Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.35 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.35

Ryan Platte, Equine Poetics. Hellenic Studies, 74.   Washington, DC:  Center for Hellenic Studies, trustees for Harvard University, 2017.  Pp. vii, 142.  ISBN 9780674975705.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kevin Solez, MacEwan University (

This is an excellent and concise book of use to senior undergraduates, graduate students and professionals seeking insight into the prominence of horses and horse imagery in ancient Greek poetry. To my knowledge there are no studies that cover the same ground, making this a welcome volume that should open up avenues for future study. In four chapters plus an introduction, a conclusion, and an appendix Platte pursues several distinct theses united around the close association of horses with heroes and the ontological overlap of horses and human beings.

Chapter 1 clearly demonstrates the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) origin of the Homeric formula ὠκέες ἵπποι, ‘swift horses,’ found in the nominative, genitive, and in the accusative ὠκέας ἵππους, where it is especially productive as the mandatory dactyl and spondee at the end of the hexameter line, appearing twenty times in Homer. Platte adduces cognate poetic formulas from Avestan (āsauuō aspåŋhō) and Sanskrit (āśavas aśvas), demonstrating clearly and convincingly that they, like ὠκέες ἵπποι, are reflexes of a hypothetical PIE poetic formula *hōk̑éu̯-es hék̑u̯- ōs, ‘swift horses.’ Fascinatingly, the phrase may be in all cases a figura etymologica composed of an adjective and a noun derived from the same root, meaning ‘swift,’ with the resulting semantics ‘swift swifties.’ Platte explains that the inherited origin of the Greek phrase, its metrical utility, and its narrative utility in a mythology that closely links horses and human characters established and maintained its formulaic use. Platte raises the question of meaningful repetition of a formula that can establish thematic links between passages and asserts that such links can indeed be made (pp. 14 and 20), but does not cite the recent authoritative bibliography on the issue, such as Bakker 2013 and Currie 2016.1

Platte acknowledges that, while the phrase maintained its metrical and narrative qualities, changes in Greek phonetics caused it to lose the desirable assonance and consonance that are so apparent in the non-Greek cognates. The argument thus far should win many followers, but I think that readers will be split on the question raised subsequently, whether Greek poets perceived ὠκέες ἵπποι to have desirable euphonetic qualities. Platte ingeniously argues that the prominence of ὠκέες ἵπποι established a phonetic theme k…p around which variant formulas with the basic semantics ‘good horses’ proliferated. The evidence gathered clearly shows that this phonetic patterning characterizes the most common Homeric expressions for good or swift horses, which is an important discovery in itself. It is not certain whether it was a perception of the poetic qualities of the k…p consonantal sequence that caused expressions for horses to have this phonetic shape or some other process of inheritance and innovation, and even less certain, as Platte acknowledges, that ὠκέες ἵπποι conditioned the other phrases, especially when μώνυχες ἵπποι is more common. Platte’s argument is none the less very useful and innovative, and I think it would be made even stronger by a consideration of the onomatopoetic clip-clopping of the k...p sequence.

The first chapter ends with an assessment of Hades’ epithet κλυτόπωλος as part of the k...p consonantal sequence. The conclusions Platte comes to about this epithet are judicious and convincing: the epithet is a reference to Hades’ abduction of Persephone and it is used in threats in Homer to imply sudden death. Some of the discussion leading to these conclusions is unhelpful, such as the idea that κλυτόπωλος is an odd epithet since horses do not feature prominently in Hades’ mythology. To the contrary, there is not much mythology of Hades to speak of and his abduction of Persephone is the most prominent narrative in that small corpus.

Building on the close association of heroes and horses established in the first section, Chapter 2 goes into greater detail on the ways that horses reflect the valour of Homeric characters and how characters may be identified by their horses. Platte uses this as evidence of a horse-human ontological overlap in IE thought that is also demonstrated by evidence for horse sacrifice and horse burial. Platte convincingly argues that there is a species boundary in IE thought with horses and humans on one side and all other animals on the other. Only horses and humans can be close enough to the gods that they can have a divine parent or be semi-divine themselves. There is extensive evidence for the human-horse overlap in Irish and Indian horse sacrifice rituals, which involve simulated sex between kings or queens and a sacrificial horse. Platte uses this evidence successfully to demonstrate a common conception of the ontological unity of human and horse. He then enters into a discussion of whether there was literal copulation between the royals and the horse in the ritual (pp. 50–54). This speculative digression on bestiality is out of place in this study since it is not necessary to prove the author’s point, which is otherwise well made.

With the erotic IE horse sacrifice as background, Chapter 3 argues that an inherited conception of the erotic hippomorphized human is prevalent in Greek lyric, adducing examples of horse imagery applied to both men and women in erotic contexts. Platte seeks to show that metaphorical hippomorphism is used to comment positively on the attractiveness of both women, as in Alcman’s Partheneion, and men, as in the case of Paris in Il. 6.503– 13, but there are greater distinctions in the application of horse-metaphors to men and women than Platte allows. Since hippomorphism also reflects the strength and martial prowess of men, only the Paris example clearly shows a man compared with a horse to comment on his beauty. The argument that comparisons of Achilles and of Hector with horses reflect the heroes’ beauty is unconvincing. Platte shows that both women and men are hippomorphic competitors, but again, the examples point to greater distinctions between men and women than Platte acknowledges: women compete with one another in beauty (Partheneion), and men compete for erotic partners (Ibycus 287). Men seek to master women as they would horses (Anacreon 417), but when the hippomorphic man is mastered, he is driven to pursue a boy who is his unwitting charioteer (Anacreon 360). Platte’s main point is however convincing: a PIE background of eroticized hippomorphic humans influences human-horse metaphors in Greek lyric poetics. This discovery reveals new historical dimensions of those poetics by demonstrating that human-horse metaphors were very likely inherited from the parent culture.

Chapter 3 concludes with an excellent study of an IE horse metaphor for energy and intention. Platte assembles passages from Pindar, the Avestan Gathas, and the Ṛgveda featuring the metaphor of the metapoetic charioteer, in which poets present their songs as chariots that they hope to conduct well; this functions as salutary comment on the quality of the poetry. Platte argues that there was a PIE metaphor linking human emotions and intentions, including poetic and intellectual intentions, with horses. He cautions that on the basis of the current archaeological evidence for chariots this PIE metaphor should be understood as a horse metaphor and not as a chariot metaphor, but that, as chariots were adopted into various daughter IE cultures independently, they came to be included in the metaphor, giving rise to the metapoetic charioteer. Platte identifies a key to the linking of horses with human intentions in the Greek word μένος and its Sanskrit cognate manas, both of which are closely linked to horses, to human emotions, and to human intention. This section clearly demonstrates that IE cultures inherited the metaphor that human intentions, plans, and desires are horses that they hope to conduct well. This section has enormous implications for the study of equestrian sporting metaphors, which are found throughout Greek poetry but are especially prominent in tragedy. Platte’s conclusions should encourage scholars to incorporate the great antiquity of these metaphors in their arguments, and to conceive of them, at least in part, as an inherited feature of Greek poetics.

Chapter 4 stays with the issue of chariots and argues that the chariot-races that are common in Greek and Indic marriage-contest myths are examples of an inherited marriage contest tradition that did not involve chariot-races until they were incorporated into the daughter cultures. Comparing stories of Penelope, Hippodameia, Sītā, Draupadī, and Damayantī, Platte argues that the common features of this myth are a marriage contest, a difficult feat, and special equipment, while the use of a disguise and of sabotage are optional features. The implications of this argument for the study of Greek myth are that the prominence of the chariot should not be considered part of IE inheritance but rather a reflection of the importance of chariots to elite Greek-speakers in Mycenaean and subsequent times, and that the many myths involving chariot-races should not be lumped together as reflexes of a typology, but that different types of contest-myths eventually acquired chariot-racing components, because of the unparalleled prestige of that contest in Greek culture.

The book ends with a summary conclusion and an appendix on centaurs, mostly to show that they are not an IE inheritance but that they partake, in small part, of the ideology of horses traced throughout the book.

Those familiar with other works published by the Center for Hellenic Studies will recognize the high quality and practical format of this paperback, with notes at the foot of the page and a striking image on the cover. Typos are very few: an additional “a” in line 3 of p. 93, a doubling of the word “term” in line 18 of p. 85, and an amusing “exhausting” in place of “exhaustive” on p. 49, n. 31. In sum, this book is essential reading for anyone working on horses or equestrian competition in Greek poetry, and it greatly increases our understanding of the balance between inheritance and innovation in this area.


1.   Epilogue, “On Interformularity,” in Bakker, Egbert J. 2013. The Meaning of Meat and the Structure of the Odyssey (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press); Currie, Bruno. 2016. Homer’s Allusive Art (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press).

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