“Lift your head and look towards where your goal or dream is and start walking towards it. As you walk, you will meet others along the way who will be willing to assist you. Take advantage of all that is offered to you, as you will never get to where you want to be on your own.”
– Animal Totem Tarot
The most obvious starting place with the giraffe is the neck, and whilst this may be their most impressive feature, it is also the most vulnerable. Somethings are both a blessing and a curse.
As the tallest living animals, giraffes have a unique, telescopic view of the world which allows them to spot danger with comparative ease. Other prey animals like having them around as they are a free watch tower but giraffes only really concerned about lions. If threatened, they will use their strong, long legs to run away – at up to 35mph. If a mother giraffe is cornered, she can use a well aimed kick to kill a lion.
Back to that neck… despite it’s epic length, it only has seven bones, the same as a human neck which is incredible. They use their height to eat leaves and buds which are out of reach for other animals. Males, being the tallest, feed on the highest branches and reach upwards for food, females on the other hand feed on lower branches and bend forwards and thus there is less competition for food overall.
The neck works a bit like a pendulum to help them balance but is also used to establish dominance and fight over females. The males use their necks in a sort of wrestling, sparring way. Once a dominance hierarchy has been established, you can tell the dominant male as it will be standing with his head held high and the submissive giraffe will have his head low and will drop his ears.
Mating itself is quick, involving a penis that is over 3 feet long… After sex, the father’s job is done as they play no part in child rearing. After 15 months, the female gives birth to a baby and does so standing up. This means that the baby’s first experience of the world is via a 2m drop… This throwing you in the deep end approach may seem intense but it is apparently so that the umbilical cord breaks.
In addition to long necks and long penises, giraffes have long, black tongues which can extend up to 45cm and allows them to get even more of the normally out of reach leaves. This tongue is used a bit like a hand and can easily strip a tree of the juiciest leaves – which means that the giraffe doesn’t need to visit watering holes so often. As the tongue is leathery, they can eat prickly leaves, again meaning they can eat things that other animals can’t.
The giraffe is a sort of gardener of the plains as eating leaves stimulates the plant to grow more leaves. One of their food sources, the acacia tree, engages in chemical warfare – as the giraffe starts to nibble, the tree increases the amount of tannins in its leaves and sends a warning signal to nearby trees. However, the tannins don’t affect the giraffe, they have saliva which neutralises them. In response to this, the tree hires ants to help it’s cause and the ants irritate the giraffe by stinging their mouth and nose… Don’t piss off an acacia tree!
As ruminants, giraffes need to chew the cud and spend most of the day doing it, pretty much any time they aren’t asleep. And they don’t need much sleep… They can get away with sleeping just 5 minutes a day and can nap in 1 to 2 minute sessions, whilst standing up!
They rest during the hottest part of the day and have a coat designed to help with temperature regulation. The skin patch pattern is unique to each individual and in males, the patches darken over time because of testosterone. It’s also thought that the skin and hair may repel ticks, mosquitoes and bacteria via secreted chemical compounds.
As with everything in the giraffe, the heart is particularly big and strong. Over two foot long, it has to be powerful in order to pump blood up the long neck to the brain, whilst defying gravity.
Giraffes have a good sense of smell, both in terms of actively smelling what’s around them and also in terms of having their own odour. The latter is said to be quite divisive; some people find it pleasant, going so far as to suggest it’s use as perfume, and others despise it.
“Throughout antiquity man has co-existed with the giraffe in its African homeland, exploiting giraffes as a source of food and raw material, revering them as religious symbols, keeping them captive as curiosities and pets, trading them as offerings of goodwill in diplomacy”
– Edgar Williams
Primitive depictions of giraffes feature in early art, and some art from Egypt shows the giraffe facing left and to the north, something that is thought may indicate that the giraffes was seen as a bearer of the sun god. As such tall creatures, they certainly would see the sun rising before others.
By 2000BC, giraffes were being kept domestically, probably as a curiosity. In 1500 BC, giraffes were captured and transported to Thebes where they were exhibited in one of the world’s first zoos. The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with giraffes, but called them Camelopardalis, or Camelopard, because of the belief that they were an ‘unnatural’ cross between a camel and a leopard.
“The giraffe is the most wonderful, both for the beauty of its form, and the extraordinary manner of its production. For they say that the giraffe proceeds from a female Ethiopian camel, a wild cow (the Addex, an antelope) and a male Hyena; for in Ethiopia, the male hyena pairing with a female camel, she gives birth to a young one partaking of the natures of both parents: and if this happens to be a male, and to pair in turn with a wild cow the result of this second cross is the giraffe.”
– Timaeus, 260 BC
After the roman empire began to crumble, giraffes were no longer found in Europe and thus their existence was lumped in with that of the unicorn and phoenix, a legend. Images copied from images copied from images would create some interesting, but not at all accurate depictions of the giraffe!
To 14th century Arabs, to dream of a giraffe meant bad news about finance or property or a wife’s fidelity. I’m intrigued about why but a quick google didn’t help much…
At various times in history, giraffes have been used as diplomatic gifts including Zarafa who ended up walking from Marseilles to Paris. In the process, she became a bit of a star! Once in Paris, she became a crowd drawing sensation with over 100,000 people visiting her.
Throughout the 19th century, many giraffes were hunted and slaughtered for sport and their skins and as the 20th century arrived, it looked as though extinction was inevitable. Perhaps they would truly be relegated to the realms of dragons and unicorns… Then the world wars intervened.
Whilst giraffes in zoos didn’t do well – some were affected by bombs and others eaten in food shortages – those in the wild benefited as hunters became soldiers and the attention was directed elsewhere. After WW2, measures to try and protect giraffes started on a very small scale but would result in saving the species for a bit longer. Today, the giraffe, with it’s iconic long neck, long legs and long eyelashes is a symbol of Africa, of conservation and of grace.
“[Giraffes are] a People, Who live between the earth and skies… Keeping a light-house with their eyes.”
– Roy Campbell
Naturally most folklore about giraffes comes from African, including a story about why the rhino is grumpy which happens to explain why the giraffe has a long neck. It is said that it grew after the giraffe ate some magical herbs. In stories from South Africa, the giraffe is considered holy, sometimes the holiest animal. The Thutlhwa word means ‘the honoured one’ or ‘the one to be respected’ and in the Zulu’s language, the name means ‘the one who is taller than the trees’. They were regarded as being able to see into the future and was a symbol of prophets and diviners.
“The giraffe was one of two animals whose spoor* was regarded as sacred to the Great Earth Mother. It was also the symbol of obedience and of peace.”
– African Folklore by Credo Mutwa
*the track or scent of an animal
Beautiful, graceful and individual, the giraffe is a clear symbol of uniqueness, but further, a uniqueness which one is proud of. Stand tall and own all of your wonderful gifts.
There are some obvious ways to interpret the giraffe oracle card; stick your neck out, reach for your goals, see the big picture… But there are some other ideas to think about as well; the importance of a strong, big heart, of seeing what lies over the horizon and of having lofty goals. But beware of standing still with your head in the clouds, daydreaming instead of moving forwards. Perhaps my favourite lesson comes from both the giraffe and the acacia tree – don’t be perturbed by a challenge, think of creative solutions and workarounds.