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:

Two of cups


This suit, associated with water, is to do with emotion, intuition and matters of the heart. It is where we find creativity and imagination as well as fantasies and dreams. Cups deal with relationships and love and in the water we find reflections and can see into our inner worlds. The water in these cards often reflects our feelings and thus make for interesting readings.

Cups fulfil their purpose by receiving and holding water or emotions or even space


In tarot, twos can, appropriately, go two ways.  They can be about union and partnerships or they can be about choices and opposition.  With this in mind though, we can also see them as being able balance or finding the middle ground.

Twos are also linked with the high priestess, the two from the major arcana.  I’ve not done a post about her yet but she is often about intuition and looking inwards for answers which is a very watery idea so we can really understand a lot about the two of cups by feeling into her energy.  She is a card that sings with sacred, feminine wisdom.  She is balance and harmony and peaceful stillness.  Yet she is also about awakening what lies inside you, revealing that which is hidden.  This dichotomy gives us a hint of what we will find across the twos.



In this card we have two people, facing each other, holding a cup towards the others cup watched over by an winged lion.  Rachel Pollack describes this as a lesser version of the lovers card which again has two people, this time naked and again watched over this time by an angel.  The latter shows a mature relationship, strengthened over time, where as the former is the beginning of a relationship, the early stages.  The two of cups can also show friendships and other kinds of relationships, not just romantic or sexual heterosexual couples.

The winged lion hovers above the caduceus of Hermes, a symbol of healing and wisdom, could this be about the healing that comes from interacting with other people?

If we remember the age and context of the RWS deck and follow the gender stereotypes, we find the card features both masculine and feminine energies and ideas coming together to make a whole.  Together the couple are more than the sum of their parts.  What can you achieve when you join forces with another person?


Pagan Cats

There are some similarities here with the RWS card but I much prefer this imagery.  We do not know the sex of the cats for a start and instead of the winged lion we have the moon which is associated with the high priestess.  The cross that joins the moon with the cups and joins the two cards could be read as a religious symbol but I like the idea of it uniting the cats with the high priestess and the overflowing contents of the cups.  Aeclectic Tarot have a very different take…

“Even the sexual sacrament is hinted at in the 2 of Chalices as the starry sword enters the cup in imitation of the sexual act.”

I’ll let you take it as you like…

Wild Unknown

In the image we find two roses which are dependant on each other to stand up, whilst the two of cups is normally seen as the love card, is this actually a warning?  One way you can become interwined, unhealthily, with another is when your identity becomes tied up in who you are as related to them.  This can be the case in relationships where one person gives care to the other and they become carer, mother, young carer etc.

Are things as they seem?  If you look closer the roses don’t have thorns.  Does this mean everything is sweetness and wonderful or does it mean they are a façade?  I’m going to unpick the symbolism of roses later on.

We could also see the two roses as mutually supporting each other instead of being ‘dependant’ and the negative connetations we tend to ascribe to that.  NB, I am not saying depending on people is a negative thing, very few of us are fully independent and instead we are interdependent and that is healthy as we are humans and humans are social creatures.  Perhaps it is an invitation to let yourself be vulnerable with another person.  Or perhaps the other person is you – do you need to work on your relationship with yourself?  Perhaps you need to integrate part of yourself or acknowledge and care for an aspect of yourself.

More traditional interpretations are around love, romance, attraction, passion…  as well as letting go of relationships which cause you pain.


Connection and balance.  Yin and Yang.

This version of the two of cups is similar in design to the two of swords, both show an image reflected and both feature birds with outstretched wings.  Here though we have swans and between the swans are two cups, both overflowing but with different colours.

The little white book mentions balance but this is a different sort of balance to that of the two of pentacles.  That was about balancing more physical things – different tasks, different responsibilities.  This card is more about balancing relationships and whilst no relationship is always completely equal there is a natural ebb and flow, give and take, self and other that establishes itself.

A relationship but that doesn’t necessarily mean romantic or intimate, we have one on one relationships with many people in our lives.  These might be friendships, work relationships, family relationships etc.  If the relationship is unbalanced this might show as communication issues, as dishonesty or just feeling out of flow.  If this is the case it might be necessary to look below the surface.  As I mentioned with the wild unknown, it’s always possible that the relationship which is out of sync is the one you have with yourself.

Animal Totem Tarot


A hermit crab is shown on this version of the two of cups and is chilling out with his friend the anemone, apparently friends for live!  The anemone protects the crab in return for free accommodation and they make a (non romantic) match in heaven!

“It shows the coming together of two energies to create a mutually beneficial outcome.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

This version of the two of cups really emphasises the focus on friendships and on the give and take that goes on within them, the healthy exchange of energy within a two way relationship and the understanding that equality doesn’t mean things need to be identical.  What you offer your friend is likely to look very different to what they offer you.  Perhaps they can afford to splash out for your coffee and cake when you can’t but perhaps what you bring to the relationship is creative ideas or a listening ear.  We all have something different to offer.  At the same time though, I feel like the crab and the anemone realise that there are some people who take and take and never give and these people are not worth it.


Venus in Cancer and the Crab

Venus in cancer speaks to me of nurturing relationships, of love expressed through caring and being attentive to feelings of loved ones.  There is an importance placed on security and comfort within relationships and a sensitivity which can feel like moodiness.  The crab from the animal totem represents cancer and because of this we can lean into the idea of self protective boundaries and the need to retreat from time to time.  Crabs have soft, squidgy insides and these need to be looked after or the hard shell will come between them and their loved ones.

Whilst the crab in the animal totem card is a hermit crab, because it’s also the sign of cancer, I’m going to look more generally at crabs.  Whilst it isn’t the case for hermit crabs, generally crabs have shells. This hard layer doesn’t grow with them, instead they have to moult, a process coordinated by their hormones. As they prepare to moult, the old shell starts to soften and erode and a new shell starts to form underneath it. When it is time to moult, the crab takes in a lot of water, expands and cracks open the old shell. They then have to get out of the shell, a process which can take hours, and which can be difficult – imagine trying to get yourself out of your skin! Once they’re entirely out of the old shell, eyes, legs and all, they have to hide. They are incredibly soft and vulnerable at this point and need to avoid predators until their new shell has hardened.

This feels like a huge metaphor for so many aspects of our lives and I’m not going to unpick the process much, but I want to note that there is merit in avoiding people who are likely to hurt you when you aren’t in a strong place. It is ok to practice self protection when you are vulnerable. It is ok to set boundaries.

Whilst shells provide excellent armour, they can also act as a divide between us and the world. Are you feeling connected to what is going on around you? Are you putting up walls to protect yourself? Are these walls helpful or hurtful right now? Are you letting anyone see beneath your shell?  The two of cups encourages us to open up, to let someone in and to trust another with our true self.


Since writing the post about the swan I’ve got my animal totem tarot which has the swan as the lovers card, so relevant here!

“When we come together it is not so that we can fill something in each other, but instead, stand in our own glory and know that together we can create something magical.  Let the contrast of our individual states create the perfection in our togetherness.”
– Animal Totem


Obviously roses are the flower of love but they are also associated with balance and passion.  In mythology they are associated with Aphrodite the goddess of love.  They adorned her head, feet and neck and it was said a rose bush grew where her lover was slain.  Similarly, in Christianity it was said a rose bush grew where Jesus died.  Thus roses are also about devotion.

Despite all this love and such, roses can actually be deadly.  There is a disease called sporotrichosis which is caused when a fungus is forced under the skin by a rose thorn (or other sharp infected thing).  It tends to affect the skin and because it is spread by roses, it’s referred to as rose thorn disease or rose gardeners disease.

Of course, even if you don’t get sporotrichosis, being pricked by a rose isn’t all that fun…  Where there is love there is pain…

Rose Quartz

Where there is love, there is often rose quartz, a crystal associated with all kinds of love – family, friends, partners – especially unconditional love.

Apparently Cupid gave the gift of love to humans in the form of a rose quartz and returning again to Aphrodite, it was said that the stone was turned pink by the blood she spilt trying to save her lover and thus the stone became a symbol of everlasting love.

More than love, the crystal is alleged to help you to forgive, to understand, to see things from different perspectives and hence to have a healthy relationship.  This may also be helpful in having a more compassionate relationship with yourself – you deserve forgiveness, understanding and unconditional self love as well.

I hope throughout these different ways of looking at the two of cups, you’ve seen that it’s not just about romantic relationships, it’s also about friends and family and, sometimes more importantly, about how you relate to and love yourself.

The Trumpet of the Swan

Having looked at how birds speak to each other, I thought it would be pertinent to consider a bird who lacks the ability to sing.


The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B White is a tale of a swan, Louis, who is born without a voice, something which his father sees as a tragedy.  This heart warming tale of swans and disability was just the thing I needed to read this Christmas.  It is marketed to children aged 8 to 12 but was perfect for my reduced concentration levels.  And I do find that “children’s books” can be engaging and inspiring whatever your age.

Published in 1970 and set in Canada in 1968, the story alternates perspectives from Sam, a young boy, Louis’ parents and Louis.  Very different to Tarka the Otter, this story casts an anthropomorphic lens over the bird community.  We read conversations between the birds, read Louis’ thoughts and see the species barrier between swans and humans overcome through honks and gestures.

“There are five cygnets.  They are sort of a dirty brownish-grey colour, but very cute.  Their legs are yellow, like mustard.  The old cob led them right up to me.  I wasn’t expecting this, but I kept very still. Four of the babies said beep.  The fifth one tried to, but he couldn’t.  He tool hold of my shoelace as though it was a worm and gave it a tug and untied it.”
– Sam’s diary

I wish my diaries had been more like Sam’s when I was 11 instead of the generic comments about going to school or who I had played with at lunch!

“Louis had an idea.  He decided that since he was unable to use his voice, he should learn to read and write.  ‘If I’m defective* in one respect,’ he said to himself, ‘I should try and develop myself along other lines.  I will learn to read and write. Then I will hang a small slate around my neck and carry a chalk pencil.”

*for context, Louis’ dad has already made it clear that he thinks Louis is defective and language around disability has changed rapidly since the book was written.

I don’t want to spoil the story so I won’t say much more about it but it is a happy tale, a nice one for a winters afternoon.

Black Swan: Animal Dreaming


Swan: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Tarot Deck

The black swan is the only swan native to Australia and until it was discovered, all swans were assumed to be white.  The phrase a black swan was even used to refer to something fantastical such as a white elephant or a blue moon.  This bird is suggestive of something unbelievable and also a reminder to us to check our assumptions.

The black swan theory describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The term is based on an ancient saying which presumed black swans did not exist, but the saying was rewritten after black swans were discovered in the wild.



They are very similar to their white feathered relatives, exhibiting the same grace, mating for life and displaying violent and aggressive behaviour when threatened.  That said, the black swan is the least territorial of all the swans and tends to move in flocks.


One dreamtime story explains how two brothers were turned into white swans to help an attack party.  After the raid, eagles attacked the white swans, tearing their feathers from them.  The eagles enemy, the crows, helped the two brothers by giving them black feathers from their own backs.  The red beak of the back swan is the blood of the two brothers and has stayed there ever since.

Another story tells of a proud fisherman who was so pleased with himself, having caught a baby bunyip, that he wanted to go and show off.  Before he could turn back and tell of his great achievement, the mother bunyip rose from the water sending floods around the men.  She took back her baby and as the water settled back down, the men found they had been turned into black swans.  The punishment for the fisherman’s vanity was to remain like that forever.

Swan: Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Tarot Deck

This post will focus primarily on the white swan as when I get onto my Australian animal cards, there is a black swan.

“I have looked up on those brilliant creatures.
And now my heart is sore….
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tred.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold”
– W B Yates, The Wild Swans at Coole

If you’ve never had much do with swans, you’d probably agree with Yates’ description of them as mysterious and beautiful.  As someone who lives in a city of ducks, geese and swans, I’m telling you they are vicious.  They are highly aggressive, especially when parenting.  There is a claim that they can break a mans arm and I fully believe it.  These are strong birds.  They are big and they are violent.  Do not let their graceful, angelic appearance fool you.

Swans mate for life (unless one of the pair dies or occasionally divorce occurs) and this follows on from an elaborate courtship.  The two potential mates dance and check each other out.  As they do so their long sleek necks come together to form a heart shape.  Because of this, their fidelity and their whiteness they are often used as a symbol of pure love.  They are a sign of commitment and constancy.

The tranquil swan appears to float through life without any troubles which can invoke jealousy in others.

When it comes to mythology and folklore it’s hard to know where to start!

Beginning in England, we see the swan as a royal bird.  The queen owns all the swans and this tradition may go back to 1100 or before.  During the Swan Upping, people go up and down the Thames counting the swans.  You are not allowed to hunt or kill swans, possibly going back to a belief that they were tasty and thus reserved for royalty only…  Either way, the idea of the swan as a regal bird persists.

A bit further afield, in Ireland, there is a legend which tells of a stepmother turning her children into swans for 900 years.  Another story, The Wooing of Etain, describes how a king of the underworld transformed himself and his partner into swans to escape the king of Ireland and his armies.

In Northern Europe, we see the swan associated with Freyr and tales of swan maidens were well known.  The swan apparently gained it’s white colour because two of them drank from a sacred well which held water so pure and holy that it turned everything that touched it white.  In Finland, we see a swan living in the realm of the dead and a belief that anyone who killed a swan would die.

The swan is credited swan with spinning the thread of thought in one of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, The Swan’s Nest.  Possibly better well known though is the ugly duckling, a story which reminds us of our own true beauty which lies within and which can be hard to find in such a society as ours.

Moving now to ancient Greece, we find the story of Leda and the swan which led to the birth of Helen of Troy.  The swan is one of the sacred birds of Apollo, was a symbol of Aphrodite her Roman equivalent Venus, both goddesses of love.


Heading finally to the east, the Japanese have a story of a swan angel.  The swan is a vehicle of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation which we will talk about in relation to the tarot deck below.  There is also a belief that swans embody intellect, purity, good judgement, skill, grace, knowledge and creativity.  They epitomise the idea of non attachment – being in the world without getting attached to it – as the swans feather does not get wet even when in water.

It was believed that mute swans (a type not a description) only sang when they were dying and their song would be beautiful.  This is where we get the phrase swan song.

Wild Unknown Tarot Deck

Swans are used in the tarot deck to represent the court cards of the cup suit and the fool may or may not be a baby swan.

The cups, as well as representing emotion and relationship and love, are used as a sign of creativity.  Indeed I don’t know many people who would say that creativity and feelings are not intimately connected.

To me, the swan feels a bit like a finished piece of creative work.  It is the painting that conceals the tears that went into it, the poetic masterpiece that hides the torment of the poet.  The swan appears graceful, tranquil and yet I’m sure they have their share of tough stuff.  I don’t think we should hide our emotions.  I think we get into a lot of trouble when we do.  I do hide my emotions, of course I do, but I don’t think we should strive for that.  Instead the message here for me is to recognise that others hide their emotions and difficult experiences as well and you can’t judge someone based on what you see.  Like with the ugly duckling story.

Taking this idea and using it to look at the tarot cards, we see swans in different stages of life.  The fool, if it is a swan, is very much a baby.  A vulnerable new born setting out into the world, the fool has yet to even start to think about their creative masterpiece.  Next we have the daughter who is a little older, she’s finding beauty and rainbows in the world and the water she plays in is calm.  The son is a bit older again, wiser, he is starting to pull together the beauty and the rainbows and gather them together to use in his creative masterpiece.  He’s starting to feel more intensely and starting to figure out his own place in the world.

Mother is a full grown swan.  Gentle and aggressive.  She protects her creative and loving energy with her wing but she does not constrict it.  This is the stage in our creative masterpiece where the work itself is doing something magical.  We’ve gathered inspiration as the daughter, collected our tools as the son and now something wonderful is happening to turn it into our masterpiece.  The father is content, he has created his work, he is showing the world his calm, reflective, effortless pose.  The intense emotional and creative process has climaxed.  And looking just at the outcome, the father, the painting, the poem, you wouldn’t know the depth that went into it.

I think it’s interesting that the father card is of a black swan when the rest are white swans.  When I look at the black swan later, this may help shed some light on this tarot card.

As always, for more information about the Wild Unknown Tarot cards, check out Carrie Mallon.