The paradoxical puffin is both solemn and comical. They are hardy, resilient birds, much more so than their cute appearance may suggest. Whilst they aren’t related to penguins and live in different parts of the world, they do share some adaptive features with them; their two tone camouflage, their short wings and their stocky body. The puffin is probably best known for it’s vibrant beak which is brightest during mating season and used to attract mates and to communicate.
I have a lot to say about the puffin and I can only hope that the post ends up being coherent. I want to talk a bit about their lives, a bit about the elements and how they show up in the puffin and a bit about prayer.
It is essential that these sea clowns are tough. They spend a lot of life in the open ocean, coming to land to nest in the same burrow they used the year before. This suggests a very strong homing instinct, a need for reliability, routine and stability and the importance of place. Once they’ve found their burrow, they then have the task of cleaning out all the dirt that has accumulated over the year. A spring cleaning if you will except with a pick axe style beak and sharp clawed feet for shovels.
Puffin colonies tend to be found just beyond the limits of human kind. When they live on land at all, it is right on the edge. These are truly sea birds. Explore your own limits, how far to the edge do you go? Do you stick in your comfort zone, feet firmly on dry land, or do you venture to the cliffs and fly out to sea?
Puffins are inquisitive, highly sociable creatures which live in large flocks. It is thought this is for protection, safety in numbers and all that. When they are threatened by predators, they will adopt schooling like behaviour similar to that of fish. Despite the huge colonies, they tend to break into smaller groups for socialising reminding us of the value of a small group of very close friends.
Generally they lay one egg per year and both mum and dad are attentive parents. During the first few weeks of life, the puffling gets four or more meals. This means that the babies are left alone so that the parents can go off and fish. Some people have interpreted this as abandonment but I prefer to look at it through the lens of building secure attachment and helping the pufflings get used to the separation.
Puffin parents dive deep to catch fish for their babies, bringing back beak-fulls of about 15 fish although the biggest beak-full recorded was 61 sandeels and a rockling! They manage to keep all of this food secure in their beak because they have spines on the roof of their mouth to prevent fish slipping out.
At about 6 weeks old, once they have been fed up and are independent, the pufflings leave their parents and head out to sea. The adults soon follow them to return to their main habitat, the wild open ocean.
Thinking about the elements at play here, we have earth, air, fire and water; cliffs, flight, bill and diving.
The earth, the edges of it at least, are where the puffins nest. They start life with their feet on solid ground. Earth, and the pentacles, are about the material world, the physical world. It provides a solid, stable starting point for the young puffin. They then emerge from their burrows like a baby from the womb, transitioning from darkness to light, from protection to the vulnerability which comes from being out in the world.
Next comes air, as with most birds, the puffin flies! Because of this many birds are considered messengers and are associated with the spirit because (if you consider the spirit world, heaven etc to be “above” as most people do) they are just literally closer than we are to the deities. Air, and the associated swords suit in tarot, are about ideas, about thinking and communication. Whilst the puffin is naturally affiliated with the sea, they are adept at flight and can move through the skies at up to 55mph.
I get the sense of the air being a transitional space between the earth and the water. Thinking time to help the puffin move from the practical matters of feeding and caring for babies to the more ethereal matters of emotions and feelings that are associated with water.
Water is about emotions and feelings and exploring our shadows. Once puffins hit the water, they stay at sea for a couple of years! They go through emotional growth and development before they venture back to land to breed. To me, this seems a very responsible thing to do if you can. Parent yourself before you become a parent to others.
This idea of the ocean giving space for personal development is emphasised when we consider that puffins living in their colonies on land are very noisy but out at sea, they are silent. To me this speaks of a time for socialising and communicating with others and a time for focusing on you and for communicating with oneself. With the elements involved, we have the noisy chatter on land which is focused on the tangible world but in the wide ocean, the silence offers space for internal reflection of the emotional world.
Once they are old enough and wise enough to parent, the journey back to land begins. As a sign that they’re ready to mate, their beaks get brighter and the intensity of the predominantly orange bill increases. Fire is associated with the suit of wands in tarot. This is a suit of energy, of passion, of ideas, of inspiration. Things which aren’t yet real. Beginnings. It is what fuels us. That spark of excitement when you get an idea. And like fire, it can be creative or destructive. It can fuel you or it can cause you to burn out. It is that very first moment of excitement when you see your future puffin partner. And as puffins generally mate for life, you want to trust your gut on this.
The beak isn’t just a way of attracting others, they use them to communicate. Billing, rubbing their beaks against each others, is a show of affection and bond building. To gape, to open the bill widely, however is a way of threatening harm without actually fighting. Use your words not your fists and pay attention to body language.
We all transition through these elements on a regular basis, drawing more strongly on one at one time and another at another time. Perhaps thinking about the life of the puffin will help you see which element(s) you are most embodying right now, or vice versa.
The eccentric appearance of the puffin is often said to be a reminder to us that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. It can also be a call to embrace the strange! However, despite their amusing appearance, the puffin is often associated with monks. Indeed their Latin name means little friar or little brother and in Irish folklore, puffins are considered to be the reincarnation of monks.
To understand why the puffin and the monk are related, we’ll consider the appearance and behaviour of the puffin. As they come out of the water, they have their feet together as if in prayer and if you watch a puffin on land, you will see them walking very slowly with their heads down, like a monk. In addition to this, they are found on cliffs and islands which are both places associated with spiritual matters and holy sites. Think about Lindisfarne for example or St Michael’s Mount. In the past, spiritual people have taken themselves off to these places in retreat, to commune with god, to reflect and to pray.
Prayer is often imagined as being on your knees in a church reciting a prayer with your hands together. But that’s not the only way.
“The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves”
– Terry Tempest Williams
What does prayer* mean to you? What does prayer look like or feel like to you? Not what do you think it should be, but what, on a soul level, answering from your heart, does it feel like to you? It may be that your prayers are in the form of dance, of writing, of talking to the trees or meditating with crystals. For me, it’s connecting with myself, it’s tarot, it’s being grateful, it’s slowing down and noticing the little things. But also, for me, prayer is not a one way thing, it’s a conversation, it’s an interaction. Who or what that interaction is with is going to depend on your beliefs. For me, prayer is a way of connecting with my higher self, connecting with nature and the stars and the moon.
“Prayer is when you talk to God; meditation is when God talks to you”
– Yogi Bhajan
Laborare est Orane; to work is to pray
– Benedictine Monks
But don’t forget the other side of the puffin, live is not all work and no play. These are curious birds, packed full of character and not to mention their smile inducing comical appearance.
*Prayer isn’t a word I use. I don’t feel comfortable with the Christian connotations as I am not a Christian and I don’t want to co-opt their language or create confusion. However in this context it does feel the right word or at least the best word that I know.
The Oxford Dictionary says that prayer is a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity. An earnest wish or home. Without going into epic detail, this is one issue I have with most religion. It’s passive and removes the onus on oneself and can be dis-empowering. So here when I say prayer, I’m referring to a conversation or a joint reflection, something empowering which I don’t yet have the language to express.