Merciless or majestic, we all have our own somewhat incongruous picture of the Mongols. Yet, in every disparate view lies a single staunch presence: The Horse. The Mongols were most feared as a cavalry, be it with bow or sword. They are credited with the earliest stirrups, an advantage as precious as steel over bronze. And none of it would be the same with out their quick, sure-footed, half-wild mounts.
The relationship between the Mongols and their horses is fairly unique one. Horses are at once revered, and nothing more than expendable livestock. A horse is a source of meat, milk, and leather, much as cattle are elsewhere, save that it be a horse that had been ridden into battle, for such a horse was deemed a hero and could not be killed for any human need. The practice of eating such a valuable animal we would not consider, but it seems to have worked much as wolves preying upon the weakest in the wild would, to strengthen the genetic material of those who were left. Along with the harsh environment, this combined to make Mongolian horses some of the most sought after in medieval China, and eventually even in eastern Europe.
These beasts were not (and still are not) named – until they earn it. This was a practice common In Europe only 150 years ago, particularly among the larger stables. However, I believe the horse's decline as a working animal and rise as a creature for leisure has accounted for our great fondness of fancy names. Mongolia today is not so far changed from even ten centuries past, and the place of their horses and other livestock remains equally similar.
How does a horse 'earn' a name? The same way a Native American youth would, or a knight his unique moniker. By proving it's worth, by excelling in some manner. A horse that has won a Nadaam race is worthy of a name, as is one who has ridden to war.
Still, a horse is a horse, and certain themes will always exist where human and horse meet. There is always some color or marking that is deemed best of all, and with the Mongols it was 'Chagaan' (white). Not only was a horse with more white prized (not just pure white or grey, but also paints, as Erkhii Mergen's horse was said to have been), but in the time of Chinggis there was always a single white stallion, left to live on his own, seen as a living piece of heaven. When one got old, a yearling or two year old would replace it.
Chinggis Khan put forth laws on every subject imaginable, and horses were no exception. "The man in whose possession a stolen horse is found must return it to its owner and add nine horses of the same kind: if he is unable to pay this fine, his children must be taken instead of the horses, and if he have no children, he himself shall be slaughtered like a sheep."
© 2003, by Katrin Boniface, in the SCA: Muujgai
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