Moles

“Of all the animals the magi hold moles in highest regard … they give credence to no other entrails as much, and they credit no other creature with more supernatural properties, so that if someone should swallow the heart of a mole, fresh and still palpating, they promise the power of divination and foreknowledge of future events. By removing the tooth of a living mole and binding it to the person, they claim that toothache can be cured.”
– Pliny The Elder

Moles have a strange place in our consciousness.  We are all aware of them, we talk about mole hills semi-frequently, and yet how many of us have actually seen the mole itself?  Like the iconic iceberg, we tend to just be aware of the surface.

Moles, the ones who throw earth, the ones who turn soil.  Heaps of soil appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, a physical presence of these ghostly, otherworldly creatures.  These characteristic piles of soil are what the mole has thrown to the surface whilst excavating their extensive network of tunnels.

But what actually goes on down there in the dark, damp world of the mole?  They spend their time burrowing around, a lifestyle they are well adapted for with their squat figure and their powerful front feet that are shaped like shovels.  Indeed, moles are incredibly strong for their size and can apparently easily burst open a human fist from inside.  Despite only being about 15cm long, they can move up to 540 times their own body weight of earth, and tunnel up to 200 metres a day.  Their adapted body has become streamlined and unlike most mammals, it doesn’t hold it’s tummy off the ground, instead it has a very thick, tough skin there for protection.  Other specialised equipment on this velvety critter includes a highly sensitive nose that is used both to smell and feel.  Handily for underground life, their velvety black fur is water repellent and can also lie each way (so when they are going backwards it doesn’t jam them in the tunnel).

They have a small, seemingly insignificant tail which plays an important role in navigation – they carry it vertically and use it to feel their way along tunnels and is especially useful if the mole has to reverse for any reason.  The tail is so effective at this that they can run backwards almost as fast as they can forwards.

Whilst it is commonly believed that moles are blind, they can actually see movement and distinguish light from dark.  To have large eyes would be a disadvantage for the mole as they would fill with dirt and given their subterranean lifestyle, they don’t need them.  Especially as they are wonderfully adapted for their world.  As well as their build, their senses and their strength, moles have a greater proportion of red blood cells than other mammals and this means they can live in low oxygen areas.  They also reuse exhaled air which adds to their ability to survive in environments others may not.

Moles come to the surface to find food, nesting material and when they move from the tunnel that they were born in to dig a new tunnel of their own.  As you’d expect, it is at this time, when above ground, that the mole is most vulnerable to predators.

Typically, moles have three phases of activity – digging, eating and patrolling – and apparently start the same time each day!  Patrolling might seem odd for a mole but I think it’s to renew scent markings which act as a warning to other moles, telling them to keep away – an effective strategy as moles are rarely found in groups!  They are solitary but have overlapping territories and males will fight if they meet.

When it comes to eating, moles don’t dig through the soil to find worms, instead they use their tunnel systems as a pit trap for worms, beetles and other insects that happen to be in the soil.  The mole senses when prey falls in and runs quickly and eats it.  If too many worms fall in and the mole can’t eat them all, it saves them for later.  The mole’s saliva contains a toxin that paralyses earthworms so moles can store living worms for later in a larder specially constructed for the purpose. Researchers have found larders with over a thousand earthworms in.  Before eating them, they pull the worms between squeezed paws to force earth and dirt out of the worm’s guts.  Whilst their habit of saving for the future might see them through some hard times, if things get really tough shortage of food will drive moles above ground despite the danger this entails.

The mole is clearly asking us to consider our relationship with darkness and light.  It’s about tuning in to our senses and paying attention to more than just what we see, if we rely just on what we can see we may be blind to opportunities.  Digging through the dark to find the treasure is another obvious message.  And don’t make mountains out of mole hills!

For less obvious interpretations, consider your relationship with the earth, with the planet.  Are you feeling in tune with nature or disconnected?  How can you connect with your environment?  A mole-ish way that leaps to mind is standing on the soil with bare feet, something that I find really grounding.  Lean into your intuition and trust your instincts.  Look for the root of things if the mole has come into your life.

As Pliny the Elder alluded to at the start of this post, the mole features heavily in folk remedies and beliefs.  I’ve included just a flavour of these below:

  • hold a mole in your hand till it dies and your hand gets healing power
  • a cure for ague was made from powder of a skinned and dried male mole
  • blood of a freshly killed mole dripped on warts cures them
  • sugar dripped with blood from nose of a living mole controls fits
  • mole cut in half or skinned alive could be bound to the neck till it rotted to treat cysts on the throat and goitre
  • mole hands ward off evil and treat rheumatism
  • there was a belief that moles have a single drop of blood, eyes on the soles of their feet and those above ground in the day were taking the air or moonstruck
  • it was thought their ears were under their armpits to keep the soil out
  • people believed that if the molehills were picked up on St Sylvesters day the moles wouldn’t throw up earth again and if a mole throws up earth during frost, the frost would disappear in two days
  • in Scotland, a mole working near a house meant that the inhabitants would be moving soon, if it circled the home then there would soon be a death

One folktale explains the mole’s lifestyle as the result of a proud and arrogant woman whose pride was punished by fairies who turned her into a mole and made her life in the darkness of the ground.

“it’s habitat and blindness made it a natural symbol for those engrossed with earthly cares and vain delights or for the heretic blind to the true faith”
– Beryl Rowlands

Eight of swords

The mole on this card has dug through the earth’s surface and has come through to find a storm and that he is surrounded by swords.  He has been forced into a less familiar world, one where he is vulnerable.  Why is he here?

It might be that the mole is self sabotaging, that he’s being his own worst enemy and putting himself in a dangerous or risky situation.  It might be that he’s stuck here, or is feeling stuck.  Either way, he can’t stay here for very long, he needs to act to get out of this precarious situation.

As swords are about the mental realm, it might be that analysis paralysis is at play.  It may also be that we have got stuck but are too ashamed about getting into the situation to ask for help.  Believing in your own helplessness is yet another possibility but regardless, there is something in the mind that is keeping you still when you should be moving.

The harder we think, the more trapped we can become.  Perhaps instead, we should lean into our senses and feelings?

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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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Queen of Pentacles

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Left to right: Top row – Pagan Cats, Lumina, Wild Unknown.  Bottom row – Animal Totem, Our Tarot

Rider Waite Smith and Pagan Cats

With the RWS card, we have a queen looking demurely towards a pentacle that is resting on her knee.  Her throne is surrounded by roses, a detail echoed in the pagan cats tarot.  Similarly, both have a rabbit in the foreground, highlighting the queen’s connection to the natural world.  The rabbit also suggests fertility and fecundity, as well as creation.  In many ways the queen is a minor version of the Empress card although Rachel Pollack also likens this card to the magician, both of which I’ll be writing about at some point.

With the link to the Empress, and with the suit of pentacles, we are thinking about nature, about the everyday, about resources and things we can touch and sense.  As such, we are reflecting on nature and cycles and the rhythms of life.  Being able to enjoy nature and notice the world around us can be a meditative way of life that can enhance our experience of being here:

“the quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.  The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention”
– Julia Cameron

This queen is the part of you that pays attention and is able to be present.  This means she notices and enjoys the little things that other people often overlook.  Looking at the RWS image, you could interpret her as being focused on the pentacle in a sort of meditative or appreciative kind of way but I’d like to contrast that with the pagan cats card.  The cat has her tail curled around the pentacle and the post feels like she’s much more secure in her resources, she knows they aren’t going to vanish if she isn’t looking at them.

Obviously much of tarot is about how you interpret the cards and I’m trying to guide you to see the cards in different ways so that you can feel what chimes with you.  Sticking with that cat a bit longer, we can feel into themes of trust and security, knowing that the resources we have worked hard for aren’t going anywhere.

Wild Unknown

In the Wild Unknown, the queens are mothers and the kings fathers which feels much more appropriate given there are no animals in the deck.  This deer mother is depicted next to her fawn, protective and comforting but not stifling.  She is there as a secure base and her presence allows the fawn to go out into the world.  We all need a secure base, whatever form that takes.  It might be a person, it might be a place, it might be a very literal security blanket but it is that something that helps to ground you and helps you to feel safe in the world.

Queen cards are associated with water and so that means the queen of pentacles is both water and earth, very literally she makes things grow.  She is the earth mother.  She is in flow with the planet.  She is nurturing and big hearted, loving and patient.  She is calm and caring and she is an earthly embodiment of the magic of nature.

She is generous and wants the best for all of us and wants to help us get there.  Because of this, she can get her identity wrapped up in her family and friends.

Lumina

The lumina queen is posed similarly to the RWS queen but instead of looking down, she is staring straight at the reader.  At her feet, instead of a rabbit, rests a bear.  For me, a key aspect of the bear is the duality of loving mother and angry momma bear.  She is kind but if you endanger her babies, she will attack you.  In terms of how that relates to this card, I think it’s about protecting your creations or your dreams as they start to venture out of your head and into the world.

The book talks very much about being at home with yourself and your life:

“You look at the life you have consciously created, the people within it and the activities and work you have dedicated yourself to and realise that it’s a true expression of grounded abundance and prosperity.”

To reach this stage in her life, she has had to pull on her resources but also carefully balance competing demands and ambitions in her life.  But to reach this point in life and not acknowledge it would be to miss part of the journey.  Stop, look around you, see how far you’ve come.

Sometimes the balance that this queen needs can get unsettled.  She has the potential to put others before herself; she may over-help and in turn hinder the growth of others – teach a woman to fish and all that!

Our tarot

Our tarot have chosen Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great, to represent the queen of pentacles.  She was born in 1729 in Russia and seems to have had a complicated life and over time grew in power and wealth.  She was a strong woman and the time she reigned is sometimes called the Golden Age of Russia.  I hadn’t heard of her before I got this deck so I’m not going to say much about her, but instead will focus on the way that she reflects the essence of the card.

“She is an example of the safety one feels when one’s mother “has their back”: a mother works to keep her child’s environment safe and comfortable.”

This quote from the accompanying book reminds me of the sea serpent from the wild unknown animal oracle deck.  It also echoes the ideas we saw with the wild unknown card above.

To rise to her place in society, Catherine relied on, and used, other people and pulled on the external environment to help.  Utilise your strengths and what is around you.  Pay attention, be resourceful and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Animal Totem Tarot

This deck selected the pig to illustrate the queen of pentacles and I’ve written already about both the pig and the boar so it might be worth checking them out as well.

“There is nothing nicer than the sun on my skin and the wind in my hair.  Time for me is the best time in the whole wide world.  No interruptions, no constant conversation, just me and whatever I need to do for myself.”

Note how the pig queen has hung up her crown for a mud bath?  This card stresses the importance of self care – make time for yourself.  You may want to help everyone out with everything but you need to take care of yourself first – think about oxygen masks on planes.  Do whatever it is that recharges and revitalises you and then care for and help out others.

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.

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It’s a pig’s life…

As we’ve already seen, pigs attract some very conflicting opinions and that theme continues.  Despite their reputation as dirty and wallowing in mud, they are clean animals and instead of smelling bad, they have an amazing sense of smell.  They are paradox after paradox!

Pigs are exceptionally intelligent, very inquisitive and highly social animals that actively interact with their environment when given a chance.  This sense of curiosity and their playful, lively nature combine with their brains resulting in excellent problem solving skills.  They are also emotional and have their own personalities:

“Pigs display consistent behavioral and emotional characteristics that have been described variously as personality. e.g., coping styles, response types, temperament, and behavioral tendencies.”
– Lori Marino and Christina M. Colvin

It is, in part, because of their intelligence that we have been able to work with them, such as in truffle hunting.  They use their snout, which is a precise hunting tool, to rustle out the prized truffles in the leaf litter.  They find the gold in the mud.  If you are reading this because an oracle card has come up, then it might be worth thinking about this in more depth.  Are you missing something because it is hidden? Are you working to find the good in bad situations?

Pigs are also able to detect landmines using similar skills.  They have also been used to cheer people up by visiting retirement homes and hospitals, used in therapy and taken into classrooms to help children learn about animals.  According to the American Mini Pig Association:

“Pigs have been recognized by families of children with autism to help with vocalization and calming. Pigs have been known to detect low blood sugar in their owners with diabetes or detect and warn of oncoming seizures. They can ease anxiety and panic attacks and improve the symptoms of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some individuals.”

And the benefits aren’t just to humans.  Pigs have been called the gardeners of the forest.  Their natural behaviour means they turn over leaf litter, rotivating and ploughing as they go about their day.  They also help with composting and spreading seeds, all of which are important to the ecosystem.

Finally, apparently I can’t write blog posts these days without diving into sex… So, when it comes to pigs, here’s a few interesting titbits…

  • At one point in recent history, England was exporting fresh and frozen pig seamen to china to be used to improve their stock
  • Boars produce a lot of seminal fluid, on average about 250ml per ejaculate (humans are a mere 2-4ml) and…
  • because of the amount of fluid being transferred, ejaculation alone takes about 15 minutes and the male can’t pull out part way through because…
  • it’s penis is shaped in such a way that after a few thrusts it gets sort of locked in… Only once the act is over, can he easily remove himself.
  • After all this, the sow will give birth three months, three weeks and three days later. I don’t know how spot on that its but the three times three of it pleases me and makes me wonder about the numerological meaning of three!

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Pigs: a history of mixed feelings

“Pigs and pork have, throughout history, been used to divide and unite people”
– Pia Spry-Marques

This will be the start of a few posts on pigs, mostly because there is so much to say about them.  It is because of this that I wanted to look at the pig its own right, not just as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot deck, the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’m also going to do a post that focuses on that specifically.

Our history with pigs goes back about 18,000 years and starts with the boar.  Boars are the ancestors of domestic pigs with spots and stripes that helped them blend into their environment.  These vanished, their tails became curly and their ears flopped as we domesticated them. Their tusks also disappeared and our attitudes towards them changed dramatically, shifting from a devil like enemy to a vital provider.

The domestic pig was bred from eurasion wild boars about 9000 years ago in Eastern Turkey and China simultaneously (some sources suggesting there were other domestication events at around the same time elsewhere but it’s complicated stuff).  As they were adaptable, had large and regular litters, were tough and were in close contact with humans (they would raid fields) they were a good candidate for breeding compared to other types of boars.  Pigs were also important compared to other domesticated species; they like living in groups, they are adaptable and they eat pretty much anything.  This meant they essentially looked after themselves and ate what we threw away, making them important to the history of agriculture and farming.

Today, pigs are widely distributed around the world, both down to their natural wanderings and human involvement.  From steamy rainforests to dry savannas to snowy woodlands, pigs are one of the most successful mammals on earth.  Evolution and human involvement has resulted in over 500 breeds of pigs today, but it isn’t just the pig landscape that has changed because of man.  The reverse is true, without the man-pig relationship, human history could have looked very different – exploration and civilisation were aided by the pig.

“Pigs are ubiquitous in the modern world, whether we are talking about the more than one billion domesticated pigs on the planet or the countless representations of pigs and ‘piggishness’ that circulate through most of the world’s cultures… Pigs have been structurally and symbolically significant in the making of human society and culture across the globe.  Pigs have fed us, entertained us and provided us with ways to think about our relationships with each other on this porcine planet.”
– Brett Mizelle

Despite this universality, pigs suffer from mixed reviews.  Whilst they have provided us with food and have been praised and celebrated, they have also been cast out and seen as dirty and smelly.

“The persistent uncertainty about whether pigs are good or bad animals is connected to the lived relationship between humans and pigs.  These attitudes reflect a moral ambivalence about the killing of pigs and ideas about pigs themselves, both of which are often factors in conflicts between human social groups.”
– Mizelle

Pigs provided a way for different classes of society to distinguish themselves and due to the association with lower classes, the pig increasingly became ostracised as a symbol of poverty, dirtiness and slothenlyness.  Mizelle also asks whether our conflicting feelings towards pigs may arise because of our similarities.  With pigs both physically near and physiologically alike, our treatment of them may induce feelings of guilt which we then transferred to the pig.  In order to treat it as we do, to keep it confined and to butcher it, we must psychologically distance ourselves from the pig.  And we can see this clearly in how we talk; male chauvinist pigs, pig ugly, smell like a pig, greedy pig and so on…

“There is a long history of porcine proverbs that describe efforts to convert the useless to the useful, the ugly to the pretty.  The maxim ‘You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear’ dates back to the mid sixteenth century.”
– Mizelle

Returning to the similarities between humans and pigs, we see also the need to distance them in order to eat them, calling the meat pork and talking of chops and bacon instead.

Pork is the most widely eaten meat in the world, with over half of it consumed in china.  Whilst I am not going to look too closely at meat, as Mizelle says:

“Different groups have consumed different cuts of pork over time, making pork consumption a useful lens into race, religion and class.”

And for more information about this, we can look to Mark Essig:

“The reputation of pork depends upon the life of the pig. In early medieval Europe, when most pigs foraged in the woods, pork was the preferred meat of the nobility. By 1300 most forests had been felled, and pigs became scavengers. In a medieval British text, a woman explains that she won’t serve pork because pigs “eat human shit in the streets.” Pigs also dined on human flesh, which was available because executed prisoners, among others, were left unburied.”

Even within the context of food, it’s clear that there are many views about pigs throughout time and space.  Stepping away from pigs as food, we have Aristotle who (despite almost certainly eating pork) called pigs “the animals most like people” because of their similarities to humans; little did he know just how alike to us they are.

Physiologically, pigs are very like humans and because of this, they play a key role in human medicine.  We have made use of them in skin grafts for burns, in making insulin for diabetics and we have pig heart valves.  Pigs have been used by medical students to practise their skill and researchers have utilised the similarities.  One horrific sounding experiment used live pigs to study the effects of atomic blasts and radiation during the Cold War.  Unfortunately for pigs, they play a life saving role in today’s medical landscape.  As pigs heal in a similar way to us, unlike rodents, they have been useful for medical experimentation.  They are also used in less obvious ways such as in gelatine for pills, in sponges used in surgery, in some blood clotting medicine and in wound treatment.

Beyond medicine, pigs are also found in make up, biodiesel, toothpaste, antifreeze, bone china, glue, in the manufacturing of train brakes and even in cigarette filters…

Whilst you might think this is all in recent history, medical experimentation using pigs actually has a long history.  As far back as ancient Greece, they were being used because human dissection wasn’t allowed at the time.  It was through a ‘squealing pig’ experiment that Galen found it was the brain, not the heart, that controlled actions and thoughts.

Pigs have proven useful and have helped to develop civilisation and scientific knowledge.  They have saved lives and we have rewarded them by casting them as dirty and smelly.  We love them and we hate them.  And I am struggling to think of any other animal which is subject to such conflicted feelings…

In later posts I’ll be looking at pigs the animals, the beliefs around pigs and I will do a post looking at the pig in the queen of pentacles animal totem tarot.

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