Tuesday 7 September 2021

Ansikurra - The History of Horses

I need to take a deep breath before I begin this one.

I have just completed 300 pages of editing, with 230 more to go.

I finished the manuscript at around 147,000 words and 478 pages.

The edit has just been supersizing this. I'm now at 165,000 words and 532 pages.

It's been a trip.

As in, I really tripped up in places. I need to rewrite the entirety of chapter 19, which is a lengthy battle scene involving horses...

Did you know the Sumerians didn't have horses?

Yeah, neither did I until a couple of days ago. So, there's plenty of depictions of Sumerians racing around in horse-drawn chariots, like the Standard of Ur (c. 2,600 BC). 

Only, those aren't really horses as you and I would know them. They're more sort of donkeys (look at the tail).

The images we're used to associating with ancient warfare, like this one, come in around the Neo-Assyrian period, about 1,500 years later.

Even then, they're not using stirrups or saddles. The Sumerians had a word, pala meaning a long, quilted saddle cloth. Probably much like the person above is sitting on. It provided a little cushioning between the bum and the back of the horse. 

There is a word in Akkadian, taapsu (taap-shu), which is translated as 'saddle'. In Turkish, you get pal-tar. This is also translated as 'saddle,' or in modern Turkish (through Google Translate) as 'coat'. So, again, perhaps pal-tar is more like a padded blanket than an actual leather saddle that you or I would recognise. 

Saddles as we know them today are thought to originate around 365 AD with the Sarmations, and were widely adopted by the Mongolian Huns. The Romans also had an earlier version of a saddle, but it didn't have stirrups. 

Pal-tar does seem rather like a portmanteau of pala and taapshu, which is not implausible as both Sumerian and Akkadian were spoken in the same region at the same time. This serves to highlight the problem when researching things like this. Although taapsu is translated as 'saddle,' it is more likely to just mean a padded blanket. The Akkadians also had a word for reins (asatu) and their donkeys do appear to wear them, but again, this could mean many things. In the pictures above, they appear to be attached to a muzzle around the nose. Other descriptions speak of a ring through the lip, much like a bullring. There is an Akkadian word for a horse-bit (ispardu/isperdu/ispar), but I don't know when these words came into the language. Akkadian was spoken from the 3rd millennia to the 1st, spanning the period of history when horses were introduced. I am writing c. 2300 BC, right on the cusp of their introduction. I know horses do not exist at the beginning of my story, but they may exist towards the end, especially as the conquest of cities stretches to the hill regions beyond Sumer. 

The Sumerians had the word sisu for horse, and the Akkadians had several words for horse and horse breeds: kilidar, sissu, sullamu, musarkisu, and even a couple of words meaning 'battle horse': mur nisqi and murnisqu. But the two questions here are, 1) how did they define a horse? Are these words for modern horse breeds or for something more like a donkey, and 2) when did these words come into being? The last known Akkadian document dates to the 1st century AD, so horses were very well established by then, and 'war horse' may well have become a common sight.

Although I find it quite hard to accept that people harnessed horses to chariots before they decided to ride them into war, this does appear to be the case. Horses, at that time in Mesopotamia, appear to have been strong, but rather small. Donkeys could pull chariots in teams and transport heavy loads as pack animals, but they were unlikely to have been strong enough to carry a man into battle. They certainly wouldn't have provided the height advantage that medieval war horses did. 

Horses, as we know them, did exist in the world, but over in Kazakhstan, where horse riding was becoming a bit of a specialty. The first horses were apparently ridden there around 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC). They then seem to have migrated down the mountainous regions into Mesopotamia. They may also have arrived through modern-day Iran. The mountain-dwelling Lullubi tribes were said to have a large supply of horses, and the Sumerians apparently distinguished this larger animal as ansikurra, meaning 'donkey of the mountain.'

This is what I've gleaned so far, and please do correct me if I've got something wrong.

Unfortunately, all of this means that I now have to go back and rewrite all the battle scenes involving horses to feature donkey chariots instead. It certainly changes the logistics of the battle quite a bit. 

I keep coming back to an essay that Bernard Cornwell (author of the Sharpe series) wrote years ago, where he got pulled up for including snowdrops in a scene, when they hadn't been imported from Turkey yet. 

The internet makes researching so much easier, but it also makes it easier for readers to check your writing and spot major historical mistakes. It's both extremely helpful and a complete headache at the same time. 

Enough about horses.

As for the edit, it's been tough. Really tough. So far, the story starts strong, and it's getting better after halfway, but there was a real slump in the middle where I just couldn't face it for a few days. It is by far the roughest draft I've ever written, and a lot needs fixing. I'm just trying to get it to the stage where I can show it to Leif and get my historical facts checked, but I think there will be several more edits after that.

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