Threshold Guardians: Dūrupālas

Erik Lacharity recently published an article on his page, Allodium Francorum, which provides insight into Frankish deities of the doorway, Francus and Vassus. This article, though entrenched in the Frankish model, provides a workable blueprint for reconstructing a parallel Anglo-Saxon threshold-cult, utilizing Hengest and Horsa in that role. While it would be superfluous to tread too heavily where Allodium Francorum has already trod, there are a few parallels worth touching on which may further our understanding of this cult. 

 

Germanic Sources

One of the most compelling pieces of supporting evidence for the “divine horse twins” acting as possible door guardians, is that of the horse-head gables found on Low Saxon houses throughout the North German Plain, all the way from the lower Rhine to Mecklenburg [1]. Here they were referred to as “Hengst und Hors” and according to Simek are suggestive of a belief in the twins as being equine in appearance [2]. A parallel motif also exists in Baltic countries, where horse-head gables, called žirgeliai, are employed as a ward against evil spirits [3].

“The employment of horses’ heads as talismans, a custom doubtless originating in heathendom, has been thought not only to suggest the sacrificial offering of a horse, but also to symbolize the religious dedication of a building placed under the protective influence of such a symbol. For among the ancient Teutons the horse was held to be the most holy of animals, and auguries were derived from the neighings of white horses in their sacred groves. There exists, moreover, among German peasants a widespread belief that the placing of carved wooden representations of horses’ heads upon house-gables is an act of homage to the Deity, whose blessing and benediction are thereby invoked upon the dwellings thus adorned, and upon the inmates as well.” [4]

 

46bfdeab38065e33793d7dce118b92a0--horse-head-traditional-house
The use of equine imagery as an apotropaic device was not limited to horse-head gables. In his Teutonic Mythology, Grimm describes the Scandinavian “nithing-pole,” or “spite-stake,” which consisted of a newly cleaved horse’s head being fastened to a pole with with its mouth fixed open. The nithing-pole (ON: níðstang) was then turned in the direction of an enemy, or the subject of one’s ire in an attempt to lay curses upon them.

In Egil’s Saga, the titular character erects a nithing-pole to send curses to Eric Bloodaxe and his wife, Gunnhilda.

“And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’ This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.” [5]

While the níðstang may not be a purely apotropaic device, their use does suggest an inherent belief in the power of horses as spiritual intercessors. This belief is likely informed by the Germanic concept of horses being vehicles for the dead, a motif which appears in a variety of written sources, as well as in archaeological finds [6].  

A similar account of horse heads being employed as wards occurs in the Roman account of the aftermath of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest. In this account, the Roman general, Caecina Severus reaches the scene of Varus’ defeat and sees the severed heads of horses fastened to trees. The horses, which belonged to Varus’ auxiliaries, were sacrificed by the Cherusci after the battle’s conclusion [7].

Comparatively, dead horses in Sussex were hung by the legs from horizontal tree branches to protect cattle. According to Robert Means Lawrence, this act may have been a survival from the Heathen period, mirroring earlier hanging sacrifices to Wōden [8].

While the use of sacrificial heads fell out of use after conversion, facsimiles continued to be used in the form of the aforementioned gables, as well as in the form of the horseshoe. An excerpt from Means Lawrence’s book sums up the horseshoe’s later use succinctly in a single paragraph. 

“It has been supposed that the horse-shoe is placed at the outer entrance to a building because of an ancient Saxon superstition that witches were unable successfully to practice their wiles upon persons in the open air. The horse-shoe effectively bars the ingress of witches and evil spirits, but an entrance once obtained by these creatures, it is powerless to expel them. Therefore the horse-shoe within doors loses much of its efficacy, but is still an emblem of good luck.” [9]

The threshold plays an important role in the religious life of the home and according to some scholars, may have acted as the original family altar.

“In the earliest historic times, and in primitive communities, the entrance of a dwelling was considered a sacred place; and in the opinion of eminent scholars who have made a study of the subject, the threshold was the first family altar. A peculiar reverence for the doorway and threshold prevails to-day in many parts of the world, as is evident from the numerous ceremonial rites in vogue among widely separated savage tribes and uncivilized peoples. Indeed, the custom of placing amulets and charms in and about the entrance-doors of houses, stables, and other buildings is almost universal.” [10]


The Dioscuri


In Greek religion we find a parallel to Hengest and Horsa in the Dioscuri. Though they possess many attributes and epithets which place them outside the sphere of the home, we will focus solely on their role as deities related to the ancient household.

The Spartan Dioscuri were intrinsically linked to the dokana, which consisted of two upright beams crossed with two transverse beams. Although various explanations have been suggested for the dokana’s meaning,  the most probable theory is that it represents the frame of a house built of crude bricks [11].

“That the Dioscuri were house gods is proved by their cult. A meal was set out and a couch prepared for them in the house. This is what Euphorion did; Phormion was punished because he would not open the chamber of his house to them. These meals were called theoxenia. Theron of Agrigentum and Iason of Pherae prepared meals in honor of the Dioscuri, and Bacchylides in a poem invites them to a meal from which wine and songs will not be missing. The Athenians spread the table in the prytaneum for them with a frugal, old-fashioned meal of cheese, cakes, olives, and leeks. Some vase paintings and reliefs show the Dioscuri coming to the meal. Here they are riding, in accordance with the common conception.” [12][13]

In many cases the Dioscuri appear alongside snakes, a common motif in Greek house cult(s) which links them to Zeus Herkeios (Zeus of the boundary/fence) and Zeus Ktesios (Zeus of the home), both of which were were represented in serpentine fashion [14].


The cult of the Dioscuri was exported to ancient Lavinium and subsequently spread throughout the rest of the Italic Peninsula, where it retained much of its original Greek character. Here, the figures of Castor and Pollux took on the role of the
Dioscuri, where they were invoked as protective deities and gods of the threshold. It was only later in Roman history that their practice deviated from the functions of the original Hellenic cult.


 

Dvarapala 

An eastern equivalent of the Dūrupālas can be seen in the Dvarapala (door guards) found throughout the Hindu and Buddhist world. Dvarapala, like their Western counterparts, guard the doorways of homes and temples, warding against beings of malefic intent.

Dvarapala have their origins in tutelary deities, some of which, like Acala, are venerated in their own right [15]. In many cases these Dvarapala are considered Yaksha– a broad type of nature spirit who exercise guardianship over specific places [16]. According to Ram Nath Misra, the Yaksha were, as other deities, given specific adoration and offering.

“An essential part of devotional adoration lies in the offerings that are made to the deity. The offering to Yakshas comprised of flowers, incense (particularly aguru), meat and wine, a dish consisting of mixed and cooked cereals, fruits and water, rice, fish, flour cakes either cooked or uncooked, fragrant things, beverages and different types of wreaths and garments.” [17]

visnu_dvarapala_by_uneaskan-d33y5dt

Dvarapala are typically anthropomorphic in appearance, though it is not uncommon to see Dvarapala in the form of snake in certain areas of Sri Lanka. In Java and Bali, the Dvarapala are often portrayed as fierce, kneeling giants with monstrous features wielding clubs. While in Thailand and Cambodia, Dvarapala appear slender and upright, holding their weapons in a downward position.

The major difference between the Eastern examples and the Greek and Germanic examples is that Dvarapala do not necessarily appear in pairs. The number of Dvarapala is largely dependent on the size of the structure, with larger buildings receiving higher numbers of guardians. There is also the obvious omission of equine qualities found in both the Dioscuri and Hengest and Horsa.


Conclusion

Now that we have explored the divine twin cults in Germanic areas, as well as in ancient Greece and we’ve given a brief overview of the Dvarapala, we may be better able to illustrate how a modern practitioner of Fyrnsidu might integrate this cult into their existing household praxis.

As stated at the beginning of this post, Hengest and Horsa would likely be best for the role of threshold guardians based on the evidence presented. Their links to Low German horse gables as well as their similarities to the Dioscuri position them as the ideal candidate.

For the modern practitioner, this cult might manifest in the form of horseshoes, or some other equine-related symbol placed directly above or on both sides of the door. The practitioner may also opt for a more anthropomorphic representation, reminiscent of Eastern door guardians. A spell of protection might be spoken or written and hung in conjunction with these images to ensure further efficacy.

“In some regions there still prevails a time-honored custom of placing over the chief entrances of dwellings inscriptions, embodying usually a religious thought or exhortation. Sometimes, however, the sentence commends the house and its occupants to the care of the goddess Fortune, thus having a significance akin to that of the horse-shoe symbol. “ [18]

Once the appropriate symbols and words are fixed, the practitioner might then invite the numen of the Dūrupālas (OE: Door-poles) into the threshold images, while simultaneously providing offering. Pouring libation outside the threshold, or leaving a small offering by the front door might be preferred [*].

After the sacred threshold is set up, the Þingere (household priest) will need to provide further offerings to the Dūrupālas as needed. Some may choose to do this on a weekly basis and some many opt to do it annually- this is left to the discretion of the particular household. The more often you make offering to the Dūrupālas, the more likely you are to stay in their favour.

—————————————————————————–

[1]Elkin, T.H. Germany. 1972

[2]Simek, Rodolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. 2007


[3]
Pranė, Dundulienė. Lietuviu Etnologija. 1991

[4]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898

[5]Egils Saga Skallagrímssonar. Translation. Green, W.C. 1893


[6]
Roderick Ellis, Hilda. The Road to Hel. 1968

[7]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XII


[8]
Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XII

[9]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XIII

[10]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898. Chapter XIV

[11]Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion. 1940. Chapter IV

[12]Pausanias, III, 16, 3.

[13]Nilsson, Martin. P. Greek Popular Religion. 1940. Chapter IV

[14]Mikalson. Jon. D. Ancient Greek Religion. 2010


[15]
Van Bemmel, Helena A. Dvarapalas in Indonesia: Temple Guardians and Acculturation. 1994

[16]Richards, Richard John. South-East Asian Ceramics: Thai, Vietnamese and Khmer: From the Collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia. 1995

[17]Misra, Ram Nath. Yaksha Cult and Iconography. 1981

[18]Means Lawrence, Robert. The Magic of the Horse-shoe. 1898.

[*]It might be wise to exercise caution regarding the types of beverages/foodstuffs left for the Dūrupālas. Pouring a sweet mead on the threshold of your home is a great way to attract ants. Do you want ants? Because this is how you get ants. 

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