My mother called me on the phone the other day to ask me to come and take some photographs of her old horse. The decision had finally been made, and the date with the Ferryman was set. The vet would be out to put her down. I hung up the phone and flung my head back gazing up toward my ceiling..... close my eyes and take a deep breath. How come I didn't get the “rainbow” goddess? That phone call was a reminder of my call to duty for the Cthonic Gods of the underworld. Sometimes my human self just isn't into it, and there are days like that day where I resent my spiritual obligations.
First chore of the day after the phone call I found myself driving to town only to be stopped by a fallen tree in the road. “How interesting” I thought to myself with mild irritation, “Is this an omen?” A ten minute wait ensued before I could get through the road block. Off to the library to donate my magazines, (that went well), then to the bookstore to make a trade... wait for an hour for the owner who was supposed to be back in a half hour, to be told he won't trade my books, doesn't want to deal with buying books today... and by the way so sorry, but we don't take debit cards. ????!!!!!! This is where I lost it. I put the books I really wanted to purchase on the counter and walked out in disgust. I heard him apologize behind me as I'm walking out the door, and I didn't care. I didn't say anything, I didn't look at him, I just walked out thinking what an incredible waste of my time THAT was. The hormones were raging. This behavior is actually really uncharacteristic of me, but It's been happening more and more over the last couple of years. My mid life crisis has created a bit of a hormonal anger management issue I've noticed. It was a shitty bad hair day, and I had to go photograph a horse who will be dead the next day.
I went home and threw my keys at the wall because the noise was very satisfying. Scared the crap out of my cat who was accidentally locked in the house while I was gone. He couldn't get out the back door fast enough when I opened it for him. Time to clock in for Hades.
I grab the camera, and drove up to the main house and down to the barn where the old black mare is waiting after her bath, all fresh and clean clean. Camera in hand, the photo shoot began. Over an hour later, I had something like 70 pictures on my digital camera. I think my mother was confused why I took so long. She was probably only expecting me to take a couple of pictures. But what my mother didn't actually know is that I'm a closet beginning photographer and I haven't really told anyone yet. I've learned that to get two or three good high quality pictures you have to take about 70 of them.
As I took the photos I could feel the calm settling over me. I got into my zone and started making my connection to “Patty” the horse. She is a temperamental thing, kinda like me today. At the age of 27-ish this old girl literally didn't have a good leg to stand on. She was very painfully arthritic and had such a hard time walking around it hurt to watch. That is why the decision had been made. I had noticed she seemed to be getting worse over the last week. I thought it was my imagination but mom said she noticed it too. She was doing OK for the moment because she was full of anti-inflammatory medication, but it wouldn't last long. I kept clicking away with the camera, and pretty soon she started following me around. So after the photo's were finished I spent a few moments scratching her neck and talking with her. Trying to prepare her for the long journey she would take to the summer-land. She'd be going to see my old horse who already took that journey two years ago.
I spent more then a few minutes talking to my mother who was hoping she was making the right decision. I committed to meeting the vet myself at 9 AM the next morning, in case she or my stepfather was not going to be capable to assisting the vet in this process. My mother with her bad knees and given the emotional attachment probably shouldn't be the one to hold her for the vet. The jury was out on whether my stepfather would there on time, or be able to deal with it either. It might end up being my task. Most of the time horses go quietly with euthanasia but sometimes they have very violent reactions. It's usually a matter of tranquilizing them first to drop them slowly and carefully to the ground, and then giving them the final dose of euthanasia and hope they don't flail. They are large animals. The last thing anyone wants is a 1200 pound animal thrashing violently on the ground, at the end of the lead rope because of bad reaction. Not only is that emotionally distressing for all concerned under the circumstances but it's also potentially very dangerous.
At any rate, the final details were discussed and I went back to my house with my camera to see how my pictures came out.
I ended up with some really lovely ones. It occurred to me as I was editing these photographs, what a great photographic subject this mare really was. First of all she's entirely jet black, which is rare. With some of the editing tools that I use, and the way I like to brand my photos, I realized I could really play with these photos in such a way that I could transform her image into something very mythical and archetypal, to honor her transition to the spirit world. I was taking these pictures primarily at the request of my mother. I really didn't want use any of the portrait prints I was taking for her, as my own promotional photography prints. This was a personal matter. But I had a good feeling about the ones which I was able to edit into archetypal manifestation. Patty was taking the journey herself, as death goddess, into the other world in only a matter of hours.
As I looked at the pictures all I could think of was “Pooka”
The Pooka in Celtic mythology is a mythical black fairy horse, and a death omen. It is said anyone who can catch and ride her can avoid the death curse, but generally anyone who tries is dragged down by the creature, story has it, into the bottom of a lake or river which the pooka dives into, drowning the rider. This is a metaphor of course for the descent into the unconscious realm. The Pooka is interchangeable with the Irish Selkie, taking the form of a woman who can transform into a seal and back to a woman at will. She is also sometimes known as the “washer woman at the ford” who can be heard wailing her death cry while she washes her clothes in the water. Some call her the “Banshee”. Those who hear her cry are destined to die.
In ancient Greece the black horse totem was sacred to Demeter. In older versions of the myth, Demeter and Persephone were not distinctly separate. They were two faces of the same goddess, and she had a much more “cthonic” energy. During the dark half of the year Demeter would retire to her dark cavern, veiled in black and turn into the form of a jet black mare, a goddess body with the head of a horse. In that form she would rule as queen of the dead until spring returned again. This older Greek myth is very probably where the origin of the “nightmare” came from. The “nightmare” was a dark horse headed, hag like goddess, which visited people in their dreams, and tormented them with their deepest fears.
Ultimately her origin is interchangeable with most any death goddess in any myth or culture. She changes from a black fairy horse to a seal shaped selki, to a mermaid, to the furies, to the hag, and ultimately back again to some form of a Black Madonna depending on what part of the world celebrates her. She is a universal shape-changing archetype in any culture.
I thought of this myth as I thought of Patty and continued to play with the pictures. My mother was explaining that in this mare's younger days she had developed a reputation for her nasty temperament. She had been given a nickname. “The Black Bitch.” How Pooka is that? How “night hag” is that?
Well I took my bitchy underworld priestess self into that paddock today with my camera and had an opportunity to have a very pleasant visit with this soon to be Pooka. She followed me around while I snapped her pictures and we enjoyed some neck scratching time and cuddles.
She really is lovely isn't she?