Monday, 6 June 2011


So here i am, scurried up in a corner of a highschool in Vermont, waiting for a ride to the airport and iron bird home. My boots are scuffed, hair awry and i am hiding under my scarf trying to avoid any more chat. A delightful day though telling stories and doing ritual out in the forest with many wonderful students.

Something simple today - just some adoration and thoughts around the horse. In the wider essay it comes from a moment when Parzival lets his horse take the reigns when approaching the castle of Condwiramurs - his 'guide to love'. Ok, i need to be scooped up in a sweet grass smelling blanket and flown home by gentle swans with a pina colada hidden in their many feathers. I throw golden apples gently to all my friends in turtle island, especially two elves.

.....The horse within myth is often regarded as some seasoned energy that we ride throughout our life; not entirely wild, not entirely domestic. It is the horse that preserves life, our life, in the face of many adversities. It maybe appropriate at some other time to ride the back of a wolf (a different force again), but it is the horse that navigates the wild trails of young adulthood. With its associations of the field and stable the horse also holds a sense of something inherited through the village, the family, the mentor. A wisdom that has been diffused through the steady gaze of many folks over a long span of time.

So the horse leads him to a castle owned by a woman besieged. What does it look like for a horse to take the reigns in our life? Maybe we are less controlling, less manic, more open to the opportunity of the day. Rather than charging from meeting to meeting we take a slower road, a less visible, more rambling route. We visit ruined chapels in France, grind our own coffee beans, make a point of always catching the dusk. This is the beginning of a more interior journey for Parzival.

And what of the beast he rides? It is hard to conjure an animal with a more profound relationship to humans. They have been at the forefront of tribal expansions, the steady plough of the soil, a gift fit for a Queen. They come at a price: hard to break in – but once achieved can become an ally for life.

The Celts were an essentially nomadic people and so particularly venerated the horse. Even as recently as the last century there was the Crying of the Mare ceremony in Herefordshire (Welsh border), and there is still the Mari Lwyd ceremony in Glamorgan. At the first of these, reapers left a small patch of corn in the field and shaped it roughly into a horse. The reapers then tried to cut the horse by artfully aiming their sickles at it. The greatest and most accurate of the reapers sat in a place of honour opposite his master at the harvest feast. The skill of the reapers arm, the spirit of the corn and the magic of the horse were all held in ceremony.

The Mari Lwyd involves a kind of jovial shape-shifting. A group of wassailers – singers of magical songs, would move through a hamlet or village and amongst them was a man who’s face was covered by the mask of a horse. It was wise when confronted by this archaic scene to load them up with red beer and good bread.They can still be found.

Horses are also to do with sound and movement. Under the floor of a seventeenth century house in Bungay in Suffolk, forty horse-skulls were found, incisors resting on oak or stone. The reason – acoustics. The skulls gave the dancing feet a greater resonance, lyricism, power. A true British contemporary nomadic culture, the Gypsies, had a ban on eating horse meat – it would seem to evoke madness. In the 19th century the Gypsies used them to check their owners were really dead. A servant would lead the horse to the side of the grave for several days and call the deceased three times by their name and ask them to come to dinner. Any good man would have been up and out of the soil in a second.

In hidden parts of Scotland there would be secretive gatherings of the Horseman’s Society – a horse cult who would certainly have been branded witches if made public. As an initiate you were led blindfolded to an alter – usually a bag of corn–by two initiated men. Lain upon the alter would be bread and whisky, and standing behind them would be the head-horseman, the equine magician. They were lead a tricky path while blind which served two symbolic purposes – one that it showed the ups and downs of a man’s life, and two that it was the contrary process of a young horses training; if you did not obey instructions then you would feel pain – the magic fell apart if the ritual was not accurate. The made a long and poetic oath to the society, culminating in these words:

And if I fail in any of these obligations that I go under at this time or hereafter, I ask to my heart’s wish and desire that my throat may be cut ear to ear with a horseman’s knife, my body torn to pieces between two wild horses and blown by the four winds of heaven to the uttermost parts of the earth; my heart torn from my left breast and its blood wrung out and buried in the sands of the sea-shore.
(Evans 1966 :231)

At a certain point the initiate would be given what is called the Horseman’s Word. It is tempting to presume that this was some word that could be whispered into the horse’s ear for a result of instant compliance. But here is the twist.

The word is never revealed to the horse.

The word was, in Evan’s words, “lived rather than used”. It was a binding psychic anchor that reached back through many remote cultures to the primordial root of magic and trust that abided with humans and horse. It was not about dominion but relationship, kinship, totem, earth magic, seasonal incantation. It was a carrying of magical privacy.

The horse also holds relationship to some fierce and proud feminine Goddess’s : Epona, Artemis, Diana, Hecuba, Hegate. People have lived and died for these names I so casually list.

The old ploughman lived with their beasts, the Clydesdale, the Percheron, the Haflinger, the Chestnuts, the Gypsy Cobs, often sleeping in the bothy above the stables. Their dreams and the horses formed a tangle. Many of these men carried the ability to ‘Jade’ a horse. You had to be careful with this as if viewed you quickly would be branded a horse-witch. It was the gift to stop a horse completely in its tracks – to seemingly paralyse it. Jading was to do with a particular odour the horse detected, which you then subtly invoked if you wanted it to halt, or twisted its head skilfully away from the scent if you wanted it to move. Done well, to the astonished observer it seemed miraculous. So we see a little of the Trickster in the Horseman’s bag.

In our story Jading is the last thing on the boy’s mind. He follows its pace. After a time we have the strange image of the blustery bridge and Parzival leading his horse across due to its nerves. This is an initiatory opening, and its entry points are often narrow and require some humility – hence getting off your horse. This place of the heart, of romantic and erotic love, is under siege. In the lives of many today, what is placing our hearts under siege?

Copyright Martin Shaw 2011

1 comment:

Barbara Spring said...

Thank you for this. It explains my own images.