Edwin Muir's early poem "Horses" (as distinct from "The Horses", much taught in Scottish schools) is a reverie of a childhood encounter. The last three verses run:
But when at dusk with steaming nostrils homeI think it's common in the civilized West to associate this sort of revelation with childhood, as part of a natural inheritance we lose as we grow up. The last stanza makes me think of Housman's land of lost content, yet Muir's poem is clearly suggesting something more than what one might call the everyday magic of a child's perspective. These horses are not simply magical, they're elemental, totemic, numinous. If we take these presences to have been part of the common life of farming in Orkney in the late 19th century, then it should be borne in mind that Muir wasn't cut off from this particular source by time alone, but by place and culture. He said that in moving from Orkney to Glasgow he aged about 150 years, and he was not being jocular.
They came, they seemed gigantic in the gloam,
And warm and glowing with mysterious fire
That lit their smouldering bodies in the mire.
Their eyes as brilliant and as wide as night
Gleamed with a cruel apocalyptic light.
Their manes the leaping ire of the wind
Lifted with rage invisible and blind.
Ah, now it fades! it fades! and I must pine
Again for that dread country crystalline,
Where the blank field and the still-standing tree
Were bright and fearful presences to me.
Fortunately modernity did not overtake Europe's remaining primitive enclaves so quickly that we don't have some record of what the European dreamtime was like. Here is Carlo Levi in Basilicata, from Christ Stopped at Eboli:
There is nothing strange in the fact that there were dragons in these parts during the Middle Ages. (The peasants and Giulia used to say: 'A long time ago, more than a hundred years, long before the brigands...') Nor would it be strange if dragons were to appear again today before the startled eyes of the country people. Anything is possible, where the ancient deities of the shepherds, the ram and the lamb, run every day over the familiar paths, and there is no definite boundary line between the world of human beings and that of animals or even monsters. [...]That phrase 'a long time ago, more than a hundred years...' is very interesting because of something Garner says in an essay in The Voice That Thunders about memory within an oral tradition only going back about four generations. All previous history becomes compressed or refined, turns into myth and is associated with the great-grandfather.
To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But the feeling for life itself, for art, language and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants' world there is no room for reason, religion and history. There is no room for religion because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinites of the village.
A couple of pages later, Levi describes a local feast of the Virgin Mary:I've posted before on religious ritual performed not as commemoration but invocation - a feature of it being the elimination of time.
Amid this warlike thundering there was no happiness or religious ecstacy in the people's eyes; instead they seemed prey to a sort of madness, a pagan throwing off of restraint, and a stunned or hypnotized condition; all of them were highly wrought up. The animals ran about wildly, goats leaped, donkeys brayed, dogs barked, children shouted, and women sang. Peasants with baskets of wheat in their hands threw fistfuls of it at the Madonna, so that she might take thought for the harvest and bring them good luck. The grains curved through the air, bounced on the paving-stones and bounced up off them with a light noise like that of hail. The black-faced Madonna, in the shower of wheat, among the animals, the gunfire, and the trumpets, was no sorrowful Mother of God, but rather a subterranean deity black with the shadows of the bowels of the earth, a peasant Persephone or a lower-world goddess of the harvest.