It turns out the vulture is an amazing creature. Before this project I had only come across them in the lion king and as a small part character in animal documentaries. In both cases they’ve been portrayed as unpleasant but that is so far from the truth.
Unfortunately this image of the vulture as evil, ugly and disgusting means that conservation efforts are slow and the vulture is sliding towards extinction.
Let’s start with the vulture’s appearance and in particular, that characteristic bald head (not all vultures are bald but their heads aren’t fully feathered). One reason for this is for cooling purposes and another proposed idea is that it’s to keep them clean. Vultures are scavengers and get their heads into decaying animals which are filled with all kinds of bacteria which you don’t really want in your feathers. So this animal, generally considered dirty, is possibly adapted for cleanliness.
Indeed, as a scavenger, the vulture acts in nature as a cleaner. They’re natural garbage collectors and we’d be in trouble without them – they help keep the environment clean and help prevent spread of disease. The vulture asks us to look at ourselves and our environment, are you in need of cleansing and purifying? This might be spiritually, physically, it might be your thoughts that need refreshing.
Vultures need to have an amazing digestive system and their stomach acid can even dissolve anthrax. Their urine, which some species drip down their legs, is highly acidic and hence is used to kill off any bacteria which may be lingering.
Predominantly scavengers, they have been known to kill injured or near dead animals. They find their food by smell or sight depending on the species and some African cultures believed that the location of food came to them in dreams. Their vision has led to their use in traditional medicines designed to help improve sight and see into the future. Perhaps this card is asking you to use your foresight or open your eyes?
Their ability to find corpses means they are apparently being investigated to see if they can be trained to find human remains.
Aside from their feeding habits, the vulture is tied to death through mythology, gods and goddesses and the sky burials of Tibet. But the vulture knows that death is also life, the cycle of renewal is critical to their existence and so we find them associated with birth as well. And this rings true of all death, whether literal or metaphorical. However hard it is to experience, it will allow something new to come into being.
In a Cherokee creation myth, the earth was a soft mud, not something that animals could stand on. A bird, sometimes it’s told as the buzzard, sometimes the vulture and other times another bird, went out to look for some solid ground so the animals could visit the land. As the vulture flew, it grew tired and it’s wings dipped low and brushed the soft mud leaving peaks and troughs which would become the mountains and valleys we know today.
In Ancient Egypt, we find Nekhbet, a vulture goddess who protected the country and the Pharaohs. She was a mother goddess, associated with nature, childbirth and the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Another mother goddess, Mut, is also symbolised by the Vulture and, according to wikipedia, the hieroglyph for Mut’s name, and for mother itself, was that of a vulture.
Whilst the vulture may not seem like an obvious card for mothering, it’s clearly thought of as such in some cultures. This may be a call to mother yourself, to nurture and care for yourself. Or it may be a call to do this for someone or something else, whether that’s your child or pet or the earth itself. Or even to consider what mothering means to you.
As I said at the begin of this post, I am now fully enamoured with the vulture and hope that more people will come to see how beautifully adapted and crucial this magnificent bird is to our planet.