A stable diet. Bologneighs. Filly steak. There was a spate of bad jokes and puns around in January 2013 because of the 'horse meat scandal'.
In the UK and Europe certain foodstuffs - notably burgers and ready meals - had been contaminated with meat from horses instead of the meat of the label. Besides the dire jokes, the issues raised are twofold. First, the fraudulent labelling, which goes against the Trade Description Act. Second, the sheer horror many British people have about eating horses.
The question is why regular meat-eaters have a problem with horses when they are happy to eat cows, sheep and pigs. All animals are seen in the fields and appear content in our landscape. Yet unlike many Europeans we British find the idea of eating horses abhorrent.
The main argument centres around the status of the horse. Unlike other farm animals horses have been our companions for centuries. While they have been working animals since domestication (thousands of years ago) horses have, like dogs, been valued friends of man. Besides shouldering a workload horses have accompanied people during times of recreation and sport, been given names and a special place in our culture. There have been horse statues and medals for bravery. Horses served us during both world wars as modes of transport, pulling equipment and munitions as well as acting as ambulances for the injured soldiers. Before that, the cavalry underpinned all of the Empire's campaigns. Evidence of this is abundant in writings and paintings and kings often commissioned portraits of themselves with their horse. Until the development of the motor, horses were essential to keep British society moving. We celebrate National Horse Days. It's only right that we don't eat them, isn't it?
However, the argument falls a little here. In the Bayeux Tapestry where the battle of Hastings is portrayed, the English are differentiated by their lack of horses. The Normans, from northern France, are the victors on horseback. The French were utilising horses in battle before the British. Up until the Norman conquest all battles in England took place on foot (you can see examples of this in Gulfyrian and Teon). The English did have horses and used them for transporting goods, pulling carts and the aristocracy rode them to battle, but the cavalry arrived with the Normans. So, somewhere along the line the attitudes towards the horse for Britain was different than in France despite the French reliance on the beast. Horse meat is quite common in France and the French appear not to be squeamish about it.
Archaeological evidence has proved that many horses were mature when they were buried, suggesting that they were not raised for meat. Graves of significant people, such as kings and leaders, had horses buried with them alongside food and treasures for the afterlife. The horse then, was thought of as a noble animal. According to research due to be published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, by Kristopher Poole, horses were available but very rarely eaten. The research analysed animal bone data and suggests that horses were eaten in early Anglo-Saxon northern Europe but reduced when England became Christian between the sixth and seventh centuries. The reason for this is that the Church associated the eating of horses with pagan rituals and discouraged it. The Norse god Odin and his Anglo-Saxon counterpart, Woden, were connected to the horse, especially the eight-legged beast Slepnir who led the Wild Hunt. The Christian Church obviously had a problem with the level of reverence given to the horse.
Yet this still does not explain why other Europeans eat horses and the British do not, as they too have been influenced by the Church. The reason, I believe, is that the fear of 'pagan food' is not why we hold the horse in such high regard. The horse goddess Epona was a Celtic deity also worshipped by the ancient Romans. However, the White Horse in Berkshire is a gigantic figure carved into the chalky rocks, making it a striking and imposing white shape. It was carved close by a an Iron Age fort and unlike later depictions of Epona. I don't believe there is any Roman connection at all. John X.W.P. Corcoran suggests that the Celtic version of the horse goddess originated from the Irish and Welsh as another manifestation of a mother-goddess, protector of the dead and representing fertility of the earth.
The horse is a sacred animal to the British. You wouldn't stick her in your burger bun, now would you?
This prehistoric carving, known as the Uffington White Horse, may be related to the Celtic goddess Epona, although some historians suggest it may be too early to be a representation of the goddess or even a horse at all. Coins have been discovered from the Iron Age with images similar to this, indicating either the significance of place or the horse itself (if it is a horse).
Other theories include one proposed by archaeologist Joshua Pollard suggesting that the figure is connected to the sun as it aligns and the horse overtakes the sun during midwinter. This is in keeping with the mythology of the sun being carried across the sky on the back of a horse.
Related: Dark Age Cats