Friday, September 4, 2015

Hoofprints of the Goddess

Horses run through our dreams. We wake, hearts pounding, still feeling the thunder of the hoofbeats.
     Our dream horses are not the same, of course. Some are oppressed by dreams of a black horse that seems like a figure of death, or a red horse foreboding war and bloodshed, or a ghostly pale horse that brings the sense of sorrow and bereavement. Such dreams - and Fuseli's famous painting of nightmare - have encouraged the belief that the "nightmare" has to do with a mare, whereas in fact (the etymologists tell me) the "mare" part here is most likely derived from the Old Germanic mer, meaning something that crushes and oppresses.
    In dreams, the state of a horse is often a rather exact analog for the state of our bodies and our vital energy. When you dream of a starving horse, you want to ask: what part of myself needs to be nourished and fed? You dream of horses flayed and hung up under the roof beams (as did a dreamer in one of my workshops) and you need to ask: which parts of me have been flayed and violated in the course of my life, and how do I heal and bring those parts back to life? 
    Such a dream also evokes the ancient rituals of horse sacrifice - common to many cultures - and might also require a search back across time into primal material from the realm of the ancestors, lost to ordinary consciousness, but alive in the deeps of the collective memory. In the opening of the Brihadaranya Upanishad, the whole universe is likened to a sacrificial horse.
      In Greek mythology, horses are the gift of Poseidon, and come surging from the sea, their streaming manes visible in the whitecaps. Or they irrupt from the dark Underworld, from whence Hades charges on his black stallions to ravish Persephone with his unstoppable sexual energy and hurl her into a realm of savage initiation beneath the one she knows. Yet in Arcadia, Persephone's mother Demeter, the great goddess of Earth and grain and beer, was depicted with a horse's head.
      Go to the British Isles, and you find the white mare revered as the mount and form of
the Goddess. Her prints still mark the land whichever way you ride, even if only by train or car or Shanks' pony. In ancient Ireland, a true king was required to mate with the white mare, as the living symbol of the sacred Earth. (It would take a manful king indeed to couple with a mare; I suspect a priestess was substituted.) In Wales, she is Rhiannon, and she comes mounted on a white horse out of Annwn, the Underworld, to marry a prince.
       In Gaul and throughout the Roman Empire, she is Epona, a  name related to the Gaulish epos, “horse”. She is usually depicted riding side-saddle on a mare or between twin horses. She was hugely popular in Gaul and the Rhineland, but was also known in Britain. She was regarded as a patron by cavalrymen. The Aedui, used as auxiliaries by Julius Caesar, prayed to her to protect their horses (and themselves) in battle. To the wider community, she was a Mother Goddess, and her imagery often suggests fertility. On a stone relief of Epona at Brazey in Burgundy, a foal is beneath the mare she is riding, possibly suckling. She often appears carrying baskets of fruit or loaves of bread. She was awarded her own official festival in the Roman calendar, on December 18.
     Miranda Green comments, in her excellent book Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, “The horse is absolutely crucial to Epona’s definition: the equine symbolism gave rose to many different levels of meaning, with the result that Epona was worshipped not only as patroness of horses but also as a giver of life, health, fertility and plenty, and as a protectress of humans even beyond the grave.”
    Epona was associated with death and rebirth beyond the grave. She is often depicted in Gaulish cemeteries. At a burial ground of the Medioatrici near Metz, images of Epona were offered by relatives of the deceased; one depicts the goddess on her mare, leading a mortal to the Otherworld.
     We know the horse in living myths as healer and teacher, as vehicle for travel to higher realms, and as the source of creative inspiration. It is the hooves of Pegasus, rending the rock, that open the Hippocrene spring, beside the grove of the Muses, from which poets have drunk ever since. It is Chiron the centaur, the man-horse, who is the mentor of Asklepios, the man-god synonymous with healing, especially through dreams. In fairy tales (the Grimms' and others) it is often the horse that can find the way when humans are lost.
    I dreamed the other night of rounding up a great herd of wild horses, and understood, waking in excitement and delight, that this was about bringing vital energy back where it belongs and helping to shape a model of understanding and practice of soul recovery for communities as well as individuals, The wild horse racing through our dreams may be the windhorse of spirit, or vital essence, that needs both to run free and to be harnessed to a life path and a human purpose. 
    Of all the shaman terms I have heard, "windhorse" is my favorite. It is native to at least three traditions of Central Asia, where the word "shaman" and the shaman's frame drum (often made with horse hide and commonly called the shaman's "horse") originate. In Buryat (Mongolian) the word for "windhorse" is khiitori; in Old Turkic it is Rüzgar Tayi; in Tibetan it is rlung ta (pronounced lung ta).
     When you think about it, the horse is unlike any other animal. Stronger than man, it yet allows itself to be gentled and bridled and provided the main form of locomotion for all those centuries before the invention of the internal combustion engine. As in Plato's image of the charioteer of the soul, challenged to manage the rival energies of a horse that wants to go down on a rampage, wild and sexy and possibly violent, and the steady horse whose instinct is always to go up, to rise higher, we are challenged by our dream horses to recognize, release and temper the horse power within us.
     In some of my workshops, I lead people on a journey to find their spirit horses and ride them to a very special place where they can reclaim vital soul energy and identity, from a child self who went missing when the world seemed too cruel, or a younger self who separated because of a wrenching life choice. Sometimes these journeys of soul healing result in the beautiful transformation I call spiritual enthronement, when we are able to receive and embody a part of the greater self – sometimes the Goddess self – because we are now ready to live a greater life.
    Follow the hoofprints of your dream horse and you may find you are on the trail of the Goddess.

Images: (1) Dun horse of Lascaux, cave art from at least 17,000 years ago. (2) Statue of Epona with grain basket and twin horses from Köngen, Germany c. 200 CE..

1 comment:

Tim Robinson said...

In Black Elk's vision too horses were the intermediaries that led him to his ancestors where he received his message.