Visions of the Goddess: A White Horse by Carol P. Christ


Imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, I looked out my window to see a dappled horse munching on flowers in the field across the street from my house. In the next days I got used to her being there. I would look for her in the mornings and at odd times during the day. Sometimes she was visible and sometimes she was not. When I could see her, I would open the window and call out, “Hello, white horse, you are very beautiful.” Once or twice she turned her head to look at me and seemed to respond, “Thank you for noticing.”

Many hundreds of years ago, Sappho must have had a similar vision in a field near a grove of trees where she and her students waited for the Goddess to appear, for she wrote: “In meadows where horses have grown sleek among spring flowers, dill scents the air.“ These lines are part of a longer poem addressed to Aphrodite that begins: “Leave Crete and come to us.” In this place, “incense smokes on the altar,” there is a stream, there are apple trees and rose bushes and horses in a field of flowers.

Though Sappho has called the Goddess to appear, her human form is not described. Instead, immediately after describing sleek horses in the field of flowers, the poet exclaims, “Queen, Cyprian, fill our gold cups with love.” As I read the poem, there is no need for an anthropomorphic Goddess to descend from the sky, because she is already present in the beauty of nature—if only we open our eyes to see.

In the words of a song inspired by the Navajo Beauty Way, “I walk with beauty all around me, as I walk the Beauty Way.” What does it mean to walk the Beauty Way? It means to live in awareness of the beauty that is before us, behind us, above us, below us, and all around us.

While some of my friends practice prayer or meditation with their eyes closed, I prefer to keep my mine open. For me, sitting quietly in nature and observing the life around me is the best form of meditation. I do not struggle to “empty my mind” of “distractions.” Rather I allow my eyes to wander, appreciating the beauty I see. I am soon in a light trance. Sometimes my vision blurs as I feel myself part of a larger whole. When something catches my interest, my eyes focus as I enter into a relationship with an individual plant or animal.

Yesterday, I noticed a great tit landing on a branch near where I was sitting. I remembered that I had discovered great tits nesting in a hole in the robina pseudoacacia or black locust tree that shades the area where I was sitting. Sure enough, the bird came back with an insect in its beak, dipped into the hole, and I heard the sound of twittering baby birds. Joy! The grace of life.

I believe open-eyed meditation is well-suited to the form of Goddess spirituality I practice. My spirituality is not about escaping to a “another” world. It is about learning to live gracefully in the world into which we are born in our bodies, the world where we grow and age in our bodies, and the world where we will surely die in our bodies. I do not long for a “more perfect” world where there are no bodies, no suffering, no death.

In Western philosophical and theological worldviews, the appreciation of beauty is called the “aesthetic.” The aesthetic is contrasted with the ethical. It is asserted that the appreciation of beauty is a “leisure” activity (for the rich) that has nothing to do with the ethical. From this perspective it is impossible to understand that the Beauty Way of the Navajos and other indigenous peoples informs a profoundly ethical way of life.

The Beauty Way is not primarily about “appreciating” “great works” of art or music, though it includes the appreciation of art and music. The Beauty Way is about appreciating the beauty of nature, the beauty of every living thing, the beauty inherent the processes of birth, death, and regeneration. Art and music are understood to be modeled on the beauty of nature. The goal of art and music is not to improve on nature, but to imprint appreciation of its beauty in our minds and bodies.

In the modern Western version of the aesthetic, contemplation takes place in the mind as the individual gazes at a painting, listens to a piece of music, or watches a dance performance. In more embodied cultures, art inspires us to take part with our bodies in the song and dance of life.  If we have heard of her at all, we will “read” or “listen to” Sappho’s “”poetry. But Sappho wrote “lyrics” that were meant to be sung, to be accompanied by the seven-stringed lyre, and to inspire dance.

When we appreciate the beauty of life, it follows that the human task is to participate in the beauty of life. We do not destroy unnecessarily, we do not dominate, and we take only what need in order to leave space for the beauty in all lives to flourish.

It was so not once, but in many cultures. It can be again.

 

*Sappho’s lyrics quoted from #37 in Sappho: A New Translation by Mary Barnard.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who will soon be moving to Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent books are  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology and A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.



Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess

Tags: , , , , ,

21 replies

  1. Thank you Carol, I’m also one for eye-open practice of reverence and being-with, in, and close to all the beings around us… in beauty… the divine immanent… meeting us here, we can walk through her… sit with her…

    By the way, I love the word ‘dappled’ and to my knowledge there is no Dutch translation for this. Dappled light would be translated with ‘gefilterd’, i.e. filtered through for example the canopy above it; a dappled horse would be ‘gespikkeld’, more like ‘having spots’…

    A few years ago, June Gersten Roberts wrote an amazing article in our journal: Transient light: Enchanted encounters with dappled light (Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, Volume 3, Numbers 1-2, 1 July 2016, pp. 89-106(18)). “The Dapple Light Project is a moving video and live dance performance installation, offering intimate encounters with dappled light as a vibratory place of sensuous enchantment.” (from her abstract).

    Have a beautiful week ahead everyone! Full of dappled inspiration :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Exquisite and inspirational, Carol! Thank you.

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  3. Yes, it can be again! This thought never leaves my mind. I have so many connections with this article. I have composed a beautiful musical setting of the Sappho poem you quoted. Such a sensual, vivid, immediate poem. I have danced to “the beauty way.” And just yesterday talked with a friend about “open-eyed meditation,” having no desire to shut out the world. May it be so, as it once was!

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  4. So beautiful! Thank you.

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  5. This time all I can do is to quote your words an say YES YES YES to this entire essay… thanking you with all my heart…

    “As I read the poem, there is no need for an anthropomorphic Goddess to descend from the sky, because she is already present in the beauty of nature—if only we open our eyes to see.

    In the words of a song inspired by the Navajo Beauty Way, “I walk with beauty all around me, as I walk the Beauty Way.” What does it mean to walk the Beauty Way? It means to live in awareness of the beauty that is before us, behind us, above us, below us, and all around us.

    While some of my friends practice prayer or meditation with their eyes closed, I prefer to keep my mine open. For me, sitting quietly in nature and observing the life around me is the best form of meditation. I do not struggle to “empty my mind” of “distractions.” Rather I allow my eyes to wander, appreciating the beauty I see. I am soon in a light trance. Sometimes my vision blurs as I feel myself part of a larger whole. When something catches my interest, my eyes focus as I enter into a relationship with an individual plant or animal.”

    Re Sappho – those words have been an invocation for my full moon rituals forever…

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  6. PS… Carol, I so strongly believe it is our job to appreciate and participate these moments in time with the awareness that “Everything Changes” that I am reiterating the point.

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  7. Thanks for reminding us of the Beauty Way. As we’re mostly still staying home, we hopefully have more time to meditate or contemplate the beauty around us. I also like to keep my eyes open. While there are no fields or horses here in mid-town Long Beach, there are lots of birds and squirrels in the grassy space I can see out my living room and bedroom windows. When I look out the window behind my computer here, I can see a tree and watch it go through its yearly phases. That’s my bit of nature.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Carol, how exquisitely beautiful. Thank you. I lived for years in cement cities with little but my windowsill roses as “nature”, and I closed my eyes in meditation to bring Beauty closer. Life is different now, and I sit in sweet meditation, eyes sometimes closed and sometimes open. I believe the Beauty Way encompasses The Beauty Within. I am not Navajo, and not an authority, but that is how it feels. When I close my eyes I sometimes find it easier to hold a smidgen of that Inner Beauty and project it to the world, and that feels good. Your writing has surely set a tone for my day, my week, that will brighten all who pass by.

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  9. Thank you for this marvelous essay, Carol, which perfectly expresses my own feelings. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one to hold this particular view.

    I didn’t know there are apple trees in Greece. Somehow I always think of apples as growing in a cold climate.

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    • Good point! Apples do grow in Greece but in the mountains. Quince which has yellow “apples” is common at lower elevations. Sappho is not known to have lived in the mountains.

      The name of the first common Greek quince variety is kydonion melon, which means the apple from Kydonia. Kydonia was the principal Minoan city in the west of Crete and quince may have been indigenous to it. The kydonion melon is mentioned in Greek poetry of 6th century BC. Strouthion melon, the second very known variety, appeared in the 4th century.
      The Greeks dedicated the quince to Aphrodite. The godess was often represented with the golden apple of Esperides in her right hand, the fruit with which she was awarded by Paris. This legendary fuit, was in fact a quince. So, it is not accidental that the quince was regarded as symbol of Love and Fertility. Plutarch mentions the ancient wedding custom of a quince eating by the bride and the bridegroom, a custom that intended to insure fertility. (Plutarch’s Lives, Solon 20)
      https://1historyofgreekfood.wordpress.com/2007/11/04/the-quince/

      Sappho could be referring to quince apples though she does not preface the word for apples with Kydonian to distinguish them from mountain apples.

      However Hugh Mason plausibly argues that Sappho’s other reference to apples speaks of the “reddening.” He suggests that the setting for the poem discussed in the blog is an altar in an apple grove on the slopes of Lesbos’s Mount Olympus perhaps at a place called Karini where there is a spring. Apples are grown in that area today. https://www.academia.edu/11933746/Sappho_s_Apples

      Like

  10. Thanks, Carol, for the beautiful post. Living in the northern hemisphere, it catches the flavor of the season, when life returns to it full beauty.

    I take a daily walk, and when alone (half the time I walk alone, and half the time with my spouse), I watch for the animals in the bushes, listen for the birds above me in the trees, and notice how the trees and other plants are budding or flowering or fruiting. It’s a meditative nature walk. However, when I perform my daily meditation, I usually close my eyes. This doesn’t have to do with shutting out the world, but with opening my ears to more fully hear the world. As someone who is visual consciously (or upfront, as Dawna Markova calls it), for me vision brings me into my conscious mind, while my auditory sense brings me into a deeper relationship with all of nature, including my own.

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  11. Really enjoyed it. Thank you. So needed right now.

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  12. That’s funny, or maybe uncanny! Yesterday, before I read your lovely piece, I was walking through the Presidio park in San Francisco, through a newfound to me grove of native Californian Monterey Cypress trees, with sun warmed California serpentine rock glowing green beneath my feet. I decided or recognized that this grove is sacred, I could smell the cypress strongly and it was delicious. I stood for a while there, and started singing “I walk in beauty all around me . . .” and the Sappho poem about the grove, which you introduced to me at the temple of Aphrodite in Lesvos, came to mind. You have taught me so much that is deeply important, Karolina, thank you!!!

    The pandemic spatial restrictions have been diverting me to many new places, as I try to avoid crowds. That’s been a blessing, not just for their novelty, but because it puts me in the literal and mental space I remember from childhood, unbounded, just being outdoors to see and feel things. No predetermined place to go to, no timeframe other than go inside when I get hungry or it gets dark. Here’s a simple poem I wrote when I was maybe eight years old:

    Aren’t you glad
    That you’re alive?
    To see the bees
    Buzzing in their hive.
    To see the birds
    Nest in the trees
    To feel the wind
    And the breeze.
    So wake up now
    And appreciate
    This miracle so, so great.

    I have since marveled at how this is still my essential philosophy, and how close it is to Karolina’s work. Even though I had not when I wrote the little poem, and have never since, actually seen bees buzzing in their hives, I have been struck by the similarity with the Minoan bee images. Other old habits, maybe they’re instincts, such as collecting stones and shells, being comforted by beauty, very similar, very deep, seem very very true.

    Thank you again, Karolina!

    P.S. The California native Douglas iris seems similar to your white one. It is commonly purple, and they were spectacular this Spring, some with bright turquoise and yellow in the petals.

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  13. I love this whole essay, but this really spoke to me: “For me, sitting quietly in nature and observing the life around me is the best form of meditation. I do not struggle to “empty my mind” of “distractions.” Rather I allow my eyes to wander, appreciating the beauty I see.” This is exactly my experience – but all these years I thought I was ‘doing meditation wrongly’. Thank you for the ability to re-frame and honour my experience!

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  14. To wonderful Carol Christ–Do you know the film “Into the West,” set in Ireland, with Gabriel Byrne? He plays a Traveler/widower, with two young boys who have of course lost their mother, and their experiences with a mysterious white horse. Fabulous film, and fabulous visually.

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  15. Yes!! Beautiful word art. Your form of meditation really spoke to me!

    Like

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