“Of all the animals the magi hold moles in highest regard … they give credence to no other entrails as much, and they credit no other creature with more supernatural properties, so that if someone should swallow the heart of a mole, fresh and still palpating, they promise the power of divination and foreknowledge of future events. By removing the tooth of a living mole and binding it to the person, they claim that toothache can be cured.”
– Pliny The Elder
Moles have a strange place in our consciousness. We are all aware of them, we talk about mole hills semi-frequently, and yet how many of us have actually seen the mole itself? Like the iconic iceberg, we tend to just be aware of the surface.
Moles, the ones who throw earth, the ones who turn soil. Heaps of soil appear overnight, seemingly out of nowhere, a physical presence of these ghostly, otherworldly creatures. These characteristic piles of soil are what the mole has thrown to the surface whilst excavating their extensive network of tunnels.
But what actually goes on down there in the dark, damp world of the mole? They spend their time burrowing around, a lifestyle they are well adapted for with their squat figure and their powerful front feet that are shaped like shovels. Indeed, moles are incredibly strong for their size and can apparently easily burst open a human fist from inside. Despite only being about 15cm long, they can move up to 540 times their own body weight of earth, and tunnel up to 200 metres a day. Their adapted body has become streamlined and unlike most mammals, it doesn’t hold it’s tummy off the ground, instead it has a very thick, tough skin there for protection. Other specialised equipment on this velvety critter includes a highly sensitive nose that is used both to smell and feel. Handily for underground life, their velvety black fur is water repellent and can also lie each way (so when they are going backwards it doesn’t jam them in the tunnel).
They have a small, seemingly insignificant tail which plays an important role in navigation – they carry it vertically and use it to feel their way along tunnels and is especially useful if the mole has to reverse for any reason. The tail is so effective at this that they can run backwards almost as fast as they can forwards.
Whilst it is commonly believed that moles are blind, they can actually see movement and distinguish light from dark. To have large eyes would be a disadvantage for the mole as they would fill with dirt and given their subterranean lifestyle, they don’t need them. Especially as they are wonderfully adapted for their world. As well as their build, their senses and their strength, moles have a greater proportion of red blood cells than other mammals and this means they can live in low oxygen areas. They also reuse exhaled air which adds to their ability to survive in environments others may not.
Moles come to the surface to find food, nesting material and when they move from the tunnel that they were born in to dig a new tunnel of their own. As you’d expect, it is at this time, when above ground, that the mole is most vulnerable to predators.
Typically, moles have three phases of activity – digging, eating and patrolling – and apparently start the same time each day! Patrolling might seem odd for a mole but I think it’s to renew scent markings which act as a warning to other moles, telling them to keep away – an effective strategy as moles are rarely found in groups! They are solitary but have overlapping territories and males will fight if they meet.
When it comes to eating, moles don’t dig through the soil to find worms, instead they use their tunnel systems as a pit trap for worms, beetles and other insects that happen to be in the soil. The mole senses when prey falls in and runs quickly and eats it. If too many worms fall in and the mole can’t eat them all, it saves them for later. The mole’s saliva contains a toxin that paralyses earthworms so moles can store living worms for later in a larder specially constructed for the purpose. Researchers have found larders with over a thousand earthworms in. Before eating them, they pull the worms between squeezed paws to force earth and dirt out of the worm’s guts. Whilst their habit of saving for the future might see them through some hard times, if things get really tough shortage of food will drive moles above ground despite the danger this entails.
The mole is clearly asking us to consider our relationship with darkness and light. It’s about tuning in to our senses and paying attention to more than just what we see, if we rely just on what we can see we may be blind to opportunities. Digging through the dark to find the treasure is another obvious message. And don’t make mountains out of mole hills!
For less obvious interpretations, consider your relationship with the earth, with the planet. Are you feeling in tune with nature or disconnected? How can you connect with your environment? A mole-ish way that leaps to mind is standing on the soil with bare feet, something that I find really grounding. Lean into your intuition and trust your instincts. Look for the root of things if the mole has come into your life.
As Pliny the Elder alluded to at the start of this post, the mole features heavily in folk remedies and beliefs. I’ve included just a flavour of these below:
- hold a mole in your hand till it dies and your hand gets healing power
- a cure for ague was made from powder of a skinned and dried male mole
- blood of a freshly killed mole dripped on warts cures them
- sugar dripped with blood from nose of a living mole controls fits
- mole cut in half or skinned alive could be bound to the neck till it rotted to treat cysts on the throat and goitre
- mole hands ward off evil and treat rheumatism
- there was a belief that moles have a single drop of blood, eyes on the soles of their feet and those above ground in the day were taking the air or moonstruck
- it was thought their ears were under their armpits to keep the soil out
- people believed that if the molehills were picked up on St Sylvesters day the moles wouldn’t throw up earth again and if a mole throws up earth during frost, the frost would disappear in two days
- in Scotland, a mole working near a house meant that the inhabitants would be moving soon, if it circled the home then there would soon be a death
One folktale explains the mole’s lifestyle as the result of a proud and arrogant woman whose pride was punished by fairies who turned her into a mole and made her life in the darkness of the ground.
“it’s habitat and blindness made it a natural symbol for those engrossed with earthly cares and vain delights or for the heretic blind to the true faith”
– Beryl Rowlands
Eight of swords
The mole on this card has dug through the earth’s surface and has come through to find a storm and that he is surrounded by swords. He has been forced into a less familiar world, one where he is vulnerable. Why is he here?
It might be that the mole is self sabotaging, that he’s being his own worst enemy and putting himself in a dangerous or risky situation. It might be that he’s stuck here, or is feeling stuck. Either way, he can’t stay here for very long, he needs to act to get out of this precarious situation.
As swords are about the mental realm, it might be that analysis paralysis is at play. It may also be that we have got stuck but are too ashamed about getting into the situation to ask for help. Believing in your own helplessness is yet another possibility but regardless, there is something in the mind that is keeping you still when you should be moving.
The harder we think, the more trapped we can become. Perhaps instead, we should lean into our senses and feelings?
- A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies
- Some Notes on Folk Medicine in the Eastern Counties
- Greek and Roman Folklore, G Anderson
- Moles, Rob Atkinson
- Animals with human faces; a guide to animal symbolism, Rowland, Beryl
- Animal folklore: a mole in the hand