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Hengist and Horsa: An Idea

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Hengist and Horsa: An Idea

Postby Frank_Lloyd_Knight » Sat Jul 11, 2015 1:34 am

I've had this idea bouncing around in my head for a little while now, and finally sat down to write it out tonight. For those of you unfamiliar with the two Anglo-Saxon war leaders, Hengist and Horsa, here is a link to the wikipedia article.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hengist_and_Horsa

My idea follows:
In considering the two Anglo-Saxon historical figures, Hengist and Horsa, two thoughts have consistently bothered me. The first is that when it came to names, Horsa definitely got the short end of the stick, being named a mere “horse” when compared to his brother Hengist, the stallion. One might wonder if they had an even younger brother who was named “Old Nag.”

The second thought that has bothered me is that where Hengist makes an appearance on both sides of the sea, on the English island and the continent, Horsa only makes an appearance on the English side. One is forced to wonder where, during Hengist’s misadventures at Finnesburh, was Horsa?

For the most part these questions stayed in the back of my mind. Recently, however, I came across the book, 1066 and All That (Sellar and Yeatman), a humorous spoof of English history lessons. The sentence, “Memorable among the Saxon warriors were Hengist and his wife (? or horse), Horsa,” caught my attention. While facetious, the passage seems to refer to some real confusion school students might encounter in reviewing their history lessons. But the thought occurred to me that if Horsa really were only Hengist’s own horse, it would be only too easy to imagine an inside joke among the warrior band (the riddle-loving Germans that they were) being misinterpreted by their British hosts as referring to two leaders. The English would probably have found it humorous to encourage the misunderstanding, but perhaps later as their relationship became antagonistic, such a misunderstanding could actually have become a useful piece of military disinformation. Of course that is all only idle speculation.

But the thought was enough to make me try and consider what “horsa” might literally mean. The best that I can tell, thumbing through Bright’s Old English Grammar and Reader, is that “horsa” is the plural genitive form of “hors.” The phrase “horsa hengist” or “hengist horsa,” therefore, would mean horses’ stallion. But the phrase in which one sees the names of the Anglo-Saxon war leaders is usually rendered Hengist AND Horsa. Which, roughly, I would take to mean a “stallion and the horses to which he belongs” or “horses and their stallion” or the “herd and their stallion.” Initially, these phrases seem awkward. But when one considers the context, a band of warriors and their leader, such a form would be parallel to saying Thorin & Company (an example from the book, The Hobbit, being the only comparison coming to mind at the moment).

Some authors have noted that warriors of this era would frequently take nicknames for battle, and it has been suggested that Hengist might be such a nickname for a warrior with yet some other proper name. If such were the case, it would make sense for his war band to refer to themselves as horses, or a herd of horses: Hengist & Horses, instead of Hengist & Company.

Horses being in the genitive case rather than stallion (thus showing that the stallion belongs to the herd, rather than the herd being a possession of the stallion – “the herd’s stallion” versus “the stallion’s herd”), would be consistent with Germanic concepts of democracy and equality among the warriors of the band. The warriors are present according to their own will rather than compulsion, and they agree together that Hengist, one of their own, should be their leader. Presenting Hengist first in the title, would place emphasis on his being the most formidable among the bunch.

With the title Hengist & Horsa (replacing a hypothetical generic form: Warrior & Company) as the name of a roving band of adventurers for hire (“Have ships, will travel!”), it could be quite imaginable that somewhere along the way, either contemporaneously or historically, confusion arose and it was perceived that there were two leaders, brothers, of the warrior band instead of the title of a company. While I do not approve of randomly removing a whole person from the historical record without cause, this idea does seem to explain the two questions I mentioned: why there seems to be a disparity in the formidability of the brothers’ names (not to mention the redundancy of the names), and why one of the brothers is not mentioned where one should expect him to be found. With this question in mind, reading the inconspicuous words “Hengist’s band” in Beowulf suddenly warrants a little scrutiny.

One way or the other, I still like to imagine the English having a private joke at the expense of the British about Hengist’s Horse. “Who is your leader?” the British officer asked of the stubborn English prisoner. “Horsa!”
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