Saturday, February 25, 2006

Contact -- Part 2

Yesterday I quoted Thoreau on the evening stars, which he compared to the Hesperian Isles. Hesper has a Greek root, meaning west or evening, and the name was often applied to the planet Venus in her guise as the Evening Star. The Hesperian Isles were thought to lie in the westernmost part of the world, where nymphs and a dragon watched over a garden where golden apples grow. For poets -- from Milton to Tennyson to Longfellow -- the Hesperian Isles were the happy isles, out there beyond the sea on the western horizon where all our dreams are realized.

The image, of course, is more important for Europeans than for Longfellow and Thoreau, and more relevant for me when I am in my summer bailiwick in the west of Ireland, where oceanic isles and golden apples have a long history in myth and lore -- as I recount in my book Climbing Brandon: Science and Faith on Ireland's Holy Mountain. There I try to show that looking for eternal bliss on a sea horizon -- a horizontal vision -- has rather different philosophical implications than looking vertically for heaven. Horizontal,/vertical; immanent/transcendent; nature/supernature; body/soul.

But these weeks, in the Bahamas, I am looking out to an eastern sea horizon, and Venus is a morning star (joined this morning gloriously by the crescent Moon). I wonder, did the native Bahamians, the Lucayans, have equivalent myths about happy isles in the eastern sea? When they saw those sails billowing in the morning sun, no wonder they imagined gods.