Today is the Feast Day of St Hippolytus, a third century theologian who, as his name may suggest, is the Patron Saint of Horses. What has that got to do with shamanism I hear you ask? Well, there are hints that he founded a healing cult for horses that survived in Britain into medieval times.
St Hippolytus of Rome (170–235) is considered the most important third century theologian in the Christian Church in Rome, where he was probably born. What is left of the writings about his life record a stern figure, concerned with orthodoxy. Whilst he welcomed Pagan converts, he insisted their penance must be strict.
Under the persecution of Emperor Maximinus Thrax, Hippolytus was exiled in 235 to Sardinia, where he died. On August 13th (his Feast Day) he was interred in Rome and, by about 255, Hippolytus was considered a martyr and, later, saint.
According to Prudentius, writing in the 5th century in his “Passion of St Hippolytus”, the saint was dragged to death by wild horses, earning his martyrdom.
Whilst this is possible, it is also likely that Prudentius was mixing up this Hippolytus with the legendary Hippolytus, who appears in Euripides’ play of the same name. According to Euripides, Hippolytus (Greek: Ἱππόλυτος meaning “unleasher of horses”) was a son of Theseus and Hippolyte. He was killed after rejecting the advances of Phaedra, his stepmother, the second wife of Theseus. Spurned, Phaedra deceived Theseus saying that his son had raped her. Theseus, furious, used one of the three wishes given to him by Poseidon to curse Hippolytus. Poseidon sent a sea-monster to terrorize Hippolytus’s horses, who dragged their rider to his death.
I wonder if Prudentius may have got his Hippolytus confused with Euripides’. If so, then how did St Hippolytus become the patron saint of horses if not through his death?
Another (from what I can tell, unreferenced) story is that Hippolytus was no Roman saint but a man known to be skilled in taming colts and in treating sick horses. This might be dismissed out of hand but for a little known cult of St Hippolytus in a Hertfordshire village.
It all starts, appropriately, with another execution. According to the local church records, the building was funded by grants supplied by Judith de Lens, the niece of William the Conqueror. De Lens gave evidence against her husband, a Saxon Earl, which led to his execution. The funding of the church was an attempt to make amends for this act. Why de Lens dedicated the church to St Hippolytus is unknown – perhaps he was a saint she was fond of in Normandy. He was clearly revered locally too as the village that grew around the church is still called St Ippolyts today.
For the Normans (and the Anglo-Saxons) horses were the living pulse of their existences. Horses were everything to these people as we can tell by the fine images of horses in jewellery and weapons. So a legend grew that a sick horse brought to the shrine to St Hippolytus inside St Ippolyts’ church, would be healed. This tradition lasted throughout the medieval period.
So was St Hippolytus a Christian martyr, pulled apart by wild horses like his Classical namesake, or was he actually a healer specialising in horses, an original horse-whisperer? If he was the latter, then the activities in St Ippolyts make more sense; and it is likely that he became a Patron Saint of horses not because of his brutal death and dismemberment at their hooves, but because he cared for these creatures both in life, and in death.
As for the tradition today, at St Ippolyts’ church the 2015 Horse Blessing service was held on Sunday, 9th August. 16 horses were present to be blessed by the vicar, Revd Ann, who also led prayers dedicated to horses and the part they play in the world. The collection went to the Riding for the Disabled Charity. I think St Hippolytus would have looked very kindly upon his 21st century brethren.
The image is from St Ippolyts’ Church website.