Ostrich: Animal Totem Tarot

The ostrich; the bird that forgot to fly.

ostrich

Ostriches are the largest living bird, the fastest living bird and one of the weirdest.  At 7-9 foot tall, these watchtowers are well placed to scan the horizon, vital because there is danger coming at them from all sides.  They have been living in Africa for 12 million years and are a favourite food for lions.  But don’t feel too sorry for them, one well placed kick can be enough to kill a lion.  At the end of their powerful legs are huge feet with 7 inch toes and 4 inch claws.  Don’t make assumptions about this odd looking bird!

The males have striking black and white feathers whilst females blend into the land more easily with greyish brown plumage.  Their feathers are very useful; they fluff them up and fold them as a way of regulating body heat and moisture so they can tolerate high temperatures and don’t need to find shade.  The ostriches use their feathers for communication and remind me of semaphore and fan dancing.  And of course, we use them for hats and boas.

Ostriches walk dozens of miles a day for food – they don’t need to search out water so frequently as they get most of what they need from their food.  When frightened or shocked, they will run in a zig zag way which can confuse the predator.  This can seem a bit like the ostrich is confused and is trying to run in a million directions at once and this might be the case for you, you may be trying to do too many different things at once.  Conversely, doing a couple of different types of things can be positive for our brain, switching between them gives the brain a break and that can be where we find our best ideas.

There is a myth that ostriches were capable of digesting anything including iron, with one medieval scholar claiming they could eat keys and horse shoes.  This rumour probably arose because they do eat stones.  They don’t have teeth and don’t have a ruminating stomach – no chewing the cud here – so have to tear at grass with their beak and swallow the fibres whole.  The rocks then grind the food down so it can be digested.  This habit, along with the false idea that they bury their head in the sand when facing danger, left people believing the ostrich was stupid.

The ostrich mating process is fascinating.  It begins with the male posturing, showing off his wings and showing the female he is interested.  His neck turns bright red and after a prolonged flirtation period, she lets him know she is ready.  The elaborate ritual can take a few days but the actual procreation takes a few minutes.  As an aside, unlike many birds, the male ostrich has a penis.

“The breeding system of the ostrich has been shown to be both varied and complex.  It is highly unusual amongst birds.”
– Brian C R Bertram

A dominant couple will establish a nest and the dominant female will be the first to lay eggs in the nest.  They lay the largest eggs in the world but compared to their size, it’s actually comparatively small.  Secondary females, who’ve had sex with the dominant male, will then lay their eggs in the nest.  This means that in one nest there are eggs from a variety of mothers.  Interestingly, the dominant female’s eggs will generally be in the centre of the clutch.  The secondary females leave their eggs for the dominant couple to incubate and raise.

The male will incubate the eggs at night when their dark plumage doesn’t stand out in the landscape and the more camouflaged females will take the day shift.  When they change shifts, the ostrich who is taking over incubation will do a dance as part of a recognition ritual.  This just confirms to the sitter that this bird really is their partner.

Even before birth, ostrich chicks are vulnerable.  Eggs are laid on the ground and are exposed to a number of threats.  Of a large clutch, 90% of the eggs won’t hatch because of predation.  Of those that do hatch, 15% of them will make it to their first birthday.  If you are one of the lucky babies that makes it through incubation safely, then you have to break out of a really tough shell, making for an exhausting start to life.  If you have pulled the ostrich card then ask yourself what shell are you breaking out of?  Are you going through a bit of a metamorphosis?  If it’s challenging, then this might the encouragement you need.

And of course, unlike other birds, ostrich chicks don’t need to know how to fly to leave the nest which is interesting to ponder metaphorically.

Ostriches have historically been hunted and maximum use was made of the bird once killed.  The skin is tough but flexible and has been used to make protective jackets.  The feathers have been used for decoration including the headdresses of African warriors and in fans used to fan the King.  In ancient Egypt, the ostrich plume was used as a symbol of justice and truth.  As a large bird, and a visible creature in Africa, they have of course made their way into the culture and the myths of the land.

Ostriches feature in folklore and carvings of the Kalahari Bushmen and were considered holy by the Assyrians.  Their eggs were prized by both bushmen and European sailors as a valuable food source, and the empty shell was used as a water vessel.  Holy properties of the shells were used to help and protect Ethiopian Coptic churches and buried Phoenicians.  Shell fragments have been heavily used to make beads for necklaces.

In The Ten Little Ostriches, a story from Kenya, a mother ostrich has ten little chicks that she’s very proud of, and one day she has to leave them to get food.  On her return, she can’t find the chicks but sees lion paw prints and challenges the Lion.  She demands Lion give her back the ten little chicks that are nestled in Lion’s arms but Lion says that she has no ostrich chicks, just her own lion cubs.  Ostrich asks Mongoose for help and in return Mongoose asks for Ostrich to build a hole under an anthill.  Later that day, all the animals arrive to help Ostrich get her chicks back.  But Zebra and Antelope, Baboon, Giraffe and Wildebeest all declare they see nothing but lion cubs.  Mongoose however jumps up and declares that mothers with hair don’t have babies with feathers.  Lion snarled angrily at Mongoose but this didn’t scare Mongoose.  Instead Mongoose stepped closer and shouted that Lion was a thief and immediately spun around and ran into the hole under the anthill where Lion couldn’t follow.  Whilst this was happening, Ostrich was able to rush into the Lion’s den and get her chicks back.  Mongoose meanwhile had run away via a back exit.

The bestiary notes, obviously that the ostrich has wings but does not fly, and goes on to discuss the mating ritual:

“now when the time comes for it to lay some eggs, the ostrich raises its eyes to heaven and looks to see whether those stars which are called the Pleiades appear.  When, however it perceives that constellation, round about the month of June, it digs a hole in the earth, and there it deposits the eggs and covers them with sand.  Then it gets up, instantly forgets all about them, and never comes back any more…. Now if the Ostrich knows its times and seasons, and, disregarding earthly things, cleaves to the heavenly ones – even unto the forgetting of its own offspring – how much the more should you, O Man, strive after the reward of the starry calling, on account of which God was made man that he might enlighten you from the powers of darkness and place you with the chiefs of his people in the glorious kingdom of heaven.”
The Book of Beasts

As the knight of wands, the animal totem card focuses on the idea of confidence, of energy and that things aren’t always as they seem.  This bird is probably best known for something it doesn’t even do – burying it’s head in the sand – and so is asking us to look at how we define ourselves and how others define us.

“Don’t let someone else create a set of myths, stories, and beliefs about who you are.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Instead of being cowardly or delusional, the ostrich is actually brave and grounded in reality.  Do not underestimate yourself.  Stand your ground.  Protect yourself.

Move forcefully.  Move quickly.  Be decisive.

This is not a time for pondering, for chewing the cud, for taking your time.  This is the time for action.

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Panda: Animal Totem Tarot

 

panda

Pandas are an icon of both China and conservation, and as such a high platform creature, you’d think we’d know them well.  As this post will explain, so much we think we know about the panda, is actually about PR.

But first, let’s get to know this adorable black and white bear.  These highly distinctive animals diverged from the ursus lineage 20 million years ago and whilst we know this today, in the past the taxonomic classification of the panda was debated.  After all, they are very different to the rest of the bear family, they are black and white and have the look of a raccoon.

Pandas were carnivores up until 4 million years ago when they moved over to bamboo, a seemingly specialised diet until you remember that their native mountains are covered in this food.  Despite there being over 300 types of bamboo, pandas are picky and do only eat a few of these…. As if finding the food wasn’t tricky enough, it’s hard to eat.  Bamboo is tough and so the panda has powerful cheek muscles which let them break through the tough outer layer.  It is this feature that gives it the iconic round head and a bite almost as powerful as a lion’s.  Bamboo also requires a lot of digesting so pandas wake very early, spending half their time eating bamboo and the other half digesting it.

This behaviour put me in mind of the idea of chewing the cud.  Take your time here, mull things over.  Consume a lot of information, digest it slowly and then make conclusions.

One really fun thing about pandas is that they can hold onto bamboo whilst climbing trees because of a sixth ‘finger’.  Perhaps the panda is actually evolutionary advanced, rather than an evolutionary mistake as they are so often portrayed.

And so we move to the image of the bumbling, clumsy creature who can’t take care of herself, let alone any babies they may ever actually have.  This is a lie.

They aren’t actually as endangered as we be told.  Their main issue is not that they are rubbish at reproducing but that their habitat is being destroyed.  They are regularly portrayed as incompetent breeders, as an evolutionary mistake, but are actually excellently adapted to their eccentric lifestyle.  After all, they’ve been around for millions of years!

This idea of them as vulnerable vegetarians, with their big needy eyes, who aren’t interested in sex is a Disney washed image, a PR stunt, that allows us to ignore the role that humans have had in their demise.  By shifting the blame to the panda, we can continue to destroy their habitats without a conscience at the same time as painting ourselves as heroes.

It is important to know that they do have a very brief fertility window but they are also able to delay implantation of the foetus so they can wait until circumstances are better.

Breeding attempts in captivity have famously failed, but this isn’t all that surprising when you realise that some of these have been same sex pairings… Pandas are, it turns out, hard to sex. But attempts to breed them have continued, perpetuated by the idea that pandas are in trouble and that pandas are bad at creating more pandas.  In fact, the main issue is pandas breeding in captivity.  A zoo enclosure is not the most conducive environment, pandas are only fertile for a short period and often they’ve only just met their supposed partner, would you be in the mood?

In the wild, the picture is very different:

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex, with a taste for flesh and a fearsome bite.”
– Lucy Cooke

In one afternoon, a wild panda can have sex over 40 times, and males have sperm which is much better quality than human males.  Panda sex involves biting, barking and just the right about of submissive-dominant behaviour.  Scent markings on specific trees provide other pandas with information about their sex, age, identity and fertility and males are attracted to female scent markings from far and wide.  In response, males attempt to leave their own scent as high up a tree as possible, engaging in acrobatic poses to achieve this.

But still, we continue to attempt to get zoo pandas to breed and what I can only describe as baby panda factories are found in china which use a variety of methods to stimulate and fertilise pandas which would not know how to live in the wild and so can’t be released…

“It’s all about politics and money… Panda breeding is a full-time, multi-million dollar industry, particularly if one can convince the public that pandas are incapable of reproducing on their own.”
– Kati Loeffler

Despite this, China repeatedly uses the panda as a sign of their conservation work and commitment to the planet.  These ambassadors for Asia are highly valued and have a long history.  Panda diplomacy goes at least as far back as the 7th century when a pair of live pandas were presented to the rulers of Japan.

“The panda can be used to seal the deal and signify a bid for a long and prosperous relationship.  If a panda is given to the country, it does not signify the closing of a deal – they have entrusted an endangered, precious anumak to the country; it signifies in some ways a new start to the relationship.”
–  Kathleen Buckingham

There are many things we could take from this, but for me, the big message from the panda is that you shouldn’t take things on face value, especially in this era of fake news.  Dig deeper, do your own research, look to sources that you trust.  A more fun message is that you can’t tell how kinky someone is just by looking at them!

Turning to folktales, there is a lovely Tibetan story about how the panda was originally all white and how it got its black markings.  Essentially a hurt cub was adopted by four shepardesses and a leopard wanted the panda for lunch.  The shepardesses sacrificed themselves protecting the panda cub.  When the other pandas heard, they were very upset and attended the funeral with their arms smeared with black ashes, as was customary locally.  During the funeral they cried and when they wiped away their tears, their eyes became smudged with ash.  Their ears turned black when they covered them because the other funeral guests were wailing loudly.  When comforting each other with hugs, more black ash got transferred.  In honour of the brave shepardesses, they vowed never to wash the ash from their fur.  Then the ground shock and up from the graves, a mountain rose far into the sky, turning into four peaks.  Ever since, the pandas have found safety in the arms of the four peaks, the arms of the four shepardesses.

Looking at the panda in the context of the Ace of Swords, we see again that this is a message about gathering information (or bamboo, whichever you need or prefer).  The message in the deck is around the idea of distracting yourself from the problem you are trying to solve – by food or whatever else frees up your mind – and how this can often result in that lightbulb moment.

The sword suit is about the mental realm, it covers thinking and information and truth and communication and the slow and steady panda reminds us that these things often cannot be rushed.  Take your time, enjoy the gathering stage, do what you need to do to get clarity.

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Pigs: beliefs and attitudes

“Pigs in their various forms, from wild boar to domesticated swine, are extremely ambivalent figures in myth, sacred in some contexts, demonic in others, or (in the paradoxical manner so common to magical tales) both revered and shunned at the same time. The pig as a sacred animal seems to belong to the early goddess religions, about which our knowledge is far from complete — but carvings and other artifacts found all across what is now western Europe indicate that the pig was an aspect of the Great Goddess, associated with fertility, the moon, and the season cycles of life and death.”
Terri Windling

The history of pigs and humans is long, intertwined and full of conflict.  As a result, our beliefs, stories and folklore around the pig is very varied.  They have been symbols of wealth and status, as well as derided as animals of dirt and filth.  Perhaps the best known belief around pigs is that certain religions denounce eating them.

Why the pig is seen as taboo seems to be a much debated idea with few certainties and many suggestions.  One of these being that it was because pigs were dirty and they ate refuse.  A first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, apparently said that pigs were lazy scavengers who would eat human corpses given the chance.  As both the embodiment of vice and potentially having eaten humans, pigs were thus unfit for human consumption.

Whilst no one seems quite sure why pork was forbidden, the kind of meat you ate, or didn’t, could at various points in history get you killed.  The Spanish Inquisition was one such point in time and not eating pork could mark you out as a traitor.  To try and combat this, people would keep pigs but not eat them, or cook pork like food to try and throw off suspicions.

Elsewhere in time and space, pigs were important sources of food as they were economical to raise.  It was possibly because of this that they were popular with peasants, another possible reason for certain groups of society to refuse to eat them.

Pigs were also important in ritual, although not in ancient Egypt where pigs were considered unworthy sacrifices to the gods, with the exception of the Moon and Dionysus.  In ancient Greece, piglets were sacrificed to the gods and men swore oaths on boar testicles.  Likewise, they were important in Roman sacrifices.  Pliny the Elder had some interesting thoughts on pigs, noting their intelligence and observing that a pig whose tail curls to the right hand side are more likely to appease the gods in a sacrifice…

In China we also see the importance of the pig.  It is thought that the pig was the first domesticated animal there which may explain its place of power.  Between 4700 and 2900BC pigs had ritual importance and the dead (humans) were buried with jade or ceramic pig figures as a symbol of status.  Pigs remain important to the Chinese economy and culture and apparently, the mandarin character for family and home is represented by a pig inside a house.  The pig is also one of the Chinese zodiac animals and is associated with fertility and virility.

For the Kaulong people of Papua New Guinea, pigs are important both physically and symbolically.  They are sacrificed and their meat is shared in ceremonial displays such as for a child’s first tooth eruption, as part of male initiation rituals, to mark female puberty and for marriages and deaths.

For some interesting folklore titbits, I return closer to home with what I believe are British or European beliefs about pigs:

  • They were associated with weather in folklore and it was said that they could see the wind approaching and would let you know by rushing around with straw in their mouths.
  • Fishermen considered them a bad omen and wouldn’t go to sea if they saw one.
  • It was bad luck for a bride to see a pig on her way to the church.
  • To kill a certain (but varied) number of pigs, then the devil may appear, sometimes even in pig form. And if a devilish pig were to bite you, it was said you’d get cancer.
  • Confusingly though, pork soup was a remedy for many things and pigs blood could cure warts.
  • If, however, you ate pig brains then you’d lose control of what you said.

Turning to literature, we find some pigs that do their best to break the stereotypes of the species.  There is babe from Dick King Smith’s Sheep pig who overcomes people’s perceptions of the pig as stupid.  Instead of bulling the sheep into action, he politely asks them instead.  There is piglet from winnie the pooh who is a timid, scared little pig who overcomes his worries and fears repeatedly throughout the tales.  There is the pig in charlotte’s web saves the farm.  And of course there are many more.  Some who fit the stereotypical ideas of pigs, and some who defy them.

In language however, we still find the idea of pigs as dirty, lazy and smelly emphasised.  We talk of pigging out, being pleased as a pig in muck, we call people pig ignorant and tell them to get their snout out of things.  We repeat the old adage you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear but we also talk of globetrotters, although for most of us, an image of the well travelled pig doesn’t spring straight to mind.

Talking of language and how the word pig has come to mean much more than a four legged animal, pigs have been used in a derogatory way for hundreds of years to dehumanise certain groups of people, including Jews.  In late medieval Germany, a condemned Jew was led to execution wrapped in pig skin and in some executions, the victims were hung upside down, by the legs in the same manner as the pigs who were hung alongside them.  Commenting on the dehumanisation of minorities, Boria Sax observed:

“Those who wished to brutalise and slaughter other people… would find it psychologically easier if they thought of their victims as swine.”

And finally, we talk of piggy banks, despite them having very little to do with pigs.  The Middle English word pygg referred to a type of clay used to make jars, such as those jars you would keep money in.  Over the years it has become piggy bank and thus we find the pig shaped ones we know today.

Useful resources:

Wren

“Tiny, plump bird, mainly russet-brown with a pale breast.  It is constantly on the move and has a very loud trilling song that is heard throughout the year.”
– Peter Tate

Whilst today we tend to think of the robin as Britain’s favourite bird, the wren is a stronger contender for the title.  They were found on farthings, featured on stamps, and as we’ll see there’s a range of folklore about them.  But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wren itself.

They are very helpful to us as they eat insects and spiders, and their small size allows them into little cracks and crevices that other birds can’t get to.  In winter, food is scarcer, possibly hidden under heaps of snow or frozen soil.  Because of their size, they are vulnerable to the cold and combat this by huddling together and becoming more friendly as the weather turns.  This increased sociability is important as a cold winter can kill anything from a quarter to three quarters of the population.  However, when times are better, males are territorial and defend their patch from other males.  There is a season for coming together and a season for putting yourself first.

Despite being one of the UK’s most widespread birds, found almost everywhere except the most remote or highest parts of the country, it is more often heard rather than seen.  There is an invisibility here, an ability to slip between worlds that reminds me of shamans.

Little Jenny wren, small and inconspicuous, has a surprisingly powerful voice.  This is because they have an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and can make use of virtually all of the air in their lungs.

I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.

“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.””
Jay Griffiths

One lesson of the wren, is that your voice is much more powerful than you think, speak up, sing loudly, don’t let your (perceived) smallness stop you.  What you have to say matters, it will make a difference.

“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”
– Ussher & Warren (1900)

There may also be a message here around focusing on what you hear, not what you see.  I’ve mentioned our vision-centricness before and how important it can be to tune into all our senses.  Play some music, light a candle, whatever it is that helps you connect to yourself and feel grounded.

Once lucky enough to have seen off other males and found a female to mate with, the male wren presents the female with a choice of nests.  She selects her preferred one and lines it with feathers.  Once the little eggs are hatched, both parents take a role in feeding the chicks.  It was this cooperative behaviour that led older societies to associate the wren with sharing the work load.  Today it may be a reminder not to get stuck into gendered ideas of who should do what household tasks.  Share the work and play to your strengths, even if they aren’t what stereotypes suggest you should be doing.

A Wren’s Nest by William Wordsworth starts with a beautiful stanza describing the wren’s nest, a place of comfort and of safety, snug and cosy.  The protective feeling of being wrapped up warm in blankets.

AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren’s
In snugness may compare.

Much of what I read about the wren, and know from my own observations, suggests a delight in the seemingly ordinary, an enchantment with life, an enthusiasm and a joy that comes just from being in the world.  This is definitely something we can all learn from.  What brings you alive?  What makes your heart sing?  What feeds your soul? What nourishes your heart?

When it comes to folklore, the best place to start is the name.  The latin name is Troglodtyes Troglodyes and means cave dweller whilst the word wren comes from the anglo saxon word wrœnno which means lascivious.

A common, much repeated piece of wren folklore is about the king or queen of the birds.  A Scottish tale of the eagle and the wren involves all the birds gathering and deciding they wanted a queen, but it was impossible to decide on who.  Some wanted eagle, others wanted wren and eventually wren suggested a test to decide the matter, whichever of the them could fly the highest would be queen.  Everyone was sick of talking about it so agreed, even though it seemed an odd suggestion from little wren.  Both birds took to the air.  When wren had got as high up as her little wings could take her, she landed very softly on eagles back.  Eagle continued to fly higher and higher until she could go no higher.  When she returned to the ground, the birds declared that eagle would be their queen as she flew the highest.  The wren poked her head out of eagle’s feathers and said that no, it should be her because when eagle could fly no more, she had flapped off eagles back and thus had flown higher.  Whilst I feel like this was a great case of intellect over physical size, the other birds didn’t agree and said that eagle was their queen.  Similar tales are found around the world, including Ireland and a version from Zulu lore.  Some versions centre around finding a king but I like the idea of the wren as queen better!

“The robin red breast and the wren, Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”

The wren as queen is also echoed in the idea of the robin and wren as god’s birds.  Traditionally, the wren has been seen as the wife of the robin and where robin is said to have brought fire to the land, the wren is said to have brought water.  Because of this duality, you might want to consider the robin as well.

In Scotland the wren is called ‘The Lady of Heaven’s hen’ and if maltreated cows milk would be stained with blood. Similarly, French peasants supposedly called it poulette de Dieu, or god’s chicken, and thought that the wren was at the stable when Jesus was born and had covered him in moss and feathers.

Other beliefs around this little bird include it being lucky if a wren’s feather falls on you, if you hear one singing it’s a sign of good fortune and it was thought that wren feathers would protect you against various perils, especially if you were at sea.

Unfortunately, other stories around the wren and the sea aren’t so positive, at least not for the wren herself.  It was thought that a sea sprite haunted shoals of herring and could conjure up storms before flying away in the form of a wren.  Obviously, this didn’t make the wren popular among some fisherfolk…  In fact, Manx fishermen took dead wrens to sea with them as protection from the storms.

They may also have been concerned because of a story from the Isle of Man about a fairy, who was really a siren, that so beautiful and had such a lovely voice that she lured and charmed many men, drowning them.  Eventually a brave knight was able to withstand her and tried to destroy her but she escaped in the form of a wren.  After this, she was condemned to appear in this form each year until a mortal could succeed in killing her.

This led to the strange annual practice of hunting the wren, a tradition associated with St Stephens day.  A wren was killed, hung on a pole and carried in procession.  everyone who gave the bearers money got a feather for protection.  This was carried out beyond the Isle of Man and we have an associated rhyme which comes from Ireland:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the furze
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake
Or give us a copper, for charity’s sake

Despite, or because of, this idea of the wren as powerful and destructive, we have superstitions which protect the wren.  In England, to kill a wren, or to disturb its nest would mean you’d have bad fortune by the end of the year.  If you tried to steal wren’s eggs or chicks, your home would be struck by lightening.  The latter is explained by one blogger as being because the wren was sacred to the thunder god Taranis who used lightning as a weapon for protection.  It was also said the wren was sacred to Taliesin, the great bard from welsh mythology, quite possibly because of the wren’s beautiful song which, like the nightingale, inspired poets and musicians across time.

Another illustration of the wren’s power is seen when the evil forces of the deep dark cold days of winter are appeased by a sacrificed wren.  You really shouldn’t go overlooking something or someone just because of their size.  If this little bird can summon storms and banish winter, what can you do?

Turkey – Animal Allies

A lot of my turkey knowledge was informed by The Turkey, An American Story by Andrew F. Smith. If you are interested in learning more about the history of turkeys and how they came to be so important in America, do check it out. 

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For this card, I think we need to acknowledge different cultural meanings, I mean we do for all cards but this one in particular given how Americans associate them with thanksgiving and in the UK it’s Christmas instead.

Turkeys have come to have social, historical, cultural and culinary significant in America and without them (and deer), settlers would have had a very different time and thus the world today could have looked very different.

“No other American bird has received the lavish amount of attention bestowed upon the turkey.  It is not hard to understand this fascination.  The wild turkey is not America’s biggest bird – the swan and crane are larger – but turkeys do not migrate and are abundant throughout the eastern United States… They are also handsome birds that command the attention of anyone who sees them.  A wild turkey’s habits are unusual, it’s behaviour extraordinary and its vocalisations quite singular in the avian world.”
– Andrew F. Smith

Way back, many, many years ago, wild turkeys lived in Mexico and throughout North America.  They inhabited woodlands and were nearly hunted to extinction – by the same colonists that owed their success to them…  Habitat destruction was another cause of the population collapse, again down to the colonies…  The timing echoes that of the population crash of bison and many other north American creatures.  With conservation efforts, numbers have now increased to over 7 million.

But stepping back in time again, very little seems to be known about early domestication but the Spanish did encounter domestic turkeys in Mexico in 1518 and went on to introduce them to Spain, shortly after they moved through Europe and had arrived in England by 1541.  Initially eaten by upper classes, by 1577 they had become the cheapest bird on the English market.  Come 1573, it has been noted, turkeys were a staple of the English Christmas dinner, taking a reprieve for a while but being back in vogue by 1792 when John Gay wrote:

“From the low peasant to the lord
The Turkey smokes on every board”

This tradition would travel to New England and become established by the early 19th century.  Today, turkey is more associated with thanksgiving, but why?  Well, first I want to note that Thanksgiving stories are almost all lies and I was going to explain why but it’s incredibly complicated.  What I will say is that whilst thanksgiving feasts were a thing, it was probably down to the great efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale (she also wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb) that America has a Thanksgiving holiday in November.  She strongly felt that there should be a third holiday in the year (in addition to Washington’s birthday in February and Independence Day in July).  She campaigned for many years, writing to government and prominent people to try and declare the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  She nearly succeeded in 1859 but it wasn’t until 1863 that it was officially declared by Lincoln.  In terms of why the turkey, well, as non migratory birds, turkeys were in supply and of a reasonable size in autumn and so were an obvious choice for a celebratory feast.

“The turkey was just a big bird to raise, hunt and consume until the American War for Independence, when it began to acquire symbolic value.  The new nation needed to differentiate itself from its English roots, and “American” foods began to take on nationalistic values.”
– Smith

The increasing demand for turkey would go on to change the beast itself.  Breast meat was particularly important to consumers and so turkey breeds were crossbred to increase the amount per bird.  The result was turkeys that had such wide breasts and short legs that they couldn’t mate… This means that artificial insemination was the way forward… Nothing all that natural about the centrepiece of your Christmas table…

Whilst it is an aside, it’s interesting to find out where the phrase cold turkey came from.  First, we need to know that the turkey has been a symbol of honesty for about 200 years and led to the saying to “talk turkey”, meaning to speak frankly.  Then, over time, “talking cold turkey” came to mean speaking frankly, but with cold, harsh, unpleasant facts.  This eventually evolved into “cold turkey” and was first recorded to mean the abrupt stopping of drugs in 1921.

Another turkey related fact from America 200 years ago is the pulling of the merrythought, a custom we know today as pulling the wishbone.  As we’ll see, the turkey is a creature of abundance, so before you make a wish, consider what you already have.

There are many interesting tangents I could go off on but perhaps the most relevant when it comes to the oracle card is the idea of turkeys as stupid.  As the turkey was valued for breast meat and not intellect, we have domesticated and refined a bird which is cumbersome and not necessarily bright (although recent research suggests that chickens are cleverer than we thought so maybe the same will prove true for turkeys).  Anyway, the alleged stupidity of turkeys led to the phrase gobbledygook, meaning “language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms”.  Are you communicating clearly and simply or are you over complicating things and convoluting the message?  Perhaps you’re being underestimated or even underestimating yourself.

The reality is that wild turkeys are inquisitive, curious creatures which are interested in things that don’t benefit their survival, showing us an appreciation of things just for the joy of it.  They are playful and despite their reputation as stupid, they have a profound vocabulary which includes specific vocalisations for individual predators.

Turkeys are natural foragers and eat almost anything they can find (again we have the theme of abundance popping up), what are you overlooking or missing in your hunt for something that matches the image in your head?  Have you fallen into the rom-com trope of ignoring the best friend because they don’t look like your idea of love?

Whilst most birds are associated with air, I feel the turkey is more of an earth card – whilst they have wingspans of up to 6 feet, they are not especially aerodynamic or graceful when they do fly.  Instead they use their wings to help them jump into trees for safety.  Perhaps you could bring a dose of reality to your lofty ideas?  Bring yourself back down to earth.

Like the bison, the turkey is a symbol of fertility, gratitude and abundance.  They were used in ritual to ensure a good crop and the various parts of the turkey were used in many ways.  Obviously they were eaten as poultry, but they also provided eggs and feathers which were used to make coats, blankets and umbrellas.  They were also turned into hearth brushes, quills, dusters and used to stuff mattresses and pillows.  The bones were carved into spoons and beads.

They are also about sacrifice, giving yourself so that others can live and harvests which puts me in mind of the six of pentacles in tarot.  Reversed, this reminds me more of the 4 of pentacles and holding on so tightly to what you have out of fear of losing it that you can’t get anything more.

“In present day urban life, we are taught to acquire and get ahead.  The person with the most toys wins the game.  In some cultures, no one can win the game unless the whole of the People’s needs are met.”
– Medicine Cards

Giving and receiving, sharing and enjoying are important here.  To give something away can be a gift to yourself.  What is it that you have to offer the world?  What is it you are abundant in?

Questions to think about when the turkey shows up include what are you sacrificing, is it deserving of your sacrifice is it the right thing to be sacrificing yourself for?  What I have in mind as I type this is a job that’s draining the life out of you, demanding all your time and energy and ideas but which gives you nothing in return; no sense of satisfaction, no acknowledgement etc.  On the other hand, giving all your time and effort to a career you love is a sacrifice that might be worth making.

The Moon

I’ve somehow managed to misplace the photos I took of the moon cards… When I find them again, I’ll add it in.  In the meantime, you can find most of them on google images if you’re interested.

RWS and Pagan Cats

Both of these cards depict two creatures looking up at the moon, standing between two pillars with water in the foreground and a crayfish.  The moon is looking down on the scene and in the distance are hills.

This moon is glowing brightly but remember that the moon doesn’t shine her own light, she reflects that of the sun, which is currently hidden. Even in the dark, the sun is still there.  Like the moon reflects the sun, the subconscious reflects the world around us – inner experiences reach the outer mind through imagination, dreams and creative practices.

The moon casts shadows and distorts what we see, there is a strangeness to the world when the moon is out, nothing is quite what it seems.  Magic and mystery slides in the space between dark and light.

On the rws card, the two moon gazers are a dog and a wolf, representing the tamed and wild sides of ourselves.

“A werewolf howling under a full moon is a vivid metaphor of the power of the unconscious to bring out something primitive and non-human in the most respectable people.”
– Rachel Pollack

In the pagan cats, we have a cat and a dog instead, perhaps also representing the tamed and untamed but in a more subtle way – it has long been said that humans tamed dogs and cats tamed humans.

According to Pollack, the crawfish (I thought it was a lobster but I defer to her wisdom) at the bottom of the image is emerging from the water but will never completely come onto land, instead falling back again.  This feels a bit like the ebb and flow of the tide, a phenomenon which is itself a lunar process.  It also echoes the just out of reach-ness, just beyond seeing-ness that can permeate the moonlit night.

“The deepest terrors are the ones that never fully take shape.  We feel something inside, but we never see just what it is.”
– Pollack

Interestingly, the cat in the pagan cats appears to be lifting the crawfish out of the water suggesting an attempt or desire to pull that elusive thing out of the unconscious and into the conscious realm.  If you’ve ever tried to remember a dream, you’ll know how futile this is!

In tarot, we see two pillars as a gateway, such as that in the high priestess card.  Here we are standing on one side, on the side of the known, with the unknown or unknowable on the other side.

Wild Unknown

Where the RWS and pagan cats depict animals between pillars, the wild unknown is animal free but does feature two tall trees reaching skywards towards the crescent moon.  The sky is dark, the trees white and the moon golden and I find the simplicity of this card interesting for such a complicated meaning.

The image is a silhouette and this reiterates some of the ideas of not seeing clearly, not seeing all that is in front of you and things being distorted in some way.  The two trees are illuminated by the moon, they are depicted in white, and it suggests to me that we are being welcomed through the gate I mentioned in relation to the RWS card.  This gateway is encouraging you in, inviting you to explore your subconscious and dream world.  Make friends with the darkness, with what scares you, with your inner self.

Carrie Mallon makes an interesting observation about the wild unknown moon;

The ground is not visible in this card. The Moon is a energy that can make it hard to catch your bearings. Up might be down or down might be left might be right. This can lead to wildly imaginative adventures…or it can lead to confusion and anxiety. In the faint light of the moon, you question what is real and what is imagined, what is beautiful fantasy and what is pure madness.”

Lumina Tarot

A moon goddess looks to the reader, an amethyst circle behind her and the symbol of pisces etched in with the other details.  The book tells us:

“This is a card of intuitive and psychic strength – strong messages and insights are coming to you through your subconscious.”

Things aren’t always as they seem; deception, confusion and distortion rule here.  Fears are ever present, but in the shadows, you can find gold.  Through shadow work you can explore the darker parts of yourself consciously.  The moon can illuminate your subconscious self and if you embrace and work with it, you can harness your innate power and work towards an illuminated self.  Going through the moon realm, you can bring light to your unconscious self and grow.  It has a different power to the sun.  The sun directly feeds and nourishes our bodies, the moon gently encourages and invites us to feed and nourish our souls, ourselves.  The moon is no helicopter mom, the moon is the mother that gives you the resources, skills and knowledge and steps aside for you to discover things for yourself.

The moon encourages us to dive deep, to dream deep and to transform.

“This card is ruled by Pisces, who is, in a sense, afraid of nothing, being one with the Universe and the Universe contains all.  Remember that when pondering your fears by moonlight: this thing that so frightens you – is it inside you as well?”
– Michelle Tea

Animal Totem Tarot

Once again, we have two trees as pillars, with an owl flying in front of a full moon, over a body of water where the moon is reflected in ripples.  The great grey owl has a message for us:

“The light of the moon makes everything look different.  The trees seem to become bigger and everything around them looms like an unknown landscape… But the truth is that nothing has changed at all – merely the way you see it has changed.”

We see the world though our own unique lenses, through our experiences and emotions and this changes what we see.  We see what we expect to see, we see ourselves reflected in what surrounds us.  What each person sees will be different, will be slightly distorted by where we see it from and which pool we see it reflected in.

“How you see the Moon is deeply connected to how you see yourself.”

Further, each night we see the same thing differently.  Each night has a different amount of light which transforms what we thought was static, the trees, the water, these things change with the cycle of the moon.

As the owl swoops across the moon, she seems to grow.  Things in the dark can seem larger than they are.  What is it that you are escalating?  What do you think is bigger that it is?  Are you making mountains out of molehills?  On the flip side, what are you refusing to pay attention to?  What are you ignoring?  What is having to make itself bigger for you to notice?

Brady Tarot

The Brady Tarot moon is very similar to the animal totem tarot – two trees frame the image, an owl is in flight in front of a full moon and a body of water is underneath.  This card however also features the crawfish.  In addition, there are two coyotes in the background, one looking out of the card and the other howling to the moon.  Looking more closely and into the darkness we also find two opossoms in the trees.

Pollack describes the crawfish as symbolising the primitive, instinctual part of our self, the deep unconsciousness, a place where fears and wildness live:

“The owl and the crawfish show us the power of wild nature.  The coyotes react to this energy, but the opossoms remind us to simply accept without fear or judgement.”

This card, more so than the others I’ve looked at, illustrates the night as a realm of it’s own.  It has its own inhabitants and it’s own way of being and it’s own way of seeing.  To understand the moon realm, we must immerse ourselves in this world, become one of the characters and feel our way into the part, intuitively.

“Imagination in action.  Instinctive energy, dreams, the unconscious rising up to affect our lives.  Deep instincts that may disturb our daily life.  Animal energy, wildness.  The part of us governed by the phases of the Moon.”
– Rachel Pollack

It would be impossible to talk about the moon without also looking to some of the common lunar associations.  The moon is also about the feminine, about fertility, creation, mystery and power.  It is about the daily tides, the monthly menstruation cycles, the seasons and all of nature’s rhythms.  The moon asks us to embrace the circularity of life, the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs and to trust in the darkness and have faith that light will return.

Our Tarot

Mary Shelley is centered in the card, a full moon in front of her and what look like two horns behind her, perhaps an echo of the antennae of the crawfish?

Of course, Shelley is famous for Frankenstein, an amazing tale of the things that can happen in the night, in the imagination and what can occur when man made monsters are released onto the world.  With this we have themes of death and rebirth, of resurrection and transformations.  We lean into what can happen in the shadows, in strange dreams and fantasy worlds.

“Her chief childhood pastime was writing – “as a child, I scribbled” – and she found her own dreams and imaginings to be far more interesting than her daily life.”

I feel like Shelley is asking us to pay attention to our dreams, both night journeying as well as hopes and goals.  She is asking us to express those ideas we find in the moon light, whether that is in writing like her or in art or science or whatever it is that makes you feel most alive.

How can you draw inspiration from the world around you?  What transformations are currently taking place in your life?  What visions are you bringing to life?

“I stand to face my shadows, I learn from them and incorporate them to give myself greater power and agency”
Jessi Huntenburg

Bighorn Sheep

“Is it time to let go of your current footing in order to end up on new and improved ground?”
– Animal Allies

 

Bighorn sheep are found in north America, and like bison, there used to be vast number of them but due to hunting and disease spread by domestic sheep, by 1900 instead of millions, there were just a few thousand left.

The depletion of bighorn sheep due to human activity has resulted in more than just fewer sheep, it has changed their behaviour.  Bighorn sheep learn to migrate from one another, passing down knowledge and wisdom through the generations.  This ancestral information takes many years to gather and can’t easily be replaced.  When migration routes are altered by human activity, or when bighorn sheep are moved because it’s more convenient for us, the sheep suffer.  It takes a lot of years to build up the detailed information they need.  It’s not just the route they need to figure out, it’s where and when the fresh shoots emerge as this gives them the best nutrition that is most easily digested.  Whilst you might intuitively expect the bighorn sheep to be following the lush vegetation, they actually ‘surf the greenery’ by anticipating it.

As well as a lesson in conservation, we can learn about valuing ancestral wisdom, about respecting and honouring our elders and about how deep knowledge takes time to build up.  This is information that goes beyond just reading or learning it, it is understanding it and embodying it.  This is a long process, one that involves building on what you have in an incremental way.  It is also a reminder about the importance of cultural preservation.

Bighorn sheep have, as I think is obvious, horns…!  Rams have long, curved horns and ewes have smaller, straighter horns.  The horns are a symbol of status amongst the sheep, as well as a useful weapon.  As with other horned or antlered animals, this suggests a link to the higher plane, to gods and goddesses, an antennae that receives messages from the other world.  This ties in with Aries, the zodiac sign which is associated with the ram and represented by the horns.  Aries is the first sign of the zodiac and is a sign of new beginnings, of new starts and of action.  It’s about diving in headfirst, about charging in and about acting without thinking.  Determination, assertiveness, and initiation are important keywords as well.  Aries is also associated with Mars, the planet of war.

And the bighorn males do use their horns for conflict.  Prior to mating, males will establish a hierarchy of dominance to figure out who gets to mate with who.  This involves rutting, horn clashing, head butting and generally facing your opponents head on.  Thankfully the rams have acquired a thick skull which protects against injury during these fights.  Thus they teach us both that there are times to face things directly, to charge in head on and also, if you are going to do this, prepare for your adversary’s response.  If you are letting your tongue go wild with insults, expect some back.  If you are giving it out, grow a thicker skin.

That said, head on battles aren’t the only way.  There are three main ways of courting; a) ‘tending’ is where you find yourself a ewe and defend her from other males; b) fighting for a female that’s already being tended and c) blocking is where you prevent a ewe from even reaching the tending area.  If you play things strategically, you may be able to minimise the amount of physical clashes you are involved with.

The terrain of the bighorn sheep is certainly worth noting here.  They live on alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and foothills and are incredibly well adapted to climbing steep terrain which gives them protection from predators.  Their hooves are well designed for balance and grip, making them good climbers and jumpers.  They are surefooted even on slippery, scree covered slopes and only need a small space to get a toe hold.  The bighorn can take opportunities that others can’t and do so with less risk and more confidence.  This is a reminder to us to seize opportunities, to take leaps and to trust our ability to move into new areas of life with confidence.  As Aries reminds us, this is a time to act, to move, to jump.  Don’t wait, don’t overthink this, just do it!

As prey animals, bighorn sheep have evolved to have sharp hearing, a highly developed sense of smell and wide set eyes which provide a large angle of vision.  This means that its hard for anything to creep up on them, they are watchful creatures which are constantly keeping their senses alert to danger.  This is helped by their large social groups where there is safety in numbers.

The bighorn sheep is one of the most admired creatures of the Apsaalooka, or Crow, people and they have a number of sacred myths about them.  One myth explains how bighorn sheep saved a young man, imbued him with their qualities – power, wisdom, sharp eyes, surefootedness, keen ears, great strength and a strong heart.  He then returned to his people and instructed them that the river, known as bighorn river, must not have its name changed.  If they did change the name, the crow people would be no more.  Other myths focus on the virility of the bighorn sheep and how they can be a symbol of male success in both hunting and in sexual activities.

In general, this card feels like it has a very traditionally male vibe going on.  The horns are most notable on the males, the association with aries and mars is traditionally male and almost everything I discovered about the bighorn sheep was focused on the rams.  That being said, when it came to ancestral knowledge and the passing of wisdom from one generation to another, the literature talked more about the maternal line.  I think the message this card has for you today, and the success of how you implement the teachings, will depend on whether you take these traits as separate, or whether you work to combine them together in a more holistic way.