Paradise

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust

THE HORSE


And I saw heaven opened,
And behold a white horse;
And he that sat upon him
Was called Faithful and True,
And in righteousness
He doth judge and make war.

Revelations XIX  

 From the fathomless swell of darkened chaos, the waves that flood the shadow of amorphous shores, the Dawn Horse surged, its streaming mane formed of luminous droplets, its eyes ablaze with the fire of all life to be. Its blackness gleamed with the purity of light and its flanks shone in sorrel flickers that played upon the receding tide. Like the wind that rises at the edge of night, the Ocean-Born soared forward into the day. He is Neptune's horses, all in one. He is Indra's Uchaisravas who, scattering the curdled milk, sprang forth at the churning of the great sea. His dripping forelock dries and his hoofs harden like unto stone as he courses across the opening sky. He is aflame! He pervades the air and strikes the rising continents. His form is seen flashing in every dark cloud, and he embodies all the cosmic forces that surge out of the night of non-being.

Know then that amongst us it is admitted that
Allah created the horse out of the wind
As he created Adam out of the earth.

Abd-el-Kader-Ben Mahhiden

 The symbolism of the horse is portrayed in a multitude of postures in poetry and scripture. Emerging from the Mother Deep, it combines the elements of wind and fire and prances upon the earth as the emblem of the cosmic cycle, life, desire, death, destruction and the energy of the divine Sun. It brings the force of the Mother into the day, spilling forth upon the earth as rivulets and ponds. The Celts, believing horses came from the Waterworld, often named streams after them, while the Greeks believed that all springs were produced by the striking of their hoofs against the rocky soil of Hellas. Thus, they said, winged Pegasus created the spring of Hippoubrene (Horse's Fount) on Mount Helibon in the Boeotian mountains of the Muses, The fiery and watery elements commingle in a galloping stream of mythical steeds which flows wherever people have harkened to the hoof beat that marks the pulsation of their own inner powers, their hopes, fears and greatest desires.

 Among the Finno-Ugric peoples, the Turks conceived of the stars as a great drove of horses tethered at the world-pillar, which the Yakut tribes called the Horse-Post Ruler. In Central Asia nomadic members of this group tied their mounts to a pole fixed at the centre of their encampments just as they supposed the gods fastened theirs to the Heavenly Post. This great world-pillar is sometimes regarded as the axis which unites the three worlds, suggesting that the horse represents the movement towards or along it, perhaps illustrated by the Eddie god Odin, who rides his mount through the sea and air each day to Urd's well at the place of the world-tree. This arboreal counterpart of the Heavenly Post was called Yggdrasil or Ygg's horse (Odin's steed), implying that the world-tree axis can itself be symbolized by the horse as well as the forces that cycle around and are tethered to it. These circling forces are worshipped and feared by men, a paradoxical response demonstrated by the Japanese who sacrificed a white horse, representing life, to the Tatsuta-hime for rain, and a black horse of death for its cessation. Even the elements most clearly associated with the birth and cycle of the horse are fraught with a mixture of good and evil power. It was the water-horse of the Celts who waylaid and molested travellers along the banks of ponds which could have quenched their thirst, while the horse of dawn rises in a flame of desire which will become for many the prison-cage of worldly passion.

 Jung felt that the wild horse symbolized the uncontrollable instinctive drives that can erupt from the unconscious and which most people try to repress. Like wine-maddened centaurs, they hover just below the surface of the mind, ready to surge forth. There are haunting tales in the Indo-European tradition which tell of the intense relationship that can develop between this wild set of forces and man. The French film Crin Blanc depicts the struggles of a boy and an untamed white horse who attempt to escape from pursuing villagers intent upon their capture. They are finally cornered at the sea's edge and, rather than be caught, plunge together into the dark waves below. It is as though the boy would slip back into the ocean of unconsciousness rather than face the limitations of what men call reality. But the Mother must give up her powerful progeny and the boy must learn to do more than pursue the horse into oblivion. Thus Medusa, who was once the Earth Mother, gave birth to Pegasus at the moment of her death. Poseidon visited her in the form of a stallion and planted within her the seed of the heaven-bound steed. There is, however, a great difference between the winged flight of Pegasus and the unruly riderless horse or the horse with a headless rider. Poor Ichabod Crane was fully justified in trembling with fear when he anxiously approached the bridge where lurked that dark equine form.

 In his Lectures on Psychoanalysis Freud wrote: "One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go." In a slightly less solemn vein, one might recall the famous bucking broncs of the Western rodeo circuit who tested the skill of the cowboy and sent many a leather-flapping dude tumbling head over spurs into the dust. Names like Flying Devil, Corkscrew, Destruction, Widow-Maker, Tombstone, Gin Fizz, Red Pepper and Powder River are colourful reminders of the eruptive power possessed by an untamed horse. When the irrational is uppermost and the individual is out of control, folklore and prose have often invoked the horse, as in Stephen Leacock's lines: "He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode off madly in all directions."

How the horse dominated the mind of the early races, especially of the Mediterranean! You were a lord if you had a horse. Far back, far back in our dark soul the horse prances . . . the horse! the horse! The symbol of surging potency and power of movement, of action in man

D. H. Lawrence

 In Roman times the horse was dedicated to Mars and considered an omen of war which men have pursued for loot or glory or for spiritual victory. In Vedic symbolism it represents vital force and is the emblem of those nervous energies that support and carry forward all our action. It is variously called arvat, 'war-steed' and vajin, 'steed of the spiritual journey'. It is like Vayu's 'steeds of the yoking', those dynamic movements which yoke the energy to the action. The two shining horses of Indra were called the Sun's two powers of perception. They are the forces "yoked by speech to their movements, yoked by the Word and fashioned by the mind; the free movement of the luminous mind, the divine mind in man, is the condition of all other immortalizing works". Closely connected with this marvellously powerful idea are the Aswins, the twin divine powers who perfect the nervous or vital being in man. They appear at the dawn of creation out of the ocean of being as the riders of horses and guide the impelling energy "for the great work which, having for its nature and substance the light of Truth, carries man beyond darkness".

 The spiritual journey made upon a horse utilizes all the powers it possesses. That this highly responsive animal is associated in so many cultures with death, burial and the afterlife is indicative of its symbolic relationship with both the world-axis and the passage along it into the three realms. The intelligence and truth-potential associated with the horse link up with the power of access to other dimensions and form the basis for ritual divination practices wherein horses are used as oracles. It may be remembered that Achilles reproached his horses for deserting his beloved friend Patroclus, and they answered by reminding him of his own rapidly approaching fate. Among some people the oracular sign may be as simple as whether a horse drawing a hearse lifts its left foot first, indicating that someone in the village would soon die, or they may be embellished with religious ritual. The Elbe Slavs observed a selection of a black or white horse of noble stature which could never be ridden by any mortal being. It was taken before the temple whenever a war expedition was to be made, and the head priest led it thrice across nine lances placed one yard apart. If the steed, adorned in gold and silver, stepped over them without touching any, a good omen was indicated and men rode off to battle with full confidence of victory.

Remember me,
Give me a good horse with me in the grave,
And continue the war by slinging stones.

Cheremiss Hero

 The Norsemen believed that those who would descend to Hel for tidings of the dead could traverse the Hel-way only on horseback, and so they practised the custom of burying or burning a horse with its deceased owner. This was also practised by the ancient Scythians, Central Asian peoples and Plains Indians, and the death anniversary of a Cheremiss was celebrated by putting his clothes over his favourite horse and leading the animal around his grave three times before killing it in his honour. The disembodied soul of the steed was thus freed to carry his master on the fearful journey into the underworld, while his bones were hung on a pine tree, symbolic of the axis of the three worlds. Of these worlds, the divine land could be visited by heroes who were able to find and mount a heaven-bound steed and who had the knowledge and ability to ride him all the way to the goal. That this is no easy task is well illustrated by the legend of Bellerophon. During his great exploits on earth, he fully commanded the winged Pegasus, yet when he attempted to ride the divine horse to heaven, he fell off its back and was killed. Like Pegasus, the steeds of Elysium were given to immortals that they may visit earth and return safely to heaven. It is significant that all such who wished to return to the divine land could not, even for a moment, dismount and loosen the reins of their chargers.

  The horse is an ancient species going back fifty million years and has grown from a little over a foot high to its present size. Ten million years ago small ponies came across the Bering Straits into the New World, only to disappear and to come again as recently as fifteen thousand years ago, at which time they were hunted by the early American Indians. Stalking their food on foot with heavy spears and throw-sticks, they could never have foreseen the revolution the horse would bring to their tribes in the distant future. The absence of the horse from the New World for many centuries was paralleled in many parts of Asia by a shift away from hunting and gathering. The way of life of the old and middle Stone Age began slowly to be replaced with the trappings of a new age, and men, in domesticating plants and animals, laid the foundations for the great agricultural civilizations that would later arise. It is thought by some that nomads may have been travelling on horseback even before Neolithic times, but the earliest concrete archaeological evidence for the use of the horse as a mount is to be found in Turkestani vase paintings of the eighth millennia B.C. By 6000 B.C., however, the Scythians had not only domesticated the horse but conquered Babylonia and Mitanni with its whirlwind force, spreading the animal as far east as the Ganges River basin. The warrior-herdsman was on the rise and his voracious desire for vaster grazing lands and rich booty ushered in the era of the mighty war-horse, the vehicle of conquest for the next several thousand years.

 For many cultures it was the man on horseback who carried forth their standard of valour and romance. Even today, the mention of the name Scythian is apt to evoke an atavistic surge in our blood. We thrill to think of them as riding, one with their horses, their spears flashing and bows tautly strung as they swept down along the Caspian Sea into the daybreak of history. Their constant search for grazing land kept them, as well as the Turanians, Huns and Magyars, always on the move. They lived off the milk, meat and blood of the horse and were ever ready for battle. Their entire way of life was geared to swift movement, and their skill as horsemen reflected their awesome psychological and physical ability to flow with a vast, unpredictable power. The Parthians, whose Central Asian name means 'horsemen', drifted into the Iranian Plateau bringing a larger and superior breed of horses and astounding their adversaries with an ability to turn suddenly upon their barebacked mounts and unleash a flight of arrows into their pursuers' faces. Marco Polo described how the Turkoman tribes ran their unshod horses up and down rocky slopes so steep that none could follow them. They were fearless and, like the later Plains Indians, could shoot their bows and manipulate their war clubs from almost any position. Sedentary people could hope to protect themselves against such a tide only by building moats and walls, giving rise to the fortressed cities of the Middle East and the Great Walls in India and China. According to legend, the course of the Great Wall of China was made to follow the trail of a magical white horse who moved along, always just ahead of the workers, acting as a guide for those who would hold at bay the devastating onslaught of the Mongol cavalry. Are there forces in man which, like the magical white horse, can outwit the desire-ridden hordes surging within the breast? Perhaps the question can only be answered by learning to ride the horse, a method of inquiry that has occupied people for a very long time. But if men may have intuited a psychological significance to their relationship with the horse, they became largely sidetracked in focussing upon its political and social significance.

 When a critical adult tells a child to get down off its high horse, he is pointing to a prideful display which for centuries was symbolized by the ability to ride a tall horse. In sixteenth century England such animals were reserved for high personages, as a sign of prestige and affluence. A high horse was clearly a positive advantage in war. Under law, every duke and archbishop had to maintain trotting horses over fourteen hands tall, and "any layman who received £100 yearly, or whose wife shall wear any French hood or bonnet of velvet, is obliged under penalty of £20 to keep a fourteen-hand trotting horse for saddle". English knights considered appearing in public on foot as tantamount to working in the fields, and in Persia no respectable man walked when he could ride. His sons were taught to ride before they reached five years of age. The American cowboy would mount his horse to cross from the bunkhouse to the barn, while the Japanese Shoguns built wide steps leading into their feudal households such that they would never be seen in public except astride a gorgeously appointed mount. So intimately was the horse identified with the upper class, both in the Old World and the New, that men of lower station were even denied certain equine practices. In 1674 a tailor in Virginia was fined for racing his horse against that of a doctor because it was "contrary to law for a labourer to make a race, being a sport only for gentlemen".

 The Zunis were deeply impressed with the horses brought by the Spaniards, and rather than desiring to ride them, they smeared the animals' sweat on their own bodies, thinking to obtain from it additional vigour. But it was not long before the Plains tribes acquired the skill of riding and were fast on their way to becoming the most facile horsemen the world has ever known. They were able to use it to lay the basis for a greatly increased economic stability, permitting them sufficient leisure to engage in social and artistic pursuits. With wealth becoming symbolized by horses, the beginnings of class hierarchy emerged and the incentive for frequent warfare was born. Almost all of the Plains wars were related to horse raiding. For a young man of poor means, the road from rags to riches was perilous and long. The rewards, however, were great and the ability to give many gift horses when obtaining a bride, or to generously lend horses to those who needed them when moving camp, was the mark of a great man. An old Blackfoot warrior, named Riding-at-the-Door, related the exploits of a famous fellow tribesman who had raided enemy camps forty times before he had reached thirty years of age. His war medicine had been a plume from an Arapaho sacred pipe, and he rose from poverty to the vaulted position of one who owned five hundred mounts, including pack, riding, buffalo-running and war-horses. A man of means never drew his lodgepoles or rode great distances upon an especially trained hunting or war-horse. He would arrive at the scene of engagement, having led his fresh steed which would, if festooned for battle, be vividly painted and adorned with bone breastplate, feathers, beaded mask and buffalo horns - an awesome sight befitting the powers of a great warrior.

  The only aspect of man's intimate involvement with the horse that surpasses his focus upon it as a symbol of religious or political power, is his profound affection for the animal and his tendency to identify it with his own sense of spirit. This was indicated by an acquaintance of Theodore Roosevelt who, in a letter to him, exclaimed, "God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses!" Kublai Khan created his heaven on earth by surrounding himself with a personal herd of ten thousand choice animals. Apparently he doted upon them and treated many of them better than he did his colleagues. The position of the horse in the eyes of its owner was described by Tennyson, who wrote:

He will hold thee,
When his passion shall have spent its force,
Something better than his dog,
A little dearer than his horse

In their love of poetry the Bedouins completely fuse the identity of their sweetheart and their horse, as evidenced in the lament:

O Sweetheart!
O thou with a white spot on thy forehead!
And today, where art thou, treasure of mine?
I follow thy footprints, every little while halting,
And yet I found neither the mistress true nor my dear mare.

 The Japanese constructed graveyards for their horses, and both Tolstoi and Chekhov lent a deeply touching human quality to the horses depicted in two of their most moving short stories. But in many ways, perhaps the most poignant quality related to man and horse is the way in which the latter has been made to symbolize man's yearnings, his hopeful, youthful desires and spirit. The touching lines of Charles Kingsley capture this well:

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And 'round the world away . . .

 The swiftness of human life, its youthful hopes, its inevitable end, seems to be reflected in the sensitive intelligence and the long memory possessed by the horse. It forms deep-set habits difficult to eradicate and it is claimed that a vicious horse is an unnatural product of bad human handling. It is exceptionally gifted in sensing hidden dangers and can determine friend or foe at almost any range, often to the salvation of its unsuspecting master. One of the more touching characteristics of the horse lies in the fact that the pure-bred animal, while more delicate, will fight long and hard for its life. A visitor to the once opulent but later impoverished stables at Ali Pasha's described movingly how "the sight of these old snow-white stallions remains as an undying memory of proud necks and tails, and a spirit which no starvation could kill". This remarkable spirit has always been true of the native Arab horse, which was a veritable member of the Bedouin families with whom it lived. When things were hard for its master, it shared his proud and difficult fate. A bond of sympathy linked man and animal, and the horse responded with a high degree of intelligence. The Bedouins never allowed a newly born foal to touch the ground but received it in their arms where they held it for several hours while washing and stretching its tender limbs as they would for a baby. Native Arabian horses have no fear of man and will allow anyone to approach and take them by the head. If a stick is raised over them, they will not be intimidated, for they do not understand that anyone would hurt them. The Bedouins say that "according to the traditions of our ancestors, the Arabian horse is still better known by its moral characteristics than its physical peculiarities . . . and thoroughbred horses have no vices". But if the Arab is bred in other circumstances where he is overfed or too comfortably sheltered, he will lose endurance; badly treated, he will lose his even temper; loosely bred, without sympathetic handling, he will lose his courage, which will be displaced by a nervousness. When Mohammed was fighting his way to prominence, he once led twenty thousand cavalry over a waterless route for three days. When they finally reached a river basin and released their mounts to run for water, someone, thinking an enemy force approached, sounded the bugle, "To horse!" Five of the thirsty animals turned back and, with parched muzzles quivering, ran to their masters. The bugle call was a false alarm, but Mohammed selected the gallant five for the future breeding of his stock, and it is this lineage which encompassed the legendary names of Dwarka, Rangha the Beautiful, Aldebaran, Godolphin Arabian and laid the foundation for the finest breeds of racing and saddle horses in all parts of the world.

  The cycle of glory and power was carried forth in the world by the horse, but now he recedes, his mounted warriors disappearing into the narrow alleyways of the modern world. "For the last time in history, on the plains in front of Warsaw, desperate Poles sent waves of cavalry to battle the advancing panzers of Nazi Germany. Fighting with sabres, the Poles were brushed from the field and cavalry in force was doomed as a weapon of war." But the cycle of the Dawn Horse, the mythical steed of the Sun, does not end until the force of the Mother has been expended upon the earth and the cosmos prepares to withdraw into itself. The life-power, with all its impulses, desires and enjoyments offered to the divine existence through the sacrifice of a horse, cannot disappear with a way of life. The image of a horse reflected in bodies of water does not cause us to sacrifice it for the sake of rain as did our ancestors, but the fit between the symbolic nature of the horse and the element of water is no less perfect. In our times we seem to approach the horse with a vaguely intuitive sense of the desire to gain control over the vast, unconscious forces coursing beneath the surface of our waking lives. This is poignantly typified by the legions of young girls who haunt the stable-yards of the West and spend a good portion of their youth lavishing attention upon their blacks and greys and Appaloosas. By gaining control over the immense power residing within any one of these animals, they inch themselves through the difficult years of puberty and coming womanhood. Perhaps, by analogy, they strive to shape and gain knowledge of the oceanic currents. Perhaps these are the warriors of a previous age attempting to come to grips with the vital power of the Mother through a personal focus upon the war-steed which is to make the spiritual journey. Perhaps, unknown to themselves, they desire to become like Arjuna who, with Lord Krishna to guide him, begins to guide the titanic forces of his destiny.

 The destiny of the cycle flows through its course, and those who grasp the reins will be prepared to meet the awesome apocalypse heralded by the white, the red, the black and the dread pale horse upon whose back sits Death and in whose wake follow the agonies of perdition. This pale horse symbolizes the destructive whirlwind of lunar forces that will clear the way for the great work of the Kalki or Divine White Horse. Endowed with eight superhuman faculties analogous to the ogdoad of Sukra's 'earth-born horses', the Kalki Avatar combines in his whiteness the strength and power of all colours. He is the conqueror of death and duality, of all opposition and darkness. He is the Divine Man on earth who will reestablish righteousness, and the minds of those who live at the end of Kali Yuga "shall be awakened and become as pellucid as crystal". This glorious event will mark the last manvantaric incarnation of Lord Vishnu and one which will reunite the Great Preserver with the Mother Deep upon which he rests between the vast cycles of manifestation. It is written that he will appear "seated on a milk-white steed, with a drawn sword blazing like a comet". In bringing to a close the struggles, the vain thunderings for power and glory in this dark age, Lord Vishnu brings the horse into perfect control and ushers in the end of the Mahabharatan War for all those valiant soldiers who have fainted and suffered agonies beyond speech but who have not deserted the battlefield.

 At some time in the distant past, those brave souls commenced the long and arduous task of taming their wild mounts, of making their arvat war-steed their vajin-steed of the spiritual journey. They did not break them roughly but, like the Bedouin nomads, they preserved their spirit and gently gained their allegiance through sensitive firmness. They lightly held the reins that controlled their arching necks and gave them their head only when their great powers had become a perfect extension of their master's higher will. These powers are the vital fluids of life, the energy that courses along the spine, along the world-axis. They embody the potential of truth sent forth to earth like the Elysian steeds, and the rider who learns to master them and control their potency moves toward the divine Aswins, the Kumara-Egos of this great manvantara who "prepare the way for the brilliant dawn to those who have patiently awaited through the night". In their great cosmic course, they ally light and darkness, for,

O Sweetheart!
O thou with a white spot on thy forehead!
And today, where art thou, treasure of mine?
I follow thy footprints, every little while halting,
And yet I found neither the mistress true nor my dear mare.

 The Japanese constructed graveyards for their horses, and both Tolstoi and Chekhov lent a deeply touching human quality to the horses depicted in two of their most moving short stories. But in many ways, perhaps the most poignant quality related to man and horse is the way in which the latter has been made to symbolize man's yearnings, his hopeful, youthful desires and spirit. The touching lines of Charles Kingsley capture this well:

The Aswins like the other Gods descend from Truth Consciousness, the rtam; they are born or manifested from Heaven, from the Dyau, the pure Mind; their movement pervades all the worlds; the effect of their action ranges from the body through the vital being and the thought to the superconscient Truth. It commences Indeed from the ocean, from the vague of being as it emerges out of the subconscient and they conduct the soul over the flood of these waters and prevent its floundering on its voyage. They are therefore nasatya, lords of the movement, leaders of the journey or voyage.

 These Divine Twins, functioning through the human motive force symbolized by the horse, become one with it for the course of a great cosmic cycle and help men to find truth through the yoking of energy to that action which is reflected in the all-knowing eye of Surya. In the second half of the great manvantara, man must locate and learn to focus the subtle power of pure mind which exists in the three worlds of his nature and which can make of his action a perfect expression of divine will. Indra's shining horses, the two great powers of the Sun's perception, merge. Pure divine energy, harnessed in harmony to action, combines the twin steeds of life and death into one glorious force which meets the sun at its zenith and showers the world with the compassion of the Mother.

O thou noble Horse of Dawn,
Thou hast tethered my heart
My whole energy is bent
Upon understanding thy divine potency.
Bestride thee I would fly
Beyond the Three Worlds
To the feet of Truth Itself.