Salamander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote:

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

In later times, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

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

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

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

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

Links:

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

Nature writing

At the moment, I am finding it hard to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. I have many fragments of writing, notes scribbled on scraps of paper but I find myself unable to connect them cohesively. I know this will pass but in the meantime I thought an easy to write post would be a list of nature writing books and articles.

What are you reading and enjoying at the moment?

Edited to add… if that’s not enough reading for you, check out Katherine Hauswirths list

Roadrunner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading

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

Ring tailed lemur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading:

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

Woodpecker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disclaimer, these may not be effective!

Reading

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

Ferrets

“We all have a sneaky side.  It is a necessary skill for our survival.  Whether you have to be the one who is sneaky, or be the one able to spot others in their sly ways, the art of deception is not to be taken for granted.  Smoke, mirrors, and sleight of hand all have their place; the real trick is knowing when and where to use them”
– Animal totem tarot

Ferrets are a domesticated form of the European polecat and it’s likely that they have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years.  Historically they were used for hunting, and whilst they still are, they are more likely to be kept as pets these days.

Their name comes from the Latin furritus, meaning little thief as they like to steal small objects such as hen’s eggs.  Over time, their name has developed into a verb, as in to ferret out something.  This likely reflects their sneakiness and their ability to move in and out of tricky places.  They are adept at moving in tight, twisted burrows, can bend 180 degrees and can change direction very quickly.  They move seamlessly between overground and underground, making them masters of both realms.

Their spines are incredibly flexible and supple making ferrets seem long, floppy and melty.  This makes them adorable but also means they can slip and slide through tunnels like water.  But make not mistake, they use this ability to sneak up on prey with extreme stealth.  They are fast and efficient predators who can kill with a single, powerful bite.  This animal is all about fluidity and strength, flexibility and precision.  Slink stealthily and then attack!  Be the unsuspecting threat, take people unaware and make an impact!  The ferret’s presence goes unnoticed until the damage is done.  I’m not suggesting you go out and cause damage, but you can still shock and wow people and this has extra power if no one sees it coming.  Go out and be fierce!

Despite being powerful predators, ferrets have a wonderfully fun side.  I read something which described them as the clowns of the animal world.  They are funny, curious, mischievous and playful.  They are full of energy, they are trouble makers, escape artists and they are intelligent.  This inspires me to be more curious, more adventurous and more inquisitive.  They will literally tunnel into anything, but we can take this as a prompt to dig into a topic or get our teeth stuck into learning something.

Ferrets have a variety of body language in their repertoire including dancing when they are happy, wrestling which is usually a playful activity and their war dance.  This involves frenzied sideways hops, leaps and is not actually an incitation to war, but an invitation to play.  It often comes with a soft clucking noise and ferrets extend their communication options with an array of vocalisations.  They ‘dock’ or ‘cluck’ when excited, hiss when scared, squeak softly when upset and screech if they are afraid, in pain or angry.

As you might have gathered, ferrets are very high energy animals so it’s probably not surprising that they spend up to 20 hours a day asleep!  They are most active during dawn and dusk and when they are sleeping, it’s thought that they experience more REM sleep than a lot of other pets, meaning they are more likely to dream.  I wonder what ferrets dream about…

It wouldn’t be a blog post of mine without an animal sex fact.  In the case of the ferret, it’s that the male has a hooked penis.  Once he penetrates a female, they can’t separate until he releases her.

Since domesticated, ferrets have been bred for fur and hunting, also known as ferreting.  They were sent down holes to chase rodents, rabbits and moles out of their burrows.  In 1390 in England, a law was enacted limited the use of ferrets for hunting to the wealthy and high ranking families.

Other ways that we’ve used ferrets have also taken advantage of their ability to shimmy through tunnels.  For example, they’ve been used to run TV cables underground, to run through parts of planes for Boeing and apparently to clean steel pipes of a particle accelerator

As they have similar immune systems to us, they have been used in the development of vaccines and in testing flu medications.

And I can’t mention human ferret interactions without bringing your attention to ferret legging.  It was apparently a popular sport amongst coal miners in Yorkshire and involves putting ferrets down your trousers and seeing who can stand the longest. 

Ferrets are often vilified and underestimated, with people projecting ulterior motives onto them.  If you are able to ferret out secrets, you may find that people don’t like it.  They may feel vulnerable if you are able to see under the surface.  Of course this doesn’t mean you should turn off your empathy, but it’s just worth being aware of it.  If you are an empathetic person who can sense other people’s feelings, know that it might make some people feel unsettled.  Also, as a side note, if you are very empathetic, remember you can and should set boundaries, you don’t need to feel everyone else’s stuff!

The way ferrets slip and slide through the world means they have been associated with magic at times and were thought to be witch’s familiars.  Add to their stealth, the fact they are crepuscular, and you can also see why they have been associated with invisibility.

When it comes to mythology, there aren’t many ferret references that I could find, likely because they were domesticated animals, and because they overlap with weasels so it’s harder to find any stories or beliefs that are out there.  That said, I did find that their fur was attached to an eagle feather to give the skill of alertness and ability to elude capture in some native American tribes.  This comes from the ferret’s ability to move unseen, and to track and scout out enemies. 

Many myths and stories seek to explain why an animal has a particular characteristic and for the ferret, we have a Cree tale to account for why it seems to be nervous.  He is running and trembling because he is afraid he is being chased.  This would certainly account for the high energy bursts!

Reading

Wild Speak
Animal Diversity Web

Raccoon dog

Despite their name, raccoon dogs are neither a raccoon or a dog but it’s easy to see where they got their name from.  They have facial markings like that of a raccoon and are the same sort of shape and size as dog.  Their scientific name – nyctereutes procyonoides – breaks down into something like ‘night wandering proto dog’ which I think is more beautiful than raccoon dog, but probably a bit too long… Anyway, there are five subspecies of raccoon dogs, including a Japanese species call tanuki and whilst you might have heard of the tanuki, there’s a reasonable change you’ve never heard of the raccoon dog.  Unless you are involved in the fur trade…

They have long been used in the fur industry and between 1927 and 1957, somewhere between 4,000 to 10,000 of them were introduced to the European and Asian USSR to try and establish a valuable new fur animal in the wild.  Today they are widespread across northern and western Europe where they live in forests and other areas of dense vegetation which provide cover. 

I don’t really want to talk about the fur trade in the post as that’s such a huge and problematic issue, but briefly, their pelts are used to make necklets, collars and fur coats as well as being used for bristles for calligraphy brushes in Japan.  Their bones have been used medicinally and as a supposed aphrodisiac…

Despite being used in the fur industry and hunted, they are excellent survivors.  They are very adaptable, tolerant of human presence and have a high reproduction rate.  They are also opportunistic omnivores who forage and hunt and are also able to swim and dive for food.  They eat insects, small rodents, birds and eggs, fish, molluscs, crabs and sea urchins.  They also eat plants including roots, leaves, berries and seeds.  In winter, food can be limited and they will eat out of our rubbish.  As another example of their survivability, they are able to eat toads that have toxic skin secretions as they produce a large amount of saliva which dilutes the toxins.  If the raccoon dog has come to you, you will survive the thing you are facing. You have the resources to cope with the difficulties and you will come through the other side.  You are tough and adaptable.

When it comes to mating, females are courted by several males although there is little fighting amongst them.  Before they have sex, they pair will bond and they will remain together until their young have become independent.  Towards the later stages of pregnancy, the male will bring the female food and will continue to play a significant role in raising the pups.  He will stand guard over them as the female hunts and the pups will learn to hunt by watching their parents.  This is a time to work together and having the help of a partner – romantic or otherwise – will help you get through this difficult time.

In terms of symbolic importance or mythology, the main source is Japan where the tanuki have been associated with magical folklore and luck since ancient times.  They are mischievous shapeshifters, masters of disguise and play the role of the trickster.  They are cheeky and hedonistic but are also thought to be gullible and absent minded.  They create illusions, changing their own appearance but also changing the appearance of objects, for example making leaves look like money.

They can make people see entirely different landscapes, causing them to get lost even in familiar territory. They can produce will o’ the wisp fire, like kitsune. They use this fire to prank people, naturally. Before artificial light, this was a good way to fool a farmer into thinking he was having a whole conversation with a fellow smoking a pipe in the dark. And they think it’s a hoot to make fisherman’s nets feel heavy with fish and watch as they pull up empty nets.”
https://www.tofugu.com/japan/tanuki/

Tanuki statues can be found throughout Japan and are thought to bring financial luck.  They are depicted with large testicles which signify good luck with money.  The testicles are also very versatile…  In stories they have become makeshift raincoats, weapons and drums amongst other things…  Whilst this is somewhat out there, it does tie into the idea of the raccoon dog as adaptable and a survivor.  Use what you have creatively, pull on the resources you have and you too can be as successful as the raccoon dog!

Reading:

Tanuki in Japanese artwork
IUCN Red List
Animal Diversity Web
Atlas Obscura
Folklore Thursday
Wild Speak