Sweet Chariot



Statue of a charioteer found in Delphi, Greece (front) most probably a chariot driver in the Pythian Games. Photo by David Monniaux.

One of the most common symbols for the human soul in early sacred literature is that of the chariot.  It can be found in both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian) texts, and we’ll be taking a look at some of both to compare and contrast.  Whether or not there was direct communication between the two cultures, some of the parallels are compelling.  The compositional dates of the earliest texts is in doubt, since they were usually recited from memory for centuries before being written down, but I’ll take a stab at putting them in chronological order.

For the sake of being comprehensive, I should start by mentioning some passages from the Indian Rig Veda, usually thought to be the oldest “book” in the world, which again was recited for centuries before being written down.  A recurring image from it is the Asvin Pair, also called the Nasatyas, twin gods who go about in their chariot saving mortals in peril, especially on the sea.  I rather hesitate to mention them, since they deserve an examination all their own, and in fact have received one in Douglas Frame’s masterful Hippota Nestor. ¹ (More about Nestor below.)

(In Frame’s analysis, they share a mythological kinship with the Greek dioskouri, also twins–Castor and Pollux, brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra–who also have the properties of healing and saving humans in distress.  In the Greek version however, Castor was mortal and Pollux was the son of Zeus, who, well, raped their mother Leda while in the form of a swan.)

Here is the first reference to the Asvin Pair in the Rig Veda:

s1. WAKEN the Asvin Pair who yoke their car at early morn: may they approach to drink this Soma juice.
2. We call the Asvins Twain, the Gods borne in a noble car, the best of charioteers, who reach the heavens.
3. Dropping with honey is your whip, Asvins, and full of pleasantness sprinkle therewith the sacrifice.
4. As ye go thither in your car, not far, O Asvins, is the home
Of him who offers Soma juice.  (Rig Veda 1.22.1-4)

I believe they have much allegorical meaning of themselves, but for our purposes here it is enough to quote Frame that “The twins are called “darkness slayers” (tamohánā, 3.39.3), and their horses and chariot are described as “uncovering the covered darkness”….  (Part 1.3)  It is interesting that this first mention denotes the twins and their chariot as a vehicle for rescue and salvation and not an instrument of war.

Perhaps the next usage, and no doubt the most clear metaphorically comes from the Indian text Katha Upanishad.  It takes the form of a dialogue (sound familiar?) between a young seeker named Natchiketas and Yama, god of death.

The body is the chariot, the intellect (buddhi) is the driver, the mind (manas) is the reins.  The Self is the Lord who rides the chariot.  It is said that the senses are the horses and their perceptions form the road.  The Self bound up with the senses and the mind is called the enjoyer.  He who is a knower always controls and guides his mind.  Like the good horses of a driver who can control them with ease, so are the senses of such a man under control.  The man whose intellect, endowed with the higher knowledge, and whose mind, pacified and guided by the spiritual and moral laws, is the reins of the sense-horses, obtains the goal of life which is the transcendent state of Vishnu. ¹

Not much need for interpretation here.  I remember though when I first heard this, I saw myself standing serenely in the chariot, hands firmly on the reins, as in the picture above.  It didn’t take long to realize I was actually riding bareback on the horses, holding onto their manes for dear life, being pulled this way and that, running the risk of getting trampled.  Being in charge is one of the great delusions of the ego.

Because I don’t usually venture to the East, there are a couple of terms used here that may not be familiar.  Buddhi (rhymes with “would he”), here translated as “intellect,” is in what we might call “liberation psychology” that faculty that discriminates, that knows the “spiritual and moral laws” and can be guided by them.  Knowing the “goal of life,” it can choose the proper course at each moment of decision.  Manas (from the same Indo-European root as our word “mental”) means “mind,” and is usually taken to mean the “discursive” mind; that is, the one that is uncontrolled, always carrying on discourses whether we are aware of them or not.  It is manas that must be brought under the control of buddhi.  As described in my book The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer’s Odyssey as Spiritual Quest, the senses can be seen as the ship’s crew, the mind as the suitors, and Odysseus himself representing the discrimination that (eventually) chooses the proper path to the “transcendent state.”

Parmenides, about whom I wrote in more detail in Episode 39, uses much the same imagery on the proem to On Nature.²

The mares carry my chariot, the goddesses leading the way,
As far as my desire can reach along the celebrated road
That bears the one who knows throughout the broad world.
The horses, the bright, eager mares, draw the chariot along,
The glowing axle yields a high piping song,
As it whirls in the naves, driven by the spinning wheels.
The maidens, daughters of the Sun, leaving the depths of Night,
Quicken their pace in the direction of the light,
Now throw back the veils from their heads.

Here the horses–“bright, eager mares”–are again not portrayed as unruly senses, but as under the command of “the one who knows,”  and being led by the goddesses.  He is ultimately led to the goddess-in-chief who instructs him, insofar as one can be, in the mysteries of the Existant.  “First, know that It Is, and it is not possible for Is not to be.”  (If you can dispute that–if you think you don’t exist–please send me an email.)

Chariot rider from an ancient Greek krater.  From the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Chariot rider from an ancient Greek krater. From the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Another interesting example of the metaphor can be found in Homer’s Iliad, which has a number of references to chariots primarily as weapons of war.  As you may know it is not one of my favorite works, but occasionally a passage will appear which resonates with allegorical meaning.  In Book 23, in preparation for the funeral games of the slain warrior Patroklos, the wise if somewhat wordy Achean Nestor instructs his son Antilokhos in the proper handling of his horses during a race, emphasizing the need for skill, especially if one’s horses are not the most swift.  (From the A. T. Murray translation on the Perseus site.)

“Antilokhos,” said Nestor, “you are young, but Zeus and Poseidon have loved you well, and have made you an excellent charioteer. I need not therefore say much by way of instruction. You are skillful at wheeling your horses round the post,[310] but the horses themselves are very slow, and it is this that will, I fear, mar your chances. The other drivers know less than you do, but their horses are fleeter; therefore, my dear son, see if you cannot hit upon some artifice [mētis] whereby you may insure that the prize shall not slip through your fingers.[315] The woodsman does more by skill [mētis] than by brute force [biē]; by skill [mētis] the helmsman guides his storm-tossed ship over the sea [pontos], and so by skill [mētis] one driver can beat another.[320] If a man go wide in rounding this way and that, whereas a man of craft [kerdos] may have worse horses, but he will keep them well in hand when he sees the turning-post [terma]; he knows the precise moment[325] at which to pull the rein, and keeps his eye well on the man in front of him. 326 I [= Nestor] will tell you [= Antilokhos] a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. 327 Standing over there is a stump of deadwood, a good reach above ground level. 328 It had been either an oak or a pine. And it hasn’t rotted away from the rains. 329 There are two white rocks propped against either side of it.[330] There it is, standing at a point where two roadways meet, and it has a smooth track on both sides of it for driving a chariot. 331 It is either the tomb [sēma] of some mortal who died a long time ago 332 or was a turning point [nussa] in the times of earlier men. 333 Now swift-footed radiant Achilles has set it up as a turning point [terma plural]. 334 Get as close to it as you can when you drive your chariot horses toward it,[335] and keep leaning toward one side as you stand on the platform of your well-built chariot, 336 leaning to the left as you drive your horses. Your right-side horse 337 you must goad, calling out to it, and give that horse some slack as you hold its reins, 338 while you make your left-side horse get as close as possible [to the turning point], 339 so that the hub will seem to be almost grazing the post[340] – the hub of your well-made chariot wheel. But be careful not to touch the stone [of the turning point], 341 or else you will get your horses hurt badly and break your chariot in pieces. 342 That would make other people happy, but for you it would be a shame, 343 yes it would. So, near and dear [philos] as you are to me, you must be sound in your thinking and be careful. for if you can be first to round the post[345] there is no chance of any one giving you the go-by later, not even though he had Arion the horse of Adrastos, a horse which is of divine race, or the horses of Laomedon, which are the noblest in this land.”

Sorry for the extensive quote (I told you he was wordy), but I thought it necessary to lay out certain themes.  Not so much those of sēma, which can mean “tomb” or “sign,” or the significance of the “turning point” at the tree where the “two roadways meet,” (really, figure it out), but about how to deal with the horses.  I don’t know about you, but my horses are not the swiftest.  I also know that with some skill, they can be taught to overcome that disadvantage.  It is, as Nestor says, a question on restraining one while “goading” the other, and that is where the skill comes in.  Knowing which is which, and when.  For more, again I would recommend Douglas Frame’s book Hippota Nestor I’m also prepared to admit that I may be reading way too much into this particular passage, since the actual race and its aftermath carries no further significance as far as I can tell. 

But this skill (metis) becomes apparent in a character like Odysseus.  Like him, each of us faces a choice at each moment: will our thoughts and actions move us closer to home–the re-union with our true self–or perpetuate our alienation from it.  Odysseus ultimately makes the correct choices, albeit with a lot of missteps and time-biding along the way.  But he does, in these terms, restrain the one horse while goading the other.  He makes the turn at the sign, and finds his way home.  (This image also comes to bear when we get to Plato’s Phaedrus, below.)

In the Odyssey itself, there are a number of references to chariots, mostly in connection with the journeys of Telemachus to seek word of his father, but as far as I can see, they have no particular allegorical meaning.  Similarly with the Indian classic Bhagavad-Gita.  The dialogue takes place in a chariot between Krishna, who serves as the charioteer, and Arjuna as the warrior, but no other particular significance is given to that arrangement.  Of course, when the message given is as explicit as it is in the Gita, there is not a real need for allegory or metaphor.

Similarly with the description given by Plato in the dialogue Phaedrus.  It is a product of the kind of “divine madness” that overtakes Socrates  in it, and is much too rich to summarize here.  But at one point, in his discussion of immortality, truth, beauty and so on, he does invoke the metaphor of the chariot, pulled by winged horses.  (The quotations are taken from the H. N. Fowler translation on the Perseus site.)

We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. (Phaedrus, 246-247)

Here we have a good horse/bad horse dichotomy, which also require skill to keep them under control.  Plato returns to it later and elaborates upon it.

In the beginning of this tale I divided each soul into three parts, two of which had the form of horses, the third that of a charioteer. Let us retain this division. Now of the horses we say one is good and the other bad; but we did not define what the goodness of the one and the badness of the other was. That we must now do. The horse that stands at the right hand is upright and has clean limbs; he carries his neck high, has an aquiline nose, is white in color, and has dark eyes; he is a friend of honor joined with temperance and modesty, and a follower of true glory; he needs no whip, but is guided only by the word of command and by reason. The other, however, is crooked, heavy, ill put together, his neck is short and thick, his nose flat, his color dark, his eyes grey and bloodshot; he is the friend of insolence and pride, is shaggy-eared and deaf, hardly obedient to whip and spurs. Now when the charioteer beholds the love-inspiring vision, and his whole soul is warmed by the sight, and is full of the tickling and prickings of yearning, the horse that is obedient the charioteer, constrained then as always by modesty, controls himself and does not leap upon the beloved; but the other no longer heeds the pricks or the whip of the charioteer, but springs wildly forward, causing all possible trouble to his mate and to the charioteer, and forcing them to approach the beloved and propose the joys of love. And they at first pull back indignantly and will not be forced to do terrible and unlawful deeds; but finally, as the trouble has no end, they go forward with him, yielding and agreeing to do his bidding. And they come to the beloved and behold his radiant face. And as the charioteer looks upon him, his memory is borne back to the true nature of beauty, and he sees it standing with modesty upon a pedestal of chastity, and when he sees this he is afraid and falls backward in reverence, and in falling he is forced to pull the reins so violently backward as to bring both horses upon their haunches, the one quite willing, since he does not oppose him, but the unruly beast very unwilling. And as they go away, one horse in his shame and wonder wets all the soul with sweat, but the other, as soon as he is recovered from the pain of the bit and the fail, before he has fairly taken breath, breaks forth into angry reproaches, bitterly reviling his mate and the charioteer for their cowardice and lack of manhood in deserting their post and breaking their agreement; and again, in spite of their unwillingness, he urges them forward and hardly yields to their prayer that he postpone the matter to another time. Then when the time comes which they have agreed upon, they pretend that they have forgotten it, but he reminds them; struggling, and neighing, and pulling he forces them again with the same purpose to approach the beloved one, and when they are near him, he lowers his head, raises his tail, takes the bit in his teeth, and pulls shamelessly. The effect upon the charioteer is the same as before, but more pronounced; he falls back like a racer from the starting-rope, pulls the bit backward even more violently than before from the teeth of the unruly horse, covers his scurrilous tongue and jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground, causing him much pain. Now when the bad horse has gone through the same experience many times and has ceased from his unruliness, he is humbled and follows henceforth the wisdom of the charioteer, and when he sees the beautiful one, he is overwhelmed with fear; and so from that time on the soul of the lover follows the beloved in reverence and awe. (Phaedrus, 253c-255e)

Another long quote, but it does speak to the need for continuous training of the “bad horse.”  Of course most of us are so led by this one that we don’t recognize the good horse much less the existence of “the beloved.”  But I think this passage stands as another compelling metaphor of the search for the Ideal, along with the Child of the Good, the Divided Line, and the Cave Allegory.

Nowadays, of course, we would have to use the much less rich and interesting metaphor of a car (good cylinders/bad cylinders?).  So let’s be grateful that we have these vivid images of our condition, with their explicit and implicit teachings on how to find “the beautiful one.”


¹Frame, Douglas. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies Series 37. Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

²Verses from the Upanishads, translated by Hari Prasad Shastri, Shanti Sadan, London, 2002.  Used by permission.

³From Parmenides and the Way of Truth, translated by Richard G. Geldard, Monkfish Books, 2007.  Used by permission