Salamander

“In order to harness the energy of inspiration, you need to connect to your creative centre.  This in turn will spark the flame inside of you that is just waiting to burn brightly.  Now is not the time for mastery, however; it is a time of experimentation and fun.  Learn as much as you can while you can and don’t worry about doing it the wrong or right way.”
– Message from Salamander, Animal Totem Tarot

Salamanders are amphibians that look a lot like lizards- slim bodies, short legs and blunt snouts – but they have permeable skin that means they need to live in cool, damp places.  As they breathe through their skin, it is hard for them to filter out toxins in the environment and so they can be used as an indicator species; their presence or lack of, reflects pollution levels. 

As I write this, I am having an allergic reaction to something in my environment.  I am exceptionally sensitive to changes in my environment and so I am alert to any changes, whether that’s consciously or through the rash on my cheek.  But you should also be sensitive to energy vampires and toxic people.  Especially as salamanders have skin glands which excrete poisons, in some cases powerful neurotoxins.

Some salamanders live in caves, others in moist crevices but most species live in humid forests.  They are generally more active during the cooler parts of the day, and wait until night to eat.  In the warmer parts of the day, they hide under rocks or in shadowy areas to stay cool.

“To a salamander beneath a log, the first heavy raindrops must sound like the knuckles of spring knocking on the door overhead.  After six months of torpor, stiff limbs slowly flex, tails wiggle out of winter immobility, and within minutes, snouts nose upward and legs push away cold earth as the salamanders crawl up into the night.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

Once out, they head towards water where they will mate and breed.  Like salmon, they return to the same waters that they were born in.  Perhaps this is a nudge telling you to return home, to visit your birth place or to spend time with your ancestors.

“Part of their direction-finding ability relies on a precise reading of the lines in the earth’s magnetic field.  A small organ in the brain processes magnetic data and guides the salamander to its pond… Following the earth’s magnetic gets them to the neighbourhood and then scent takes over to guide them home.”
– Robin Wall Kimmerer

The amazing way they find their destination makes me think we should all be listening to our intuition when it comes to travel.  Perhaps there is a reason why you are drawn to that particular place over and over again.

Once they reach their destination, the male deposits a spermatophore (a packet of sperm) on the ground or in the water and the female picks this up with her cloaca.  Here the sperm fertilises her eggs and they are then laid in water.  NB some species do give birth to live young.

During the larval stage, the young live in the water, breathing through gills and resembling tadpoles.  By the end of this stage, they have limbs and metamorphosis normally takes place, with lungs replacing gills.

Their reproductive cycle echoes that of life overall – larvae are born in water with gills and grow up into adults with lungs that live on land, like how life developed lungs and stepped onto land.  Or most salamanders do.  The axolotl provides a striking exception.

Axolotls were revered by Aztecs and get their name from an Aztec deity called Xolotl who was associated with death and lightning.  They are strange creatures who never grow out of the larval form, and yet still reach sexual maturity, an odd paradox.  In labs, they can be ‘turned’ into land animals through the use of hormones suggesting the potential is there and yet as a species they choose not to take this final metamorphosis.  Those that do go through this process have a shorter lifespan.

All salamanders engage in autotomy, or self amputation, to escape predators, and the acolotyl raises the bar incredibly.  They can regenerate limbs, tails, jaw, skin and even their spinal cord without scarring. 

“You can cut the spinal cord, crush it, remove a segment, and it will regenerate. You can cut the limbs at any level – the wrist, the elbow, the upper arm – and it will regenerate, and it’s perfect. There is nothing missing, there’s no scarring on the skin at the site of amputation, every tissue is replaced. They can regenerate the same limb 50, 60, 100 times. And every time: perfect.”
Prof. Stephane Roy

They can also accept limbs from other axolotls; in a questionable experiment, scientists gave an axolotl a second head… Research into this creature could help people with severe burns, transplant recipients and even cancer as they are more resistant to it than any mammals.  They are true survivors but I wonder how we would feel if we came out of a traumatic experience unscarred.  Scars can be hard to bear but they show us that we have been hurt and that we have survived, they also prove that the painful thing was real.

“Some people see scars, and it is wounding they remember. To me they are proof of the fact that there is healing.”
― Linda Hogan

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy

“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.”
― Steve Goodier

The axolotl brings messages around healing oneself and the power we have within.  I am not suggesting we can cure illness with the power of our mind, rather that we can use tools such as meditation to reduce stress and that in turn can help us live healthier lives.  It might be time for you to think about your health or to seek out help from experts.

The ability of the salamander, and especially the axolotl, to regenerate is ripe for metaphor.  With this card, we are reminded that we have the power to change our lives, to transform ourselves to go into the fire and come out alive like the phoenix.

The axolotl isn’t the only wonder salamander, the Eastern Hellbender – a fantastic name but as if that wasn’t enough, they are also known as Devil Dogs, Lasagne Lizards and Snot Otters – is a large kind of Salamander found in America.  They are being studied as they seem to be resistant to BD, a deadly disease which is killing amphibians around the world.  They test positive for it and yet show no symptoms so it is possible they can bring hope to frogs, toads, newts and other salamanders everywhere!

In my notes, I have written that the salamander is the spirit of fire in animal form but I have not said where I got that from.  Thinking in terms of tarot and elements, we have in the salamander, a creature that combines fire and water.  Fire can be destructive and water can balance it, in the same way that the creative energy of the fire element can be intense, overwhelming and destructive and need some balancing out if you want to avoid burn out. 

Many beliefs and myths around salamanders relate them to fire.  It is thought this is because they hang out inside rotting logs and when these are burn, the salamander would try to escape, leading to the belief that they were created from the flames.

In ancient Rome it was said that salamanders could spit fire and burn water, and that if you touched them you would be poisoned but if you put one in honey it would create an aphrodisiac.  These tie in nicely with the elemental ideas above – power and passion.

In ancient Greece, Pliny the Elder wrote:

“A salamander is so cold that it puts out fire on contact. It vomits from its mouth a milky liquid; if this liquid touches any part of the human body it causes all the hair to fall off, and the skin to change colour and break out in a rash.”

In later times, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

“[The salamander] has no digestive organs, and gets no food but from the fire, in which it constantly renews its scaly skin.”

In France, the folkloric salamander brings poison; simply by falling into a well, all the water would be poisoned, and by climbing a tree, all the fruits would be poisoned.

“Salamanders were used as symbols in heraldry representing mastery of passion passing through its fires unblemished.  They represent the virtues of courage, loyalty, chastity, virginity, impartiality.  They are symbolic of Jesus, who baptised with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and the devotion of Christians who keep the faith.”
zteve t evans

The salamander is a very interesting creature, both scientifically and in terms of symbolism.  Healing, regeneration, sensitivity and homing are themes at play, along with the element of fire, especially in combination with water.  I hope you have enjoyed this wander through the salamander, are there any animals you’d like me to look at next?

Links:

Mythical Beasts – The Salamander
Regeneration – The Axolotl Story
Wild Speak – Salamander
Wild Speak – Axolotl
Wild Speak – Hellbender

Supporting small businesses

As you probably know, small businesses, especially those that haven’t been open for a year, are struggling at the moment. I’m also acutely aware that many people can’t afford to support them, but if you can, please do.

I had saved up to go on holiday this year, and as that’s not going to happen, I’m using that money to treat myself and support small businesses in the process. I wanted to write a post about these great people, in part because I feel helpless, and because they are awesome and spreading the word about them can only be good!

Plush is a wonderful cafe in York with three quirky rooms and an array of vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options. You can support them by ordering gift vouchers to treat your friends and give them something to look forward to. They also have an online store filled with cute homeware, beauty accessories and more. I particularly love this lamp!

And who knew a plant mister could be so cool!

Little Red Tarot has long been favourite place for tarot decks, oracle decks and related books. I recently treated myself to The Wooden Tarot and am enjoying getting to know it. She also has an online tarot course with 50% of profits going to Safety4Sisters.

I have not managed to get an online food shop which is frustrating but not essential as I am mostly tube fed. However, I do like wine and not being able to get any would be the same as most people not being able to get food they love. Yes I can live without it but it brings me joy, and flavour. Enter Field and Fawcett who are based in York but offer delivery.

Fox Lane Books have a stall at so many events I attend and I always look forward to seeing them and treating myself. With those events cancelled, they obviously aren’t able to attend and sell books. However, they have a great selection of books online, including signed copies! I am currently reading Cursed Britain and would highly recommend it. One of the things I really like about Fox Land Books is that they have books that I’ve not come across before and there’s a section for Kirstie’s favourite fiction which is a lovely personal touch.

Portal is an LGBTQIA bookshop based in York but offering online orders. There are so many interesting looking books including fiction, non fiction and poetry. I can personally recommend A Court of Thorns and Roses and Crooked Kingdom and am looking forward to working my way through more of their incredible looking selection. They also offer vouchers.

Before the lockdown, I was supposed to be getting a tattoo. Whilst it has been postponed, Vera Ickler, like many tattoo artists, is now offering prints and original artwork. Whilst my leg will remain inkless for a while, there is not need for my walls to!

Other ways you can support small businesses includes shopping on etsy, folksy and not on the high street. And there are of course many charities which need additional support right now.

Whip-poor-will

Whip-poor-will’s are not a bird I know about.  As in I hadn’t even heard about them until I got this tarot deck.  So this will not be as detailed as some of my other posts. 

They are also known by the name ‘goat sucker’ and they owe this strange association to Aristotle who reported that they fly to the udders of she goats and sucks on them…  But now to some more accurate information…

Whip-poor-wills are nocturnal and tend to be solitary, although they might form small flocks during migration.  They are thought to be monogamous but little is known about their courtship displays.  What is known is that females try to get the attention of the male by strutting on the ground, head lowered and wings and tail outspread.  If interested, the male responds by approaching the female and undulating his body.  He might circle her and she’ll respond by undulating her body and quivering her wings. 

Assuming courtship is successful, they breed twice a year, laying their eggs on the ground.  Their reproductive cycles are synchronised with the moon cycles so that when the young hatch, there is better light to forage for food to feed them.

Night is normally associated with mystery and things which are difficult to define, but the link with the moon light here suggests that you’re going to get a bit of clarity.

Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, when one parent is off foraging, the other is protecting the nest.  Having nests on the ground means the eggs and young are vulnerable to predators, including skunks, raccoons and snakes.  To protect them, adults will perform the ‘broken wing’ display; they fake an injury in full view of the predator to divert their attention.  You may need to sacrifice yourself for your children, or creations.

As well as being nocturnal, they are masters of camouflage but being invisible doesn’t mean you aren’t noticed.  The Animal Totem Tarot book says that the Whip-poor-will loves the sound of its own voice and their species name, vociferous, means voice carrying, or noisy.  As nocturnal birds, their voice likely seems louder as it has less competition and may infer with sleep.  They tend to be heard rather than seen, making them seem mysterious and its haunting song has inspired folk beliefs. Like many night birds, their call is said to be associated with death or some other kind of doom, including warning of storms.  This all highlights the power of your voice right now.  What should you be speaking up about right now?

As well as being omens of death, there are a number of other beliefs surrounding this bird. To rid yourself of a bad back, you could try doing somersaults in time with their calls… I do have questions about whether you can somersault with a bad back but as I’m also unlikely to hear one, I won’t be able to test this theory. 

A single woman hearing her first whip-poor-will of the spring would remain single for the year, unless she made a wish on the first call.  If she kept her wish secret, she’d would be married.

The Ute people believe that the whip-poor-will is a god of the night and created the moon from a frog and the Mohegan tribe believe that makiwasug – magical little people – would take the form of whip-poor-wills to travel through the forest at night.

Most nocturnal birds become cast as harbingers of death or illness but I feel the link with the light of the moon should bring some hope to anyone who’s drawn this card. There is a glimmer in the darkness and confusion, lean into it.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List – Eastern Whip-poor-will

IUCN Red List – Mexican Whip-poor-will

UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, by Rachel Warren Chadd and Marianne Taylor

Bobcat

Before I delve into the world of the bobcat, I wanted to say that with coronavirus and lock downs and self isolation, it is a strange time. If you would like me to look at an animal that has come into your life recently, please drop me and email and I will see what I can do. Sometimes we need to hear the teachings of our fellow creatures and right now feels especially like one of those times.

But back to the bobcat…

Vision is fluid and the eyes tend to lie.  This means that what some see as restrictive and abusive, others see as liberating and freeing.  It really does depend on whose eyes you are looking through”
Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot deck, the bobcat features on the devil card which also ties into the idea of perspective. Depending on how you see things, the devil can be shackling, or liberating and further, it can represent someone who is unshackled and yet is chained because they think they are.

They are obviously feline creatures, and they have – as you’d expect – a short bobbed tail.  This has a white end with a black tip and is held up in the dark so that kits can follow mum.  They also have tufts of hair on their ears that are used like whiskers, and ruffs of fur on the side of the face akin to sideburns! 

Bobcats are found in south eastern USA and whilst they are rural creatures, they are becoming more habituated to urban and suburban landscapes.  They tend to be found in areas with cover for them to slip through, such as forests and brushland, and will sleep in hidden dens, often made in hollow trees, thickets and rocky crevices.

Some people see them as invading the urban landscape, but in reality, we invaded their homeland – there are multiple versions of truth, again we still the theme of perspective.  Sticking with this, bobcats are nocturnal which brings in ideas about night and the moon and they in turn give us mystery and things not being very clear.  The darkness can trick you, making you think you see things that aren’t there and hiding the things that are.  The moon in tarot is all about the subconscious, illusions and dreams.  There is distortion and magic and mystery. 

However, as bobcats have excellent hearing and vision, we could read this as a creature who can help us see into and navigate through the confusion of the darkness and the night.  Perhaps the bobcat is here to be a guide for you.

Bobcats are solitary cats, that only really interact for mating.  They want to be left to do their own thing and to enjoy their own company and are here to remind you that sometimes, you need this time and space too.  When it comes to reproducing, males and females come together for a brief time, just long enough for courtship and copulation.  The female will then be left alone to raise the young.  It takes almost a year to get them to the point where they can go off on their own, and a key part of being able to leave the nest is about being able to hunt successfully. 

Bobcats are well camouflaged and this helps them to slip through the environment unseen, further they are quiet, near silent as they stealthily hunt out prey.  One way they reduce noise is by putting their back feet in the footprints of the front paws, apparently all cats do this, cat owners let me know!  They are known to perch in rocky alcoves waiting for the right moment to pounce and have been described as spring loaded predators.  This puts me in mind of seizing the opportunity.  Related to this, they are what are called opportunists when it comes to diet.  But as well as jumping on opportunities, they are patient, waiting for the right opportunity, not just grabbing at whatever comes to hand.  Be selective, be patient and then go for it.

When I was researching the bobcat, the idea of secrets came up repeatedly with the view that they are inscrutable and cannot be coerced into revealing their secrets.  They are sometimes considered to be keepers of occult knowledge and guardians of secrets.  Perhaps because of the solitary lifestyle, people feel that they can share this information with the bobcat and it will not be shared with anyone else. 

Their night vision means they are said to be able to see into the future, to have profound insight and are able to look within people to their souls.  This may be a time when you can see what others are trying to keep hidden from you.  Trust your gut right now if secrets are involved.  Also remember that with the night comes our subconscious and sometimes we are hiding secrets from ourselves.  If that might be the case right now, it might be time to try and uncover them, you are allowed to know these secrets and sometimes, not always, it can be helpful to tap into our inner world.

Naturally, a lot of folklore around the bobcat comes from Native Americans.

“The Lakota held cats in fear and awe.  They believed that to kill or mutilate any kind of cat – mountain lion, bobcat or even the plain old domestic tabby – carried a curse.  The culprit would have terrible things happen to him.  Therefore, they avoided cats.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

In some mythology, the bobcat is twinned with the coyote to represent duality.  Another tale explains how the bobcat got its spots.  After getting trapped in a tree rabbit persuades bobcat to build a fire but the embers end up scattered on the bobcat’s fur and the spots it wears today are the singe marks.  Another story explains the bobbed tail.

Their excellent hunting skills are admired by some groups but for others, the bobcat plays a negative role, being cast as greedy, selfish and disregarding social rules.

Ultimately, it feels as though the bobcat is here to help us see into the darkness and the night, and to remind us that there are many perspectives and truths and to look at things from all angles.

Links:

Animal Diversity Web

IUCN Red List

National Geographic

Aunty Flo

Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer

Roadrunner

“If I show myself to you it is only because I want you to see me.  But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some sort of long-term thing.  I am mere here to show you what you have been missing while your head is constantly facing the ground.  I am here to remind you that once in a while you need to raise your head and take a good hard look at what is around you.”
– Animal totem tarot

There are two types of roadrunner, the greater and the lesser and for the purposes of this post, I will be thinking about them both here and if I’m not specific, then it’s either because my source is unclear about which or the information is relevant to both.  This may not be what everyone would do but I have never seen a roadrunner and researching them has proven to confuse the two.  From what I can tell, they are fairly similar.  They live in different areas, with a small overlap and the Lesser is smaller with slightly different plumage. 

Both the Lesser and Greater Roadrunners are opportunistic predators that eat a wide array of prey including grasshoppers, crickets, beetles, small reptiles and frogs.  The Greater at least beats their larger prey, such as snakes and small birds, on the ground to disarticulate the skeleton, allowing them to swallow it whole.  Take advantage of what is around you, leap on the opportunities you can see.  As you will see, this bird is about action, not reflection.  If you’re familiar with the astrological elements, think fire not air, impulse not thinking.

The Lesser Roadrunner can run up to 20 miles per hour and this is how it moves around most of the time.  Running allows them to use the open roads as racetracks for chasing insects and lizards.  They are also highly manoeuvrable on the ground allowing for quick changes in direction.  This makes them appear as if they are here one minute and gone the next.  They are a flash on the edge of your awareness.  This could be an idea, a thought, an insight and knowing they’re coming, be alert to them.  Pay attention, these flashes are key right now.

Roadrunners can fly but only do so when absolutely necessary – again this is not a bird we associate with air, it had much more earthy, grounded energy.  The roadrunner is here to push you into practical action.

Because of their chosen habitat, they have to face vast variations in temperatures.  Overnight, they lower their body temperature slightly and go into a slight state of torpor in order to conserve energy.  Come early morning, they will then sunbathe – they will position their scapular feathers and expose their black skin which can then absorb sunlight and warm their body.  Of course, they then also have to face the scorching heat of the day.  They halve their activity during midday in order to survive in such a variable climate.   Along with being opportunistic, the roadrunner is adaptable and these traits help it to succeed in harsh environments.

A wonderful fact about roadrunners is that they leave behind a distinct ‘X’ track mark, making them appear as though they are travelling in both directions and it was said that this throws off malignant spirits.  It also looks like they are leaving a trail of kisses in their wake!

Roadrunners are monogamous, mate for life and (at least the greater ones) defend a large territory.  For the greater roadrunner, bonds are renewed each spring and summer through a series of elaborate display.  The male will bow and prance, wag his tail and offer the female nesting materials and food.  Both parents will help to build a nest with the male collecting the materials – sticks, grass, feathers and sometimes snakeskin and cow manure – and the female doing most of the construction.  Nests are built a few feet off the ground, in a bush or low tree and those of the lesser roadrunners are smaller, but stronger and more compact than nests of the greater roadrunner.  Mum and dad will incubate the eggs and once hatched, will feed and protect the chicks.

The Greater Roadrunner has many names, including Snake Killer and Medicine Bird which gives us some insight into how they have been viewed.  There was a belief that they could protect against evil spirits and their feathers were used to decorate cradleboards which would offer the baby spiritual protection.  For some tribes it was good luck to see one and for others they were seen as sacred, revered for their speed and bravery.  For most Mexican Indian tribes, roadrunner meat was used as a folk remedy to cure illness and to boost strength and stamina.

There is a Mayan story about how the king of the birds was chosen explains the roadrunners drab colouring.  Originally roadrunner was a beauty, covered in magnificent feathers and very impressive with emerald green wings and a long shimmering tail.  Quetzal however was dull but had a brilliant mind and wanted to be king.  But because of his appearance couldn’t convince the other birds that he was right for the job.  He persuaded roadrunner to lend him his plumage, just for a little while so he could impress the others.  He was declared king but once he was crowned he became very busy and forgot that he was supposed to return the feathers to roadrunner.  The other birds realised roadrunner was missing and organised a search.  He was found featherless, cold and hungry.  When all the birds heard what had happened, they each gave roadrunner one of their feathers.  Today, roadrunner still wears a strange mix of feathers and runs around calling ‘puhuy?’, meaning ‘where is he?’.

Reading

Animal Diversity Web – Greater Roadrunner
Animal Diversity Web – Lesser Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Greater Roadrunner
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Lesser Roadrunner

Ring tailed lemur

“Are you ready to stand in the full light of your own magnificence?”
– Animal totem tarot

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the ring tailed lemur takes centre stage on the sun card which is an excellent choice as not only are they the only type of lemur that is not nocturnal, they actively embrace the sun.  They bask in the sun, in a lotus position, to warm their body’s as they have low metabolisms.  This relationship with the sun and light is important to consider if the ring tailed lemur has come into your life.  How do you feel about the spotlight?  Are you harnessing the sun for healing?  Are you honouring that which gives life and warmth?  All life ultimately comes from the sun but it also has destructive power.  It can cause harm and set fires, like everything it’s about balance.  If you find the right balance, you can benefit from the sun’s illumination but too much and you can with devastation. 

Ring tailed lemurs also spend more time on the ground that other types of lemurs, possibly meaning they are more connected with the earth element than the air element.  The ring tailed lemur stands apart from other lemurs and remind us that we too can, and should, stand out from the crowd and be true to who we are.  Step out into the sun and let it light up the wonderful being that is you!

They hang out troops which can have as many as 30 members and which has a hierarchical structure.  Females are dominant over males – so the lowest ranking female is still higher up in the social order than the highest ranking males.

Generally, females will have one baby at a time and are solely responsible for its care, with males doing very little.  For the first couple of weeks of life, they will ride on their mum’s belly, then they will ride on mum’s back and begin exploring their world.  Weaning begins at 8 weeks old and lasts until they are 5 months old.  There is a high infant mortality rate with 30 to 50% of babies not making it through the first year of life. 

Tactile communication between mum and baby is important and helps with bonding.  Outside of that relationship, ring tailed lemurs have a complex range of communication including body language, facial expressions and vocalisations.  They use scent marking and will engage in stink battles where secretions from scent glands are rubbed on their tail and then wafted at the opposition.  Males will also do this during mating season to establish who is the strongest male. 

Their social nature and wide array of communication techniques means friends and family are important and if you have pulled the ring tailed lemur card, it could be trying to encourage you to socialise.  Spend time with others and lean into the extroverted part of yourself right now.

The troop will have a home range of 1000 metres and will slowly meander throughout the day looking for food.  On the diet is pretty much whatever is available, including fruits, leaves, spiders, chameleons and insects.  The most important food however is the fruit from the tamarind tree.  For water, an important source comes from the morning fog condensing on leaves which sounds so poetic!

Ring tailed lemurs are curious and good-natured creatures who, despite having a small brain, have been shown to be intelligent.  They can organise sequences and understand basic arithmetic and something I read suggested they may be more intelligent that studies have shown because they likely have an intelligence that shines in a group setting, rather than as individuals in labs.  Its important to remember that there are different kinds of intellect which shine in different settings. 

The iconic ringed tail is arguably their most striking feature, consisting of 13 alternating white and back bands and because of it’s importance to this animal I wanted to unpick some of the symbolism tied into the colours.  Whenever I have looked at black and white birds, I have found mythology and stories about a good, innocent bird, who either did something negative and got punished, or had a link with fire and got burnt.  There is clearly a message around balance here.  White is all about purity, light and virginity, whereas black is about power, depth and evil.  These two extremes can be overwhelming on their own, but slices of them interspersed with slices of the other gives a sense of equilibrium.  We all have different aspects of our personality and none of us are purely good or fully bad.  If there’s something you don’t like about yourself or others, try to look at the bigger picture and take the bad with the good.

Whilst we’re looking at their tails, it’s worth nothing that they hold them up, like a question mark, to make sure that no one in the troop gets lost – a bit like a tour guide holding up a flag! 

The etymology of the name lemur comes with a lovely myth:

“In the late 1500s, adventurers on a Portuguese expedition to the tangled forests of Madagascar were awakened from their sleep by haunting howls. From the darkness around their flickering campfires, the worried explorers saw shining eyes peering back at them. Some were convinced they belonged to the spirits of dead companions.

The light of the morning, however, revealed that the howling ghosts were in fact large-eyed, monkey-like creatures. The night’s scare still fresh in their minds, the explorers dubbed the exotic animals “lemurs,” coming from a Roman word meaning “spirits of the dead.””
Lemur Conservation Network

As lemurs are limited to Madagascar, that is where we find their mythology.  I tried to look into stories and beliefs specific to the ring tailed lemur but wasn’t very successful and as they are behaviourally different to their relatives, I wouldn’t want to infer ideas about the ring tailed lemur from lemurs in general.  In terms of the lemur in general, I found some stories that consider them sacred, and others that see them as evil and vengeful.  It’s further complicated by the aye-aye, a type of lemur, which has a lot of negative beliefs around it and which is often just referred to as a lemur in most of what I read.

Overall, the smile inducing ring tailed lemur speaks to us of socialising, of communicating, of balance and of the power of the sun.  And of course, the power of a female led society – step into the spot light and be your fantastic, powerful self!

Reading:

IUCN red list
Animal Diversity Web
National Geographic
Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Woodpecker

The woodpecker that you are familiar with will depend on where you live.  Different species live in different parts of the world, except for Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Madagascar and the extreme polar regions.  As such, the type of woodpecker you are more aware of will be geographically dependant and so I would encourage you look at the particular characteristics of the one local to you.  This is particularly important because any generalisation about woodpeckers will be followed by an exception.  For example, many are habitat specialists but some are opportunistic generalists, most live in forests and trees but some live on the ground, most are monogamous but others are gregarious and so on!

Aside: if you are using the animal totem tarot deck, the bird pictured is the pileated woodpecker

Every time I thought I found a generic woodpecker statement, I would quickly find an exception to the rule and this feels like a key message from the bird – nothing is black and white, there are always cases which don’t follow the rules and it is absolutely ok to be different. 

Obviously a key aspect of the woodpecker is their endless pecking and I’ll get into that in more detail below but first let’s have a look at a few characteristics of these birds.

Woodpeckers have unique behaviour and this in turn gives them a distinctive role in the ecosystems.  I have found them called keystone species, umbrella species and indicator species:

  • Keystone species – species who play a major role in an ecosystem, helping to preserve it and affecting and influencing other organisms that live within it.  For woodpeckers, this is by providing tree cavities which can then be as nests used by birds, bats, squirrels etc.  In fact some animals can’t survive without the woodpecker.
  • Umbrella species – species whose conservation can confer protection onto many other species.
  • Indicator species – species whose presence demonstrates the quality of the environment

They are clearly important to the world around them and have been called the carpenters of the forest, probably comparable only to the beaver in terms of exploiting the environment.  They are manipulating the physical environment to suit them and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to resourceful, adaptable behaviour. 

Most woodpeckers have four toes, arranged in such a way that helps them grasp branches and also lets them walk vertically up trees. They have long, narrow tongues – often three times the length of the bill – which are covered in backward facing barbs.  This, combined with sticky saliva, helps them to pull insects out of trees.

These are just a couple of illustrations of their excellent adaptations.  Others include their robust skeleton, their strong claws which act as crampons to help them cling to trees, stiff tail feathers which act as props to keep their bodies off the trees and also offer support.  They have a gland at the base of their skull which secretes fluid to trap wood dust.  They have narrow nostril slits, covered by bristles, to keep dust out.  They have a membrane which protects their eyes from dust, a tough skin to protect against splinters as well as the chemical spray and bites of ants.  Their heads are adapted to their drumming behaviour and offer protection against concussion and brain damage by absorbing the impact and their bill works a bit like a multipurpose tool.

If you wanted to design a creature fit for their lifestyle, I don’t think you’d get close to how well the woodpecker body works.  In fact, scientists and engineers are looking at the woodpecker, for example, to inform helmet design.

In terms of their pecking, this behaviour has a few functions.  They drum their bill on the tree to make holes to store acorns and nuts in.  They communicate through drumming, using it to warn of danger, as a threat, to communicate with rivals and potential mates.  It can be a deterrent and an invitation as well as a practical way of storing food.  Practical feels like a crucial word here, so much of what the woodpecker does feels incredibly practical. 

“People, ancient and modern, have been fascinated by the drumming of woodpeckers.  It has often been used as a symbol and looked upon as mysterious, as involving great power, sometimes supernatural strength, and associated with spirits and a call to arms. In some cultures, drumming woodpeckers heralded the onset of the rainy season or warned of approaching storms.”
– Gerald Gorman

The drumming ties the woodpecker to rhythm, primitive music and historically, drumming has been used in rituals and ceremonies around birth, death and marriage.  Drumming was also one of the first ways of communicating long distances. 

Tapping against the tree trunk was said to duplicate the heartbeat of mother earth and the idea of rhythms connects to the idea of cycles, and hence the feminine. This will also link with ideas around creation, procreation, life and birth.

If we look to myths and legends, we find that the woodpecker’s drumming was associated with thunder, and hence Thor, in Norse mythology.  For the Taino people, there was a sacred woodpecker who showed them how to tap and beat rhythms on primitive drums made from hollowed sections of logs.  Without a doubt, rhythm and drumming is crucial to understanding the woodpecker.

“[The woodpecker] has fulfilled a variety of roles, being symbolically associated with fertility, security, strength, prophecy, magic, medicine, rhythm, the weather, carpentry and as a guardian of trees and woodlands.  It has been a war-totem, a fire-bringer, a weather-forecaster and a boat-builder.”
– Gerald Gorman

They have an inconsistent role in folktales, sometimes they are crafty and wise but also naïve and foolish, generous but sometimes miserly, spiritual yet earthy, loyal and devoted but promiscuous, hero and villain, healer and creator but also destroyer, a good and bad omen.  They are a paradox.  For me this is about sitting with contradictions, making peace with conflicting feelings and ideas.  This isn’t an easy thing to do, but it can be very grounding to lean into that acceptance.  Their ability to walk up and down trees suggests ultimate balance so it may be that you are out of sync right now.

“They can walk places where others cannot follow.  These people can strike like lightning one minute and sit back and contemplate the breeze the next.”
– Jessica Dawn Palmer

This quote might be about the walking up and down trees, but it could also be about the use of drums in shamanic practices designed to take the practitioner into the spirit world.

The woodpecker represents Silvanus and hence is associated with forests, trees and tree magic, but also regenerative and sexual magic.

“The woodpecker is integral to the natural heritage of our planet, but it is also part of our cultural heritage.  In many cultures it was regarded as the spirit or god of the ancient forest, but today we threaten the woodpecker by destroying those same forests.”
– Gerald Gorman

As well as sexuality, woodpeckers have been associated with light, fire, water, power and divination all of which are primal concerns which for me ties into the idea that primal drumming. 

A Lakota tale tells how the woodpecker taught a young man to carve a flute and he used it to woo the chief’s daughter.  For the Cherokee people, they were symbols of manhood and bravery.  A Mesopotamian myth had the woodpecker as the axe of Ishtar (a fertility goddess).  When roman legions were marching into battle, hearing a woodpecker was seen as a sign of victory and the direction of their flight was used by augers to predict the outcome of events.  These are all themes of love, sex and war and are reiterated by the woodpecker’s position as sacred to Ares, the god of war.

A couple of creation stories re-emphasise the link between the woodpecker and fertility and creation.  The Surui people have a story which tells that people were trapped inside a rock and none of the birds could break it open and set them free, but the woodpecker could.  In a myth from the Owambo people, people lived trapped inside a tree trunk and the woodpecker answered their cries for help and helped to free them.

We also find the woodpecker starring in a number of stories about fire, for example, a tale from Congo has a woodpecker pecking holes in the sky which became stars and a girl crawled through one and brought back fire. 

As well as fire, they are often found in tales about water such as those about floods and drought.  They were said to be able to forecast rain, sometimes summon it and because of the importance of rain to life, this ties back in again to the idea of fecundity, fertility and creation.  Folknames for the woodpecker also tie it to the rain; rain bird, rain fowl, wet bird, weather hatcher, weather cock, storm cock, storm mare, pouring bird, snowing bird and so on.

There was a sharp contrast between how woodpeckers were viewed in Christian and animistic societies.  We’ve already seen the association with life and birth and creation but for Christians, the woodpecker was seen as a heretic.  Their probing into trees was interpreted as a search for evil in the hearts of everyone and the damage they inflicted was likened to satan weakening the soul. 

In one story featuring Jesus, St Peter and an old lady, the latter was tuned turned into a woodpecker by god as a punishment for curiosity.  In another version, she was turned into a woodpecker because she wasn’t generous.  An Estonian legend says that when god created the world, he asked the birds to dig holes in the earth which would then fill with water and become rivers and lakes.  The woodpecker refused and his punishment was to spend eternity digging holes in trees. 

If you want to use the woodpecker for healing, then you might want to roast it to cure leprosy, dry the heart and set it in silver and gold to cure gout.  The bill was said to soothe toothache and their eggs to cure TB.  A red woodpecker feather in a child’s hair would ward off the evil eye and in France, eating the whole bird, feathers included, would protect against black magic.

Disclaimer, these may not be effective!

Reading

Woodpecker by Gerald Gorman
Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate
Animal Wisdom by Jessica Dawn Palmer