments. Descriptions of gremlins vary widely; they are said to range from 6 to 21 inches in height, and despite their high level of aerial involvement they have no wings and must hitch rides with the airmen they plague.”

5) Cover of the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue

Vulgar Tongue

No real fun or interesting tidbits to share here, I just love this illustration. To give it some context, here’s an excerpt from the dictionary’s preface:

“By an occasional reference to our pages, the [young men of fashion] may be initiated into all the peculiarities of our language by which the man of spirit is distinguished from the man of worth. They may now talk bawdy before their papas, without the fear of detection, and abuse their less spirited companions who prefer a good dinner at home to a glorious up-shot in the highway, without the hazard of a cudgelling.”

Getting to the “Heart” of It

happy_valentines_day_16483787801We’re told to “take heart” when things aren’t going our way, “have a heart” when we’re being cruel, “listen to our hearts” when we don’t know what to do, and “speak from the heart” when we aren’t sure what to say, but tomorrow — Valentine’s Day — is the one day each year when we’re encouraged to give our hearts to others. Why? What is it about this organ that makes it the central theme on this day of manufactured emotion?

In a search for answers, I hit the references … starting at the beginning.

The Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, defines heart as:

1) The hollow, muscular organ that receives blood from the veins and sends it through the arteries by alternate dilation and contraction.
2) The part of the body thought of as containing the heart; breast; bosom.
3) Any place or part like a heart that is near the center; specifically, a) the central core of a plant or vegetable b) the center or innermost part of a place or region; as in the heart of the city.
4) The central, vital, or or main part; essence; real meaning; core.
5) The human heart considered as the center or source of emotions, personality, or attributes, etc.; specifically a) inmost thoughts and feelings; consciousness or conscience b) the source of emotions: contrasted with head, the source of intellect, c) one’s emotional nature; disposition (as in, she has a kind heart) d) an of a variety of humane feelings, as in love, devotion, sympathy e) mood; feeling, as in, I have a heavy heart f) energy; spirit; resolution; or courage.
6) A person, usually one loved or admired in some specified way, as in, he has a valiant heart.
7) Something like a heart in shape; a conventionalized design or representation of a heart.
8) Any of a suit of playing cards marked with such a symbol in red.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Okay,  you probably knew all that. What you might not know, however, is that the origin of the word can be traced all the way back to a Sanskrit word meaning, “that which quivers.”

The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories traces heart back to Old English heorte, which is Germanic in origin and related to Dutch hart and German herz, from an Indo-European root shared by Latin cor, cord- and Greek ker, kardia. The Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins agrees, as does The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, which adds the Sanskrit hrid, hridaya, the literal interpretation of which is “that which quivers.”

Suddenly, the notion of one’s heart “fluttering” when its owner is in the presence of his/her lover (real or imagined) makes a hell of a lot more linguistic sense.

Of course, when it comes to Valentine’s Day, all these definitions and insights into the origin of heart are just preamble. On this, the mushiest of days, the heart’s role is symbolic. Hence the following information from our symbolic dictionaries.

The entry for heart in the Continuum Dictionary of Symbols begins with an overview of how different cultures around the world view(ed) the heart. For example, in ancient Greece, it represented man’s thinking, feeling, and wanting; in Islamic cultures, the heart was seen as the site of contemplation and spirituality; In India, it is regarded as the place of contact

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

with Brahma; so on and so forth. The entry concludes by saying that:

Especially since the mysticism of the High Middle Ages, heart symbolism modeled on the symbolism of love (the flaming pierced heart of Christ, Mary, and the saints). Today, the heart is generally regarded as a symbol of love and friendship.

Cirlot’s A Dictionary of Symbols takes a similar tack. After mentioning how the heart was the only “part of the viscera” left by the ancient Egyptians in the mummy, considered the true seat of intelligence in “traditional ways of thought” (with the brain being merely instrumental), and portrayed as the “sun in man” by alchemists,  it notes:

The importance of love in the mystic doctrine of unity explains how it is that love-symbolism came to be closely linked with heart-symbolism, for to love is only to experience a force which urges the lover toward a given center. In emblems, then, the heart signifies love as the center of illumination and happiness, and this is why it is surrounded by flames, or a cross, or a fleur-de-lis, or a crown. [Note the graphics on the right that feature flaming hearts along with some of these other symbols.-Ed.]

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The notion that the heart, the seat of love, would be paired with fire (… or even religious symbols) should not be lost on anyone, for when fully set alight, all three consume their victims so completely that none are ever the same once they’ve passed through the flames. Hence the following, final words from the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, which speaks of heart this way:

Since the heart is the center for decisions, obedience, devotion, and intention, it represents the total human person. Within the heart, human beings meet God’s word and thus the heart becomes the location where conversion takes place.

Indeed it is.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Anachronist Reference Library!