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Hengist and Horsa

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Hengist and Horsa

Hengest and Horsa, from A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegan (1605)

Hengist (or Hengest) and Horsa (or Hors) are figures of Anglo-Saxon history, which records the two as the Germanic brothers who led the Angle, Saxon, Frisian, and Jutish armies that conquered the first territories of Britain in the 5th century. Tradition lists Hengist (through his son, whose name varies by source) as the founder of the Kingdom of Kent.

Hengist and Horsa are attested in Bede's 8th-century Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum; in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum, attributed to Nennius; and in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals compiled from the end of the 9th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth greatly expanded the story in his influential 12th-century pseudohistory Historia Regum Britanniae, which was adapted into several other languages. As a result, the pair appear in various other later works. Notably, Hengist is also briefly mentioned in the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century.

According to these sources Hengist and Horsa arrived in Britain as mercenaries serving Vortigern, King of the Britons. This event is traditionally recognised as the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. Sources disagree about whether Hengist was the father or grandfather of Oisc of Kent and Octa of Kent, one of whom succeeded Hengist as king. In the Historia Brittonum Hengist had an unnamed daughter (Historia Regum Britanniae first gave her name as Rowena) who seduced Vortigern, eventually leading to the Night of the Long Knives when Hengist's men massacred the Britons at a peace accord. While the early sources indicate that Horsa died fighting the Britons, no details are provided about Hengist's death until Geoffrey's Historia, which states that Hengist was beheaded by Eldol, the British duke of Gloucester, and buried in an unlocated mound.

A figure named Hengest, who may be identifiable with the leader of British legend, appears in the Finnesburg Fragment and in Beowulf. In present-day Northern Germany, horse head gables, or gable signs adorned with two rampant horse figures, were referred to as "Hengist and Hors" up until the late 19th century. Other founding horse-associated twin brothers are attested among various other Germanic peoples, and appear in other Indo-European cultures. As a result, scholars have theorized a pan-Germanic mythological origin for Hengist and Horsa, stemming originally from divine twins found in Proto-Indo-European religion. In older scholarship, the scholar J. R. R. Tolkien and others have argued for a historical basis for Hengist.


The Old English names Hengest and Horsa mean "stallion" and "horse" respectively.[1]

The original Old English word for a horse was eoh. Eoh derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *ekwo, hence Latin equus which gave rise to the modern English words equine and equestrian. Hors is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *kurs, which also gave rise to hurry, carry, harry, hurrah and current. Hors eventually replaced eoh, fitting a pattern elsewhere in Germanic languages where the original names of sacred animals are abandoned in favour of adjectives; for example, the word bear. While the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refer to the brother as Horsa, in the Historia Brittonum his name is simply Hors. It has been suggested that Horsa may be a hypocorism for a compound name whose first element was hors.[2]


Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum

In his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Bede records that the first chieftains among the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England were said to be Hengist and Horsa. Bede says that Horsa was killed in battle against the Britons and was thereafter buried in east Kent. Bede adds that a monument bearing Horsa's name stood in east Kent at the time of his writing. According to Bede, Hengist and Horsa were the sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.[3] Later in the same work, Bede notes that Hengist was the father of Oeric, and that Oeric accompanied Hengist upon his invitation by Vortigern.[4]

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 449 records that Hengest and Horsa were invited to Britain by Vortigern to assist his forces in fighting the Picts. Hengist and Horsa arrived at a place called Ipwinesfleet, and went on to defeat the Picts wherever they fought them. Hengist and Horsa sent word to the Angles describing "the worthlessness of the Britons, and the richness of the land" and asked for assistance. Their request was granted and support arrived. Afterward, more people arrived in Britain from "the three powers of Germany; the Old Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes". The Old Saxons populated the areas of the kingdoms of Essex, Sussex and Wessex. The Jutes populated the area of Kent, the Isle of Wight and an area of the adjacent mainland that would later be part of Wessex. The East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians and "all those north of Humber" arrived from the region of Anglia (a peninsula in Southern Schleswig, Northern Germany) "which has ever since remained waste between the Jutes and Saxons". These forces were led by the brothers Hengist and Horsa, sons of Wihtgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Woden.[5]

In the entry for the year 455 the Chronicle details that Hengist and Horsa fought with Vortigern at Aylesford and that Horsa died there. Hengist took control of the kingdom with his son Esc. In 457, Hengist and Esc fought against British forces in Crayford "and there slew four thousand men". The Britons left the land of Kent and fled to London. In 465, Hengest and Esc fought against the Welsh in the Battle of Wippedesfleot, probably near Ebbsfleet. Under their command a thegn was killed, "whose name was Wipped". In the year 473, the final entry in the Chronicle mentioning Hengist or Horsa, Hengist and Esc are recorded as having fought "the Welsh", having taken "immense booty" and the Welsh having "fled from the English like fire".[6]

Historia Brittonum

Hengist (1611) depicted by John Speed

The Historia Brittonum records that, during the reign of Vortigern in Britain, three vessels that had been exiled from Germania arrived in Britain, commanded by Hengist and Horsa. The narrative then gives a genealogy of the two: Hengist and Horsa were sons of Guictglis, son of Guicta, son of Guechta, son of Vouden, son of Frealof, son of Fredulf, son of Finn, son of Foleguald, and Foleguald son of Geta. The Historia Brittonum details that Geta was said to be the son of a god, yet "not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ," but rather "the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen." In 447 AD, Vortigern received Hengist and Horsa "as friends" and gave to the brothers the Isle of Thanet.[7]

After the Saxons had lived on Thanet for "some time" Vortigern promised them supplies of clothing and other provisions on condition that the Saxons assist him in fighting the enemies of his country. The Saxons increased in number and the Britons were unable to keep their agreement. The Britons told the Saxons that the Saxons' numbers had increased, that they no longer needed Saxon assistance and that the Saxons should go home as the Britons could no longer support them.[8]

Vortigern allowed Hengist to send for more of Hengist's countrymen to come over to Britain and fight for Vortigern. Messengers were sent to "Scythia", where "a number" of warriors were selected, and, with sixteen ships, the messengers returned. With the men came Hengist's beautiful daughter. Hengist prepared a feast, inviting Vortigern, Vortigern's officers, and Ceretic, his translator. Prior to the feast, Hengist enjoined his daughter to serve the guests plenty of wine and ale so that they would get very intoxicated. The plan succeeded. "At the instigation of the Devil", Vortigern fell in love with Hengist's daughter and promised Hengist whatever he liked in exchange for her betrothal. Hengist, having previously "consulted with the Elders who attended him of the Angle race," demanded Kent. Without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Vortigern agreed.[9]

Hengist's daughter was given to Vortigern, who slept with her and deeply loved her. Hengist told Vortigern that he would now be both Vortigern's father and adviser and that Vortigern would know no defeat with his counsel, "for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust." With Vortigern's approval, Hengist would send for his son and his brother to fight against the Scots and those who dwell in the north "near the wall called Guaul." Vortigern agreed and Ochta and Ebissa arrived with 40 ships, sailed around the land of the Picts, conquered "many regions," and assaulted the Orkney Islands. Hengist continued to send for more ships from his country, so that some islands where his people had previously dwelt are now free of inhabitants.[10]

Vortigern had meanwhile incurred the wrath of Germanus of Auxerre and gone into hiding at the advice of his counsel. But at length his son Vortimer engaged Hengist and Horsa and their men in battle, drove them back to Thanet and there enclosed them and beset them on the western flank. The war waxed and waned; the Saxons repeatedly gained ground and were repeatedly driven back.[11] Vortimer attacked the Saxons four times: first enclosing the Saxons in Thanet, secondly fighting at the river Derwent, the third time at Epsford, where both Horsa and Vortigern's son Catigern died, and lastly "near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea," where the Saxons were defeated and fled to their ships.

After a "short interval" Vortimer died and the Saxons became established, "assisted by foreign pagans." Hengist convened his forces and sent to Vortigern an offer of peace. Vortigern accepted, and Hengist prepared a feast to bring together the British and Saxon leaders.[12] However, he instructed his men to conceal knives beneath their feet. At the right moment, Hengist shouted "nima der sexa" (take out the sword), and his men massacred the unsuspecting Britons. However, they spared Vortigern, who ransomed himself by giving the Saxons Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and other unnamed districts.[13]

Germanus of Auxerre was acclaimed as commander of the British forces. By praying, singing hallelujah and crying to God, the Saxons were driven to the sea. Germanus then prayed for three days and nights at Vortigern's castle and fire fell from heaven and engulfed the castle. Vortigern, Hengist's daughter, Vortigern's other wives, and all other inhabitants burned to death. Potential alternate fates for Vortigern are provided.[14] However, the Saxons continued to increase in numbers, and after Hengist died his son Ochta succeeded him.[15]

Historia Regum Britanniae

Geoffrey of Monmouth adapted and greatly expanded the Historia Brittonum account in his work Historia Regum Britanniae. Hengist and Horsa appear in books 6 and 8:

Book 6

In chapter 10 of book 6 of Historia Regum Britanniae, Geoffrey records that three brigandines (or long galleys) full of armed men commanded by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, arrived in Britain. At the time, Vortigern was in what is now Canterbury, and upon being informed of "the arrival of some tall strangers in large ships," he ordered that they be received with peace and led to him. After the brothers are brought before him, Vortigern looks over their company and observes that the brothers "excelled all the rest both in nobility and in gracefulness of person." Vortigern asks what country they have come from and why they have come to his kingdom. Hengist—here Geoffrey notes whose "years and wisdom entitled him to precedence"—responds for the company, stating that they have come from their homeland of Saxony, and that they had come to offer their services to Vortigern or some other prince. Hengist continues that they were driven from their native country because "the laws of the kingdom require it" and details that Saxony had become overpopulated; the tradition of their people dictates that when their lands are overstocked with people, the princes of all their provinces meet, and they order that all of the youth of the kingdom assemble before them. Then, through casting lots, the princes chose among the "strongest and ablest" among their people to "go into foreign nations, to procure themselves sustenance, and free their native country from a superfluous multitude of people." Hengist notes that his retinue is the result of this process, and through this custom Hengist and his brother Horsa were made generals "out of respect to our ancestors, who enjoyed the same honour," and so they have arrived in Vortigern's kingdom "under the good guidance of Mercury."[16]

At Hengist's mention of Mercury, Vortigern looks "earnestly upon them" and asks them their religion. Hengist responds:

"We worship," replied Hengist, "our country gods, Saturn and Jupiter, and the other deities that govern the world, but especially Mercury, whom in our language we call Woden and to whom our ancestors consecrated the fourth day of the week, still called after his name Wodensday. Next to him we worship the powerful goddess, Frea, to whom they also dedicated the sixth day, which after her name we call Friday."[17]

Vortigern comments that he is grieved that pagans have come to help him, but says that he rejoices at their arrival as, "whether by God's providence, or some other agency," their assistance is much needed, for Vortigern is surrounded by enemies. Vortigern asks Hengist and Horsa if they will help him in his wars, and offers them land and "other possessions." Hengist and Horsa accept Vortigern's offer, settle on an agreement, and stay with Vortigern at his court. Soon after, the Picts come from Albania with an immense army and attack the northern part of the island. Vortigern catches word of the attack, gathers his forces, and meets the Picts beyond the Humber. A fierce battle ensues, yet "there was little occasion for the Britons to exert themselves, for the Saxons fought so bravely, that the enemy, formerly victorious were speedily put to flight."[18]

In chapter 11, since Vortigern now owes his victory to Hengist and Horsa, he increases the rewards he has promised to two. Vortigern gives Hengist "large possessions of lands in Lindesia for the subsistence of himself and his fellow-soldiers." Geoffrey refers to Hengist as a "man of experience and subtilty," and records that Hengist told Vortigern that Vortigern's enemies assail him from every quarter, and that few of Vortigern's subjects love him. Hengist continues that Vortigern's subjects threaten Vortigern and say that they will bring over Aurelius Ambrosius from Armorica to depose Vortigern and make Aurelius king. Hengist asks Vortigen to allow him to send word to Saxony to bring over more soldiers so that the Saxon forces will be better able to oppose the call to depose Vortigern. Vortigern agrees, adds that Hengist may invite over whom he pleases and tells Hengist that "you shall have no refusal from me in whatever you shall desire."[19]

Hengist bows low in thanks, and tells Vortigern that, while Vortigern has provided him with much land, he wishes Vortigern would make of him a consul or a prince, as Hengist notes Hengist's royal heritage dictates. Vortigern responds that it is not in his power to appoint Hengist to these positions, reasoning that Hengist is a pagan, that he barely knows Hengist, that Hengist's people are strangers and that Vortigern's nobles would not accept the appointment. Hengist asks Vortigern to give him only enough land that Hengist can encircle with a leather thong, so that Hengist may build a fortress upon it—in case a future retreat may require it. Hengist reassures Vortigern that Hengist will always be faithful to him. Vortigern accepts Hengist's proposition and orders Hengist to invite more people from Hengist's homeland.[19]

After immediately executing Vortigern's orders, Hengist took a bull's hide, and made the hide into a single thong. Using the leather thong, Hengist encompasses a rocky location he carefully chooses. Upon the rocky place Hengist begins to build a castle, and after it is finished he names it Kaercorrei, or in Saxon Thancastre, which Geoffrey explains means "thong castle."[20]

Chapter 11 begins with the return of the messengers sent to Germania, bringing with them eighteen ships full of "the best soldiers they could get." Along with the soldiers comes Rowena, Hengist's daughter, described as "one of the most accomplished beauties of that age." After their arrival, Hengist invites Vortigern to see his new buildings and the newly arrived soldiers. Vortigern privately accepts the invitation, commends "the magnificence of the structure" and inducts the new soldiers into his service. Vortigern attends a royal banquet held in the new castle, and Vortigern cavorts with Rowena. Vortigern falls in love with the pagan Rowena (due to the influence of "the devil" in Vortigern's heart, according to the account) and Vortigern asks. Noting this, Hengist—here described as a "prudent man"—realizes the advantage of the situation and consults with his brother Horsa "and the other ancient men present" about how best to respond to Vortigern's request. Horsa and the men all agree that Hengist should allow the marriage.[21]

Rowena is immediately sent to Vortigern and the providence of Kent is given to Hengist, without the knowledge of the then-ruler of Kent, Gorangan. Vortigern marries Rowena that night, is very pleased with her, but brings upon himself the hatred of his nobles and three sons.[22]

In chapter 12, Hengist tells Vortigern that, due to Vortigern's marriage to his daughter Rowena, Hengist is now Vortigern's father, and Vortigern must now heed his counsel. Hengist says:

"As I am your father, I claim the right of being your counsellor: do not therefore slight my advice, since it is to my countrymen you must owe the conquest of all your enemies. Let us invite over my son Octa, and his brother Ebissa, who are brave soldiers, and give them the countries that are in the northern parts of Britain, by the wall, between Deira and Albania. For they will hinder the inroads of the barbarians, and so you shall enjoy peace on the other side of the Humber."[23]

Vortigern agrees. Upon receiving the invitation, Octa, Ebissa, and Cherdich, with three hundred ships full of soldiers immediately left for Britain. Vortigern receives them kindly, and gives them ample gifts. With their assistance, Vortigern defeats his enemies in every engagement. All the while Hengist continues inviting over yet more ships, adding to his numbers daily. Witnessing this, the Britons try to get Vortigern to banish the pagan Saxons from Vortigern's coasts. Vortigern's subjects turn on him, and lead by his eldest son Vortimir attempt to drive out the pagans. The Saxons and Britons meet in four battles. In the second, one of Vortigern's sons, Catigern, fights Horsa, and they kill one another. By the fourth battle, the Saxons have fled to the Isle of Thanet, where Vortimer there besieges them. When the Saxons can no longer tolerate the assaults of the Britons, they send out Vortigern to his son Vortimer, asking for safe return to Germania. While the matter is being discussed, the Saxons board their ships, and, leaving their wives and children behind, set sail back to Germania.[24]

In chapter 13, Rowena poisons the victorious Vortimer, resulting in his death.[25] In chapter 13, Vortigern returns to the throne, and, at the request of Rowena, has messengers relay an invitation to Hengist in Germania to return to Britain but, this time, with only a small retinue in tow. Hengist, hearing that Vortimer is dead, raises an army of three thousand or men, sets up a fleet, and sails it to Britain. When Vortigern and his nobility catch word of the imminent arrival of the Saxon fleet, they meet in counsel, and resolve to drive the Saxons from their coasts. Rowena sends messengers to her father Hengist to alert him of the plight of the Britons. Hengist holds counsel, considers several strategies, yet comes to the conclusion that the Saxons should rather make a show of peace. Hengist sends ambassadors to Vortigern.[26]

The ambassadors inform Vortigern that Hengist does not intend to stay with Vortigern nor does Hengist intend to attack his countrymen, but rather he has brought his men because he thought Vortimer was yet living, so that he could defend himself. Yet now that he, Hengist, no longer doubts the death of Vortimer, Hengist submits himself and his people to the will of Vortigern, so that he will accept whomever Vortigern likes among his men, and send the rest back to Germania. Hengist says that, if Vortigern deems these terms acceptable, he requests that Vortigern set a time and place for them to meet. Vortigern, having been most unwilling to part with Hengist, agrees and orders his subjects and the Saxons at the monastery of Ambrius to meet during the nearby month of May. Both sides agreed.[27]

Hengist orders each of his soldiers to carry a long dagger beneath their clothing. While consulting with the Britons, who would not be suspicious, Hengist would give out the command "Nemet oure Saxas," (take out our swords) and, at that moment, every soldier must be ready to seize the Briton closest to him and, with their drawn dagger, stab him. As planned, the Britons and Saxons meet together at the appointed time and place, and begin to discuss peace. When Hengist feels the time had come to execute his plan, he cries out "Nemet oure Saxas," and, at that moment, grabs and holds Vortigern by his cloak. The signal given, the Saxons fall upon the unsuspecting and unarmed British princes, and kill 460 barons and consuls. The spectating Britons slay some of the Saxons with clubs and stones.[28]

Book 8

In chapter 1 of book 8 of Historia Regum Britanniae, Merlin prophesies to Vortigern (who fled to Cambria during the Saxon onslaught) that Hengist will be killed and that Uther Pendragon will be crowned.[29] In chapter III, Hengist is struck with terror after hearing that Aurelius Ambrosius had rallied the Britons and burned Vortigern alive in a tower, "for he dreaded the valour of Aurelius". The Saxons flee beyond the Humber. Aurelius goes northward in pursuit of the Saxons.[30]

In chapter 4, Hengist takes courage at the approach of Aurelius and selects the bravest among his men to defend. Hengist tells these chosen men not to be afraid of Aurelius, for Aurelius must only have had a few Armorican Britons, as their numbers did not exceed ten thousand, and the native Britons he did not mention, "since they had been so often defeated by him". Hengist promises the men victory and safety, reasoning that the Saxon numbers are superior, being 200,000 men. Hengist and his men advance towards Aurelius in a field called Maisbeli (probably Ballifield, near Sheffield),[31] intending to take Aurelius by surprise and to attack the Britons while they were unprepared. Aurelius expects Hengist's rush, and rushes with speed into the field.[30]

In chapter 5, Eldol, the duke of Gloucester, goes to Aurelius as they march to meet Hengist. Eldol tells Aurelius that he greatly wishes to meet engage in single combat with Hengist, noting that "one of the two of us should die before we parted." Eldol explains that he recalls vividly the day that the Saxons and Britons met for a peace treaty, only for the Saxons to turn on the convened Britons . Eldol states that he is the sole survivor of the Britons who met there, having escaped by defending himself a stake that he claims was thrown to him by God. On the other side, Hengist was placing his troops into formation, giving directions, and walking through the lines of troops, "the more to spirit them up."[32]

Both armies in formation, battle begins between the Britons and Saxons, both sides shedding "no small loss of blood." Eldol focuses on attempting to find Hengist, but has no chance. Hengist finds that his men, who are pagans, are routed, and that the Britons, who are Christian, "by the especial favour of god," hold the upper hand. Hengist and his men flee to "Kaerconan, now Conungeburg." Aurelius pursues the Saxons, killing or enslaving all he encounters along the way. Seeing that he is being pursued by Aurelius and, realizing the town will not hold against Aurelius, Hengist refuses to enter the town, but rather assembles his men, and orders them to make a stand, "for he knew that his whole security now lay in his sword."[33]

Aurelius overtakes Hengist, and a "most furious" fight begins. The Saxons solidly maintain their ground. Both sides see "great slaughter, the groans of the dying causing a greater range in those that survived." The Saxons nearly win, yet a detachment of horses from the Armorican Britons arrive. Eldol continues to focus on pursuing Hengist, slaying men all along the way.[34]

In chapter 6, the battle between the Saxons and Britons continues. Gorlois, the duke of Cornwall arrives, which inspires Eldol to grab Hengist's helmet, and Eldol pulls Hengist into the Britons. Eldol cries out that Hengist is defeated, and the sides continue to battle. After a while, Hengist's son Octa retreats to York "with a great body of men" and Eosa, "his kinsman," retreats to Alclud, where he keeps a "large army for his guard."[35]

In chapter 7, after a break of three days, Aurelius calls together a counsel of principal officers to decide what to do with Hengist. Present at the assembly is Eldad, brother of Eldol and bishop of Gloucester. Eldad sees Hengist standing by Aurelius and demands silence. Eldad says:

Though all should be unanimous for setting him at liberty, yet would I cut him to pieces. The prophet Samuel is my warrant, who, when he had Agag, king of Amalek, in his power, hewed him in pieces, saying, As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. Do therefore the same to Hengist, who is a second Agag.[36]

Eldol takes his sword, draws Hengist out of the city, and cuts off Hengist's head. Aurelius, "who showed moderation in all his conduct," arranged for Hengist to be buried and a mound be raised over his corpse "according to the custom of pagans.[36] In chapter 8, Octa surrenders to Aurelius and Aurelius grants Octa, Eosa, "and the rest that fled" the "country bordering upon Scotland, and made a firm covenant with them."[37]

Prose Edda

Hengist is briefly mentioned in Prologue, the first book of the Prose Edda, written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. In Prologue, a euhemerized account of the origins of Norse mythology is provided, including that while Odin was in Saxony, Odin put three of his sons in charge of the area. One of these three sons was Veggdegg, a "powerful king" who ruled over eastern Saxony. One of Veggdegg's sons was Vitrgils, the father of Vitta, father of Hengist. Vitta's other son (and Hengist's uncle) was Sigar, father of Svipdagr.[38]

Horse-head gables

On farmhouses in Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, Northern Germany, horse-head gables were referred to as "Hengist and Hors" as late as around 1875. Rudolf Simek notes that these horse heads gables can "still be seen today" (from a 2007 edition of a work first published in 1984) and says that the horse-head gables confirm that Hengist and Horsa were originally considered mythological, horse-shaped beings.[39] Martin Litchfield West comments that the horse heads may have been remnants of pagan religious practices in the area.[40]


Finnesburg Fragment and Beowulf

A Hengest appears in the surviving accounts of the legendary Battle of Finnburg: the Finnesburg Fragment and a lay embedded in the epic Beowulf. He is mentioned in line 34 of the Finnesburg Fragment.[41] In Beowulf, a scop recites a composition summarizing the Finnesburg events, including information not provided in the fragment. Hengist is mentioned in this account as well, specifically in lines 1082 and 1091.[42]

Some scholars have proposed that the figure mentioned in both of these references is one and the same as the Hengist of the Hengist and Horsa accounts, though Horsa is not mentioned in either source. In his work Finn and Hengest, J. R. R. Tolkien argued that Hengist was a historical figure, and that Hengist came to Britain after the events recorded in the Finnesburg Fragment and Beowulf. Patrick Sims-Williams is more skeptical of the account, suggesting that Bede's Canterbury source, for which he relied on for his account of Hengist and Horsa in his work Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, had confused two separate traditions.[43]

Germanic twin brothers and divine Indo-European horse twins

Several sources attest that the Germanic peoples venerated a divine pair of twin brothers. The earliest reference to this practice derives from Timaeus (c. 345 – c. 250 BCE). Timeaus records that the Germanic peoples (who he refers to as 'Celts') of the North Sea were especially devoted to what he describes as the Dioscuri. In his work Germania, Tacitus records the veneration of the Alcis, whom he identifies with Castor and Pollux. Germanic legends mention various brothers as founding figures. The 1st- or 2nd-century historian Cassius Dio cites the brothers Raos and Raptos as the leaders of the Astings. According to Paul the Deacon's 8th-century work Historia Langobardorum, the Langobards migrated southward from Scandinavia led by Ibur and Aio, while Saxo Grammaticus records in his 12th-century work Gesta Danorum that this migration was prompted by Aggi and Ebbi. In related Indo-European cultures, similar traditions are attested. In Greco-Roman mythology the god Zeus and the queen Leda produced the dioscuri, known in Greek mythology as Kastor and Polydeukes or Castor and Pollux in Roman mythology. Scholars have theorized that these divine twins in Indo-European cultures stem from divine twins from an original Proto-Indo-European culture.[44]

J. P. Mallory comments on the great importance of the horse in Indo-European religion, as exemplified "most obviously" by various mythical brothers appearing in Indo-European legend, including Hengist and Horsa:

Some would maintain that the premier animal of the Indo-European sacrifice and ritual was probably the horse. We have already seen how its embedment in Proto-Indo-European society lies not just in its lexical reconstruction but also in the proliferation of personal names which contain 'horse' as an element among the various Indo-European peoples. Furthermore, we witness the importance of the horse in Indo-European rituals and mythology. One of the most obvious examples is the recurrent depiction of twins such as the Indic Asvins 'horsemen,' the Greek horsemen Castor and Pollux, the legendary Anglo-Saxon settlers Horsa and Hengist [...] or the Irish twins of Macha, born after she had completed a horse race. All of these attest the existence of Indo-European divine twins associated with or represented by horses.[1]

Uffington White Horse hill figure

The Uffington White Horse hill figure as seen from above

In his 17th-century work Monumenta Britannica, English antiquarian John Aubrey ascribes the Uffington White Horse hill figure to Hengist and Horsa, stating that "the White Horse was their Standard at the Conquest of Britain". However, elsewhere he ascribes the origins of the horse to the pre-Roman Britons, reasoning that the horse resembles certain Iron Age British coins. As a result, advocates of a Saxon origin of the figure debated with those favoring an ancient British origin for three centuries after Aubrey's findings. In 1995, using Optical Luminescence Dating, David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit assigned the Uffington White Horse to the late Bronze Age.[45]


The Brothers Grimm identified Hengist with Aschanes, mythical first King of the Saxons, in their notes for legend number 413 of their German Legends.[46] Editor and translator Donald Ward, in his commentary on the tale, regards the identification as untenable on linguistic grounds.

Modern influence

Hengist and Horsa have appeared in a variety of media in the modern period. Written between 1616 and 1620, Thomas Middleton's play Hengist, King of Kent features portrayals of both Hengist and Horsa (as Hersus).[47] On July 6, 1776, the first committee for the production of the Great Seal of the United States convened. One of three members of the committee, Thomas Jefferson, proposed that one side of the seal feature Hengist and Horsa, "the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we assumed".[48]

"Hengist and Horsus" appear as antagonists in William Henry Ireland's play Vortigern and Rowena, which was touted as a newly discovered work by William Shakespeare in 1796, but was soon revealed as a hoax.[49] The pair are commemorated in plaques placed at the Walhalla Temple in Bavaria, Germany during the 19th century.[50]

During World War II, two British military gliders took their names from the brothers: the Slingsby Hengist[51] and the Airspeed Horsa.[52] The 20th-century American poet Robinson Jeffers composed a poem titled Ode to Hengist and Horsa.[53]

Following Britain's aid during World War II, Prince Georg of Denmark came in 1949 to Pegwell Bay in Ramsgate, Kent, England in order to dedicate the longship Hugin in commemoration of the landing of Hengest and Horsa at Ebbsfleet 1500 years earlier in A.D. 449.[54]

In the 1963 comedy Carry On Cleo Hengist and Horsa are included, anachronistically, as Britons during Julius Caesar's campaign in Britain.[55]

See also

  • Alcis (gods), Germanic horse brother deities venerated by the Naharvali, a Germanic people described by Tacitus in 1 CE
  • Saxon Steed, a heraldic motif


  1. ^ a b Mallory (2005:135).
  2. ^ Tolkien (2006:173).
  3. ^ Shirley-Price (1990:63).
  4. ^ Shirley-Price (1990:113).
  5. ^ Ingram (1823:13-14).
  6. ^ Ingram (1823:15-16).
  7. ^ Gunn (1819:18).
  8. ^ Gunn (1819:22).
  9. ^ Gunn (1819:22–23).
  10. ^ Gunn (1819:23–24).
  11. ^ Gunn (1819:29).
  12. ^ Gunn (1819:30–31).
  13. ^ Gunn (1819:31–32).
  14. ^ Gunn (1819:33).
  15. ^ Gunn (1819:34).
  16. ^ Thompson (1842:116–117).
  17. ^ Thompson (1842:117).
  18. ^ Thompson (117–118).
  19. ^ a b Thompson (1842:118–119).
  20. ^ Thompson (1842:119).
  21. ^ Thompson (1842:120–121).
  22. ^ Thompson (1842:121).
  23. ^ Thompson (1842:121–122).
  24. ^ Thompson (1842:122–123).
  25. ^ Thompson (1842:123).
  26. ^ Thompson (1842:124–125).
  27. ^ Thompson (1842:125).
  28. ^ Thompson (1842:125–126).
  29. ^ Thompson (1842:147).
  30. ^ a b Thompson (1842:149).
  31. ^ English, Mark (2014). "Maisbeli: A Place-Name Problem from Geoffrey of Monmouth". Notes & Queries 259: 11–13. Retrieved 14 July 2014. 
  32. ^ Thompson (1842:150–151).
  33. ^ Thompson (1842:151–152).
  34. ^ Thompson (1842:152).
  35. ^ Thompson (1842:153).
  36. ^ a b Thompson (1842:154).
  37. ^ Thompson (1842:154–155).
  38. ^ Faulkes (1995:4).
  39. ^ Simek (2007:139).
  40. ^ West (2007:190).
  41. ^ Thorpe (1855:228).
  42. ^ Chickering Jr. (2006:111 and 1113).
  43. ^ Wallace-Hadrall (1993:215).
  44. ^ Simek (2007:59–60) and Mallory (2005:135).
  45. ^ Schwyzer (1999:45 and 56).
  46. ^ The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm volume 2, edited and translated by Donald Ward, Millington Books, 1981
  47. ^ Taylor. Lavagnino (2007:1148).
  48. ^ Merill (1970:98).
  49. ^ "Vortigern". The Camelot Project. University of Rochester. Retrieved September 16, 2009. 
  50. ^ Everill (1845:12).
  51. ^ Nigl (2007:19).
  52. ^ Frédriksen (2001:14).
  53. ^ Hunt (1991:423).
  54. ^ "Beginning of English History" Commemoration Stone - Pegwell Bay, Kent, UK - UK Historical Markers on". Retrieved 2013-10-26. 
  55. ^ Internet Movie Database. "imdb Carry on Cleo (1964)". Retrieved 2013-10-26. 


External links

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