“That which I am may not be pretty to you, but I know I serve a deep divine purpose and I am more than happy to fulfil it. We each play our part in the divine plan and I know without a shadow of a doubt I am playing mine.”
– Animal Totem Tarot
I’ve written before about vultures and the condor is a New World vulture, a term I’m not really a fan of but is widely used to differentiate between Africa, Asia and Europe vs the Americas. It was coined back in 1503 by a guy who had travelled from the ‘old’ world to the new and comes with heavy colonialist baggage.
Anyway, back to the California Condor. They are the largest wild birds in North America, with long, broad wings and a wingspan of 277cm! Adults have a naked head, black plumage and intensely white strikes under their wings. The lack of feathers around the face does give them a bit of a scrappy, sketchy kind of look but this is an important part of their teachings. They implore us to look beyond appearances and to see the inherent value of everyone and everything.
Condors are incredible masters of the sky, able to soar on air currents as high up as 15,000 feet and can do so for over an hour without flapping their wings. Their heavy, solid body means they can soar steadily, not being buffeted by the wind, they use the wind but do not let it push them around. These birds mean business and can travel over 100 miles a day looking for food!
In terms of reflecting on the condor, think about where in your life you want to soar, where do you want to feel like you’re pushing forward and in control? How can you reach this? We also need to think about how the condor has conquered the element of air, which in terms of tarot is all about the mental realm; thinking, ideas, communication, learning and with all of those thoughts comes worry and anxiety.
We create little video tapes in our heads of what we think will happen when we do x or y and we do this as a dress rehearsal so we can reflect and make changes. This can be very helpful in terms of reaching your goals – you can practice what you’re going to say in your job interview etc – but in can become a problem when it becomes about scaring yourself instead of preparing yourself. Take some time to check in with your mind and how it’s helping, or hindering, you.
Food is a crucial part of any living thing’s life but people get squeamish when thinking about what the condor eats – they are carrion birds, eating dead and rotting flesh, such as that of cattle and deer. This means they do a great service to our world, without them and other animals which eat the dead, we’d all be knee deep in carcasses…
“The most valuable role of carrion feeders is the safe disposal of dead, decomposing and diseased animals, protecting human and animal co-habitants from ill effect… a healthy population of such carrion eaters can have an important impact on removing diseased and rotting carcasses from the area.”
– Animal Diversity Web
We all have our own roles to play in the world, and so much of being a human seems to be working out what that role is. What makes you come alive? What makes you feel the most you? Find out what those things are, do them, forge your own path and that, that is where you will find your purpose.
As they eat decaying meat, there is a real risk of the condors becoming infected but they are adapted to this lifestyle. They have things in place which help them stay healthy, such as careful preening, bathing at watering holes and grooming their bald head area. Sometimes in life you have to get your hands dirty but when you do, you can take your own measures to ensure that one tough action doesn’t seep into the rest of your life, or your soul, and infect it. You may feel like a jerk when you have to fire someone, but that doesn’t make you a jerk. You might have done some less good things in your past, but you don’t have to become a less good person because of that. You have choices.
When they aren’t eating or flying, they are roosting. They start the morning by sunning themselves, which sounds rather luxurious and on a lighter note, this makes me think a leisurely breakfast is a good idea. Whether you want breakfast in bed, or want to head off to a little café, think about how you can treat yourself and get your day off to a wonderful start. Maybe you live somewhere warm and can incorporate some sun basking yourself!
For California Condors, courtship involves those magnificent wings being displayed as well as head bobbing and once the female has accepted the male, they mate for life. Often people like to think of cute, little, song birds as monogamous and yet they aren’t and this huge, flesh eating creature, mates for life. It’s a reminder to consider your prejudices and assumptions. They start breeding starting around 6 to 8 years old and lay one egg every other year meaning they are slow when it comes to maintaining the population. Something that became a significant concern during the 1970s when they nearly went extinct.
Overtime, threats to California Condors have changed with shooting being one of the threats present in the 1890s. They were also endangered as a side effect of traps and poison put out to kill large predators. By 1965, there were an estimated 60 birds left, falling to less than 25 by 1982, possibly because of illegal egg collecting and loss of habitat. As a result, in the mid 80s, all remaining wild birds were caught for captive breeding. Whilst the slow rate of reproduction makes replacing population numbers difficult, if you remove the one egg a female has laid, she will lay another one that season. Through immense effort, attempts to reintroduce them to the wild started in 1992 and today there are now more than 300 birds living in the wild.
Like the phoenix coming out of the fire, the California Condors have survived the unsurvivable and, hopefully, have come out strong. As it stands their populations are increasing so it’s promising. In terms of your own life, you can go through things that nearly break you, and come out the other side with greater knowledge. I know it’s a clichéd idea but a lot of clichés are so because they are true. I feel that there’s another idea here, and that’s that you can ask for help – without human intervention the condors would almost certainly be extinct today (I do realise that without us, they might not have been at risk at all… but still…).
“Who amongst us has not dreamed of soaring effortlessly over the landscape seeing everything in the daily lives of lowly earthbound pedestrians? With scarcely a wing flap, condors soar over the deserts to the seacoast, cresting the highest peaks and spanning the most foreboding terrain. Such is the perspective of the California condor and perhaps the key to its special place in many native cultures across the Californias.”
– California Department of Parks and Recreation
Perhaps unsurprisingly, condors were considered sacred to some Native Americans and as such, their feathers were used in ceremonies and rituals. They are also said to have been occasionally sacrificed for funeral rites although not in large numbers so would not have affected the population size. They also feature in mythology. For example, the Wiyot tribe say that the condor recreated humans after they had been wiped out in a flood. They believed that the California Condor had physical and spiritual strength and shamans would try to embody this by dreaming of the bird and their feathers were used in healing. A nice condor story from the Yokut tribe tells how the condor would sometimes eat the moon, creating the lunar cycle, and his wings were the cause of the eclipses.
As we’ve seen, condors, like vultures, are associated with death and are thought to have knowledge about death and the dead. In fact, the death card in the Animal Totem Tarot depicts the California Condor. Symbolically, the death card suggests a transformation. You may need to work though some stuff but it will be worth it when you come out on the other side. When we bring in the condor, this suggests the things you need to work with might be around preconceptions and prejudgements, or it might be around your attitude towards death itself.
Condors make us face death, something we tend to push aside. This is the time to examine your attitudes towards death, to explore why we suppress it and to think about our own death, and the ritual we would like around it. Like the condor, these topics aren’t pretty but again, like the condor, they are vital to consider.
With any ending, whether it’s death or something less drastic, we have a beginning. We may not know what is beginning but things will become clear over time.