Were Hengest and Horsa Real?

Jan 2015
81
Pangea
#1
I have read a lot of discussion lately about King Arthur and whether or not he is an actual figure, but I wasn't able to find a thread discussing Hengest and Horsa. I have read some theories on Hengest in particular and whether the story involving him is a myth, but I'd like to find out what people on this forum think.

One theory in particular I have read that I find very interesting is that the Hengest mentioned in the Beowulf poem is the same Hengest that conquered parts of Briton.

Thoughts?
 

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
9,990
Damned England
#2
Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote primarily from a Welsh perspective but who managed to work just about every myth or legend into this "History of the Kings of Britain" (including a theory that the Welsh were descended from the Trojans who escaped the Greek sack of Troy!), mentions Hengest and Horsa. Bede also mentions the brothers, as does the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but both were writing retrospectively. The only contemporary or near contemporary writer to mention the brothers was Nennius in his "Historia Brittonum". Nennius was a Welsh monk. Later, Snorri Sturluson mentions Hengest in the "Prose Edda", a Christian view of old Norse (Pagan) legends and stories.

Of the main figures of the era of the early conquests in Britain, most figures are hard to work out. The man who allegedly invited Hengest and Horsa to be his mercenaries, Vortigern, has the sound of either a title or a legendary figure. (The name sounds more like a title given later, and not like a common Celtic or Romano-Celtic king's name).

Some scholars point to the fact that that horse related twin brothers are a feature of Germanic and, indeed, Indo European culture. However, my feeling is that Hengest and Horsa did exist and were probably more likely than Arthur.

The problem is, the Anglo-Saxons were not great recorders at that time and nor were the Celts: the Romans would have done a better job, but they'd almost all left before these events.
 
Aug 2010
14,670
Welsh Marches
#3
Hengist was coarser than Horsa,
And Horsa was awfully coarse.
Horsa drank whiskey,
Told tales that were risqué,
But Hengist was in a divorce.

Horsa grew coarser and coarser,
But Hengist was coarse all his life.
That reprobate Horsa
Drank tea from a saucer,
But Hengist ate peas with his knife.
 
Feb 2011
13,425
Perambulating in St James' Park
#4
Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote primarily from a Welsh perspective but who managed to work just about every myth or legend into this "History of the Kings of Britain" (including a theory that the Welsh were descended from the Trojans who escaped the Greek sack of Troy!), mentions Hengest and Horsa. Bede also mentions the brothers, as does the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but both were writing retrospectively. The only contemporary or near contemporary writer to mention the brothers was Nennius in his "Historia Brittonum". Nennius was a Welsh monk. Later, Snorri Sturluson mentions Hengest in the "Prose Edda", a Christian view of old Norse (Pagan) legends and stories.

Of the main figures of the era of the early conquests in Britain, most figures are hard to work out. The man who allegedly invited Hengest and Horsa to be his mercenaries, Vortigern, has the sound of either a title or a legendary figure. (The name sounds more like a title given later, and not like a common Celtic or Romano-Celtic king's name).

Some scholars point to the fact that that horse related twin brothers are a feature of Germanic and, indeed, Indo European culture. However, my feeling is that Hengest and Horsa did exist and were probably more likely than Arthur.

The problem is, the Anglo-Saxons were not great recorders at that time and nor were the Celts: the Romans would have done a better job, but they'd almost all left before these events.


It's difficult to tell the veracity of old texts from the Dark Ages as so little survives, it's interesting to consider their supposed battle standard though.


From Wiki:





The Uffington White Horse hill figure as seen from above




In his 17th-century work Monumenta Britannica, English antiquarian John Aubrey ascribes the Uffington White Horse hill figure to Hengist and Horsa, stating that "the White Horse was their Standard at the Conquest of Britain". However, elsewhere he ascribes the origins of the horse to the pre-Roman Britons, reasoning that the horse resembles certain Iron Age British coins. As a result, advocates of a Saxon origin of the figure debated with those favoring an ancient British origin for three centuries after Aubrey's findings. In 1995, using Optical Luminescence Dating, David Miles and Simon Palmer of the Oxford Archaeological Unit assigned the Uffington White Horse to the late Bronze Age.[45]
But now let's consider the old flag of Lower Saxony:







And this is the flag of Kent (which Hengist and Horsa conquered at Aylesbury) :






Co-incidence?


If Hengist and Horsa were from Saxony the old battle standards seem to tie in with their story and the claims of Aubrey.


Incidentally, when Hengist/Horsa and their cronies killed Vortigen it was described as the 'Night of the Long Knives' as a reference to the saxe swords used by the Saxons. This is the same name given to the night for when Hitler and his sunshine parade bumped off all his competitors like Ernst Rohm.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2014
2,131
Westmorland
#5
I have read a lot of discussion lately about King Arthur and whether or not he is an actual figure, but I wasn't able to find a thread discussing Hengest and Horsa. I have read some theories on Hengest in particular and whether the story involving him is a myth, but I'd like to find out what people on this forum think.
We've discussed this a bit in recent times. There are two camps. Traditional Anglo Saxonists (like the poster Haesten and possibly also the poster Aelfwine) think he was real and are broadly happy to accept the deeds attributed to him as factual. This more or less tallies with what everyone thought back in the 1970s, when academics were more ready to accept the problematic documentary sources for the Anglo Saxon adventus at face value.

Most academics nowadays consider H&H to be legendary: apical founder figures seized upon and made real as part of a process of English nation-building well after the actual event (see, for example, Barbara Yorke, Helena Hamerow, Nick Higham, Patrick Sims-Williams, Thomas Greene, Alex Woolf et al). They are possibly personified horse gods. Or possibly a manifestation of the common 'divine brothers' motif which crops up all over the place (see David Henige for more examples). Possibly a manifestation of the 'Great Fleet' motif, which also crops up all over the place (ditto).

Either way, one can track the development of the legend through the early sources, although it is worth bearing in mind that there is not a shred of contemporaneous evidence to suggest that anyone in the fifth century knew about them. Gildas (writing about 80 years after the adventus) mentions the Saxons arriving but gives no names. Bede (writing about 300 years after the adventus) knew about H&H but probably didn't believe they were real. He appears to use phrases like 'it is said' or 'people say' when he is suspicious. By the time of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Brittonum (500 years after the adventus), we have the full pantomime written, complete with sizzling daughters, teatime massacres (also a commonly recurring motif) and massive, Lord of the Rings style battles. The idea that these tales are genuine recollections of events that happened half a millenium beforehand but no-one ever managed to write down earlier is, quite frankly, ludicrous. They look much more like ripping yarns, lifted from a developing and dynamic oral tradition and representing what the English wanted to believe about themselves or what the Welsh wanted to believe about the English.

One theory in particular I have read that I find very interesting is that the Hengest mentioned in the Beowulf poem is the same Hengest that conquered parts of Briton.
The only thing that is the same is the name. So, we have three options:-

1. There were two Hengests, either or both of whom were legendary figures.

2. There was one real Hengest who was a very busy boy.

3. There was one mythical Hengest who got various legends and stories attached to him.

I go with option 3.

Regards,

Peter
 
Last edited:

Haesten

Ad Honorem
Dec 2011
2,772
#6
There is nothing mythical in any of the stories of Hengest, Bede does not question Hengest being real, he may be questioning them as first commanders.

"The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa. Of whom Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence."

We have two certain Anglo-Saxon royal pagan burials, not a sign in either that the horse was a deity.
 
Jan 2015
81
Pangea
#7
We've discussed this a bit in recent times. There are two camps. Traditional Anglo Saxonists (like the poster Haesten and possibly also the poster Aelfwine) think he was real and are broadly happy to accept the deeds attributed to him as factual. This more or less tallies with what everyone thought back in the 1970s, when academics were more ready to accept the problematic documentary sources for the Anglo Saxon adventus at face value.

Most academics nowadays consider H&H to be legendary: apical founder figures seized upon and made real as part of a process of English nation-building well after the actual event (see, for example, Barbara Yorke, Helena Hamerow, Nick Higham, Patrick Sims-Williams, Thomas Greene, Alex Woolf et al). They are possibly personified horse gods. Or possibly a manifestation of the common 'divine brothers' motif which crops up all over the place (see David Henige for more examples). Possibly a manifestation of the 'Great Fleet' motif, which also crops up all over the place (ditto).
Ah, so are you saying that you believe there was not an invasion by Saxons, in the military sense? I have heard this 'Great Fleet' motif theory before and would like to hear more about it. There have been invasions by fleet prior to that (Romans/Sea Peoples).

Either way, one can track the development of the legend through the early sources, although it is worth bearing in mind that there is not a shred of contemporaneous evidence to suggest that anyone in the fifth century knew about them. Gildas (writing about 80 years after the adventus) mentions the Saxons arriving but gives no names. Bede (writing about 300 years after the adventus) knew about H&H but probably didn't believe they were real. He appears to use phrases like 'it is said' or 'people say' when he is suspicious. By the time of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Historia Brittonum (500 years after the adventus), we have the full pantomime written, complete with sizzling daughters, teatime massacres (also a commonly recurring motif) and massive, Lord of the Rings style battles. The idea that these tales are genuine recollections of events that happened half a millenium beforehand but no-one ever managed to write down earlier is, quite frankly, ludicrous. They look much more like ripping yarns, lifted from a developing and dynamic oral tradition and representing what the English wanted to believe about themselves or what the Welsh wanted to believe about the English.
I tend to lean that way, but I am not sure and am still developing my opinion. I would add that the 'twins foundation myth' is quite common as well.

The only thing that is the same is the name. So, we have three options:-

1. There were two Hengests, either or both of whom were legendary figures.

2. There was one real Hengest who was a very busy boy.

3. There was one mythical Hengest who got various legends and stories attached to him.

I go with option 3.

Regards,

Peter
So you think that the Hengest of Beowulf is the same as the Hengest of Anglo-Saxon accounts?

Thank you for the response!
 
Jan 2015
81
Pangea
#8
There is nothing mythical in any of the stories of Hengest, Bede does not question Hengest being real, he may be questioning them as first commanders.

"The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa. Of whom Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence."

We have two certain Anglo-Saxon royal pagan burials, not a sign in either that the horse was a deity.
Thank you for your response. Were the royal burials dated? Do you think Hengest was his real name?
 
Mar 2014
8,881
Canterbury
#9
There is nothing mythical in any of the stories of Hengest
This can't be repeated enough. The texts (the first of which came out very soon after the brothers died, by usual Dark Age standards) give us no reason to think they're not real, so I'm not sure why it's became such a popular viewpoint.
 
Dec 2012
651
Dublin
#10
There is nothing mythical in any of the stories of Hengest, Bede does not question Hengest being real, he may be questioning them as first commanders.

"The two first commanders are said to have been Hengist and Horsa. Of whom Horsa, being afterwards slain in battle by the Britons, was buried in the eastern parts of Kent, where a monument, bearing his name, is still in existence."

We have two certain Anglo-Saxon royal pagan burials, not a sign in either that the horse was a deity.
We cannot trust that they are historical but are invented figures that lend veracity to an origin myth. You cannot trust Bede concerning Hengist and Horsa. He claims, for example, that their g'g'grandfather was Woden, a mythological deity!

Erant autem filii Uictgilsi, cuius pater Uitta, cuius pater Uecta, cuius pater Uoden, de cuius stirpe multarum prouinciarum regium genus originem duxit.
They were the sons of Victgilsus, whose father was Vitta, son of Vecta, son of Woden; from whose stock the royal race of many provinces trace their descent.
[Book I Chap. 15]

Bede also tells us that Horsa had a monument bearing his name still extant in Kent in the eight century but, if this were so, it is very strange that such a monument was not cherished and preserved as of major importance in attesting to the Anglo-Saxon sense of salvation history and their providential role in it. Bede never stirred out of Northumbria and his recording of this monument as hearsay is just as credulous as his affirmation without question of Hengest and Horsa mythological ancestry.