Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Elsdon’s Horses’ Heads (NY936933)

© Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse 

In a cabinet in St.Cuthbert’s Church, Elsdon, can be found the skulls of three horses. The items were found in the building’s stump of a spire during restoration work in 1877 – in a specially made, sealed chamber – and no one has been able to satisfactorily explain the bizarre discovery.

It has been suggested that it may hark back to the ancient pagan ritual of sacrificing a horse, which was seen as a sanctifying action – perhaps originally during the construction of an early church on the spot. But as the church has been renovated several times over the centuries this would mean the survival of a very old tradition over a prolonged period. Elsdon, though, was a stopping off point for the body of St.Cuthbert on its wanderings in the late 9th century, so there may well be something in this story – namely, that the placing of the skulls was a sort of foundation sacrifice, which was then copied over the ages.

Horse’s skulls are surprisingly common finds in buildings of all sorts, not just churches, along with items such as shoes and dried cats. Reasons for such deposits are usually connected with fending off ill fortune or evil spirits. As for the placing of skulls in a bell tower or spire it could also be a sort of reinforcement of the original purpose of the church bells themselves, being to frighten away evil spirits. It has even been suggested that the skulls were placed where they were – directly over the bell – to enhance acoustics. So there does seem to be a sort of explanation for the Elsdon oddity…

Whatever the true story behind the horse skulls of Elsdon, we can be sure that their origins stretch back a long, long time.

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