Pigs: beliefs and attitudes

“Pigs in their various forms, from wild boar to domesticated swine, are extremely ambivalent figures in myth, sacred in some contexts, demonic in others, or (in the paradoxical manner so common to magical tales) both revered and shunned at the same time. The pig as a sacred animal seems to belong to the early goddess religions, about which our knowledge is far from complete — but carvings and other artifacts found all across what is now western Europe indicate that the pig was an aspect of the Great Goddess, associated with fertility, the moon, and the season cycles of life and death.”
Terri Windling

The history of pigs and humans is long, intertwined and full of conflict.  As a result, our beliefs, stories and folklore around the pig is very varied.  They have been symbols of wealth and status, as well as derided as animals of dirt and filth.  Perhaps the best known belief around pigs is that certain religions denounce eating them.

Why the pig is seen as taboo seems to be a much debated idea with few certainties and many suggestions.  One of these being that it was because pigs were dirty and they ate refuse.  A first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, apparently said that pigs were lazy scavengers who would eat human corpses given the chance.  As both the embodiment of vice and potentially having eaten humans, pigs were thus unfit for human consumption.

Whilst no one seems quite sure why pork was forbidden, the kind of meat you ate, or didn’t, could at various points in history get you killed.  The Spanish Inquisition was one such point in time and not eating pork could mark you out as a traitor.  To try and combat this, people would keep pigs but not eat them, or cook pork like food to try and throw off suspicions.

Elsewhere in time and space, pigs were important sources of food as they were economical to raise.  It was possibly because of this that they were popular with peasants, another possible reason for certain groups of society to refuse to eat them.

Pigs were also important in ritual, although not in ancient Egypt where pigs were considered unworthy sacrifices to the gods, with the exception of the Moon and Dionysus.  In ancient Greece, piglets were sacrificed to the gods and men swore oaths on boar testicles.  Likewise, they were important in Roman sacrifices.  Pliny the Elder had some interesting thoughts on pigs, noting their intelligence and observing that a pig whose tail curls to the right hand side are more likely to appease the gods in a sacrifice…

In China we also see the importance of the pig.  It is thought that the pig was the first domesticated animal there which may explain its place of power.  Between 4700 and 2900BC pigs had ritual importance and the dead (humans) were buried with jade or ceramic pig figures as a symbol of status.  Pigs remain important to the Chinese economy and culture and apparently, the mandarin character for family and home is represented by a pig inside a house.  The pig is also one of the Chinese zodiac animals and is associated with fertility and virility.

For the Kaulong people of Papua New Guinea, pigs are important both physically and symbolically.  They are sacrificed and their meat is shared in ceremonial displays such as for a child’s first tooth eruption, as part of male initiation rituals, to mark female puberty and for marriages and deaths.

For some interesting folklore titbits, I return closer to home with what I believe are British or European beliefs about pigs:

  • They were associated with weather in folklore and it was said that they could see the wind approaching and would let you know by rushing around with straw in their mouths.
  • Fishermen considered them a bad omen and wouldn’t go to sea if they saw one.
  • It was bad luck for a bride to see a pig on her way to the church.
  • To kill a certain (but varied) number of pigs, then the devil may appear, sometimes even in pig form. And if a devilish pig were to bite you, it was said you’d get cancer.
  • Confusingly though, pork soup was a remedy for many things and pigs blood could cure warts.
  • If, however, you ate pig brains then you’d lose control of what you said.

Turning to literature, we find some pigs that do their best to break the stereotypes of the species.  There is babe from Dick King Smith’s Sheep pig who overcomes people’s perceptions of the pig as stupid.  Instead of bulling the sheep into action, he politely asks them instead.  There is piglet from winnie the pooh who is a timid, scared little pig who overcomes his worries and fears repeatedly throughout the tales.  There is the pig in charlotte’s web saves the farm.  And of course there are many more.  Some who fit the stereotypical ideas of pigs, and some who defy them.

In language however, we still find the idea of pigs as dirty, lazy and smelly emphasised.  We talk of pigging out, being pleased as a pig in muck, we call people pig ignorant and tell them to get their snout out of things.  We repeat the old adage you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear but we also talk of globetrotters, although for most of us, an image of the well travelled pig doesn’t spring straight to mind.

Talking of language and how the word pig has come to mean much more than a four legged animal, pigs have been used in a derogatory way for hundreds of years to dehumanise certain groups of people, including Jews.  In late medieval Germany, a condemned Jew was led to execution wrapped in pig skin and in some executions, the victims were hung upside down, by the legs in the same manner as the pigs who were hung alongside them.  Commenting on the dehumanisation of minorities, Boria Sax observed:

“Those who wished to brutalise and slaughter other people… would find it psychologically easier if they thought of their victims as swine.”

And finally, we talk of piggy banks, despite them having very little to do with pigs.  The Middle English word pygg referred to a type of clay used to make jars, such as those jars you would keep money in.  Over the years it has become piggy bank and thus we find the pig shaped ones we know today.

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Animal divination

There are many different ways that animals can, and have been, used in divination.  Whilst today we are probably most familiar with animal imagery on oracle and tarot cards, as well as symbolically in astrology, they have been used in a variety of ways:

  • Babylonians studied the reaction of sleeping oxen to having their heads splashed with water.
  • The Hittites watched eels.
  • Dogon, a west African tribe examined paw patterns left by jackals.
  • Polynesian tribal leaders coaxed a beetle to crawl over a murder victim’s grave to reveal the murders name.
  • Plato and Aristotle believed the divinatory insights to be tied to the animals instincts and the stoics considered divination as a way of understanding the world and their role within it.
  • Alectromancy uses cocks or hens to make predictions and tradition states that it should be done when the sun or moon are in Aries or Leo.
  • Felidomancy considers the actions, behaviour and movements of cats.
  • Apantomancy looks at chance meetings with animals, such as the familiar black cat crossing your path, for omens.
  • Myrmonancy discerns the future through observing ants eating food.

Essentially, as far as I can tell, there is a kind of divination that involves virtually any animal that we have contact with.  And that makes a lot of sense.  For our ancestors, and arguably still today, the world was a chaotic, confusing and dangerous place.  It is only natural to try and seek some order, some insight or some guidance to cope with that and where better to turn than the plants and animals that are all around us.  Whilst I’m focusing on animals today, there are many traditions which look to plants for divination – just think of how we view four leaved clovers.

It seems to be that most animal divination falls into one of a few categories; the consideration of the behaviour of the animal, the investigation of organs or other body parts of deceased animals (sometimes killed as a sacrifice), and what the animal leaves behind (tracks, excrement, shells etc).

There is absolutely no way a blog post can cover an extensive look at different methods of animal divination but I would like to focus in on a few.

Today, we snap wishbones but Etruscans believed that birds could tell the future and it’s easy to see how this can be understood; a chicken squawks before the appearance of an egg, a rooster crows just before the new day.  Another method of divination was to sprinkle grain in the ground and see where the hen pecked.  Bird migrations were another way to get a glimpse into the future.

The Etruscans also practiced haruspicy which would eventually make its way to ancient Rome.  This is where a trained person read the entrails of animals such as sheep or poultry and deciphered omens in them to answer yes or no to an enquirer.  The animal would have been ritually slaughtered as a sacrifice, butchered and then the size, shape, colour and markings of the organs (mostly the liver) were examined.  The meat was roasted and shared in a sacred meal.  This dates back to at least 3000 BC and was adopted by the Romans, and was popular with Christians and pagans into the middle ages.  Today, due to issues with slaughtering animals, eggs are often used instead.

Diagram of the sheep’s liver found near Piacenza with Etruscan inscriptions on the bronze sheep’s Liver of Piacenza

Moving to China, we find scapulimancy and plastromancy used to answer questions about crops, war, weather and so on.  In the former, ox bones were used and in the latter it was turtle shells.  In both practices however, questions were carved into the bone or shell and a hot rod was applied to it until it cracked.  The crack patterns would then reveal the answers.  They also sometimes used deer, ox and human skulls in divination.

Slightly aside from divination, animals also appear around the world as amulets and talismans.

“Since the earliest times, animal images have been employed as totems and mascots.  They have also been used in a number of special ways as protective amulets, and this ancient custom is still alive and widespread today.  The animal kingdom offers such a variety of symbolism that there are endless ways in which animal images can be called upon to perform protective duties.”
– Desmond Morris

Scarab beetles have been used as lucky charms.  Rabbits foots, whilst no longer used, are still something we associate with luck.  The beckoning cat from japan is still sold and displayed in vast numbers as protective figures.  Doves, as symbols of peace are especially popular during times of war.  Butterflies are touchstones for change.

Even though we no longer cut animals open and inspect the entrails, we still turn to the animal kingdom for comfort and protection.

Wren

“Tiny, plump bird, mainly russet-brown with a pale breast.  It is constantly on the move and has a very loud trilling song that is heard throughout the year.”
– Peter Tate

Whilst today we tend to think of the robin as Britain’s favourite bird, the wren is a stronger contender for the title.  They were found on farthings, featured on stamps, and as we’ll see there’s a range of folklore about them.  But before we get to that, let’s have a look at the wren itself.

They are very helpful to us as they eat insects and spiders, and their small size allows them into little cracks and crevices that other birds can’t get to.  In winter, food is scarcer, possibly hidden under heaps of snow or frozen soil.  Because of their size, they are vulnerable to the cold and combat this by huddling together and becoming more friendly as the weather turns.  This increased sociability is important as a cold winter can kill anything from a quarter to three quarters of the population.  However, when times are better, males are territorial and defend their patch from other males.  There is a season for coming together and a season for putting yourself first.

Despite being one of the UK’s most widespread birds, found almost everywhere except the most remote or highest parts of the country, it is more often heard rather than seen.  There is an invisibility here, an ability to slip between worlds that reminds me of shamans.

Little Jenny wren, small and inconspicuous, has a surprisingly powerful voice.  This is because they have an organ called a syrinx with a resonating chamber and can make use of virtually all of the air in their lungs.

I listen soundlessly. I breathe in for this wren, but then I am rapt in beauty and each note reminds me of the jewels I had in my hand as a child when I pretended that drops of water were diamonds and I was surrounded by priceless treasure. Our best applause: first silence, then song.

“He is the smallest bird I see in these woods, but his song is the loudest and this is why, openheartedly, simply, gratefully, admiringly, I love him. He dazzles my ears.””
Jay Griffiths

One lesson of the wren, is that your voice is much more powerful than you think, speak up, sing loudly, don’t let your (perceived) smallness stop you.  What you have to say matters, it will make a difference.

“even on uninhabited island rocks … [the Wren’s] … lively song relieves the awful solitudes.”
– Ussher & Warren (1900)

There may also be a message here around focusing on what you hear, not what you see.  I’ve mentioned our vision-centricness before and how important it can be to tune into all our senses.  Play some music, light a candle, whatever it is that helps you connect to yourself and feel grounded.

Once lucky enough to have seen off other males and found a female to mate with, the male wren presents the female with a choice of nests.  She selects her preferred one and lines it with feathers.  Once the little eggs are hatched, both parents take a role in feeding the chicks.  It was this cooperative behaviour that led older societies to associate the wren with sharing the work load.  Today it may be a reminder not to get stuck into gendered ideas of who should do what household tasks.  Share the work and play to your strengths, even if they aren’t what stereotypes suggest you should be doing.

A Wren’s Nest by William Wordsworth starts with a beautiful stanza describing the wren’s nest, a place of comfort and of safety, snug and cosy.  The protective feeling of being wrapped up warm in blankets.

AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren’s
In snugness may compare.

Much of what I read about the wren, and know from my own observations, suggests a delight in the seemingly ordinary, an enchantment with life, an enthusiasm and a joy that comes just from being in the world.  This is definitely something we can all learn from.  What brings you alive?  What makes your heart sing?  What feeds your soul? What nourishes your heart?

When it comes to folklore, the best place to start is the name.  The latin name is Troglodtyes Troglodyes and means cave dweller whilst the word wren comes from the anglo saxon word wrœnno which means lascivious.

A common, much repeated piece of wren folklore is about the king or queen of the birds.  A Scottish tale of the eagle and the wren involves all the birds gathering and deciding they wanted a queen, but it was impossible to decide on who.  Some wanted eagle, others wanted wren and eventually wren suggested a test to decide the matter, whichever of the them could fly the highest would be queen.  Everyone was sick of talking about it so agreed, even though it seemed an odd suggestion from little wren.  Both birds took to the air.  When wren had got as high up as her little wings could take her, she landed very softly on eagles back.  Eagle continued to fly higher and higher until she could go no higher.  When she returned to the ground, the birds declared that eagle would be their queen as she flew the highest.  The wren poked her head out of eagle’s feathers and said that no, it should be her because when eagle could fly no more, she had flapped off eagles back and thus had flown higher.  Whilst I feel like this was a great case of intellect over physical size, the other birds didn’t agree and said that eagle was their queen.  Similar tales are found around the world, including Ireland and a version from Zulu lore.  Some versions centre around finding a king but I like the idea of the wren as queen better!

“The robin red breast and the wren, Are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”

The wren as queen is also echoed in the idea of the robin and wren as god’s birds.  Traditionally, the wren has been seen as the wife of the robin and where robin is said to have brought fire to the land, the wren is said to have brought water.  Because of this duality, you might want to consider the robin as well.

In Scotland the wren is called ‘The Lady of Heaven’s hen’ and if maltreated cows milk would be stained with blood. Similarly, French peasants supposedly called it poulette de Dieu, or god’s chicken, and thought that the wren was at the stable when Jesus was born and had covered him in moss and feathers.

Other beliefs around this little bird include it being lucky if a wren’s feather falls on you, if you hear one singing it’s a sign of good fortune and it was thought that wren feathers would protect you against various perils, especially if you were at sea.

Unfortunately, other stories around the wren and the sea aren’t so positive, at least not for the wren herself.  It was thought that a sea sprite haunted shoals of herring and could conjure up storms before flying away in the form of a wren.  Obviously, this didn’t make the wren popular among some fisherfolk…  In fact, Manx fishermen took dead wrens to sea with them as protection from the storms.

They may also have been concerned because of a story from the Isle of Man about a fairy, who was really a siren, that so beautiful and had such a lovely voice that she lured and charmed many men, drowning them.  Eventually a brave knight was able to withstand her and tried to destroy her but she escaped in the form of a wren.  After this, she was condemned to appear in this form each year until a mortal could succeed in killing her.

This led to the strange annual practice of hunting the wren, a tradition associated with St Stephens day.  A wren was killed, hung on a pole and carried in procession.  everyone who gave the bearers money got a feather for protection.  This was carried out beyond the Isle of Man and we have an associated rhyme which comes from Ireland:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds
St Stephens Day was caught in the furze
Come, give us a bumper, or give us a cake
Or give us a copper, for charity’s sake

Despite, or because of, this idea of the wren as powerful and destructive, we have superstitions which protect the wren.  In England, to kill a wren, or to disturb its nest would mean you’d have bad fortune by the end of the year.  If you tried to steal wren’s eggs or chicks, your home would be struck by lightening.  The latter is explained by one blogger as being because the wren was sacred to the thunder god Taranis who used lightning as a weapon for protection.  It was also said the wren was sacred to Taliesin, the great bard from welsh mythology, quite possibly because of the wren’s beautiful song which, like the nightingale, inspired poets and musicians across time.

Another illustration of the wren’s power is seen when the evil forces of the deep dark cold days of winter are appeased by a sacrificed wren.  You really shouldn’t go overlooking something or someone just because of their size.  If this little bird can summon storms and banish winter, what can you do?

Turkey – Animal Allies

A lot of my turkey knowledge was informed by The Turkey, An American Story by Andrew F. Smith. If you are interested in learning more about the history of turkeys and how they came to be so important in America, do check it out. 

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For this card, I think we need to acknowledge different cultural meanings, I mean we do for all cards but this one in particular given how Americans associate them with thanksgiving and in the UK it’s Christmas instead.

Turkeys have come to have social, historical, cultural and culinary significant in America and without them (and deer), settlers would have had a very different time and thus the world today could have looked very different.

“No other American bird has received the lavish amount of attention bestowed upon the turkey.  It is not hard to understand this fascination.  The wild turkey is not America’s biggest bird – the swan and crane are larger – but turkeys do not migrate and are abundant throughout the eastern United States… They are also handsome birds that command the attention of anyone who sees them.  A wild turkey’s habits are unusual, it’s behaviour extraordinary and its vocalisations quite singular in the avian world.”
– Andrew F. Smith

Way back, many, many years ago, wild turkeys lived in Mexico and throughout North America.  They inhabited woodlands and were nearly hunted to extinction – by the same colonists that owed their success to them…  Habitat destruction was another cause of the population collapse, again down to the colonies…  The timing echoes that of the population crash of bison and many other north American creatures.  With conservation efforts, numbers have now increased to over 7 million.

But stepping back in time again, very little seems to be known about early domestication but the Spanish did encounter domestic turkeys in Mexico in 1518 and went on to introduce them to Spain, shortly after they moved through Europe and had arrived in England by 1541.  Initially eaten by upper classes, by 1577 they had become the cheapest bird on the English market.  Come 1573, it has been noted, turkeys were a staple of the English Christmas dinner, taking a reprieve for a while but being back in vogue by 1792 when John Gay wrote:

“From the low peasant to the lord
The Turkey smokes on every board”

This tradition would travel to New England and become established by the early 19th century.  Today, turkey is more associated with thanksgiving, but why?  Well, first I want to note that Thanksgiving stories are almost all lies and I was going to explain why but it’s incredibly complicated.  What I will say is that whilst thanksgiving feasts were a thing, it was probably down to the great efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale (she also wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb) that America has a Thanksgiving holiday in November.  She strongly felt that there should be a third holiday in the year (in addition to Washington’s birthday in February and Independence Day in July).  She campaigned for many years, writing to government and prominent people to try and declare the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  She nearly succeeded in 1859 but it wasn’t until 1863 that it was officially declared by Lincoln.  In terms of why the turkey, well, as non migratory birds, turkeys were in supply and of a reasonable size in autumn and so were an obvious choice for a celebratory feast.

“The turkey was just a big bird to raise, hunt and consume until the American War for Independence, when it began to acquire symbolic value.  The new nation needed to differentiate itself from its English roots, and “American” foods began to take on nationalistic values.”
– Smith

The increasing demand for turkey would go on to change the beast itself.  Breast meat was particularly important to consumers and so turkey breeds were crossbred to increase the amount per bird.  The result was turkeys that had such wide breasts and short legs that they couldn’t mate… This means that artificial insemination was the way forward… Nothing all that natural about the centrepiece of your Christmas table…

Whilst it is an aside, it’s interesting to find out where the phrase cold turkey came from.  First, we need to know that the turkey has been a symbol of honesty for about 200 years and led to the saying to “talk turkey”, meaning to speak frankly.  Then, over time, “talking cold turkey” came to mean speaking frankly, but with cold, harsh, unpleasant facts.  This eventually evolved into “cold turkey” and was first recorded to mean the abrupt stopping of drugs in 1921.

Another turkey related fact from America 200 years ago is the pulling of the merrythought, a custom we know today as pulling the wishbone.  As we’ll see, the turkey is a creature of abundance, so before you make a wish, consider what you already have.

There are many interesting tangents I could go off on but perhaps the most relevant when it comes to the oracle card is the idea of turkeys as stupid.  As the turkey was valued for breast meat and not intellect, we have domesticated and refined a bird which is cumbersome and not necessarily bright (although recent research suggests that chickens are cleverer than we thought so maybe the same will prove true for turkeys).  Anyway, the alleged stupidity of turkeys led to the phrase gobbledygook, meaning “language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms”.  Are you communicating clearly and simply or are you over complicating things and convoluting the message?  Perhaps you’re being underestimated or even underestimating yourself.

The reality is that wild turkeys are inquisitive, curious creatures which are interested in things that don’t benefit their survival, showing us an appreciation of things just for the joy of it.  They are playful and despite their reputation as stupid, they have a profound vocabulary which includes specific vocalisations for individual predators.

Turkeys are natural foragers and eat almost anything they can find (again we have the theme of abundance popping up), what are you overlooking or missing in your hunt for something that matches the image in your head?  Have you fallen into the rom-com trope of ignoring the best friend because they don’t look like your idea of love?

Whilst most birds are associated with air, I feel the turkey is more of an earth card – whilst they have wingspans of up to 6 feet, they are not especially aerodynamic or graceful when they do fly.  Instead they use their wings to help them jump into trees for safety.  Perhaps you could bring a dose of reality to your lofty ideas?  Bring yourself back down to earth.

Like the bison, the turkey is a symbol of fertility, gratitude and abundance.  They were used in ritual to ensure a good crop and the various parts of the turkey were used in many ways.  Obviously they were eaten as poultry, but they also provided eggs and feathers which were used to make coats, blankets and umbrellas.  They were also turned into hearth brushes, quills, dusters and used to stuff mattresses and pillows.  The bones were carved into spoons and beads.

They are also about sacrifice, giving yourself so that others can live and harvests which puts me in mind of the six of pentacles in tarot.  Reversed, this reminds me more of the 4 of pentacles and holding on so tightly to what you have out of fear of losing it that you can’t get anything more.

“In present day urban life, we are taught to acquire and get ahead.  The person with the most toys wins the game.  In some cultures, no one can win the game unless the whole of the People’s needs are met.”
– Medicine Cards

Giving and receiving, sharing and enjoying are important here.  To give something away can be a gift to yourself.  What is it that you have to offer the world?  What is it you are abundant in?

Questions to think about when the turkey shows up include what are you sacrificing, is it deserving of your sacrifice is it the right thing to be sacrificing yourself for?  What I have in mind as I type this is a job that’s draining the life out of you, demanding all your time and energy and ideas but which gives you nothing in return; no sense of satisfaction, no acknowledgement etc.  On the other hand, giving all your time and effort to a career you love is a sacrifice that might be worth making.

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.