Atolls

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the World card is represented by an Atoll.

“Do you know what conditions are necessary to create a thriving new world?  There is a special ingredient list and everything has to come together at the exact same time.  It is not easy to complete and sustain a thriving ecosystem.  But with time, patience, and perseverance it can be done.  Miss any one step or any one ingredient, and you will not get that which can sustain life.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

The animal totem tarot quote essentially wraps up the essential message here – it’s about creating the right conditions for creation.

An atoll@ An oval white shape in the midst of a dark blue ocean

But what is an atoll?

“An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or series of islets. The atoll surrounds a body of water called a lagoon.”National Geographic

In further info, they are found in warmer seas and the majority are in the Pacific Ocean. There are about 440 atolls and they tend not to breach 5 metres in elevation and a lot of the reef hides below the surface.

Atolls develop over epic timescales and can take up to 30 million years to come into being. Some work is just like that, a long long haul where you think you’ll never get there but some things are worth the work and perseverance, just maybe don’t commit to anything more than say half a million years! You are human after all (I assume?).

The creation process starts with underground volcanos (called seamounts) which spill larva onto the floor. This hardens and over time, and many volcanic eruptions later, the larva tower break the surface of the sea in the form of a small island. At some point the volcano becomes dormant. This is when creatures, including coral arrive. The corals build a reef around the island. The kind of coral that creates these reefs are hard corals and they create an exoskeleton of limestone. It is billions of these exoskeletons that make up the reef.

Over time the volcanic island starts to sink but the corals remain, and grow up until a lagoon is formed between the coral reef and the land. The ringing or fringing ring is now a barrier reef with the corals breaking the surface and dying as they do so. The lagoon is warm and shallow water which is great for many animals and the barrier reef also protects the lagoon from harsh winds and waves, making it more of a safe space. And yes, I’m going to ask you to think about your safe spaces, or how you create safe spaces! In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the safety of the Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Sea Serpent card.

In the final stage of the formation, waves break the limestone reef, beating the coral into sand. This sand and other material is then swept onto the reef forming a ring shaped island, or islets, known as an atoll.

I think it’s clear that to create new land, everything must come together at exactly the right time and in the right order. Personally, this is a poignant reminder that I need to think more about the conditions I need to live and thrive in. It can also be a prompt to ponder what your ideal world looks like? What energy and people would you surround yourself with if you were to create space for the life you want to live?

It’s also important to note that destruction was one of the elements of the process and sometimes we need to undo things to make space for new things, a lesson that the Tower in the tarot is good at highlighting.

That being said, atolls also remind us that the cycle of creation is one that happens over long, deep time. Whether that’s literally creating a child which goes far beyond the months of pregnancy and reaches out into their toddler years, their teen years and beyond, or whether it’s an artistic creation that needs seeing from inception stage to completion. Some creations have much clearer start and end points than others as I think the two examples show. If your creation has a clear end point, how do you know when you’ve reached that? Alternatively, if it’s something that will always be a work in progress, how do you know when you can feel good about it, satisfied with its progress?

The kind of coral that creates atolls, lives in warm water which thus dictates where atolls are found; the right place, the right conditions in the right order and with enough time given. Our world can be very fast paced so this might be a nudge to slow down. Things get done when they get done and also ensure you’ve got the right conditions in order to create.

If we think about how humans and atolls have interacted, we don’t necessarily find positive news… They lay low and this has been disastrous. Think of boats travelling the sea and the atoll obscured from view by the waves… Many atolls are uninhabited by humans as they are often remote and unfortunately this has made them good for testing nuclear weapons… The first hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll by the Americans but it isn’t the only atoll used for this purpose.

Unlike other islands, atolls tend to be short of natural resources, although are enticing to tourists if they are easily enough accessed. This means things like food and fuel have to be brought to the atoll. Atolls struggle to earn money because they don’t have much to offer beyond tourism. However, some, such as the nation of Tuvalu (a series of isolated atolls in the Pacific) receives millions of dollars every year for use of its “.tv” Internet domain name.

Atolls are also at risk from climate change. As low lying land, rising sea levels are a very real threat and in the Maldives, reclamation projects have started, and the government has looked at land in other countries to repatriate residents should it be necessary. On a more positive note, it seems like natural processes on coral reef atolls may result in better resistance to sea level rise than should be the case given their low elevation. It appears that most coral atoll islands remain stable but of course, the future will determine what happens.

It does feel like atolls show the completed cycle of creation, and highlight that even if it seems complete, it is still changing, that endings are just beginnings and we’re never going to reach a state of perfection where all is done. I know for me, if I feel overwhelmed by day to day things, I sometimes think that if I just get them all done right now, that’ll be it. And of course that’s not the case. I send one email and get another I need to respond to. This puts me in mind of pacing, a concept familiar to many disabled people. It’s a way of getting out of the boom and bust cycle; you don’t wait until you feel ready to face everything you need to do, instead if you have energy to do one thing, you do that. If you wait till you think you can face it all, you’ll most likely hit 75% of it, and then spend the next week in bed recovering. Doing it in a more gentle, intentionally paced way, means you do a thing, you rest a little, you do another thing.

In case this is helpful, the explanation that helped me really understand was about knitting. Say you want to knit a blanket. You could sit and do ten rows and then need to rest for two hours. Or, you do a single row, stretch and wiggle and grab a coffee and then do another. Repeat and repeat (but maybe not the coffee part!) and you’ll find instead of getting ten rows done in two and a bit hours, you get 30 rows done in the same time.

Similar to the atoll, we are not a constant, we’re always being shaped by our relationships and the world around us. Murray Ford, in the article about the Maldives, said:

“The key thing to understand is that these islands aren’t static. They don’t sit passively as if they were in a bathtub and slowly drowning. They are constantly being reshaped by oceanographic and sedimentary processes.”

Isn’t this so true?

If we turn to mythology, we find that in the islands of Tuvalu, it’s believed in some of their mythology that the atolls were created by Te Ali, or the flounder, with the flounder’s body becoming the island.

One website shares the creation myth, saying that they were created by Te Ali and Te Pusi (the eel):

“Carrying home a heavy rock, a friendly competition of strength turned into a fight and Te Pusi used his magic powers to turn Te Ali flat, like the islands of Tuvalu, and made himself round like the coconut trees. Te Pusi threw the black, white and blue rock into the air – and there it stayed. With a magic spell it fell down, but a blue part remained above to form the sky. Te Pusi threw it up again, and its black side faced down, forming night. With another spell, the rock fell down on its white side and formed day. Te Pusi broke the rest of the rock into eight pieces, forming the eight islands of Tuvalu. With a final spell, he threw the remaining pieces of blue stone and formed the sea.”

If we rely on Wikipedia, we learn that the word atoll comes from the Dhivehi word atholhu from an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives. Darwin took this and used it as atoll, referring to the word’s indigenous origin, meaning a lagoon island.

Sometimes I reflect upon literature in these posts, but for atolls, my findings were limited… I did find a poem entitled Atoll by Robert William Service which looks at the romantic ideal of visiting an island or atoll and being away from the rest of the world. A concept I’m sure we can agree is idealised.

So, in conclusion, we have themes of time, perseverance and long, deep time, as well as the cycle of creation.

Kingfisher

“It was the rainbow gave thee birth,/And left thee all her lovely hues”William Henry Davies, The Kingfisher, 1910

The kingfisher we’re focusing on today is the one familiar to those of us in the UK, but there are nearly 100 species worldwide, including the kookaburra. The kingfisher of today’s blog post is the one with unmistakable bright blue and burnt orange plumage. Whilst it’s iconic colouring sounds like it should be an easy bit to identify, you have to see it first and the kingfisher is very much a blink and you’ve missed it experience.

“Kingfishers are so difficult to spot, they have inspired a saying: ‘Only the righteous see the kingfisher’.”Woodland Trust

They are at once wonderfully flashy and surprisingly illusive; a magical sight if you are lucky enough.

They are smaller than people tend to imagine – only slightly larger than a robin – and are lone birds.

“Solitary kingfishers have to overcome a natural aversion to one another in order to breed” – BBC Wildlife, Rob Fuller

When they do mate it’s a noisy, frantic, chase with males carrying out aerial displays. During courtship the male presents the female with a gift of fish, in a act called, creatively, a ‘fish pass’ and is a monumental stage in bonding. Once they have bonded, it’s then onto breeding and they start breeding in their first year. Having paired up around February, they then both excavate a nest burrow in the bank of a stream or river.

By late march a first clutch of eggs is laid and both adults incubate them. Once hatched, each chick can eat about 15 fish a day, and there are generally 6-7 eggs making quite a task for the parents. Something I found interesting was that they are fed in rotation – once a chick is fed, it moves to the back of the nest to digest and the others move forward. Given how brutal feeding chicks can be, this felt quite mature and democratic. They raise up to three broods a season, which must be exceptionally taxing for the parents. The high demand for food from chicks means the adults have to be good at fishing, and as their name suggests, they excel at it!

They are incredible predators that perch patiently until they spot their prey, aided by their good eyesight. Their eyes have two fovea which apparently means they are able to very accurately judge distance. Their colour vision is also enhanced and they can polarize light which reduces reflection of the water and helps them to spot fish more easily. Once prey is identified, they dive, bill first, from their perch. As they enter the water, a third eyelid (a nictitating membrane) closes to protect their eyes, effectively blinding them. This is all the more reason why speed and precision is needed.

They hover above the water where it can’t be seen by their prey, keeping their head still until they lock onto prey before entering a controlled descent. As their beak hits the water, they barely make a ripple on the surface. A fish reacting just a 1/50th second faster makes the difference between whether they are caught or not which is incredible.

In Irish, the kingfisher is sometimes known as biorra an uisce, or water spear, which should give you some idea of the weaponry these little birds are working with. They enhance their tools by learning to compensate for refraction, adding to their already exceptional efficiency.

Speaking of efficiency… Their beak is aerodynamically efficient allowing for maximum speed and minimal splash – in fact Japanese bullet trains have taken their design from the kingfisher. Changing the design of the trains not only increased efficiency but also resulted in a quieter train. Looking to nature for design inspiration is called biomimicry and is fascinating and shows the power, diversity and potential that’s all around us. On the note of biomimicry, I heard somewhere that there is technology which mimics the kingfisher’s eye to help people see under the surface of the water, for example to find whales for research.

If we go back to thinking about their fishing  method, we find a variety of metaphors that we may be able to reflect on ourselves; waiting for our opportunity, having an arrow like focus, making a split second decision and going in for the kill. Watch and wait, then pounce on the opportunity.

Despite being exceptionally skilled hunters, there are inevitably threats that face kingfishers, especially young ones. Any shortage of food has a big impact as they need to eat their bodyweight in fish each day. Water conditions also impact of food availability. As chemicals and pollutants in waterways kill off the fish, this means you are more likely to see one near a clean stream or river, and they’re more active in the early morning… early bird catches the worm… or early birder spots the kingfisher which is not at all as catchy to say!

Chicks can be affected by human disturbance of nest sites, by drops in temperature and risk drowning if heavy rains flood their burrow. Heavy rain also reduces water visibility making it harder to fish and flooding results in fish dispersal. Drought of course also poses problems as it decreases or destroys food supplies. Hopefully the blink and you miss them adage isn’t going to extend to them as a species…

Folklore and Mythology

“Kingfishers are a sight to behold.  The dash and verve of this cosmopolitan bird has been admired for millennia, appearing in creation myths, imperial regalia and cultural iconography, and they were once valued as highly as gold.” – Ildiko Szabo

The English name, kingfisher, dates back at least as far as the 1500s and one explanation of the regal name is that ‘king’ is referring to the bird’s blue clock. Royal Blue was coined in response to a challenge thrown out by King George III to clothiers in England. He challenged them to create a colour so triumphant that it could be worn by royalty (Szabo).

Their scientific name comes from Greek mythology. In the legend of Ceyx (son of the day star) and Halcyone (daughter of the god of the winds), Ceyx was drowned at sea in a storm and washed up on the shore.  Not knowing this, Halcyone waited and waited for his return until one night, she learnt of his death in a dream.  The gods admired Halcyone’s fidelity and took pity on her, changing both her and Ceyx into kingfishers so they could live together, happily.  They also degreed that for 14 days in winter, when their female descendents brood upon their nests, the winds would be restrained and the sea would stay calm. Thus, we have the halcyon days, a period of time around the Winter Solstice when the weather is said to be calm.

We find kingfisher’s colouring explained in the bible; before everything happened with the flood and Noah’s ark, their feathers were said to be dull and grey, but Noah sent them out to find land. They flew too close to the sun, got burnt and were forced to dive into the water to put out the smouldering feathers (Tate). Around the world we find other tales which explain the colouration of many kinds of kingfisher.

As well as stories which explain their colour, other common themes include featuring in creation myths, having a beneficial role whilst also, conversely, being associated with fighting

In Egypt, the word that meant kingfisher burrow also meant cavern of the underworld suggesting that the burrows may have been seen as a portal between the two worlds.

A tale called ‘The Fox and the Kingfisher’ from the Jicarilla of the Apache Nation shows that not all people can do all things. In it, Kingfisher plunges through ice to get fish but when the fox copies this, the fox breaks his head instead. Once Kingfisher was bought Fox back to life, he says, “I am a medicine man. That is why I can do these things. You must never try to catch fish in that way again.” It reminds me of the saying about fish trees:

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by the ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

Whilst their colouring is explained and celebrated in many tales, it can be detrimental to the Kingfisher as well. Instead of just being an inspiration for artists, at times, they were instead the material… Their iridescent feathers were used by artists in tian-tsui which is a style of Chinese art that’s over 2000 years old. Wearing these kingfisher-feather was associated with nobility and were coveted by brides. Tian-tsui is made from feathers plucked from birds that were imported from what is now Cambodia. It is said that this trade helped to fund the building of Angkor Wat. It is also thought that this trade in turn lead to the decline of Angkor Wat; the kingfisher giving and also taking.

Most of what I found when it came to folkloric beliefs are from Europe so if anyone has any good sources or books they can direct me to for the rest of the world, please let me know in the comments!

So on that note, European folk beliefs… There are a few that relate to weather which I think is interesting if you consider the kingfisher from an elemental perspective; they are creatures of the air (flight), water (fishing), land (burrows) and fire (colouring). One of these weather related beliefs is that a kingfisher supended by a string in a house would act as a weather vane, always turning it’s beak to whatever direction the wind blew, earning it the name Vire-vent, or turn-in-the-wind, on the Loire. The Greeks believed that the dried body of a kingfisher, once hung up, would ward off Zeus’s lightning (Greenoak).

Another theme I came across expanded on the beliefs that surround the dead body; in 1185 a British writer said that it would ward off moths, that their bodies didn’t decompose and that they had the power to stop other things from decaying as well. Giraldus Cambrensis went further with this, claiming that “if, when dead, they are hung up by their beaks in a dry situation, they change their plumage every year, as if they were restored to life, as though the vital spark still survived and vegetated through some mysterious remains of its energy.”

The plumage of a kingfisher was said to increase the beauty of any woman who wore them through magical means (Newall) and anyone wearing them would have grace and loveliness (Tate). If your beauty wasn’t enough to attract the person of your dreams, fear not, kingfishers can also be used as a love talisman. In eastern Europe and central Asia, their feathers were plucked and thrown into water, collect those that floated and then stroke the object of affection with one (Tate).

And one final note on the kingfisher – in Brittany it was believed they could glow in the dark!

Reading

Grasshoppers

“There is something liberating about not knowing exactly how things will turn out.  The smell of a fresh new adventure tickles the tips of my antennae.  It sends shivers down my body and before I know it, I turn and land in its direction.  As its vibration gets stronger, I trust my inner compass more and more until eventually that which was once unknown now becomes the known.”
– Message from the Grasshopper, Animal Totem Tarot

It’s a bit of an aside but grasshoppers are eaten by Roadrunners which are another of the Animal Totem Tarot cards so you may want to spend some time reflecting on what that means, especially if you’ve pulled both cards.

But back to the main post, the grasshopper, the first card in the Animal Totem Tarot deck; the fool. Something I didn’t know about grasshoppers and locusts until a few years ago is that they are (sort of) the same.  A locust is a short-horned grasshopper but not all grasshoppers are locusts. Got that?! Safe Haven Pest Control describe locusts as grasshoppers that have “superior social characteristics”! Given the right environmental conditions, a short horned grasshopper can transform into a locust. When conditions are right for that transformation, they get bigger, their wings become stronger, their colour changes and they swarm.

Scientists have identified an increase in serotonin in certain parts of their nervous system initiates the changes in behaviour which leads to the swarming. Serotonin, when it comes to humans, is mostly known for its role in depression but it’s a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells in your brain and body. In addition to its role in mood, it affects sleep, digestion and healing.

This Jekyll and Hyde transformation is something I want to consider in relation to this insect along with the two sides.  We have here a being with two very different personas depending on the situation or environment it finds itself in. It makes me think of someone who is quiet and unassuming in their day job but then comes alive and vibrant at night, in the karaoke bar or on stage as a drag queen. Or an extrovert in one aspect of the life but introvert in another. Then there’s the trigger that changes one into the other. Perhaps you’re an introverted performer who can relate to the idea that a certain routine helps you get into the right mindset, or a writer who has a certain environment where they are better able to get into the flow.

Whilst I am going to touch on locusts, as this card is primarily about the grasshopper, let’s start their first. They are ancient creatures which were around about 250 million years ago and key to understanding them, is their powerful hind legs.  These allow them to escape from danger and according to Canal and River Trust:

“These all-singing, all-dancing creatures truly are the gymnasts of the insect world, being able to leap distances of up to 20 times the length of their own body.”

Whilst they don’t actually ‘jump’, they catapult themselves instead, it’s not surprising that we see the grasshopper in the place of the Fool as this Major Arcana card is epitomised by leaps of faith.

In addition to catapulting themselves out of danger, they have a hard shell and some species eat toxic plants and then keep the toxins in their body for protection. They advertise this danger with bright colours. Further to this, when picked up, they spit out a brown liquid known as ‘tobacco juice’. This is actually a mix of saliva and other stomach enzymes and is acidic, smells bad and can stain. In China and Japan this fluid was sold for medicinal uses (Clausen).

They also disappear from predators by hiding in the vegetation that they enjoy, sometimes staying still is wiser than making dramatic moves. Their strong jaw is used for chewing plants, and in locust form especially, can cause serious damage to crops, causing devastation and famine which has a huge impact on their reputation.

Moving through their senses; they have a pair of compound eyes and three simple eyes which detect light and dark. Instead of ‘traditional’ ears, they have an organ called a tympana; a circular membrane on their abdomen which they use to hear. They also have a covering of fine hairs (called setae) which help them detect touch and wind. This makes me want to stand outside, arms outstretched and just feel the air and the weather on my skin!

Some species make the well known stridulation sounds by rubbing together a row of pegs on their hind legs and edges of their forewings.  Often the noise is made by the males and is to attract females or compete with rivals. Sadly, urban grasshoppers are having to make their song louder in order to compete with human noise.

Of course, grasshoppers come together to mate even though they live mostly solitary lives. Females are larger than males and have a sharp point at the end of their abdomen, this helps them lay their eggs under the ground. After hatching as nymphs, they undergo an incomplete metamorphosis; at each stage their look a lot like adults but each time they shed their skin there are a few changes. These gradual changes (5 or 6 moults) end with them in an adult form where they’re able to reproduce and most species have wings by this point.

We all change as we go through life and sometimes it’s harder and more painful than others, but (full) metamorphosis involves fully rearranging your body and even incomplete metamorphosis involves breaking out of your former self. Give yourself the space to grow, the credit when you do and the time to say goodbye to that version of you. There may be the need to grieve old versions of yourself or the people who were there when that was who you were. Not everyone is supposed to be with you for life, sometimes people come into your life, make their mark and for whatever reason then go a different way.

Healing, symbolism and mythology

Taking a quick look at healing and insects in a more physical, less emotional, way, Wikipedia tells us that the femurs of grasshoppers were used to treat liver issues by the indigenous people of Mexico, and further afield, they’ve been used to cure migraines and headaches and are eaten as a source of protein.

We can also find historical sources which refer to the use of the grasshopper. According to Entomotherapy or the Medicinal Use of Insects, classical authors including Pliny the Elder noted that locusts of grasshoppers could be used for fumigation against anuresis of women and for scorpion stings. NB, anuresis refers to lack of urination and I’m unclear why it’s specific to women…

In Tibetan medicine, grasshoppers were considered medicinal, with their spit used for a head injury called ‘dripping brain’ and to neutralise the poison of a particular beetle. We also find that in Tibet, synonyms for the grasshopper include “the lion cub that jumps in the sky” which I wanted to include because it’s a gorgeous image!

And that feels like a great point to step into symbolism and mythology…

The story of how the first grasshopper was created is told in a Greek myth. It tells of Aurura, Goddess of the Morning who fell in love with a hunter, a mortal called Tithonus. In turn, he fell madly in love with her. So much so that he agreed to forsake the land of mortals to live with her in the land of the gods. They were happy for a while, until Aurora become overcome with the idea that he, being mortal, would die. She approached her father, conveniently the King of the Gods, and persuaded hum to make Tithonus immortal. She forgot to specify he would remain youthful and so, whilst she remained young and beautiful, he grew older. And as he grew older, he got sadder until he asked Aurora to be allowed to return to the realm of mortals. She did release him but as she did, she said: “From now on you shall be a grasshopper so that whenever I hear the grasshopper’s clear, merry song, I shall be reminded of the many happy days we spent together.” (Clausen)

Aside from that particular myth, Athenians held the grasshopper high esteem and hence it was unlucky to kill one. In China they are also considered lucky and are associated with fertility. Grasshoppers were used in ancient Egypt as a hieroglyph, a seal, an amulet, a symbol of beauty and an illustration of life along with Nile. But it’s not all good news for our symbolic grasshopper… It seems like their reputation is fickle…

The Aztec view of the grasshopper returns us to our earlier Jekyll and Hyde analogy with their ability to change overnight from grasshopper, a symbol of fertility, to a locust more associated with destruction.

If we turn to Aesop, we find that the grasshopper in the fable is recklessly living for today, where the ant is planning for tomorrow. Perhaps a sign to look up the ant card as the moral is that the grasshopper perishes and ant survives.

This perspective continues and in Shakespeare’s day, they were figures of careless improvidence and hedonism, focused on the joy of today without a care for tomorrow. And in some western cultures they were seen as irresponsible, because of their seemingly sporadic leaping (Insect Mythology, Kritsky and Cherry).

As a result of their link with locusts, they are associated with plagues and famine and so are linked to bad luck. Native Languages explains how tribes dependant on agriculture felt strongly against them whereas tribes that focused more on hunting and gathering were less affected.

They further say “In some tribes, it was said that grasshoppers could predict the weather and even had power over changes in the weather (especially drought and rain)” which makes a lot of sense when we consider how weather affects food supply and food supply affects certain kinds of grasshoppers. If they become locusts then a famine and reduced food supply would ensue.

We see the link with weather in amulets; farmers would sometimes carry a grasshopper amulet with them to protect from poor harvests (Bodyguards, Desmond Morris).

In India, the Sumi Nagas have used animal behaviour as a weather predictor. Grasshoppers are seen during the hot and dry weather so indicate the hot season has arrived or is coming and will be a dry period. A large increase in the number of grasshoppers leads to concern about a pending drought.

Other stories detailed on Native Languages link grasshoppers with tobacco. This Abenaki tale sees the grasshopper hoarding tobacco and refusing to share it, selfishly keeping it on an island. The hero of the tale, Gluskabe, is able to retrieve the tobacco and when grasshopper comes looking to claim it back, Gluskabe declares that grasshopper cannot be trusted with it. However, he does give grasshopper enough tobacco to enjoy for the rest of its life. The tale also explains that grasshopper couldn’t be trusted with the magical canoe to return to the island so Gluskabe split the back of it’s coat and gave it wings. To this day, grasshopper flies with these wings and chews his mouthful of tobacco, and if you ever pick up a grasshopper, it will immediately spit it out, “as if to say, “See, I am willing to share.””, “I am no longer selfishly hoarding tobacco.”

The Fool

Thinking about the grasshopper as the fool in the tarot deck, we can reflect on the cultural concept of the grasshopper as a student, never the master, as we all are. No matter how much we know or learn, we will never master all knowledge. This is not meant to be a defeatist kind of energy, but rather to encourage you to accept where you are, and still keep seeking and learning. Keep growing and keep moving through the phases of your life.

We have a creature here that has a lot of energy, taking leaps of faith, but who is also attuned to the world; they can literally feel the wind by the hairs on their back.

Finally on grasshoppers, because I have to share this:

What’s the craziest grasshopper fact you know?

“Grasshopper brains can be controlled by a worm! While eating vegetation, grasshoppers may ingest eggs of the parasitic horsehair worm. This worm hatches and feeds on the innards of the insects, changes their behavior, and ultimately drives them to seek water. The adult worm emerges from the drowned grasshopper, finds a mate, and lays eggs. A passing mammal (usually a cow, in Arizona) drinking from the water source will swallow worm eggs. After the eggs pass through the cow’s digestive system, they end up in poop on the grass, which is then eaten by a grasshopper, repeating the cycle.”

Locust

Where the grasshopper is seem in a positive light, the locust is seen as chaotic and destructive, and one of the key turning factors is the environment, and those we surround ourselves with. If you feel you aren’t acting the way you’d like to or showing up in the world in the form you’d want to, then have a look around you – it could be the friends, your workplace or even your social media that’s adding toxic energy to your life.

It’s important to note that a plague of locust is not sustainable; if they devour all the available food, there will be a mass die off due to starvation. This naturally limits populations through boom and bust cycles.

A final note on locusts, is just their power to disrupt ecosystems much larger than themselves; a power for good or for not?

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Kinkajou: Animal Spirit

The kinkajou: relative of the raccoon, that is easily mistaken for a primate and is sometimes called honey bears despite not being ursine.

Ok, I’m guessing you don’t know what a Kinkajou is, so let’s start there. I didn’t either until very recently and since that first encounter, they’ve cropped up a few times in my life so I felt drawn to find out more. That, and they are rather cute (which sadly means there is a horrific pet trade issue around them). They have short, woolly hair that’s golden brown on their backs and creamy yellow on their tummy’s.

A kinkajou on a branch

According to A-Z Animals, the name kinkajou comes from a native Algonquian word meaning wolverine that was taken by the French and applied to the kinkajou. A reminder to us that words aren’t neutral and can have their own, important history, in this case a history that feels like it’s probably linked to colonialism. Other names suggested by the A-Z Animals website include night ape and night walker as well as la Llorona which means crying woman and refers to their loud call.

A long, prehensile tail is probably the Kinkajou’s most defining feature but perhaps their second eye catching feature is their large eyes. As nocturnal creatures living in tropical forests in Central and South America, large eyes are beneficial. Often, nocturnal animals either have very small eyes or very large eyes depending on how much they use sight vs other senses.

During the day, they are often found sleeping in dens created in the hole of a tree with their social group, apparently using their tail as a snuggly blanket! Come dusk, time is spent grooming each other and socialising before heading out alone to search for food.

Their prehensile tail acts a lot like another arm, aiding their balance and they often hang from it, incredibly it can take the entire weight of the kinkajou! This is a unassumingly powerful creature with hidden skills. They are deliberate in their movement, carefully placing their legs and tail for good balance and their tail allows for reaching and grasping branches, or ideas if you’re thinking symbolically or metaphorically.

Incredibly, they are able to turn their feet backwards to run easily in either direction along branches which puts me in mind of moving forward and backwards through time or journeys. This flexibility and manoeuvrability is enhanced by an extremely flexible spine and is perhaps a reminder that life is not always about moving forward. Sometimes you need to revisit the past or perhaps if you’re grieving, it’s a reminder that the so called stages of grief aren’t steps, they are a process and you may, will, move around within that process.

Their nimble claws are dexterous as as we’ve seen with the racoon, it helps them to manipulate food. They can feel more nuance than perhaps the average creature and that might be an encouragement to lean into nuance. Whilst we tend to view the world in very black and white terms, there is so so much greyscale that’s really worth looking into. So often two things can be true at once even if they seem like competeing ideas.

As we’ve seen from the opening statement, the kinkajou doesn’t have a solid image or identity as seen by others. But then nor do we, how people view us or define us depends partly on the lens that they are seeing us through and partly on how we are presenting at a particular point. This doesn’t mean you aren’t a fully integrated whole person, just that the self we show more of in the workplace is different to the self we show more of when we’re catching up with our best friend or on a night out.

Whilst originally thought to be solitary, they actually have complex social interactions with a social group often comprising of two males, one female and offspring. Dominant males mate with the females of their home group as well as females on the edge of the territory. Like with so many animals, scent marking is important for communication, including sexual communication, and kinkajous use scent glands to mark tree branches. They also communicate through grunting and growling, chattering and screaming and when they’re happy, they make a kissing noise! Maybe your communication could be clearer to others?

When it comes to parenting, it’s down to the mums but, as Animal Diversity said whilst “males do not provide any direct care [they] are not aggressive toward young and have been found to regularly share fruiting trees and day dens, and will occasionally play with the pups.” This seems like a key nudge around gender roles in your life – if the kinkajou has shown up for you, what might need rebalancing it terms of gendered work. Are you always the one in the relationship who’s keeping a mental track of upcoming birthdays? Do you wait until the night before the kids run out of clothes to do a wash? None of these are judgements, but if you are in a relationship, you may need to take some time to consider the roles that you’ve fallen into. If you’ve consciously chosen a role that fits your skills and interests (maybe you love to cook) does that mean that your partner is picking up a role that they don’t want (like taking out the bins).

As they eat a lot of seeds and pollinate when they feed on nectar, they are carrying out the role of forest gardener which is an important role to play in an environment. Further, they are food for predators such as birds of prey, jaguars and other predators. Both their roles as food and creating food are vital for the local environment they live in – how are you being benefited and benefiting the place you live?

Superstitions and beliefs

There is a Colombian superstition that if a kinkajou barks during the day, a family member will die. This is often the case with nocturnal animals.

There’s a really interesting link between the kinkajou and tobacco and I’m thinking perhaps I’ll dig into tobacco itself more separately. But for now, the kinkajou are seen by Yanomami people as the animal-person responsible for discovering tobacco and celebrating it.

With the South American Yanamomo people, there was a man who was crying as he walked through a forest. He was crying because there was something he needed, he dodn’t know what it was but his craving for it made him emotionally numb. He came across the ancestral tobacco god, kinkajou. Kinkajou knew just what the man needed – it was tobacco. Kinkajou gave it to the man who started chewing it and wherever he spat it’s juice, tobacco plants grew and flowered and hummingbirds came and sucked the nectar and this resulted in tobacco becoming widely spread.

Other myths expand on the addictiveness of tobacco and there are various versions of these myths, some involve the kinkajou spreading tobacco and some where an agouti was involved who taught the kinkajou how to cultivate the crop. In another version, it was Caterpillar who gave Kinkajou tobacco and there are various versions of man turning into Kinkajou and Kinkajou turning into man.

Regardless of which myth you lean towards, there are clear themes around intoxicating substances, addiction and transformation. How do these apply to where you are right now? Are you in need of a deeper, spiritual awakening through substances? Are you overdoing that use? Or are you in need of a personal transformation? Certain substances can change our perception of our realities, but it feels important to say that we can’t change our realities though our perceptions can make a huge difference.

Sources

Salamander

“In order to harness the energy of inspiration, you need to connect to your creative centre.  This in turn will spark the flame inside of you that is just waiting to burn brightly.  Now is not the time for mastery, however; it is a time of experimentation and fun.  Learn as much as you can while you can and don’t worry about doing it the wrong or right way.”
– Message from Salamander, Animal Totem Tarot

Salamanders are amphibians that look a lot like lizards- slim bodies, short legs and blunt snouts – but they have permeable skin that means they need to live in cool, damp places.  As they breathe through their skin, it is hard for them to filter out toxins in the environment and so they can be used as an indicator species; their presence or lack of, reflects pollution levels. 

As I write this, I am having an allergic reaction to something in my environment.  I am exceptionally sensitive to changes in my environment and so I am alert to any changes, whether that’s consciously or through the rash on my cheek.  But you should also be sensitive to energy vampires and toxic people.  Especially as salamanders have skin glands which excrete poisons, in some cases powerful neurotoxins.

Some salamanders live in caves, others in moist crevices but most species live in humid forests.  They are generally more active during the cooler parts of the day, and wait until night to eat.  In the warmer parts of the day, they hide under rocks or in shadowy areas to stay cool.

“To a salamander beneath a log, the first heavy raindrops must sound like the knuckles of spring knocking on the door overhead.  After six months of torpor, stiff limbs slowly flex, tails wiggle out of winter immobility, and within minutes, snouts nose upward and legs push away cold earth as the salamanders crawl up into the night.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Once out, they head towards water where they will mate and breed.  Like salmon, they return to the same waters that they were born in.  Perhaps this is a nudge telling you to return home, to visit your birth place or to spend time with your ancestors.

“Part of their direction-finding ability relies on a precise reading of the lines in the earth’s magnetic field.  A small organ in the brain processes magnetic data and guides the salamander to its pond… Following the earth’s magnetic gets them to the neighbourhood and then scent takes over to guide them home.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

The amazing way they find their destination makes me think we should all be listening to our intuition when it comes to travel.  Perhaps there is a reason why you are drawn to that particular place over and over again.

Once they reach their destination, the male deposits a spermatophore (a packet of sperm) on the ground or in the water and the female picks this up with her cloaca.  Here the sperm fertilises her eggs and they are then laid in water.  NB some species do give birth to live young.

During the larval stage, the young live in the water, breathing through gills and resembling tadpoles.  By the end of this stage, they have limbs and metamorphosis normally takes place, with lungs replacing gills.

Their reproductive cycle echoes that of life overall – larvae are born in water with gills and grow up into adults with lungs that live on land, like how life developed lungs and stepped onto land.  Or most salamanders do.  The axolotl provides a striking exception.

Axolotls were revered by Aztecs and get their name from an Aztec deity called Xolotl who was associated with death and lightning.  They are strange creatures who never grow out of the larval form, and yet still reach sexual maturity, an odd paradox.  In labs, they can be ‘turned’ into land animals through the use of hormones suggesting the potential is there and yet as a species they choose not to take this final metamorphosis.  Those that do go through this process have a shorter lifespan.

All salamanders engage in autotomy, or self amputation, to escape predators, and the acolotyl raises the bar incredibly.  They can regenerate limbs, tails, jaw, skin and even their spinal cord without scarring. 

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level – the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm – and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.”
Prof. Stephane Roy

They can also accept limbs from other axolotls; in a questionable experiment, scientists gave an axolotl a second head… Research into this creature could help people with severe burns, transplant recipients and even cancer as they are more resistant to it than any mammals.  They are true survivors but I wonder how we would feel if we came out of a traumatic experience unscarred.  Scars can be hard to bear but they show us that we have been hurt and that we have survived, they also prove that the painful thing was real.

“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.”
― Linda Hogan

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy

“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.”
― Steve Goodier

The axolotl brings messages around healing oneself and the power we have within.  I am not suggesting we can cure illness with the power of our mind, rather that we can use tools such as meditation to reduce stress and that in turn can help us live healthier lives.  It might be time for you to think about your health or to seek out help from experts.

The ability of the salamander, and especially the axolotl, to regenerate is ripe for metaphor.  With this card, we are reminded that we have the power to change our lives, to transform ourselves to go into the fire and come out alive like the phoenix.

The axolotl isn’t the only wonder salamander, the Eastern Hellbender – a fantastic name but as if that wasn’t enough, they are also known as Devil Dogs, Lasagne Lizards and Snot Otters – is a large kind of Salamander found in America.  They are being studied as they seem to be resistant to BD, a deadly disease which is killing amphibians around the world.  They test positive for it and yet show no symptoms so it is possible they can bring hope to frogs, toads, newts and other salamanders everywhere!

In my notes, I have written that the salamander is the spirit of fire in animal form but I have not said where I got that from.  Thinking in terms of tarot and elements, we have in the salamander, a creature that combines fire and water.  Fire can be destructive and water can balance it, in the same way that the creative energy of the fire element can be intense, overwhelming and destructive and need some balancing out if you want to avoid burn out. 

Many beliefs and myths around salamanders relate them to fire.  It is thought this is because they hang out inside rotting logs and when these are burn, the salamander would try to escape, leading to the belief that they were created from the flames.

In ancient Rome it was said that salamanders could spit fire and burn water, and that if you touched them you would be poisoned but if you put one in honey it would create an aphrodisiac.  These tie in nicely with the elemental ideas above – power and passion.

In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote:

“A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change colour and break out in a rash.”

In later times, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

“[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”

In France, the folkloric salamander brings poison; simply by falling into a well, all the water would be poisoned, and by climbing a tree, all the fruits would be poisoned.

“Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished.  They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality.  They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.”
zteve t evans

The salamander is a very interesting creature, both scientifically and in terms of symbolism.  Healing, regeneration, sensitivity and homing are themes at play, along with the element of fire, especially in combination with water.  I hope you have enjoyed this wander through the salamander, are there any animals you’d like me to look at next?

Links:

Mythical Beasts – The Salamander
Regeneration – The Axolotl Story
Wild Speak – Salamander
Wild Speak – Axolotl
Wild Speak – Hellbender

Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will’s are not a bird I know about.  As in I hadn’t even heard about them until I got this tarot deck.  So this will not be as detailed as some of my other posts. 

They are also known by the name ‘goat sucker’ and they owe this strange association to Aristotle who reported that they fly to the udders of she goats and sucks on them…  But now to some more accurate information…

Whip-poor-wills are nocturnal and tend to be solitary, although they might form small flocks during migration.  They are thought to be monogamous but little is known about their courtship displays.  What is known is that females try to get the attention of the male by strutting on the ground, head lowered and wings and tail outspread.  If interested, the male responds by approaching the female and undulating his body.  He might circle her and she’ll respond by undulating her body and quivering her wings. 

Assuming courtship is successful, they breed twice a year, laying their eggs on the ground.  Their reproductive cycles are synchronised with the moon cycles so that when the young hatch, there is better light to forage for food to feed them.

Night is normally associated with mystery and things which are difficult to define, but the link with the moon light here suggests that you’re going to get a bit of clarity.

Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, when one parent is off foraging, the other is protecting the nest.  Having nests on the ground means the eggs and young are vulnerable to predators, including skunks, raccoons and snakes.  To protect them, adults will perform the ‘broken wing’ display; they fake an injury in full view of the predator to divert their attention.  You may need to sacrifice yourself for your children, or creations.

As well as being nocturnal, they are masters of camouflage but being invisible doesn’t mean you aren’t noticed.  The Animal Totem Tarot book says that the Whip-poor-will loves the sound of its own voice and their species name, vociferous, means voice carrying, or noisy.  As nocturnal birds, their voice likely seems louder as it has less competition and may infer with sleep.  They tend to be heard rather than seen, making them seem mysterious and its haunting song has inspired folk beliefs. Like many night birds, their call is said to be associated with death or some other kind of doom, including warning of storms.  This all highlights the power of your voice right now.  What should you be speaking up about right now?

As well as being omens of death, there are a number of other beliefs surrounding this bird. To rid yourself of a bad back, you could try doing somersaults in time with their calls… I do have questions about whether you can somersault with a bad back but as I’m also unlikely to hear one, I won’t be able to test this theory. 

A single woman hearing her first whip-poor-will of the spring would remain single for the year, unless she made a wish on the first call.  If she kept her wish secret, she’d would be married.

The Ute people believe that the whip-poor-will is a god of the night and created the moon from a frog and the Mohegan tribe believe that makiwasug – magical little people – would take the form of whip-poor-wills to travel through the forest at night.

Most nocturnal birds become cast as harbingers of death or illness but I feel the link with the light of the moon should bring some hope to anyone who’s drawn this card. There is a glimmer in the darkness and confusion, lean into it.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List – Eastern Whip-poor-will

IUCN Red List – Mexican Whip-poor-will

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, by Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor

Bobcat

Before I delve into the world of the bobcat, I wanted to say that with coronavirus and lock downs and self isolation, it is a strange time. If you would like me to look at an animal that has come into your life recently, please drop me and email and I will see what I can do. Sometimes we need to hear the teachings of our fellow creatures and right now feels especially like one of those times.

But back to the bobcat…

Vision is fluid and the eyes tend to lie.  This means that what some see as restrictive and abusive, others see as liberating and freeing.  It really does depend on whose eyes you are looking through”
Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot deck, the bobcat features on the devil card which also ties into the idea of perspective. Depending on how you see things, the devil can be shackling, or liberating and further, it can represent someone who is unshackled and yet is chained because they think they are.

They are obviously feline creatures, and they have – as you’d expect – a short bobbed tail.  This has a white end with a black tip and is held up in the dark so that kits can follow mum.  They also have tufts of hair on their ears that are used like whiskers, and ruffs of fur on the side of the face akin to sideburns! 

Bobcats are found in south eastern USA and whilst they are rural creatures, they are becoming more habituated to urban and suburban landscapes.  They tend to be found in areas with cover for them to slip through, such as forests and brushland, and will sleep in hidden dens, often made in hollow trees, thickets and rocky crevices.

Some people see them as invading the urban landscape, but in reality, we invaded their homeland – there are multiple versions of truth, again we still the theme of perspective.  Sticking with this, bobcats are nocturnal which brings in ideas about night and the moon and they in turn give us mystery and things not being very clear.  The darkness can trick you, making you think you see things that aren’t there and hiding the things that are.  The moon in tarot is all about the subconscious, illusions and dreams.  There is distortion and magic and mystery. 

However, as bobcats have excellent hearing and vision, we could read this as a creature who can help us see into and navigate through the confusion of the darkness and the night.  Perhaps the bobcat is here to be a guide for you.

Bobcats are solitary cats, that only really interact for mating.  They want to be left to do their own thing and to enjoy their own company and are here to remind you that sometimes, you need this time and space too.  When it comes to reproducing, males and females come together for a brief time, just long enough for courtship and copulation.  The female will then be left alone to raise the young.  It takes almost a year to get them to the point where they can go off on their own, and a key part of being able to leave the nest is about being able to hunt successfully. 

Bobcats are well camouflaged and this helps them to slip through the environment unseen, further they are quiet, near silent as they stealthily hunt out prey.  One way they reduce noise is by putting their back feet in the footprints of the front paws, apparently all cats do this, cat owners let me know!  They are known to perch in rocky alcoves waiting for the right moment to pounce and have been described as spring loaded predators.  This puts me in mind of seizing the opportunity.  Related to this, they are what are called opportunists when it comes to diet.  But as well as jumping on opportunities, they are patient, waiting for the right opportunity, not just grabbing at whatever comes to hand.  Be selective, be patient and then go for it.

When I was researching the bobcat, the idea of secrets came up repeatedly with the view that they are inscrutable and cannot be coerced into revealing their secrets.  They are sometimes considered to be keepers of occult knowledge and guardians of secrets.  Perhaps because of the solitary lifestyle, people feel that they can share this information with the bobcat and it will not be shared with anyone else. 

Their night vision means they are said to be able to see into the future, to have profound insight and are able to look within people to their souls.  This may be a time when you can see what others are trying to keep hidden from you.  Trust your gut right now if secrets are involved.  Also remember that with the night comes our subconscious and sometimes we are hiding secrets from ourselves.  If that might be the case right now, it might be time to try and uncover them, you are allowed to know these secrets and sometimes, not always, it can be helpful to tap into our inner world.

Naturally, a lot of folklore around the bobcat comes from Native Americans.

“The Lakota held cats in fear and awe.  They believed that to kill or mutilate any kind of cat – mountain lion, bobcat or even the plain old domestic tabby – carried a curse.  The culprit would have terrible things happen to him.  Therefore, they avoided cats.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

In some mythology, the bobcat is twinned with the coyote to represent duality.  Another tale explains how the bobcat got its spots.  After getting trapped in a tree rabbit persuades bobcat to build a fire but the embers end up scattered on the bobcat’s fur and the spots it wears today are the singe marks.  Another story explains the bobbed tail.

Their excellent hunting skills are admired by some groups but for others, the bobcat plays a negative role, being cast as greedy, selfish and disregarding social rules.

Ultimately, it feels as though the bobcat is here to help us see into the darkness and the night, and to remind us that there are many perspectives and truths and to look at things from all angles.

Links:

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List

National Geographic

Aunty Flo

Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer

Roadrunner

“If I show myself to you it is only because I want you to see me.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some sort of long-term thing.  I am mere here to show you what you have been missing while your head is constantly facing the ground.  I am here to remind you that once in a while you need to raise your head and take a good hard look at what is around you.”
– Animal totem tarot

There are two types of roadrunner, the greater and the lesser and for the purposes of this post, I will be thinking about them both here and if I’m not specific, then it’s either because my source is unclear about which or the information is relevant to both.  This may not be what everyone would do but I have never seen a roadrunner and researching them has proven to confuse the two.  From what I can tell, they are fairly similar.  They live in different areas, with a small overlap and the Lesser is smaller with slightly different plumage. 

Both the Lesser and Greater Roadrunners are opportunistic predators that eat a wide array of prey including grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, small reptiles and frogs.  The Greater at least beats their larger prey, such as snakes and small birds, on the ground to disarticulate the skeleton, allowing them to swallow it whole.  Take advantage of what is around you, leap on the opportunities you can see.  As you will see, this bird is about action, not reflection.  If you’re familiar with the astrological elements, think fire not air, impulse not thinking.

The Lesser Roadrunner can run up to 20 miles per hour and this is how it moves around most of the time.  Running allows them to use the open roads as racetracks for chasing insects and lizards.  They are also highly manoeuvrable on the ground allowing for quick changes in direction.  This makes them appear as if they are here one minute and gone the next.  They are a flash on the edge of your awareness.  This could be an idea, a thought, an insight and knowing they’re coming, be alert to them.  Pay attention, these flashes are key right now.

Roadrunners can fly but only do so when absolutely necessary – again this is not a bird we associate with air, it had much more earthy, grounded energy.  The roadrunner is here to push you into practical action.

Because of their chosen habitat, they have to face vast variations in temperatures.  Overnight, they lower their body temperature slightly and go into a slight state of torpor in order to conserve energy.  Come early morning, they will then sunbathe – they will position their scapular feathers and expose their black skin which can then absorb sunlight and warm their body.  Of course, they then also have to face the scorching heat of the day.  They halve their activity during midday in order to survive in such a variable climate.   Along with being opportunistic, the roadrunner is adaptable and these traits help it to succeed in harsh environments.

A wonderful fact about roadrunners is that they leave behind a distinct ‘X’ track mark, making them appear as though they are travelling in both directions and it was said that this throws off malignant spirits.  It also looks like they are leaving a trail of kisses in their wake!

Roadrunners are monogamous, mate for life and (at least the greater ones) defend a large territory.  For the greater roadrunner, bonds are renewed each spring and summer through a series of elaborate display.  The male will bow and prance, wag his tail and offer the female nesting materials and food.  Both parents will help to build a nest with the male collecting the materials – sticks, grass, feathers and sometimes snakeskin and cow manure – and the female doing most of the construction.  Nests are built a few feet off the ground, in a bush or low tree and those of the lesser roadrunners are smaller, but stronger and more compact than nests of the greater roadrunner.  Mum and dad will incubate the eggs and once hatched, will feed and protect the chicks.

The Greater Roadrunner has many names, including Snake Killer and Medicine Bird which gives us some insight into how they have been viewed.  There was a belief that they could protect against evil spirits and their feathers were used to decorate cradleboards which would offer the baby spiritual protection.  For some tribes it was good luck to see one and for others they were seen as sacred, revered for their speed and bravery.  For most Mexican Indian tribes, roadrunner meat was used as a folk remedy to cure illness and to boost strength and stamina.

There is a Mayan story about how the king of the birds was chosen explains the roadrunners drab colouring.  Originally roadrunner was a beauty, covered in magnificent feathers and very impressive with emerald green wings and a long shimmering tail.  Quetzal however was dull but had a brilliant mind and wanted to be king.  But because of his appearance couldn’t convince the other birds that he was right for the job.  He persuaded roadrunner to lend him his plumage, just for a little while so he could impress the others.  He was declared king but once he was crowned he became very busy and forgot that he was supposed to return the feathers to roadrunner.  The other birds realised roadrunner was missing and organised a search.  He was found featherless, cold and hungry.  When all the birds heard what had happened, they each gave roadrunner one of their feathers.  Today, roadrunner still wears a strange mix of feathers and runs around calling ‘puhuy?’, meaning ‘where is he?’.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web – Greater Roadrunner
Animal Diversity Web – Lesser Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Greater Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Lesser Roadrunner

Ring tailed lemur

“Are you ready to stand in the full light of your own magnificence?”
– Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the ring tailed lemur takes centre stage on the sun card which is an excellent choice as not only are they the only type of lemur that is not nocturnal, they actively embrace the sun.  They bask in the sun, in a lotus position, to warm their body’s as they have low metabolisms.  This relationship with the sun and light is important to consider if the ring tailed lemur has come into your life.  How do you feel about the spotlight?  Are you harnessing the sun for healing?  Are you honouring that which gives life and warmth?  All life ultimately comes from the sun but it also has destructive power.  It can cause harm and set fires, like everything it’s about balance.  If you find the right balance, you can benefit from the sun’s illumination but too much and you can with devastation. 

Ring tailed lemurs also spend more time on the ground that other types of lemurs, possibly meaning they are more connected with the earth element than the air element.  The ring tailed lemur stands apart from other lemurs and remind us that we too can, and should, stand out from the crowd and be true to who we are.  Step out into the sun and let it light up the wonderful being that is you!

They hang out troops which can have as many as 30 members and which has a hierarchical structure.  Females are dominant over males – so the lowest ranking female is still higher up in the social order than the highest ranking males.

Generally, females will have one baby at a time and are solely responsible for its care, with males doing very little.  For the first couple of weeks of life, they will ride on their mum’s belly, then they will ride on mum’s back and begin exploring their world.  Weaning begins at 8 weeks old and lasts until they are 5 months old.  There is a high infant mortality rate with 30 to 50% of babies not making it through the first year of life. 

Tactile communication between mum and baby is important and helps with bonding.  Outside of that relationship, ring tailed lemurs have a complex range of communication including body language, facial expressions and vocalisations.  They use scent marking and will engage in stink battles where secretions from scent glands are rubbed on their tail and then wafted at the opposition.  Males will also do this during mating season to establish who is the strongest male. 

Their social nature and wide array of communication techniques means friends and family are important and if you have pulled the ring tailed lemur card, it could be trying to encourage you to socialise.  Spend time with others and lean into the extroverted part of yourself right now.

The troop will have a home range of 1000 metres and will slowly meander throughout the day looking for food.  On the diet is pretty much whatever is available, including fruits, leaves, spiders, chameleons and insects.  The most important food however is the fruit from the tamarind tree.  For water, an important source comes from the morning fog condensing on leaves which sounds so poetic!

Ring tailed lemurs are curious and good-natured creatures who, despite having a small brain, have been shown to be intelligent.  They can organise sequences and understand basic arithmetic and something I read suggested they may be more intelligent that studies have shown because they likely have an intelligence that shines in a group setting, rather than as individuals in labs.  Its important to remember that there are different kinds of intellect which shine in different settings. 

The iconic ringed tail is arguably their most striking feature, consisting of 13 alternating white and back bands and because of it’s importance to this animal I wanted to unpick some of the symbolism tied into the colours.  Whenever I have looked at black and white birds, I have found mythology and stories about a good, innocent bird, who either did something negative and got punished, or had a link with fire and got burnt.  There is clearly a message around balance here.  White is all about purity, light and virginity, whereas black is about power, depth and evil.  These two extremes can be overwhelming on their own, but slices of them interspersed with slices of the other gives a sense of equilibrium.  We all have different aspects of our personality and none of us are purely good or fully bad.  If there’s something you don’t like about yourself or others, try to look at the bigger picture and take the bad with the good.

Whilst we’re looking at their tails, it’s worth nothing that they hold them up, like a question mark, to make sure that no one in the troop gets lost – a bit like a tour guide holding up a flag! 

The etymology of the name lemur comes with a lovely myth:

“In the late 1500s, adventurers on a Portuguese expedition to the tangled forests of Madagascar were awakened from their sleep by haunting howls. From the darkness around their flickering campfires, the worried explorers saw shining eyes peering back at them. Some were convinced they belonged to the spirits of dead companions.

The light of the morning, however, revealed that the howling ghosts were in fact large-eyed, monkey-like creatures. The night’s scare still fresh in their minds, the explorers dubbed the exotic animals “lemurs,” coming from a Roman word meaning “spirits of the dead.””
Lemur Conservation Network

As lemurs are limited to Madagascar, that is where we find their mythology.  I tried to look into stories and beliefs specific to the ring tailed lemur but wasn’t very successful and as they are behaviourally different to their relatives, I wouldn’t want to infer ideas about the ring tailed lemur from lemurs in general.  In terms of the lemur in general, I found some stories that consider them sacred, and others that see them as evil and vengeful.  It’s further complicated by the aye-aye, a type of lemur, which has a lot of negative beliefs around it and which is often just referred to as a lemur in most of what I read.

Overall, the smile inducing ring tailed lemur speaks to us of socialising, of communicating, of balance and of the power of the sun.  And of course, the power of a female led society – step into the spot light and be your fantastic, powerful self!

Reading:

IUCN red list
Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic
Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Woodpecker

The woodpecker that you are familiar with will depend on where you live.  Different species live in different parts of the world, except for Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar and the extreme polar regions.  As such, the type of woodpecker you are more aware of will be geographically dependant and so I would encourage you look at the particular characteristics of the one local to you.  This is particularly important because any generalisation about woodpeckers will be followed by an exception.  For example, many are habitat specialists but some are opportunistic generalists, most live in forests and trees but some live on the ground, most are monogamous but others are gregarious and so on!

Aside: if you are using the animal totem tarot deck, the bird pictured is the pileated woodpecker

Every time I thought I found a generic woodpecker statement, I would quickly find an exception to the rule and this feels like a key message from the bird – nothing is black and white, there are always cases which don’t follow the rules and it is absolutely ok to be different. 

Obviously a key aspect of the woodpecker is their endless pecking and I’ll get into that in more detail below but first let’s have a look at a few characteristics of these birds.

Woodpeckers have unique behaviour and this in turn gives them a distinctive role in the ecosystems.  I have found them called keystone species, umbrella species and indicator species:

  • Keystone species – species who play a major role in an ecosystem, helping to preserve it and affecting and influencing other organisms that live within it.  For woodpeckers, this is by providing tree cavities which can then be as nests used by birds, bats, squirrels etc.  In fact some animals can’t survive without the woodpecker.
  • Umbrella species – species whose conservation can confer protection onto many other species.
  • Indicator species – species whose presence demonstrates the quality of the environment

They are clearly important to the world around them and have been called the carpenters of the forest, probably comparable only to the beaver in terms of exploiting the environment.  They are manipulating the physical environment to suit them and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resourceful, adaptable behaviour. 

Most woodpeckers have four toes, arranged in such a way that helps them grasp branches and also lets them walk vertically up trees. They have long, narrow tongues – often three times the length of the bill – which are covered in backward facing barbs.  This, combined with sticky saliva, helps them to pull insects out of trees.

These are just a couple of illustrations of their excellent adaptations.  Others include their robust skeleton, their strong claws which act as crampons to help them cling to trees, stiff tail feathers which act as props to keep their bodies off the trees and also offer support.  They have a gland at the base of their skull which secretes fluid to trap wood dust.  They have narrow nostril slits, covered by bristles, to keep dust out.  They have a membrane which protects their eyes from dust, a tough skin to protect against splinters as well as the chemical spray and bites of ants.  Their heads are adapted to their drumming behaviour and offer protection against concussion and brain damage by absorbing the impact and their bill works a bit like a multipurpose tool.

If you wanted to design a creature fit for their lifestyle, I don’t think you’d get close to how well the woodpecker body works.  In fact, scientists and engineers are looking at the woodpecker, for example, to inform helmet design.

In terms of their pecking, this behaviour has a few functions.  They drum their bill on the tree to make holes to store acorns and nuts in.  They communicate through drumming, using it to warn of danger, as a threat, to communicate with rivals and potential mates.  It can be a deterrent and an invitation as well as a practical way of storing food.  Practical feels like a crucial word here, so much of what the woodpecker does feels incredibly practical. 

“People, ancient and modern, have been fascinated by the drumming of woodpeckers.  It has often been used as a symbol and looked upon as mysterious, as involving great power, sometimes supernatural strength, and associated with spirits and a call to arms. In some cultures, drumming woodpeckers heralded the onset of the rainy season or warned of approaching storms.”
– Gerald Gorman

The drumming ties the woodpecker to rhythm, primitive music and historically, drumming has been used in rituals and ceremonies around birth, death and marriage.  Drumming was also one of the first ways of communicating long distances. 

Tapping against the tree trunk was said to duplicate the heartbeat of mother earth and the idea of rhythms connects to the idea of cycles, and hence the feminine. This will also link with ideas around creation, procreation, life and birth.

If we look to myths and legends, we find that the woodpecker’s drumming was associated with thunder, and hence Thor, in Norse mythology.  For the Taino people, there was a sacred woodpecker who showed them how to tap and beat rhythms on primitive drums made from hollowed sections of logs.  Without a doubt, rhythm and drumming is crucial to understanding the woodpecker.

“[The woodpecker] has fulfilled a variety of roles, being symbolically associated with fertility, security, strength, prophecy, magic, medicine, rhythm, the weather, carpentry and as a guardian of trees and woodlands.  It has been a war-totem, a fire-bringer, a weather-forecaster and a boat-builder.”
– Gerald Gorman

They have an inconsistent role in folktales, sometimes they are crafty and wise but also naïve and foolish, generous but sometimes miserly, spiritual yet earthy, loyal and devoted but promiscuous, hero and villain, healer and creator but also destroyer, a good and bad omen.  They are a paradox.  For me this is about sitting with contradictions, making peace with conflicting feelings and ideas.  This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it can be very grounding to lean into that acceptance.  Their ability to walk up and down trees suggests ultimate balance so it may be that you are out of sync right now.

“They can walk places where others cannot follow.  These people can strike like lightning one minute and sit back and contemplate the breeze the next.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

This quote might be about the walking up and down trees, but it could also be about the use of drums in shamanic practices designed to take the practitioner into the spirit world.

The woodpecker represents Silvanus and hence is associated with forests, trees and tree magic, but also regenerative and sexual magic.

“The woodpecker is integral to the natural heritage of our planet, but it is also part of our cultural heritage.  In many cultures it was regarded as the spirit or god of the ancient forest, but today we threaten the woodpecker by destroying those same forests.”
– Gerald Gorman

As well as sexuality, woodpeckers have been associated with light, fire, water, power and divination all of which are primal concerns which for me ties into the idea that primal drumming. 

A Lakota tale tells how the woodpecker taught a young man to carve a flute and he used it to woo the chief’s daughter.  For the Cherokee people, they were symbols of manhood and bravery.  A Mesopotamian myth had the woodpecker as the axe of Ishtar (a fertility goddess).  When roman legions were marching into battle, hearing a woodpecker was seen as a sign of victory and the direction of their flight was used by augers to predict the outcome of events.  These are all themes of love, sex and war and are reiterated by the woodpecker’s position as sacred to Ares, the god of war.

A couple of creation stories re-emphasise the link between the woodpecker and fertility and creation.  The Surui people have a story which tells that people were trapped inside a rock and none of the birds could break it open and set them free, but the woodpecker could.  In a myth from the Owambo people, people lived trapped inside a tree trunk and the woodpecker answered their cries for help and helped to free them.

We also find the woodpecker starring in a number of stories about fire, for example, a tale from Congo has a woodpecker pecking holes in the sky which became stars and a girl crawled through one and brought back fire. 

As well as fire, they are often found in tales about water such as those about floods and drought.  They were said to be able to forecast rain, sometimes summon it and because of the importance of rain to life, this ties back in again to the idea of fecundity, fertility and creation.  Folknames for the woodpecker also tie it to the rain; rain bird, rain fowl, wet bird, weather hatcher, weather cock, storm cock, storm mare, pouring bird, snowing bird and so on.

There was a sharp contrast between how woodpeckers were viewed in Christian and animistic societies.  We’ve already seen the association with life and birth and creation but for Christians, the woodpecker was seen as a heretic.  Their probing into trees was interpreted as a search for evil in the hearts of everyone and the damage they inflicted was likened to satan weakening the soul. 

In one story featuring Jesus, St Peter and an old lady, the latter was tuned turned into a woodpecker by god as a punishment for curiosity.  In another version, she was turned into a woodpecker because she wasn’t generous.  An Estonian legend says that when god created the world, he asked the birds to dig holes in the earth which would then fill with water and become rivers and lakes.  The woodpecker refused and his punishment was to spend eternity digging holes in trees. 

If you want to use the woodpecker for healing, then you might want to roast it to cure leprosy, dry the heart and set it in silver and gold to cure gout.  The bill was said to soothe toothache and their eggs to cure TB.  A red woodpecker feather in a child’s hair would ward off the evil eye and in France, eating the whole bird, feathers included, would protect against black magic.

Disclaimer, these may not be effective!

Reading

Woodpecker by Gerald Gorman
Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate
Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer