Like some of the other animals I’ve looked at, the skunk’s reputation foreshadows them and whilst I will discuss their odour defence system, I want to start by looking at…
Skunks are part of the weasel family and whilst they tend to be pictured with one white stripe, they actually have two which join at the back of the neck. They are solitary animals which tend to live in abandoned dens, rarely digging their own, instead taking advantage of existing options, and we’ll see this resourcefulness in other aspects of skunk life so it’s something to keep in mind. As well as being opportunistic when it comes to home arrangements, they are also opportunistic eaters. They eat a wide range of foods including animals which we commonly consider pests eg rodents and crop eating insects. As such, you might have more to thank a skunk for than you think. Their resourcefulness is complemented by an adaptability which allows them to live in a wide range of environments including deserts, woodlands and the suburbs.
Even before we get onto discussing reputation and scent, we’ve already got excellent fodder for reflection; the elusive and solitary nature reminding us that there’s a time to be alone and a time to be with others, the idea of taking advantage of opportunities that are around us and the idea of being adaptable to get the most from those opportunities.
Skunk mums are very protective but on the whole, skunks are actually quite peaceful and graceful, able to teach us how to interact with others in peace, to live and let live.
But what, you ask, of their terrible smelling spray? How can that possibly be an example of pacifism? Well… Whilst they are well known for their smell, they only spray musk when they are threatened and it is a last resort. Before spraying, they give warnings – they stamp their feet, change position so they are facing away from the target and lift their tail. It is only after this that they will spray and if you haven’t paid attention to the warning signs, watch out as they can spray up to 15 feet! The scent is made up of seven different chemicals and if it gets in your eyes it will certainly burn and may cause temporary blindness. Because of this, the skunk earns respect. Note also that although the skunk defends itself, it isn’t aggressive and the impact of it’s weapon is temporary.
They also use their black and white lines to highlight their defence, like the badger, so if you’ve reached the point of spray, you’re really not listening to the skunk. Pay attention to the signs, there’s rarely a bite without a bark…
Whilst the skunk’s musk isn’t what we tend to think of as a pleasant smell, it’s actually used in perfume and has even been considered an aphrodisiac… Scent is a very powerful tool, smells are known to evoke memories and can be a powerful route to nostalgia or emotion. They can be used to attract – pheromones and perfume – and repel – tear gas.
When talking about smell its worth noting the role it has in how we think about things. Traditionally ‘good’ smells have been associated with virtue and higher classes of people and ‘bad’ smells associated with disease, lower classes and laziness. But having said that, humans, at least in the western world, tend to neglect scent, instead heavily privileging sight and sound.
Because of their reputation, humans tend to steer clear of skunks, a response that would generally be disproportionate given their size, or lack of. This means that the skunk could come to be associated with loneliness and being on the outside but equally, the skunk may have taken their treatment and essentially give people the middle finger. Reading about how the skunk is seen in the medicine cards and the animal allies, the latter seems to be the case. Both talk of the skunk taking his own, unique, path through life. There is an element of nonchalance and an aura of confidence with the skunk.
For those of us who think skunk and think only of smell, take this as a nudge to consider people and get to know them before you take their reputation as gospel. Perhaps instead of ignoring people who are cast as scapegoats and stigmatised, get to know them and decide for yourself. We also need to note that the skunk is judged based on a behaviour that is only engaged in a tiny amount of the time. Perhaps we need to give people the benefit of the doubt. How someone behaves on a day they’ve had really awful news should not define them. We all do and say things we wouldn’t in other circumstances.
Unable to find validation externally, the skunk has turned inward and found a much more potent validation within himself. He feels sure but not cocky.
“Learn to assert, without ego, what you are. Respect follows. Your self-respectful attitude will repel those who are not of like mind, and yet will attract those who choose the same pathway. As the odour of Skunk attracts others of its kind, it repels those who will not respect its space.”
– Medicine Cards
Sometimes, lacking the respect of others, the skunk goes one better and respects himself. He projects this through his body language and how he holds himself. He knows his own worth and he stands tall because of it. You do not need to be physically strong in order to be powerful. There is strength that comes from knowing, respecting and loving yourself and this brings a quiet power.
Note the subtly here between feeling your self worth and becoming self obsessed. I feel like the skunk knows he has flaws but he doesn’t let them define him.
Skunks are also commended for being true to who they are, they are misunderstood but instead of trying to conform, they just focus on being themselves; a great model of self acceptance.
In arguing for the striped skunk, the iconic species, to be the emblem of America, Ernest Thompson Seton wrote:
“It is, first of all, peculiar to [America]. It has stars on its head and stripes on its body. It is an ideal citizen; minds its own business, harms no one and is habitually inoffensive, as long as it is left alone; but it will face any one or any number when aroused.”
Because it is declaring itself to be a danger right there on its back, and because it knows if things get tough it can release the odour it is so famous for, the skunk can walk around with confidence and fearlessness. It knows it’s correctly armed and sure of how to use its defences.
As I was writing about this, I was watching a VICE video on YouTube about people who own skunks as pets… These get “descented”, the process which means a skunk cannot spray scent. There is a SkunkFest festival where dedicated owners get together to talk all things skunk and there’s even a contest of sorts… A vet in this video explained that owners treat them like children, dress them up and let them sleep in the bed with them. One woman seemed to have more than a handful of skunks and the discussion with the journalist seemed to suggest there was a lot of work required and that the skunks ruled the roost…
Mythologically speaking, the fact that the skunk stands it’s ground and doesn’t back down means they are often associated with war and relatedly, with strength and courage. Skunks also feature in a creation story from the Ojibwe and as an interesting titbit, Chicago comes from the Ottawa language and means ‘the place of the skunk’.
Common themes in skunk myths include disrespect and arrogance having severe consequences, vanity being punished and the skunk being clever and using trickery to outsmart others. In one in particular, skunk gets the better of a vain opossum. In Lakota mythology, skunks were said to be powerful because they stand up to danger and this meant that when heading into battle, Lakota warriors would sometimes take skunk tokens into battle. Some Cherokees believed that the powerful smell of dead skunks would ward off disease and so they’d hang them over doors for protection.
Skunks are both cast as villain and saviour, as hero and trickster, as monsters and idols. This dichotomy of pest or pet is also reflected in people’s views of the skunk – is it a cute and humorous creature that features in cartoons or is it loathed and considered vile? We have already seen that actually skunks can be important in managing pest populations despite many people thinking of them solely as a pest. Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the skunk is that nothing is actually black and white. Just as the skunk itself comes in a range of colours, so too should our thinking.
Seven of Wands
In the Animal Totem Tarot, the skunk is pictured on the Seven of Wands. Where in your life do you feel constantly defensive? How do you hold your ground? How do you act when backed into a corner? If you are being called to defend something you have created or are passionate about, and aren’t doing so or willing to, is this something that’s really worth your time? Consider this call to defend it as a test of how important it really is to you.