Opossum

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For those of you who, like me, haven’t really had much to do with opossums, here is some basic info:

  • They are about the size of a house cat.
  • They have a long tail which seems to be a bit like a rats in that it’s furless.
  • Their feet have what is essentially an opposable thumb so they can clasp things.
  • They adapt to a wide range of environments but prefer places which provide some cover.
  • They are nocturnal and solitary.
  • In the wild they life about a year but in captivity this goes up to a massive 10 years.
  • The opossum is a marsupial, in fact it’s North America’s only marsupial.

When threatened, the opossum curls up and plays dead and this is the source of the American saying “to play possum”.  To make their death seem even more real, they can emit a scent which smells like death and also foam from the mouth.  They don’t actually have control over this reaction, it’s an unconscious response to fear.  The opossum is here to give you a nudge to examine your own unconscious reactions.  It might be how you react when afraid, or it could be how you respond when angry or when someone pushes that button that enrages you.  Opossum may also be here to teach us that there is a time for inaction, a time when not doing something is better than doing something.  Less prominent but perhaps still a good reminder is not to judge by appearance.  Also, be aware of people deceiving you.

Despite their fairly unique approach to danger, they can also run quite fast and climb well.  A third option if they are attacked is to make themselves look more dangerous than they are – they hiss, arch their back and bare all 50 of their teeth.  Essentially, they have a range of options in their toolbox and they are adept at choosing what is best for the situation in front of them, unless playing dead chooses for them.  Try and find a range of ways of responding to challenges and you’ll fare much better.

Much mythology explains the behaviour and characteristics of animals and with the opossum, both their habit of playing dead and their prehensile tail are explained by a Cherokee story.  Once upon a time the Opossum had a fluffy, bushy tail, a bit like a Squirrel’s.  But Opossum was vain and demanded admiration for his tail.  Over time this got boring and draining and no one really wanted to admire it anymore.  Rabbit decided enough was enough and set out to trick Opossum.  Rabbit sent Cricket to style the tail and whilst it was being brushed Opossum fell asleep.  When he woke, his tail was wrapped in ribbon and later that day, the ribbons were removed and revealed a tail which was no longer fluffy and bushy like Squirrel’s.  Instead it was as bald and scaly as Snake.  Opossum fainted with the shock and the shame and to this day, when Opossum is shocked, scared or ashamed, he will faint.

This story highlights the moral issues around vanity and pride but interestingly, when the Europeans began to colonise they saw the opossum as versatile, adaptable and maternal.  Perhaps their maternal reputation came about from their big broods, up to 13 babies, which climb into their mum’s pouch as teeny tiny creatures.  Once they are bigger, they ride around on mum’s back, creating a comical sight that screams motherhood.  In some parts of Mexico, their tails are eaten to improve fertility.

As an interesting aside, the male opossum has a forked penis and, to match, the female has a bifurcated vagina.  This led people to speculate that the males impregnated females via the nose…

As well as having lots of children at once, they also have a lot of litters.  This, combined with a flexible diet and adaptability mean the opossum makes a successful coloniser and can live well in a wide range of places, under differing conditions.  Change is not something that the opossum need fear, they have the tools and ability to cope well with it.  Humans are less embracing so channelling the opossum can create a healthier response.

Grip and dexterity are important parts of the opossum’s life; are you holding on too tightly to something that is unhelpful? Are you grasping at straws? Are you grasping things easily?  As well as their clasping opposable thumbs, they have their prehensile tail which, in addition to being used as a tool, is also used to balance.  This brings in possible questions around equality, about harmony and about stability.  This could be in your environment, in your emotional life, your family life and so on.

Like so many rodent-esque creatures, these guys are misunderstood. Their reputation as pests overlooks their role in pest management, in keeping rubbish levels down and even slow down the spread of lyme disease.  Far from being unclean, they spend a lot of time grooming themselves.

They have an interesting history, having seen dinosaurs – they are one of the oldest mammals on record – they existed in north America, then left and then re-enterered to take the place of north america’s only marsupial.

To survive this long requires excellent adaptation, in the case of the opossum this includes having a reduced tendency to contract rabies and immunity to poison and venom.  For example, they can survive attacks from the pit viper which would normally cause a quick death from haemorrhaging but this marsupial is able to block the activity of the enzyme which causes the damage and can thus neutralise the toxic effect.  Size and deadliness really doesn’t matter when it comes to the opossum and the snake!

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Skunk

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Like some of the other animals I’ve looked at, the skunk’s reputation foreshadows them and whilst I will discuss their odour defence system, I want to start by looking at…

Skunks are part of the weasel family and whilst they tend to be pictured with one white stripe, they actually have two which join at the back of the neck.  They are solitary animals which tend to live in abandoned dens, rarely digging their own, instead taking advantage of existing options, and we’ll see this resourcefulness in other aspects of skunk life so it’s something to keep in mind.  As well as being opportunistic when it comes to home arrangements, they are also opportunistic eaters.  They eat a wide range of foods including animals which we commonly consider pests eg rodents and crop eating insects.  As such, you might have more to thank a skunk for than you think.  Their resourcefulness is complemented by an adaptability which allows them to live in a wide range of environments including deserts, woodlands and the suburbs.

Even before we get onto discussing reputation and scent, we’ve already got excellent fodder for reflection; the elusive and solitary nature reminding us that there’s a time to be alone and a time to be with others, the idea of taking advantage of opportunities that are around us and the idea of being adaptable to get the most from those opportunities.

Skunk mums are very protective but on the whole, skunks are actually quite peaceful and graceful, able to teach us how to interact with others in peace, to live and let live.

But what, you ask, of their terrible smelling spray?  How can that possibly be an example of pacifism?  Well… Whilst they are well known for their smell, they only spray musk when they are threatened and it is a last resort.  Before spraying, they give warnings – they stamp their feet, change position so they are facing away from the target and lift their tail.  It is only after this that they will spray and if you haven’t paid attention to the warning signs, watch out as they can spray up to 15 feet!  The scent is made up of seven different chemicals and if it gets in your eyes it will certainly burn and may cause temporary blindness.  Because of this, the skunk earns respect.  Note also that although the skunk defends itself, it isn’t aggressive and the impact of it’s weapon is temporary.

They also use their black and white lines to highlight their defence, like the badger, so if you’ve reached the point of spray, you’re really not listening to the skunk.  Pay attention to the signs, there’s rarely a bite without a bark…

Whilst the skunk’s musk isn’t what we tend to think of as a pleasant smell, it’s actually used in perfume and has even been considered an aphrodisiac…  Scent is a very powerful tool, smells are known to evoke memories and can be a powerful route to nostalgia or emotion.  They can be used to attract – pheromones and perfume – and repel – tear gas.

When talking about smell its worth noting the role it has in how we think about things.  Traditionally ‘good’ smells have been associated with virtue and higher classes of people and ‘bad’ smells associated with disease, lower classes and laziness.  But having said that, humans, at least in the western world, tend to neglect scent, instead heavily privileging sight and sound.

Because of their reputation, humans tend to steer clear of skunks, a response that would generally be disproportionate given their size, or lack of.  This means that the skunk could come to be associated with loneliness and being on the outside but equally, the skunk may have taken their treatment and essentially give people the middle finger.  Reading about how the skunk is seen in the medicine cards and the animal allies, the latter seems to be the case.  Both talk of the skunk taking his own, unique, path through life.  There is an element of nonchalance and an aura of confidence with the skunk.

For those of us who think skunk and think only of smell, take this as a nudge to consider people and get to know them before you take their reputation as gospel.  Perhaps instead of ignoring people who are cast as scapegoats and stigmatised, get to know them and decide for yourself.  We also need to note that the skunk is judged based on a behaviour that is only engaged in a tiny amount of the time.  Perhaps we need to give people the benefit of the doubt.  How someone behaves on a day they’ve had really awful news should not define them.  We all do and say things we wouldn’t in other circumstances.

Unable to find validation externally, the skunk has turned inward and found a much more potent validation within himself.  He feels sure but not cocky.

“Learn to assert, without ego, what you are.  Respect follows.  Your self-respectful attitude will repel those who are not of like mind, and yet will attract those who choose the same pathway.  As the odour of Skunk attracts others of its kind, it repels those who will not respect its space.”
– Medicine Cards

Sometimes, lacking the respect of others, the skunk goes one better and respects himself.  He projects this through his body language and how he holds himself.  He knows his own worth and he stands tall because of it.  You do not need to be physically strong in order to be powerful.  There is strength that comes from knowing, respecting and loving yourself and this brings a quiet power.

Note the subtly here between feeling your self worth and becoming self obsessed.  I feel like the skunk knows he has flaws but he doesn’t let them define him.

Skunks are also commended for being true to who they are, they are misunderstood but instead of trying to conform, they just focus on being themselves; a great model of self acceptance.

In arguing for the striped skunk, the iconic species, to be the emblem of America, Ernest Thompson Seton wrote:

“It is, first of all, peculiar to [America].  It has stars on its head and stripes on its body.  It is an ideal citizen; minds its own business, harms no one and is habitually inoffensive, as long as it is left alone; but it will face any one or any number when aroused.”

Because it is declaring itself to be a danger right there on its back, and because it knows if things get tough it can release the odour it is so famous for, the skunk can walk around with confidence and fearlessness. It knows it’s correctly armed and sure of how to use its defences.

As I was writing about this, I was watching a VICE video on YouTube about people who own skunks as pets… These get “descented”, the process which means a skunk cannot spray scent.  There is a SkunkFest festival where dedicated owners get together to talk all things skunk and there’s even a contest of sorts… A vet in this video explained that owners treat them like children, dress them up and let them sleep in the bed with them.  One woman seemed to have more than a handful of skunks and the discussion with the journalist seemed to suggest there was a lot of work required and that the skunks ruled the roost…

Mythologically speaking, the fact that the skunk stands it’s ground and doesn’t back down means they are often associated with war and relatedly, with strength and courage.  Skunks also feature in a creation story from the Ojibwe and as an interesting titbit, Chicago comes from the Ottawa language and means ‘the place of the skunk’.

Common themes in skunk myths include disrespect and arrogance having severe consequences, vanity being punished and the skunk being clever and using trickery to outsmart others.  In one in particular, skunk gets the better of a vain opossum.  In Lakota mythology, skunks were said to be powerful because they stand up to danger and this meant that when heading into battle, Lakota warriors would sometimes take skunk tokens into battle.  Some Cherokees believed that the powerful smell of dead skunks would ward off disease and so they’d hang them over doors for protection.

Skunks are both cast as villain and saviour, as hero and trickster, as monsters and idols.  This dichotomy of pest or pet is also reflected in people’s views of the skunk – is it a cute and humorous creature that features in cartoons or is it loathed and considered vile?  We have already seen that actually skunks can be important in managing pest populations despite many people thinking of them solely as a pest.  Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the skunk is that nothing is actually black and white.  Just as the skunk itself comes in a range of colours, so too should our thinking.

Seven of Wands

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the skunk is pictured on the Seven of Wands.  Where in your life do you feel constantly defensive?  How do you hold your ground?  How do you act when backed into a corner?  If you are being called to defend something you have created or are passionate about, and aren’t doing so or willing to, is this something that’s really worth your time?  Consider this call to defend it as a test of how important it really is to you.

Wild Boar

Like with some other animals I’ve looked at, the boar found in America is different to that found in Europe.  Again, I shall be considering the European boar as it is closer to home and as such feels more relevant to me.  Wild boars are extinct in Britain with the last being thought to roam in the 13th century however because of interbreeding with domestic pigs and the blurred line between the two, it’s not possible to be precise.  To try and prevent this line from blurring further, I’ve decided to do an entirely separate post about pigs.  I wanted to look at the pig as well, partly in its own right and partly as a supplement to the boar.  In the animal totem tarot cards the queen of pentacles is depicted by a pig and so I’ve decided to focus my pig thoughts there instead of having it as an add on to the boar.

“Be willing to accept all parts of yourself and to courageously transform those parts which you don’t like”
– Animal Allies

The boar is about protection and about confrontation.  Not just confronting others, or protecting yourself from others but also about how we protect ourselves from ourselves and how there is a time and a place and a need for confronting yourself.  Where are you concealing things from yourself?  Where are you lying to yourself?  The boar, the powerful boar, can help you to tell you the truth and charging head first, can help you confront those parts of you that you try to hide.

The charging aspect of the boar comes up a lot – there is the obvious analogy of charging head first towards challenges.  The boar doesn’t wait patiently for what it wants, it doesn’t procrastinate the future away.  It is all about moving forward and strength, something that Rachel Patterson sums up nicely:

“Generous noble creature, the boar has been a symbol of warriors for centuries and features in many battle tales and legends.  He is full of masculine energy and brings bravery, balance and strength.”

With the boar, we have a power but it is not undirected, the boar’s power is about standing up for self and family and taking on battles, an aspect which is oft-repeated in symbolism and mythology.

The wild boar was the heraldic emblem of Richard III.  They were a popular choice, likely because of their association with fierceness in battle and symbolically they were used as an emblem of protection.  It was said that during a hunt, a boar’s tusks would get so hot they would singe the attacking dogs.  Instead of white hot tusks, the golden boar called Goldbristles had a glowing mane which would light the dark night and was associated with Freyr and by extension, with war and death.

A lot of my reading focused on war, battle, boar hunts and courage but there is an additional part of this animal that I find symbolically fascinating; their role in landscape.

Whilst the boar has vanished from the English landscape, their presence remains in place names such as everton and everleigh, with eofor meaning wild boar.  Closer to home for me, the saxon name for York was Eoforwic – wild boar settlement – which was turned into Jorvik – wild boar creek – by the Vikings and over time has become York.    Boars continue to live on in York’s art, with two white boars being depicted in stained glass in York Minster.

In addition to naming the landscape, the boar itself can, in large numbers, strongly alter the landscape through rooting and they play an important role in the decomposition of the forest floor.  By rooting through leaf litter to find food, they aerate the soil and this has important benefits for the environment.  Unfortunately, in some areas this behaviour has lead to human outcries that boars are destroying the land – we are very fickle and can see the same behaviour as positive and negative depending on our own interests.

“Wild boars have been described as many things, but they are always characterised in the light of human concerns and priories.  Even when their natural behaviour is praise, humans limit the extent to which they are allowed to practise it.”
– I don’t know where I got this quote from… Sorry!

Although the boar is about fighting, the idea of looking at what you are concealing opens you up to emotional healing and it was said that parts of the boar contained magic.  A boar skin placed on a wound made it disappear.  They were thought to know how to cure themselves of digestive disorders and whilst this may or may not be true, males do use their tusks to rip bark off trees to release pine resin.  They rub against this to harden their coats and repel insects.

The boar can appear to find food out of nowhere, making them an omen of prosperity, although you may need to look more closely and snuffle out the treasure from the waste.  You need to dig out what is under the surface and this ties is so well to the idea of confronting what is hidden.

Like all of us, the boar has more than one side and you cannot simply relegate it to a corner with a label hinting at destruction and confrontation.

Throughout history, wild boars have presented us with opportunity and danger.  They are a food source with tusks that could cause terrible damage and it was this risk that meant killing boar made you into a great warrior.  Because boars are generally secretive and shy, they only tend to come into contact with humans on human terms such as hunts.  This is why we often see them depicted as aggressive, ferocious and violent, you would be too if you were being chased by men and dogs with the intent to kill you.

“Ovid presents the Caledonian boar as a mighty adversary, allying it both with the forces of nature, the like deadly lightning strike, and human weaponry, such as the catapulted stone.  It is proud and intelligent, choosing the forest as its battleground, where its hunters are at an immediate disadvantage.  The hunters themselves do not appear in the best light, as they quarrel with each other, or foolishly vaunt their own prowess.  Even in death, the boar confronts them with their failings, as they gather round, afraid even to touch it.”
– Dorothy Yamamoto

Boar hunting took on social meanings beyond just needing resources the animals could offer.  It became a test of courage and a symbol of a man’s masculinity and status to kill a boar.  This was emphasised by their reputation which claimed that their fighting spirit was said to signify the fierceness of the rulers of the world.  Hunting may have been encouraged because of the Christian association of the boar with the devil and the boar was often associated with one of the deadly sins, whether it was anger, lust or gluttony.  A 14th century hunting manual says that the boar is:

“…black and ugly, like those who have lost the light of the spirit and live in benighted worldliness.  The boar shoves its face into the soil, like those whose only concern is filing their bellies and enjoying the delights of the flesh.  Even its feet are twisted and crossed, like those of the Devil.”

In one of the accounts I read, from around the first century, a roman writer was poking fun at boar hunting and was suggesting his friends take the opportunity instead for reflection and thinking, for hunting ideas or words or knowledge instead of boars. I love this idea and think it relates well to the snuffling out what is not necessarily obvious.  What is it you need to look for, to hunt for or to sniff out?  Perhaps a walk in the woods collecting leaves, trying to find a particular bird or foraging for mushrooms is what you need.

Squirrel

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“Preparing for the inevitable change of the future but in a lighthearted sort of way.”
Animal Allies

Before I jump into my discussion of the squirrel, I wanted to touch on Jessica’s description (above).  This feels to me like a lighter version of the wheel of fortune.  The inevitable, ever changing cycles but dealing with them with less seriousness.  A sort of dark humour approach to life.

Perhaps the main thing you’ll know about squirrels is their hording tendencies.  They hide food away, ready for harder times and this card reminds us to plan and prepare and put something aside for the future.  There is also a reminder here about remembering where you’ve put things… I’m sure we’ve all put things in safe places only to forget where they are… Well squirrels do the same…  Only when they forget where they’ve stashed their nuts, they inadvertently help out the forest by letting a tree have a chance at life.  They are great at planning and organising but not so good at the follow through…

Perhaps it is not just literal resources that you need to preserve, perhaps it’s emotional and physical “spoons”.  Or perhaps this squirrel is suggesting you need to extend this thrifty tendency to your pennies.  Of course, conversely, you might be hoarding things, holding onto things you no longer need, not letting go or holding onto things for reasons you’ve long since forgotten.

Whilst they don’t recall all the locations of their food caches, they do have very good spatial memory – does this chime with you in any way?  I’m not sure how it would but I wanted to include it just in case…  Squirrels, like crows, use deceptive behaviour if they think that anyone is watching them bury their nuts.  This feels very seven of swords… (scroll to the end of the post).

The squirrel’s way of life is driven by the changing seasons so perhaps what you do needs to change accordingly. If you look back at the bear from the wild unknown, you’ll find an interesting note about flowing with the seasons and adapting behaviour and expectations accordingly.

As well as their chattering vocalisation, grey squirrels communicate with body language which is a good reminder that most of human communication is non verbal.  Most of the behaviour we see such as chasing and chattering is actually territorial fighting.  Is your body language aligned with your words and are other peoples words in line with their body language?  How are you sparring with those around you?  What ‘territory’ matters to you?

Whilst the squirrel pictured on the animal allies card is a grey squirrel, you don’t have to be talking about the species long before the topic of red squirrels comes up.  Where red squirrels have inhabited Britain for about 10,000 years, greys were released in the UK in the 19th century.  Originally from North America, they were imported and released into parklands as amusing novelties but they rapidly became common and now live in most of the country,having replaced the native reds.  As they started to spread, they were welcomed as ‘sociable, easily tamed animal[s]’ (Manchester Guardian, 1912) but by 1932, it was illegal to release a grey squirrel in Britain.  This change in attitudes may be a reminder that fashions change, that attitudes change and that we are just one part of an ever-changing world.  What is in today may be out tomorrow, what is bothering you now, may blow over by next week.

Unfortunately for the greys, the passion that some people have for the reds turns into a hatred of the greys. This can feel a bit like there are two gangs and you have to join one side or the other… Another way of viewing it is through the lens of immigration and prejudice against non native creatures.  The issue is very divisive and it may be worth reflecting on your own life – are you facing a similar situation over a different issue? Are you stubbornly sticking to your side without hearing the other side out?  Things in life are rarely black and white…

But back to the grey squirrels, partly as they are more common in the UK and partly because the animal allies card pictures one.  They are diurnal (active during the day) and spend their time foraging in trees (preferring deciduous forests where reds prefer evergreen forests) and on the ground.  The grey squirrel is unusual in that it can climb down a tree head first suggesting that you need to take a heads on approach yourself.

Whilst they do live up to the stereotype of eating nuts, they also eat bulbs, tree shoots, fungi and even birds eggs and baby birds.. This probably doesn’t help them to negate the perception of grey squirrels as rats with tails…

As well as being considered an arch nemesis of the red squirrel, greys are thought of as pests, especially in young forests as they like to strip the bark of saplings.  Gardeners often cast them in the role of nuisance, trouble maker as well.

Grey squirrels are carriers of a squirrel disease that affects reds significantly more than greys and this is one of the reasons why the red population has decreased since the greys were introduced.  This puts me in mind of those toxic people in your life, the vampiric friends who suck the life out of you but don’t seem to notice or be fazed.

But the squirrel card isn’t bad news, I happen to love them and think they can be rather entertaining and at times elegant to watch.  A beautiful aspect of the grey squirrel is it’s scientific name – Sciurus carolinensis – with sciurus translating as shadow tail which I find very evocative.  According to Wikipedia, it alludes to the squirrel sitting in the shadow of its tail!  And talking of tails, allegedly, of all the animals in eden, the squirrel was the most shocked when Adam and Eve ate the apple and hid behind his tail.  His reaction was seen as honourable and thus the squirrel was granted a bushy tail.

In North American Indians mythology, squirrels apparently tend to be noisy, aggressive gossips who cause trouble.  That said, they can also be great examples of preparedness and messengers who bring warnings.  I feel like we’re seeing a lot of polarisation with the squirrel – the battle of red and grey, of forest helper and gardeners nemesis, the aggressive gossip who can also bring helpful warnings.  It feels to me that this is a card that wants you to think about extremes.  Most behaviours, attitudes etc can be harmful when taken to extremes.

This idea of contrariness is echoed in European beliefs where, despite the squirrel being seen as a pest, it was considered unlucky to kill one and somehow it was also thought that burning a squirrel on a bonfire was supposed to drive away vermin.

Another appearance of squirrels in mythology can be found in norse cultures.  The squirrel Ratatoskr lives in the world tree and carries news and gossip between the different inhabitants of the tree.  This echoes the north American idea of the squirrel as messenger.  They can scurry from branch to branch, chattering away to different animals who live in the forest and thus they are natural messengers although it seems, in folklore, that they carry both mundane and more important warnings.  As squirrels can climb and climb, they can eventually reach the heavens and thus they carry mundane and spiritual messages.  It is down to us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Gorillas

I wasn’t planning on writing about this powerful primate just yet but then twitter told me that it is World Gorilla Day today and I felt it was only appropriate to get on with it!

This is the first of the animal totem tarot cards I’ve looked on it its own and I think I’ll try writing about the animal in general then focusing a little on the imagery from the deck.  So whilst this is a post about gorillas, it’s also a post about the emperor card.

When you think of gorillas, you may first imagine something like King Kong, an immensely strong figure which dominates and which is a threat to everyone and everything around them.  Whilst it is true they have muscular strength and powerful jaws, they are predominately vegetarian, supplementing their plant diet with the odd insect.  That said, they are also very protective of their group and will see of threats and defend themselves as needed.

Given that they generally live away from humans, most encounters with them will have been threatening – poachers, farmers trying to protect crops etc – and so there will probably be a disproportionate reporting of them being hot blooded, violent beasts with foul tempers.  I think, on the whole, this is also emphasised because then it (seemingly) creates more distance between civilised man and uncivilised animal.  The fact that we share 98% of our DNA, and that gorillas have human like features, could make some people uncomfortable and spinning them into mythical creatures like King Kong eases this.  Despite part of us trying to keep gorillas at arms length, another part of us is fascinated by this creature.  So like us and yet so unlike us.

These forest dwellers live in central west Africa including the Democratic Republic of Conga and thus it is impossible to discuss them without also mentioning the humanitarian crisis and related conflicts of this area.  As well as the human impact, there has been an ecological one and gorillas are threatened because of that, habitat loss, poaching and attacks from farmers protecting crops.  At the end of this post I also look at the impact of mining on gorillas and their homes.

Whilst they can stand and walk on two legs, this is used mostly for posturing, in defensive situations and so that they can carry food.  The rest of the time, they move around on four limbs using their knuckles.  An interesting technique for criminals perhaps as it doesn’t leave fingerprints… And on that note, which I really badly segued into, gorillas have unique fingerprints like us and also have unique nose prints which researchers have been able to use to identify individuals.

The day of a gorilla involves a lot of eating, nesting and attending the social behaviour which maintains the integrity of the group.  Starting with food, gorillas spend a lot of time foraging and as vegetarians, they play a vital role in seed dispersal.  They do also enjoy ants and have been seen using tools to get to this delicious snack!

When it comes to resting, gorillas construct nests for both daytime and night time use.  These nests are made up of branches and leaves and put me in mind of blanket forts and being snuggled up on a sofa with lots of cushions around you.  For me, this comfort is so soothing and grounding and is a necessary part of my self care.  Whilst I have more blankets than anyone really needs, I made the decision to indulge because of how emotionally supportive I find them.  Ditto for my collection of teddy bears.  Whatever it is that makes you feel safe and nurtured, don’t feel guilty about investing in it.

Gorilla troops are made up of an adult male, a number of adult females and their offspring.  The silverback of the adult male is a hallmark of maturity and this silverback gorilla is the leader, the ruler, the centre of the group.   He dominates, he makes all the decisions, mediates conflict, leads the group to feeding sites and takes responsibility for all the members.  This means there are a couple of ways to lean into the gorilla metaphor depending on whether you are leader or being led.  Perhaps you are the over burdened leader who has not yet learnt to delegate?  Maybe you are taking on responsibility for things that you don’t need to.  Maybe you are relying on others to make all the decisions for you and need to step up yourself.  Maybe you are even an emerging leader who is wanting to challenge the silverback for power or are becoming a threat to the silverback, whether you mean to or not.  Have a think about where you are in this troop and where you want to be.

The silverback maintains his bond with his females through grooming and staying close but on the whole, this is the only bonding that takes place.  Whilst a troop sounds like a nice family unit, with the exception of related females, the females aren’t especially friendly to each other.  They are, after all, competing with each other for the attention of the silverback.  And this attention is particularly important once a month as females go into oestrus like humans do and hormonal changes mean the female is keen to mate.  Despite a monthly window for fertilisation, gorillas tend to have babies every 4-6 years and generally only one at a time.  This means the reproduction rate of the species is very slow.

Once a baby has arrived, the mother will use “baby talk” to communicate and she’ll use more tactile and repetitive gestures than she would with adults. Babies are vulnerable and dependant on others for survival with the care giving role provided by mother.  That said, when it comes to socialisation, the father will play a role.  He will also protect his children from aggression in the troop.  Gorillas are weaned by their third year and sleep in a separate nest from their mothers and she will begin to ovulate again. This gap between pregnancies means that the mother gorilla can dedicate her time to tending to her baby and teaching it how to be a gorilla.  She can be an attentive parent and as we’ll see, leadership is an important part of the animal totem tarot card.  Attentiveness can be an excellent, often overlooked, quality of leadership.  Nurture and help those you led to grow and develop so that one day they can become leaders themselves.

In terms of communication within the troop, and to outsiders, there are at least 25 distinct vocalisations which mean they can talk to each other in the dense vegetation.  These comprise of grunts, barks, screams and roars which can indicate where group members are, can signal alarm and can be warnings.  They also have a ritualised display which means conflicts rarely get violent.  This is an excellent example for us to follow!  Whilst you may not get far by exactly copying the gorilla’s ritual, perhaps we should all be better at having a blueprint for difficult conversations and how to resolve conflict.  Maybe we could learn from mediation where there are formal steps which offer both parties chance to speak and be listened to.

Animal Totem Tarot

A key part of the gorilla message is around leadership and it is this that I feel is most portrayed on the animal totem tarot card and this certainly echoes the message of the accompanying book.  On the emperor card we find a solitary gorilla, sitting in what appears to be a defensive pose.  He is clearly a ruler.  And whilst being the leader can bring rewards – financial, status, lots of female gorillas – it also requires dedication and hard work.  The expression and the gorilla having a stick in one hand an a rock in the other certainly suggest the protective nature of this leader.  He seems to exude a don’t mess with me vibe but it’s clear that he’s also confident that no one will try.  He looks to me like this isn’t coming easy either, his face seems wrought with the effort required to be a powerful leader.  He has a lot on his plate – the health and wellbeing of his troop are his responsibility, he must see off threats, resolve conflicts and has to shoulder the worries that come with responsibility.

There are different types of leaders and those which are compassionate, which listen, which connect and which respect those they lead are the most successful.  Build up those you lead with encouragement and positive feedback, don’t crush them with criticism and bullying.

Mineral Mining

Not related to the gorilla animal spirit or tarot card but something that needs awareness raising is the impact that mining for minerals such as coltan is having on habitats, including those of the gorilla.  Coltan is used in mobiles, TVs, computers and many other electronic devices.  As well as endangering the lives of these great animals, it is also polluting water which impacts on humans, a wide range of animals and the environment.  Disputes over who controls the mines has resulted in the death of more than 5 million people in eastern Congo since the mid 1990s.  The miners themselves work in terrible circumstances and a chunk of their meagre wages is taken by soldiers.  Families live on the brink of famine and food that is supposed to help them is also taken by the soldiers.

Each mine, whether legally operated or not, involves a set-up in the forest that requires not only destruction of the land to unearth the minerals, but numerous people to operate the mining sites.  To feed these people, wildlife is hunted from the surrounding forests. This includes gorillas, chimpanzees, elephants, and many other species.”
Gorilla Fund

Reuse, recycle, mend where you can and find out more about the issues.  Use your consumer power and ask corporations to make changes.

As there seems to be no way of ensuring a particular batch of coltan has been ethically extracted and processed, some people are campaigning to end the coltan mining altogether but this would plunge communities into ruin and the violence would still continue.   

High Priestess

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Decks

RWS

In this depiction the high priestess sits between two pillars which speak to us of dualities, a key theme with two cards.

“Passivity allows the unconscious to emerge.  Only through withdrawal from outer involvement can we allow the inner voice of vision and psychic forces to speak to us, it is precisely to avoid this inner voice that many people never rest from action and movement.  Our society, based completely on outer achievement, fosters a terror of the unconscious, yet without its wisdom we can never fully know ourselves or the world.”
– Rachel Pollack

This is a card that speaks to us of passivity, but passivbity with a purpose, an active stillness.  To reverse the card, and thus the meaning, we can see how unhelpful passivity might be.  But we all need a change to pause and reconnect with our inner self.  It is here that we can feel our feelings, listen to our intuition and realign with our true selves.

The high priestess speaks to us of the dark, the mysterious and the hidden.  She is reflective, enigmatic, solitary and serene.  She sits in her power, confident in herself, supported by the power of the moon.

Pagan Cats

The Pagan Cats High Priestess is the controversial black cat.  She sits between two curtains, one white, one black and there is our first duality.  Her paws appear to be resting on a religious or ritualistic document, a sign she is in control of the spiritual or magical, appropriately given her status as high priestess.

This version is very similar to that of the RWS deck so I’m going to unpick that black cat a bit more.  They are contrary symbols, in some cultures good luck, in others bad luck and even within the same place there are conflicting beliefs.  They have been associated with witchcraft and the devil and in norse mythology, Freya, queen of the Valkyries, drove a chariot pulled by black cats.

The penguin guide to the superstitions of Britain and Ireland confirms that the beliefs around black cats are confused.  One example is that on a british ship, one black cat is lucky but two are unlucky.  This is captured well in a quote from Percy Shaw Jeffrey in his 1923 book about Whitby folklore:

“[31 May 1797] Saw three black cats last night so did not go to market today fearing some evil, but it turned out well as Betty was taken with spasms and might have died had I not stayed at home and she is the best milker of all I have, this omen for ill brought nought but good.”

Perhaps this is a sign that we should listen to our gut and that what first seems awful may actually turn out for the best.  I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where that’s happened.  How we react to seeming setbacks may also be a factor here.

Wild Unknown

A white tiger gazes off to the left, a crystal ball in front of her and the black sky behind, punctuated by a crescent moon.  I once read that in tarot if a character is looking to the left they are looking at the past and if they are looking to the right they are looking to the future.  With this in mind, we can see a nuanced high priestess in the wild unknown.  Where the pagan cats and lumina tarot have characters facing forwards, this tiger is looking to the past.  And the past does strongly inform who we are, our subconscious desires and motivations and all of this in turn shapes our future.  This may be a card that is asking you to look back, perhaps to childhood, to see how your emotions today have been influenced by your early years.  We all have ‘core wounds’, those things that we tend to overreact to – mine being invalidation and dismissal – and knowing these and understanding them can really help you to understand your reactions and feelings today.

The tiger seems regal, thoughtful and serene.  She seems confident and whilst thoughtful, she is not clutching the crystal ball in an obsessive, need to know and need to know now kind of grip.  She knows the answers will come when they will come.  And she knows that when they come it will be the right time for them to come.  Are you as sure as she is?  Are you pushing yourself too hard to listen to your subconscious?  As frustrating as it can be, it doesn’t work like that.  The harder you push, the further away you get.  Open your mind, use tools like tarot and meditation but don’t stand there demanding answers.

She does not strain herself to explain the mystery – instead, she immerses herself completely in that mystery.”
Carrie Mallon

The touch of colour in the crystal ball accentuates the black and white of the card, the duality and the yin and yang of the meaning.

Lumina

Study your wisdom within

Note, the artist of this deck changed the image between versions of the Lumina tarot.  The other version has an older woman, reflected through the vertical axis, holding a staff in her hand which forms an echo of the pillars from RWS.  Above her the moon is depicted and around it, the iconic dotwork of this deck shows intertwined crescent moons.

By turning inwards rather than looking outside yourself for answers, you will find what you need.  The veil of illusion will move aside and you’ll be admitted into a world that not everyone is allowed to enter.

The horns or headdress pictured here suggests a receptive nature, ready and waiting to receive the messages from the gods and goddesses.  This is echoed by the same crescent shape of her necklace and the crescent of the moon.

We also have the high priestess literally reflected.  As well as seeing this as her inner and outer selves we may see it as looking from a different perspective.

The use of purple seems important to me.  Symbolically it has been used to represent wealth, wisdom, creativity, devotion and peace.  It has also been used to represent mystery and magic.  It is said to be calming and uplifting and to invoke feelings of spirituality.

Bourn Creative says that:

“Purple is associated spirituality, the sacred, higher self, passion, third eye, fulfillment, and vitality. Purple helps align oneself with the whole of the universe.”

Animal Totem

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A spider sits in a web against a dark blue sky, again a crescent moon is present.  Immediately, on seeing the spider and knowing that the high priestess speaks of a feminine energy, I was put in mind of Sharon Blackie and her book If Women Rose Rooted:

“Women are spinners and weavers, we are the ones who spin the threads and weave them into meaning and pattern.  Like silkworms, we create those threads out of our own substance, pulling the strong, fine fibres out of our own hearts and wombs.  It’s time to make some new threads; time to strengthen the frayed wild edges of our own being and then weave ourselves back into the fabric of our culture.”

Taz Thornton was the second author my mind went to.  She writes about facing fears, using the spider as an example and lets face it fears are such a powerful part of our sub/unconscious.

“If you are afraid of spiders, try to remember when you first learned that fear, then work out what, exactly, you believe you are afraid of… Is it the swift movement?  Would they still be scary if they moved at a snail’s pace?  Is it the legs?  Who else do you know with legs?  Are they scary?  What would a spider have to do to make friends with you?  What if they started delivering your favourite treats, or spinning lovely words for you to wake up to in the morning?”

Their hunting approaches have resulted in the spider symbolising patience and persistence, and combined with their 8 eyes, perhaps the spider is here to remind you to pay more attention to the details or to look closer to what it is that is on your mind.

Linking back to the idea of active passivity, perhaps this card has shown up to remind you of the value of getting out of your head and using your hands.  I don’t know about you but for me answers and guidance often come when I’m doing something else, in particular something creative that is using my hands whether that’s drawing, painting, knitting, playing with clay, cooking or whatever it is that works for you.

Associations

Tigers

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Cats, and of course tigers, with their ability to see in the dark, are often though to have a gift of prophecy, of clairvoyance or a psychic ability.  We can also feel into this idea as we think of the high priestess looking inwards, into the darkness that is our subconscious.

Tigers also show us some of the contradictory nature of twos with adults described as “solitary but social”:

“Solitary-but-social animals forage separately, but some individuals sleep in the same location or share nests. The home ranges of females usually overlap, whereas those of males do not. Males usually do not associate with other males, and male offspring are usually evicted upon maturity.”
– 
Wikipedia

Their excellent eyesight, great sense of smell and their silent stealth allow them to move through the night, or our inner realms, with ease, with confidence and without startling what it is we are seeking.  We’ve all been there, there’s something in your mind that you’re trying to put your finger on, whether it’s a word or a niggling feeling, and the more you seek it out, the harder it is to find.  That is where the tiger energy comes in – use her skills to creep up on whatever it is without scaring it away.

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Another creature, the thylacine, has been called the Tazmanian tiger and whilst it isn’t actually a feline (it’s a marsupial), it’s interesting to consider it here.  The keyword on the oracle card is wisdom, and inner wisdom and self knowledge is exactly what the high priestess is about. As a scapegoat, they induce fear and hatred due to a lack of understanding and this can be the case when we relate to ourselves.  How often have you felt anger towards yourself because of something you haven’t taken time to unpick.  Perhaps an example would help me to explain myself; when I feel vulnerable, my mind goes straight to a well used internal record I have that tells me I am stupid and horrible and fat and worthless.  But if I take this feeling and wonder why I’m feeling vulnerable, I can start to treat myself a little more compassionately.

Moon

The High Priestess, as guardian of the subconscious, is as mysterious as the moon.”
Little Red Tarot

The moon features as its own tarot card so I’m not going to go into too much detail here, instead I’ve listed some of the key words that will help us to understand it:

unconscious * dreams * the inner self * emotions * feelings * intuition *feminine * cycles * water * imagination * reflection * soul * creation * compassion * mother * moodiness * subconscious * creativity * nurturing * divination

Most of the moons on these cards are cresent moons which indicate receptivity, being open to messages and the word crescent derives from crescere, meaning to grow.  Take the lessons you learn from turning inwards and use them to further develop yourself.

 

Two of wands

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Wands

Wands or staves or clubs correlate with fire and are about intuition, your potential and ‘things that aren’t touchable’ is one way I leant into this suit.  Wands are about action and movement, much like flames.  They are about optimism and adventure – think of the excitement of the spark catching and spreading almost contagiously.  Wands are also about beginnings and ideas, things which are moving from potential to reality with the help of the other suits.

If channelled, this can be a suit of success and innovation, the idealism of the wands made real, goals and dreams coming to fruition.  But whilst fire is constantly shifting and moving and dancing and reacting, it can also burn itself out.  Creative sparks and new ideas and projects, started impulsively and passionately, can come to nothing, or be replaced by newer, brighter, shinier ideas.

Twos

In tarot, twos can 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.  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.

Decks

RWS

The Rider Waite Smith two of wands is very similar to the pagan cats this time and shows a man on a castle, between two wands, surveying his kingdom, assets and resources whilst also looking into the distance, the future or his potential kingdom.

This is a card of success and dominance but also a card which shows a man who isn’t content with all he has, he still wants more.  The walls of the castle could be read as trying to hold him in and as this is a fire card, we can feel his frustration as the frustration flames ‘feel’ when they are trapped.  They are like horses chopping at the bit.

If we look ahead in the suit to the three of wands, we find this man has moved out of his castle and has set out on a journey; he has overcome his confinement.  But, Waite reminds us with his keywords, stepping out can be scary.  He pins this card down as “surprise, wonder, enchantment, trouble and fear”, acknowledging that even if stepping outside the castle is your choice, it still comes with uncertainties.

We should take a moment to note that this guy looks like he’s probably pretty comfortable, he has a castle after all.  And it is despite this that he yearns to step out and away from what he already has.  Could it be that riches and jewels aren’t enough to fulfil him?  Is he stepping out of his very literal comfort zone in search of something less tangible, more wand like?  My little white book has “success but not satisfaction” in it, is this something that chimes with where you are right now?

Tarot of the Pagan Cats

As with the RWS card, this cat is surveying her resources from a privileged place.  If we were to look at this card through the lens of inequality we could see oppression, dominant hegemony and other issues of race, gender, sexuality, disability etc.  Whilst I feel they are all important ways to read this card, I also feel that the scope of that discussion is much too big for this particular post however I would like to return to this aspect of the two of wands again at some stage.

Related, but taking the (uncomfortable) role of the cat instead of the cat’s subjects, in the Thoth tarot, this card is the Lord of Dominion.  This brings with it ideas of conquering and taking over but I would rather think about these ideas in terms of personal power and, something which I struggle with a lot, the idea that I am allowed to be here and I am allowed to take up space.  I can give myself permission to go ahead with something and I can give myself validation.  I do not need to be like this cat, I do not need to seek outside myself for validation or permission or to be given the power I already inhibit.  The two of wands can be a reminder to me that I can be, and feel, empowered and that I can chose that.

This card is a territorial, war driven depiction of creating a plan to carry out your brilliant idea but as we’ll see in some of the other representations, this isn’t the only way to achieve your goals.

Wild Unknown

Against a rainbow background we have two wands which are creating a funnel.  With the rainbow representing choices and the wands narrowing things down, we can easily read this card as saying we have lots of choices and ideas and options and our only task is to reign them in and focus in on a couple.  Narrow in your focus or direction or you’ll end up like the ten of wands – pulled in ten directions and burnt out.  We are delighted to find we have lots of new ideas and now we are just whittling them down.

To turn an idea from reality, you will need to keep putting in the work though – this is only a two after all, there are still a lot of cards and challenges ahead.  But because you enjoy the work and you’re passionate about what you’re doing it won’t feel that much like work anyway!

Lumina

Step outside your comfort zone

“This is the coupling of intuitive knowing and emotional intelligence with logical action and planning.”

Where the two of swords is stuck, the two of wands is free.  Here we are moving forward, we are combining daydreaming and thinking big with to do lists and strategy.  But to do this, to really step into your dreams, you need to leave your comfort zone, only then will the planning pay off.  Really lean into the dreams, trust in your potential and follow what sets you alight.  Wands are fire after all and here you find yourself with two magic wands to carve your path with.

With these wands we can push our boundaries, channel our determination and, provided we are prepared to do the work, the world is ours for the taking!

Aside: if anyone knows anything about symbolism of the shapes in the background, please let me know!

Animal Totem Tarot

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The two of wands features the stingray and the book shares a message about the importance of swimming far and wide through the sea but with a purpose.  Swimming aimlessly is potentially deadly for many sea creatures who need to be on alert for danger.

“Gracefully, I make my way through the sea. Far and wide, near and far, but always with a destination in mind.”

We normally think of wands as a fire element but electricity and the spark of a stingray are other manifestations of this energy, also very fast and very active we are still with an element that needs us to move and do and act.  Plans need actions, achieving them requires us to take steps.  What is keeping you from taking the next step?

Associations

Mars in Aries

Both mars and aries can be considered warriors, making this a powerful combination.  Mars is about passion, aggression, assertiveness and aries is all about standing up for yourself and moving forward, very headstrong so you can see how they play off each other and make an energy which can be quite intense.  This is the part of the two of wands that wants you to charge forward, and to charge forward NOW.  I feel like looking through that lens, we can see the two of wands as a reminder to pause and assess before charging in.  You can’t fight every battle, you need to pick the right one.  You can’t do every little thing you want to, again you have to prioritise and make choices or you’ll run out of energy and other resources.

It’s also worth noting that whilst the instinct for mars in aries is to take action now, this impulse can also burn out as quickly as it flare up.  I’m not saying this is a time to stop and smell the roses, but a few seconds between idea and action might make a world of difference.

Stingray

The stingray feels quite mars in aries but less two of wands at first glance.  Their venom attacks the nerves and with the two of wands in mind, feels like the anxiousness that comes with stepping out of your comfort zone, the fear of the unknown and the worry that you may not achieve your goals.  I find it interesting that the stingray goes to a lot of trouble to blend in whilst the two of wands may be a call to do your own thing and stand out.  That said, this excerpt from my post on the stingray may be a different way of thinking about this:

“If you’ve ever seen a ray in the water, you’ll know just how graceful they are but you probably won’t get a sense of their power. In particular, some species have exceptionally strong jaws and there is an amazing picture of the jaw of a stingray over on Wikipedia.  Perhaps people are underestimating you, or you’re underestimating yourself?”

There seems to be so many ways to feel into this card of power and choices and perhaps for a card about options, this is only appropriate!