Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

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Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex.  Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!

The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction.  We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity.  That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post.  To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.

If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye.  A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female.  Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers.  For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood…  Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females.  A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it.  Whether they want to or not.  Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.

In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs.  For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share.  In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.

If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.

Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case.  A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree.  Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook

We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one.  This is not the case.  And biologically it makes sense.  If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality.  Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with.  For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!

“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right.  They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply.  With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar

When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse.  Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these.  Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm!  The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!

Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course).  Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off…  For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:

“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
Susan Lawler

But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly.  The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!

We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all.  scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species.  Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric…  But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…

There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex.  For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally.  Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…

The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex.  Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.

In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females.  Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves!  That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production…  As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.

All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce.  And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.

Suggested reading:

Bighorn Sheep

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page of Pentacles

I got a new deck last week and the only card I’ve pulled has been the daughter of roots, equivalent to the page of pentacles.  I’ve pulled it so many times that I feel as if it’s trying to hit me over the head with a message that I am just not getting.  So, I thought I’d write a blog post and see if that helps me to figure things out!  Given the insistence of this card, I’m going to have a look at all the decks I own so this will be a much more detailed, and longer, post than my normal tarot ones.

Some keywords, just in case you don’t want to read over 2000 words…:

learning * practical * planning * opportunities * focus * responsible * slow and steady * taking the first step * experience * curiosity *

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Left to right: Wild unknown, pagan cats, animal totem tarot

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Left to right: Brady Tarot, Lumina, Our Tarot

Rider Waite Smith and Pagan Cats

If you’ve been reading my blog a while, you’ll know I don’t like the RWS deck but I do acknowledge it can hold some interesting takes on cards.  My closest deck is the Pagan Cats and I prefer this non human take although it does still have some of the aspects of RWS that I find problematic.  In previous tarot card posts, I’ve considered these two decks separately, but in order to try and achieve some conciseness here, I’m going to merge them.

Both cards have a figure standing in a field, trees and mountains in the background and a yellow sky taking up much of the scene.  The human figure of the RWS card stands tall in the centre, a golden pentacle balanced on or just above his hands.  The cat again is dominant in the image, taking up a lot of space on the card, and is sitting with a forepaw resting on a pentacle.  Her eyes are watching it intently and she seems to be focused on the pentacle to the exclusion of her surroundings.  Michelle Tea describes the figure in the page of pentacles as being meditative, as transfixed by the pentacle and says that “extreme focus is the way to go when the page of pentacles pops up”.  This student is fully immersed in their studies, fascinated by what they are learning and discovering.  They are putting in the work for the pleasure of the work, not for the status or acknowledgement or prestige that might come from it.

I like that both characters are placed in the landscape as the pentacles are about earth and land and the physical side of the world.  Both feel very steady and surefooted despite having the naivety of youth and a tendency to stumble that comes from inexperience.

For the Pagan Cats, the little white book reads: Someone who is learning something about the physical world, resources, or finances.  We can see that the pentacle itself is representative of a resource, of money or some other thing that you can hold and touch.  Throughout the tarot, pages are the cards of study, of the student, of exploring and of messengers.  They are youth, they are newness and they are innocence.  This page is learning the ways of the material world, of work, of health and money.  Importantly, they are learning by doing, because the pentacles is all about the hands on experience, about learning from mistakes and of building up those skills.

“If the Page of Pentacles is appearing in your life as a person, you can depend on them.  There may be something about this person that raises a bit of scepticism – their youth, their lack of experience, perhaps their very sheltered life.  Regardless of that, their wish to apply themselves and make up for these deficits is real, and they possess the latent skills they need.”
– Michelle Tea

Wild Unknown

In the Wild Unknown Tarot, pages are called daughters, a convention I much prefer as it steps away from ideas of regal-ity and ruling and leading entire countries.  A young deer stands under a rainbow, peaked by a pentacle.  Like the RWS and pagan cats page, the deer isn’t in motion, she has paused and has a contemplativeness to her.  Despite her youth and her unsteady legs, she is ready to meet the world.  The use of a young deer reflects the child like way in which this deer explores and appreciates what’s around her.  She is discovering and learning for the joy of doing so, she is curious and interested and wants to get out there and do stuff.  Even though she’s depicted standing still, this little deer won’t stay still for too long.  The rainbow over her head reflects her innocence, her optimism but as an earth card, we know there is a practical side to her.

She doesn’t expect the world to be all rainbows and unicorns.  She knows she’ll have to put in the work, turn up on time and see things through.  She will be reliable and trustworthy, practical and responsible but it is exactly these traits that will help her get where she wants to go.

Lumina Tarot

Here we find the maiden of pentacles instead of page or daughter!  This seems to be the most variation I’ve had on any card I’ve written about!  A young woman is sitting with her legs underneath her, a loose dress draped around her, her neck and chest mostly exposed.  Her cupped hands are releasing flowers and her head is lifted skywards.  Just behind her, a young looking bear rests with a pentacle on its forehead.  The green of the card gives the scene a fresh, peaceful kind of feel.

The associated book says of the card: field of blossoming dreams and inspiration.  And just knowing that, we get such a different vibe from this card that we have with the others we’ve looked at so far.  The book goes on to discuss the manifesting of desires and visions into reality, birthing and nurturing projects, exploring ideas.  Whilst you may feel excited and want to share all of these, remember that they are young, like the maiden, and need nourishing and protecting whilst they grow.

“You may have just come out of a winter period or time of introspection, and can now feel the stirring seeds of a project which requires exploration and energy.”

This echoes ideas I discussed when looking at bears; there is a time for thinking and a time for acting.  And action is something that is crucial in our understanding of the maiden of pentacles.  She is not just about pretty ideas and nice daydreams, she is about putting the work in and doing, not just imagining doing something.  To turn potential into abundance requires you to act, to put one foot in front of another and to keep moving, slowly and steadily, forward.

Animal Totem Tarot

I will be looking at this card in more detail when I consider the alpaca, but for now, the message of the alpaca is:

“My mother says that all great things once started off wee, that small is not the opposite of large – it is the beginning.  I know that I am not big enough yet to be of any real benefit, but over time I will become worth my weight in gold.  Never think something is too small to be worth your time and effort, for you just never know what huge miracle it could unlock once it has reached full potential.”

I like this take on the page of pentacles.  It ties in with what the lumina tarot is saying about taking little steps, slowly but surely and however small an action may seem, it can help you towards your goal.  Returning to the idea of this card as student, we are all, always a student of something, none of us are masters of everything.  Do not let this put you off trying something and do not expect to be able to do new things the first time you try.  You cannot go from never running anywhere to completing a marathon without practice and planning and putting in the work and giving it time.  In a fast-paced world, it’s easy to think we should be able to understand and do everything, for ourselves, instantly.  But then we wouldn’t have professionals and experts.  They become experts because they have spent time learning and working in that field and there are somethings that only come from experience, that you can never be taught or told.

Note that the alpaca is standing to one side of the pentacle and away from the baskets of wool, she knows that she’s not reached that stage yet and she is happy regardless.  She knows that as she grows and learns and experiences, she will make steps towards the pentacle and towards producing the lovely wool that alpacas are known for.

Each card in this deck comes with some journal prompts and for the alpaca, one of these is what gifts are you learning to grow into?

Our Tarot

I’ve not written about this deck yet and it’s very different to my others but I loved the premise.  I’ve not really used it yet so am not that familiar with the nuances but the basic idea is that each card features a collaged image of an historical woman.  For the page of pentacles, this is Mary Lou Williams, not someone I knew before but that is in essence an important part of the deck – to raise awareness of overlooked women who’ve made important contributions to the world.

Keywords for this card include: manifesting, learning, material opportunity, collaboration

Mary Lou Williams was a self taught, very gifted pianist who was born in 1910 and was playing by the age of three…!  Despite her innate talent, her gender stood in her way, holding her back from joining a band until the bandleader could be convinced to have a woman play.  Regardless, she continued to play and work in the music industry, recording national hits, playing numerous gigs and producing music for other bands.  She formed a record label and established a jazz festival as well as teaching at Duke University.

She had grown up in a struggling family with lots of other children and not that much money but regardless, she had seized upon, and created, opportunities, such as when at age 6 she began playing piano at parties.  Where some depictions of the page of pentacles are about actually taking opportunities, this version is much more about seeking them out and spotting them, even when they are in unusual places.  There’s also an element here of not letting convention stop you, don’t let others tell you it’s not appropriate or not right for you to pursue your passions.  If there’s something you love doing, do it.  Do it for the pleasure of doing it.  Do it because you love it, not because of what money or status it’ll bring you.

“The page of pentacles encourages you to seek inspiration in your surroundings without being afraid to ask for help.  How can you share your gifts and skills with others?  What work do you find yourself most drawn towards?”
– Our Tarot

The aspect of collaboration – performing with others, writing songs for others, producing music etc – is one I really like with this card.  One of the things I love is learning with other people, you bounce ideas and thoughts off each other and deepen your understanding of the topic.  I am also a big fan of merging subjects together, sort of making the topics collaborate as it were.  When it comes to art, I have almost always engaged in mixed media, long before I knew it had a name.  I love taking different strands, different threads and weaving them together, whether literally or in this case when I’m learning and sharing that knowledge.

As a very much aside, Mary Lou wrote a set of songs called the zodiac suite and as the Page of Pentacles is associated with Capricorn, I thought that might be interesting to listen to.

The Brady Tarot

Finally, we reach the deck which kickstarted the entire post, the Daughter of Roots from the Brady Tarot.  Again, this is a very new deck and I’ve not had chance to get to know it yet, especially because I keep drawing the same card over and over!

On this card we have another bear! As well as a woodpecker (I’m going to be doing a woodpecker post at some point in the future).  The book echoes a lot of what we’ve already seen:

“A student, either literally, or someone who likes to study and is fascinated by new things, new ideas or knowledge, without much concern for how to apply or use them.  Though this study will likely involve commitment and hard work, the impetus does not come from the expected rewards but rather the joy of learning and the inner spirit of the subject.”

This is me down to the letter.  I love learning and I do so because of an innate curiosity, a need to know rather than because I have to or because I want to do something with the knowledge.  It is the experience, the fascinating discovery, that matters, not the outcome.  Specifically, this version of the page of pentacles, is inviting us to dive into the mysteries of life, to study those things which are less obvious at first glance, to look deeper, such as you do when you step into the world of tarot.

The bear seems almost to be watching the woodpecker, who is perhaps weaving the lattice of branches, with wonder and admiration.

Even though the bear is in a tree, there is something about it that feels very grounded, despite being half on and half off, the bear seems to be at one with the tree.  I also feel like the roots, echoing the lattice work, are a reminder to both go deeper, but also to remain down to earth.  The back leg of the bear dangles towards the ground, almost instinctively drawn to stay steady.

Canary

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about canaries…  As a pet bird, much of what I found out about them was related to breeding and pet keeping…And whilst I love the animal allies deck, this card feels a bit out of place to me although that could be because I’m living in the UK and the creator is over in America, maybe it makes more sense over the water…  As such, this post is going to be considerably shorter than the rest.  If you have ideas and suggestions about how else I could feel into this, please comment!

Anyway, being a bird, the canary is associated with air and flight and freedom and the air suit in tarot is about the mind and communication so I’m going to lean into the idea of the song with this card.  In this way, I am reminded of the nightingale card from the wild unknown deck.

According to that font of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Canary originally referred to the island of Gran Canaria on the west coast of Africa, and the group of surrounding islands.  Just in case you wanted to unpick that particular chicken and egg scenario.

Canaries are small birds which are apparently very active and very sweet.  The males sing beautiful songs and remind us of the healing power of both singing and of music.  Speak and sing your truth, use your words to soothe and comfort.  Express yourself!

The other canary I’m familiar with is the canary in the coalmine, an advance warning of approaching disaster.  Only you know the circumstances of your life, listen to your gut and feel into what the canary has to tell you – is it here to promote healing or to foretell doom?

The symbology of yellow feels important here, not least because otherwise I’m feeling a bit stuck with this card… Yellow is the colour of the sun, of nourishment, of energy and warmth.  It is attention grabbing and colour psychology says that it makes us feel hopeful.

But yellow is contrary.  It is associated with cowardice in some parts of the world and courage in others.  It is used as a symbol of life but was also used as a marker of potential death in WW2 in the yellow stars that Jews were forced to wear.  Yellow is said to bring mental clarity but also agitation and anxiety.

This contrariness reflects the difference between the canary that sings for joy and the canary that no longer sings because they have been poisoned in the mine…

And I’m sorry, but for now, that’s all I have on this little yellow bird..  Please comment if you have anything to add!

Polar bear

Polar bears.  The sea bear.  King of the ice.

Weighing in at nearly a ton and standing more than 8 feet foot tall, they are formidable predators.  Like all bears, they are technically omnivores but where the panda has chosen a mostly vegetarian diet, the polar bear eats predominately meat.  Apparently they have the strongest jaw of all meat eating land mammals and is certainly the most carnivorous of the bear family. This has led to their reputation as man eaters although personally I don’t think humans will have enough fat to keep a polar bear full for long…  Seals provide a much better meal, as do whale carcasses.

Their reputation probably comes about because of limited polar bear and human interaction.  They aren’t familiar with us and when they do come into contact it’s likely either because we are in their habitat or because they are starving and have encroached into human habitat to find food. In the latter instance, eating humans is better than eating nothing.  We must remember to see things within context, something that I find echoed in the hierophant tarot card more generally.

The hierophant is traditionally considered to be a religious card, one that talks of organised worship, structured rituals and the like.  In some decks it shows a priest, a pope or some other religious (traditionally male) figure and thus can seem to depict a formal belief system which values conformity, tradition and institutions.  But we have to consider this image as a product of its context, just as we consider the man eating polar bear as a product of its context.  The image of the male preacher speaking to worshippers kneeling on the floor is one that comes from a different time.  Nothing escapes the culture that surrounds its creation and thus the hierophant depicts a specific interpretation.  You can take the ideas of the hierophant and instead see it as spiritual awakening, learning from mentors and seeking wisdom.

Back to the polar bear…

They aren’t actually territorial and would generally be cautious in confrontation, preferring to escape than fight.  Just because you can fight, doesn’t mean it’s the best option.  Brute force isn’t always the best approach, actually I think it rarely is.  Are you facing a fight in your life at the moment?  Do you need to fight? Is this worth the fight? Are you fighting for fightings sake?  Would it be wiser to retreat?

Of course polar bears do need to attack at times otherwise they’d starve but they aren’t gratuitously violent, they kill when they need to eat.  As stealth hunters, they rely on camouflage, on blending it and going unnoticed.  To achieve this, the polar bear must have a deep, strong connection with the land he lives in.  Despite their stealth, their hunt success varies incredibly throughout the year and the margin for error in hunting is incredibly slim. They rely on sea ice for hunting and climate change is reducing this habitat, meaning the iconic polar bear is increasingly vulnerable.  At some times of the year their success can go down to 1 in 20 and this has huge implications for mums to be who need vast amounts of food to make it through pregnancy.

A fertile female emits a scent to attract males and this can be smelt for miles – scientists think perhaps chemical markers are left in pawprints.  Because of the vast area polar bears cover, finding a mate isn’t easy and possibly because of this, females don’t actually ovulate until mating starts.  Pregnant polar bears dig dens to give birth in, often returning to the area they were born in.  She will rest here for four months before giving birth to tiny cubs and will stay another four months with her babies, relying on her huge fat reserves to survive.

Austerity and survival feel like important words here.  They have to survive exceptionally difficult circumstances; low food supply, hard to catch prey and temperatures which can fall to -40 degrees.  They have evolved to fill a small ecological niche and signs of this adaptation can be seen in their characteristics.

Take their fur for example, there is a short dense underfur next to the skin and a longer coarser outer layer.  The latter is actually transparent and appears white because the hairs scatter sunlight and helps it to blend in.  the fur also helps the polar bear to maintain a 37 degree body temperature despite the extreme climate.  The outer hair also absorbs infrared radiation, meaning that body heat isn’t lost to the cold air.  The polar bear teaches us to use everything we have, not to waste anything and in doing so we might make it through the tough times.

Another adaptation to the climate, is the polar bears paws which are great for walking on slippery ice. Moving from water to ice is made easier by sharp, curved hook like claws which dig into the ice.

In areas where human habitation coexists with polar bears, polar bears are often traditionally seen as symbolising abundance and gratitude, much in the same way that the buffalo did.  Like the buffalo, a polar bear provides a lot of resources for local people such as the fur for clothes, the meat for food and the fat for fuel.  Teeth were used as talismans and were thought to protect the wearer.  After being killed, the bear was thanked and honoured and ceremonies were carried out to appease the spirit of the bear.

“Legend held that if a dead polar bear was treated properly by the hunter, it would share the good news with other bears so they would be eager to be killed by him. Bears would stay away from hunters who failed to pay respect.”
Polar Bears International

As well as being important for resources, the polar bear has also been an important figure in folklore, spirituality and culture for people living alongside them.  Cave paintings of polar bears dating back 1500 years have been found and it has been suggested that people developed igloos having been inspired by the dens the bears make.

In terms of folklore, there is a common trope where bears are human inside their homes and become bears again when going outside.  Other tales show a respect for the polar bear and suggest a feeling of kinship with them.  Perhaps some of this comes from polar bears standing on two feet, and perhaps some is because it’s said that when they walk on all fours, their back paws step where their front paws where, leaving tracks which look like they are walking on two feet.

In Inuit mythology, Nanuk was the master of the bears and could decide on the fate of hunter’s success.  Another deity, Torngarsuk, could appear in bear form and was said to be very powerful.  There doesn’t seem to be much online about Inuit mythology but shapeshifting seems to be a bit of a theme when it comes to the polar bear.

In the animal totem tarot book, polar bear is seen as a keeper of ancestral knowledge and faith is a key part of their interpretation of this card.

“The world in which I live is changing fast.  It is no longer as safe and reliable as it once was.  The signs of this unstoppable change are all around me.  But despite this, I must have faith.  I must trust that there is a larger plan that I cannot see.  I must believe that I am playing the part I was created to play”
– Animal Totem Tarot

What do you have faith in?  What could you have faith in?  Do you have faith in yourself?  In your world?

Polar bear week 2018 falls 4th November till 10th November

Rat

Rats are often misunderstood, scapegoated and blamed for heinous events such as the black plague which was apparently actually down to other rodents.  Instead of being pests, rats can be amazingly helpful and some are trained to sniff out TB and landmines, and they also help to get rid of our rubbish.  We also test many chemicals and medicines on them and they have helped further our understanding of how the body works, or doesn’t in some cases.

There are a number of fascinating things that we know about rats:

  • Rats have a form of “chastity belt” – mating plugs get inserted into the female rats after they’ve had sex to try and prevent sperm from other rats from reaching the vagina. They can also contain a chemical which decreases the female’s sexual receptivity…
  • Rats are ‘deceived’ by placebos which scientists think is down to conditioning although there doesn’t seem to be a clear understanding about why.
  • Their brain is similar to ours in some ways and anti-psychotic drugs that humans use also work for rats.
  • They are behaviourly flexible – one of the tests for consciousness – with research showing that rats often take a moment to reflect on what they’ve learned when running a maze; they pause and play back the route in their heads in reverse order and edit their experiences.
  • In the lab, tests involving intelligence and learning often use rats because of their high intellect, ingenuity and adaptability.

Prejudged as dirty and diseased, rats are actually fascinating creatures which don’t deserve their reputation.  Think twice when you hear gossip and aspersions and instead form your own opinions.

Today there are more than 60 species of rats and whilst they originated in Asia, they have spread all over the world.  Able to sneakily stow away on ships and able to tread water for up to three days, seas were no barrier to these amazingly adaptable creatures.  In fact, some people reckon they are the most invasive species in the world and hold them responsible for extinctions on islands when in reality they are doing what they do best, surviving. Rats are born survivors and unfortunately sometimes in order for you to survive, others suffer.  Whilst this feels uncomfortable to think about for those of us who are kind and compassionate, it is a part of life.  If you go for a job and get it, someone else doesn’t.  There are times and places when you need to put yourself first and if you don’t, you will suffer.

When rats arrive in a new habitat, they need food and having not met rats before, native species don’t know that they are dangerous.  This can result in a lack of defensiveness which allows rats to kill baby birds and steal eggs for food without too much issue.  The high breeding rate of rats combined with easy food means that before you know it, rats are ruling the roost and the native species have been wiped out.

And on that note, rats are incredibly good breeders, for example, a female brown rat can breed from around 3 months old, and has an average of five litters a year, each of up to 12 young.  Because of this, in some cultures associated with fertility and wealth and abundance.

Perhaps because of this vast reproduction rate (which causes high populations and rat crowding), rats show social skills.  For example, in tests for empathy, rats showed concern for other rats.  A free rat was placed in an arena with a caged rat and once they’d learned how to free the caged rat, they would do so intentionally and quickly.  They did not react the same to cages which were empty or which contained objects.  They even continued freeing rats when chocolate was placed in a second cage although they would they open the chocolate container and would share it.  Perhaps in someways, rats are more humane than some humans…

They also really like play which is inherently a social behaviour.  They show an increase in dopamine activity simply by anticipating the opportunity to play.  When happy, they chirp with joy and rats who are tickled bond with the researchers and seek out more tickles.  Studies of their brain chemistry supports the idea that play is pleasurable and fun for them, and these feelings help to create and maintain social ties.  Rat play involves individuals assessing and monitoring one another, then fine tuning and changing their own behaviours to maintain the play mood.  If play rules are violated however, and the play is no longer fair, it stops.

Rats and humans creates an odd dichotomy.  There are the rats that save our lives through lab work, through sniffing out landmines and diseases and the rats which we keep as pets.  Then there are the rats that we call pests and put resources into killing.  When I googled rats the first result, predictably, was Wikipedia, then how to control these pests followed by a local newspaper article warning about rat infestations.  These incredibly helpful, intelligent animals still suffer because of their reputation.  We judge them without knowing them.  And casting them as dirty and disease riddled makes it easier to use them in labs I guess…  This idea of judgement feels really important when thinking about the rat oracle card.

Perhaps the most well known rats in folklore or mythology is the rat in the Chinese astrology.  It is the first and most prominent of the Chinese zodiac animals and is about curiosity, imagination and keen observation skills.  With these skills, they can deduce a lot about other people and situations and they are also able to be really adaptable and resourceful.  This in turn can lead to success in work and business and when I was reading about the sign of the rat it was suggested that those born under it need to be careful about their work life balance.

I don’t know where I got this from but my notes have the rat down as a sacred animal of the underworld, carrying spiritual wisdom as opposed to fleas. Perhaps we are overlooking pearls because of our expectation.  If you do have rats and don’t think they are bringing wisdom, you can get rid of them by asking politely, either verbally or through a nice little note.  That said, you might want to be careful because whilst rats appearing is said to be a bad omen, rats leaving a building is said to mean that the building will fall down, or elsewhere in the world, mean that someone in the home will soon die.  These contradictory ideas says much more about humans feelings about rats than anything else… If we don’t like something, if we think of them as dirty and diseased then we will always find a reason to cast them in a bad light.  What are you viewing with blinkered eyes?

Of course, there is also the story of the pied piper and in case you don’t remember…  there was a prosperous town which was infested with rats.  Cats were imported to deal with it but they were eaten by the rats.  Rat catchers tried and failed and in the end a reward was put up for anyone who could get rid of them. A stranger came into the town and said he could do it.  He played his pipe which lured the rats to him and he led them to the harbour and into a boat. He took them out to a mudflat where they got stuck and then they drowned when the tide came back in.  When he returned to town for his reward, he was given less than half of the money.  Angry at being conned, he walked round town again, again he was playing his pipe and this time instead of the rats, it was the town’s children who followed him.  He took them into a wood and they were never seen again.  An entire generation was lost and the town never recovered.  Greed had got the better of the townsfolk and they were punished by the loss of something more valuable than money.  In terms of the spirit card, this speaks to me of materialism, of greed, of having the wrong priorities and the consequences of misleading or conning others.  What you do to others, will be done to you.  Karma.

More positively, there is a temple in India where people go to worship rats and in Europe (I think) if parents wanted their child to have good, sharp teeth they would put one of their baby teeth in a rat hole and beg for it to be swapped for a better, more rat like one.  And if you happen to see a white rat, you’ll be lucky.

As I said part way through, a key part of this animal is around misunderstanding, prejudgement and not forming your own opinions.  Bear this in mind if you pull the rat animal spirit card, if you don’t, you might miss out on some really great opportunities.