Flamingos

The flamingo is iconic, highly recognisable and charismatic with its bright cheerful plumage, crooked, spindly legs and that quintessential pose.  These birds of light, with their fiery feathers, naturally occur on five of the seven continents and their name is derived from flame.  I find this interesting – a bird that is often seen as comical is actually incredibly powerful and that is a theme we will come across again as we look into the flamingo in more depth.  There is much more to them that the tropical, amusing symbol of fun.

A key distinguishing feature of these birds is their colour which is due to their diet.  They eat organisms which contain carotenoids which in turn create the shades of pink that the flamingo is known for.  Their babies aren’t pink, in fact they don’t get their bright colouring until they are between two and four years old.  Whilst you might covet a beautiful flamingo feather, you will be disappointed, once shed, they quickly lose their colour.  Not all that glitters is gold.

The flamboyant colour is used to attract mates and not just because it’s striking, but also because it’s a signal that the individual is able to locate great sources of food and is in good health.  Perhaps your own body is trying to communicate with you about your health – when we are stressed or under the weather, there are signs of this that we can see; poor skin, hair loss, nails breaking…

In addition to the plumage, the pose of the flamingo is a key part of the iconic look.  They stand on one leg because it’s easier than standing on two.  Maintaining their one-legged stance has been proven to require very little muscular involvement whereas two legs means balancing which works their muscles harder.  In fact, it is so easy, that even dead flamingos can stand on one leg!  To us it might seem obvious that standing on two legs would be more efficient than one but perhaps this is a call to consider whether we are doing things in our life in the most energy saving ways.  This puts me in mind of the tips and tricks that help those of us with pain and fatigue use to maximise what we can do, eg using a basket to carry things from room to room instead of making multiple trips.

Flamingos also use large flocks to live efficiently.  There is safety in numbers and it means you can spend more time feeding and less time being alert to danger.  The flocks also mean that they can create calm patches in the group, protected from the wind.  To promote group cohesiveness, they will use ritualised movements.  They also use ritualised displays to stimulate hormone production and hence to promote breeding amongst the flock.

They also use vocalisations and posturing to communicate within the group.  When it comes to attracting a mate, flamingos make use of fancy footwork to find a partner.  They take part in a group dance, moving and displaying as a unit.  Typically the oldest or tallest males will start the process and then the rest of the flock – male and females – will join in.  There are nine signature moves which are designed to show off what a great partner they will make.  If a female is impressed by a male then they will mate for life.  This seems like a lot of work but sometimes you need to make a song and a dance about finding a great flamingo to share your life with, or if humans are more your type, then think friends and partners.

It’s also worth celebrating because flamingos breeding isn’t all that easy… there is a narrow range of conditions which are conducive to breeding:

“If there is too little rain, there may not be enough mud to build nests or enough food resources to feed both adults and their chicks.  If there is too much rain, nests can be flooded or washed away, and the diluted standing water supply may no longer be saline enough to support the flamingo’s preferred prey species.  Additionally, flamingos are unwilling to breed unless their flocks obtain a critical mass.”
– Kight

If they manage to produce offspring then the adults (both male and female) provide the chicks with a red substance that is high in fat and high in protein.  This is similar to the milk produced by mammals and also occurs in pigeons and emperor penguins.  They feed this way every 45-90 minutes for the first week and then it gets less regular as the chicks get older.  In sharing this substance, the adults lose some of their pinkness.

So far, everything we’ve seen feeds into the narrative of the flamingo as being soft, gentle and delicate, however this is not the case.  They can cope with incredibly tough, savage conditions.  This includes high altitude wetlands where their legs freeze as the water they stand in turns to ice, only melting when the sun rises.  They can live in very salty, caustic water that would damage human skin and are able to do this because their legs are covered in keratin scales.  They can drink water that is almost boiling and is so hot that they have to hop from foot to foot.

Whilst earlier I said that maybe the flamingo was here to ask you to reflect on what your appearance is telling you about your inner world, it may also be here to remind you not to judge a book by it’s cover.  Yes, the flamingo may look dainty and fragile, but it is extraordinarily tough too!

“Because so few animals can tolerate extremely salty environments or figure out how to collect the tiny particles of food available there, flamingos have been able to exploit this niche virtually uncontested.”
– Kight

Despite being able to tolerate these intense conditions, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation so often find themselves having to move habitat.  Somehow, possibly to do with barometric pressure, they are able to identify where to move onto with reasonable success.  For example, in Africa, flamingos rely on lakes which are prone to drying out and in Namibia, greater flamingos have seemingly known when rain is due 500km away…

Turning to the symbolism of the flamingo, we find them often used to signify silliness, fun and as a nod to holidays and warm, tropical places.  They have also been an icon of cheesy campness and were used by gay men in the 1960s to advertise their sexual orientation.

For the ancient Egyptians, the silhouette of the flamingo was used to represent the bird itself, the colour red and also the reincarnation of the sun god, Ra.  In ancient Rome it was said that eating flamingos would help in all diseases as well as helping to maintain health.

“Old Islamic texts also indicate that Muslims used flamingos in a variety of medical contexts; sore joints, for instance, were sometimes treated by flamingo-fat ointment or by plasters containing, essentially, liquefied flamingos (obtained by boiling the birds whole for long periods of time), while ear troubles could be cured by the application of pastes made from flamingo tongues.”
– Kight

But perhaps the most striking use of the flamingo was in association with the phoenix.

“Flamingos are regarded as the embodiment of the firebird Phoenix.  This is reflected in its scientific name – the Phoenicopteridae, the Phoenix-winged… The motif of the Phoenix and its descendants embodies the dreams of the people.  In the various cultures and religions, the Phoenix-like birds symbolize rebirth and resilience.”
– Lesser Flamingos: Descendants of Phoenix, Lothar Krienitz

Perhaps the flamingos’ tendency towards large flocks, moving location and ability to survive harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions added to their mystic and wonder, seeming to appear out of nowhere, en masse.

“Descriptions of the phoenix’s self-(re)generation call to mind the beliefs of some East African native peoples who used to think that flamingos emerged from the salt pans fully formed”
– Kight

“Like the mythical phoenix for which phoenicopters may have been an inspiration, flamingos have been reincarnated, time and again, in the human consciousness: as a delicious indulgence, a mascot to rally behind, an embodiment of poor taste, and, now, an emblem of awareness of many groups in need – including, sadly, some of the pink birds themselves.  Thanks to their unusual and unique physical attributes, flamingos have always caught our attention and have never failed to impress.  Although they may look delicate and slight, these deceptively hearty birds manage to survive in some of the harshest habitats on earth, and have been doing so for millions of years.”
– Kight

The flamingo puts me in mind of this quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh:

“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”

Do not let the world underestimate you.  You are tough, you are strong and you are a survivor.

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Giraffe

“Lift your head and look towards where your goal or dream is and start walking towards it.  As you walk, you will meet others along the way who will be willing to assist you.  Take advantage of all that is offered to you, as you will never get to where you want to be on your own.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

The most obvious starting place with the giraffe is the neck, and whilst this may be their most impressive feature, it is also the most vulnerable.  Somethings are both a blessing and a curse.

As the tallest living animals, giraffes have a unique, telescopic view of the world which allows them to spot danger with comparative ease.  Other prey animals like having them around as they are a free watch tower but giraffes only really concerned about lions.  If threatened, they will use their strong, long legs to run away – at up to 35mph. If a mother giraffe is cornered, she can use a well aimed kick to kill a lion.

Back to that neck… despite it’s epic length, it only has seven bones, the same as a human neck which is incredible.  They use their height to eat leaves and buds which are out of reach for other animals.  Males, being the tallest, feed on the highest branches and reach upwards for food, females on the other hand feed on lower branches and bend forwards and thus there is less competition for food overall.

The neck works a bit like a pendulum to help them balance but is also used to establish dominance and fight over females.  The males use their necks in a sort of wrestling, sparring way.  Once a dominance hierarchy has been established, you can tell the dominant male as it will be standing with his head held high and the submissive giraffe will have his head low and will drop his ears.

Mating itself is quick, involving a penis that is over 3 feet long… After sex, the father’s job is done as they play no part in child rearing.  After 15 months, the female gives birth to a baby and does so standing up.  This means that the baby’s first experience of the world is via a 2m drop… This throwing you in the deep end approach may seem intense but it is apparently so that the umbilical cord breaks.

In addition to long necks and long penises, giraffes have long, black tongues which can extend up to 45cm and allows them to get even more of the normally out of reach leaves.  This tongue is used a bit like a hand and can easily strip a tree of the juiciest leaves – which means that the giraffe doesn’t need to visit watering holes so often.  As the tongue is leathery, they can eat prickly leaves, again meaning they can eat things that other animals can’t.

The giraffe is a sort of gardener of the plains as eating leaves stimulates the plant to grow more leaves.  One of their food sources, the acacia tree, engages in chemical warfare – as the giraffe starts to nibble, the tree increases the amount of tannins in its leaves and sends a warning signal to nearby trees.  However, the tannins don’t affect the giraffe, they have saliva which neutralises them.  In response to this, the tree hires ants to help it’s cause and the ants irritate the giraffe by stinging their mouth and nose… Don’t piss off an acacia tree!

As ruminants, giraffes need to chew the cud and spend most of the day doing it, pretty much any time they aren’t asleep.  And they don’t need much sleep… They can get away with sleeping just 5 minutes a day and can nap in 1 to 2 minute sessions, whilst standing up!

They rest during the hottest part of the day and have a coat designed to help with temperature regulation.  The skin patch pattern is unique to each individual and in males, the patches darken over time because of testosterone.  It’s also thought that the skin and hair may repel ticks, mosquitoes and bacteria via secreted chemical compounds.

As with everything in the giraffe, the heart is particularly big and strong.  Over two foot long, it has to be powerful in order to pump blood up the long neck to the brain, whilst defying gravity.

Giraffes have a good sense of smell, both in terms of actively smelling what’s around them and also in terms of having their own odour.  The latter is said to be quite divisive; some people find it pleasant, going so far as to suggest it’s use as perfume, and others despise it.

“Throughout antiquity man has co-existed with the giraffe in its African homeland, exploiting giraffes as a source of food and raw material, revering them as religious symbols, keeping them captive as curiosities and pets, trading them as offerings of goodwill in diplomacy”
– Edgar Williams

Primitive depictions of giraffes feature in early art, and some art from Egypt shows the giraffe facing left and to the north, something that is thought may indicate that the giraffes was seen as a bearer of the sun god.  As such tall creatures, they certainly would see the sun rising before others.

By 2000BC, giraffes were being kept domestically, probably as a curiosity.  In 1500 BC, giraffes were captured and transported to Thebes where they were exhibited in one of the world’s first zoos.  The ancient Greeks and Romans were familiar with giraffes, but called them Camelopardalis, or Camelopard, because of the belief that they were an ‘unnatural’ cross between a camel and a leopard.

“The giraffe is the most wonderful, both for the beauty of its form, and the extraordinary manner of its production.  For they say that the giraffe proceeds from a female Ethiopian camel, a wild cow (the Addex, an antelope) and a male Hyena; for in Ethiopia, the male hyena pairing with a female camel, she gives birth to a young one partaking of the natures of both parents: and if this happens to be a male, and to pair in turn with a wild cow the result of this second cross is the giraffe.”
– Timaeus, 260 BC

After the roman empire began to crumble, giraffes were no longer found in Europe and thus their existence was lumped in with that of the unicorn and phoenix, a legend.  Images copied from images copied from images would create some interesting, but not at all accurate depictions of the giraffe!

To 14th century Arabs, to dream of a giraffe meant bad news about finance or property or a wife’s fidelity.  I’m intrigued about why but a quick google didn’t help much…

At various times in history, giraffes have been used as diplomatic gifts including Zarafa who ended up walking from Marseilles to Paris.  In the process, she became a bit of a star!  Once in Paris, she became a crowd drawing sensation with over 100,000 people visiting her.

Throughout the 19th century, many giraffes were hunted and slaughtered for sport and their skins and as the 20th century arrived, it looked as though extinction was inevitable.  Perhaps they would truly be relegated to the realms of dragons and unicorns…  Then the world wars intervened.

Whilst giraffes in zoos didn’t do well – some were affected by bombs and others eaten in food shortages – those in the wild benefited as hunters became soldiers and the attention was directed elsewhere.  After WW2, measures to try and protect giraffes started on a very small scale but would result in saving the species for a bit longer.  Today, the giraffe, with it’s iconic long neck, long legs and long eyelashes is a symbol of Africa, of conservation and of grace.

 “[Giraffes are] a People, Who live between the earth and skies… Keeping a light-house with their eyes.”
– Roy Campbell

Naturally most folklore about giraffes comes from African, including a story about why the rhino is grumpy which happens to explain why the giraffe has a long neck.  It is said that it grew after the giraffe ate some magical herbs.  In stories from South Africa, the giraffe is considered holy, sometimes the holiest animal.  The Thutlhwa word means ‘the honoured one’ or ‘the one to be respected’ and in the Zulu’s language, the name means ‘the one who is taller than the trees’.  They were regarded as being able to see into the future and was a symbol of prophets and diviners.

“The giraffe was one of two animals whose spoor* was regarded as sacred to the Great Earth Mother. It was also the symbol of obedience and of peace.”
African Folklore by Credo Mutwa

*the track or scent of an animal

Beautiful, graceful and individual, the giraffe is a clear symbol of uniqueness, but further, a uniqueness which one is proud of. Stand tall and own all of your wonderful gifts.

There are some obvious ways to interpret the giraffe oracle card; stick your neck out, reach for your goals, see the big picture… But there are some other ideas to think about as well; the importance of a strong, big heart, of seeing what lies over the horizon and of having lofty goals.  But beware of standing still with your head in the clouds, daydreaming instead of moving forwards.  Perhaps my favourite lesson comes from both the giraffe and the acacia tree – don’t be perturbed by a challenge, think of creative solutions and workarounds.

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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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