In the Animal Totem Tarot, the World card is represented by an Atoll.
“Do you know what conditions are necessary to create a thriving new world? There is a special ingredient list and everything has to come together at the exact same time. It is not easy to complete and sustain a thriving ecosystem. But with time, patience, and perseverance it can be done. Miss any one step or any one ingredient, and you will not get that which can sustain life.”
– Animal Totem Tarot
The animal totem tarot quote essentially wraps up the essential message here – it’s about creating the right conditions for creation.
But what is an atoll?
“An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or series of islets. The atoll surrounds a body of water called a lagoon.” – National Geographic
In further info, they are found in warmer seas and the majority are in the Pacific Ocean. There are about 440 atolls and they tend not to breach 5 metres in elevation and a lot of the reef hides below the surface.
Atolls develop over epic timescales and can take up to 30 million years to come into being. Some work is just like that, a long long haul where you think you’ll never get there but some things are worth the work and perseverance, just maybe don’t commit to anything more than say half a million years! You are human after all (I assume?).
The creation process starts with underground volcanos (called seamounts) which spill larva onto the floor. This hardens and over time, and many volcanic eruptions later, the larva tower break the surface of the sea in the form of a small island. At some point the volcano becomes dormant. This is when creatures, including coral arrive. The corals build a reef around the island. The kind of coral that creates these reefs are hard corals and they create an exoskeleton of limestone. It is billions of these exoskeletons that make up the reef.
Over time the volcanic island starts to sink but the corals remain, and grow up until a lagoon is formed between the coral reef and the land. The ringing or fringing ring is now a barrier reef with the corals breaking the surface and dying as they do so. The lagoon is warm and shallow water which is great for many animals and the barrier reef also protects the lagoon from harsh winds and waves, making it more of a safe space. And yes, I’m going to ask you to think about your safe spaces, or how you create safe spaces! In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the safety of the Wild Unknown Animal Spirit Sea Serpent card.
In the final stage of the formation, waves break the limestone reef, beating the coral into sand. This sand and other material is then swept onto the reef forming a ring shaped island, or islets, known as an atoll.
I think it’s clear that to create new land, everything must come together at exactly the right time and in the right order. Personally, this is a poignant reminder that I need to think more about the conditions I need to live and thrive in. It can also be a prompt to ponder what your ideal world looks like? What energy and people would you surround yourself with if you were to create space for the life you want to live?
It’s also important to note that destruction was one of the elements of the process and sometimes we need to undo things to make space for new things, a lesson that the Tower in the tarot is good at highlighting.
That being said, atolls also remind us that the cycle of creation is one that happens over long, deep time. Whether that’s literally creating a child which goes far beyond the months of pregnancy and reaches out into their toddler years, their teen years and beyond, or whether it’s an artistic creation that needs seeing from inception stage to completion. Some creations have much clearer start and end points than others as I think the two examples show. If your creation has a clear end point, how do you know when you’ve reached that? Alternatively, if it’s something that will always be a work in progress, how do you know when you can feel good about it, satisfied with its progress?
The kind of coral that creates atolls, lives in warm water which thus dictates where atolls are found; the right place, the right conditions in the right order and with enough time given. Our world can be very fast paced so this might be a nudge to slow down. Things get done when they get done and also ensure you’ve got the right conditions in order to create.
If we think about how humans and atolls have interacted, we don’t necessarily find positive news… They lay low and this has been disastrous. Think of boats travelling the sea and the atoll obscured from view by the waves… Many atolls are uninhabited by humans as they are often remote and unfortunately this has made them good for testing nuclear weapons… The first hydrogen bomb was tested at Bikini Atoll by the Americans but it isn’t the only atoll used for this purpose.
Unlike other islands, atolls tend to be short of natural resources, although are enticing to tourists if they are easily enough accessed. This means things like food and fuel have to be brought to the atoll. Atolls struggle to earn money because they don’t have much to offer beyond tourism. However, some, such as the nation of Tuvalu (a series of isolated atolls in the Pacific) receives millions of dollars every year for use of its “.tv” Internet domain name.
Atolls are also at risk from climate change. As low lying land, rising sea levels are a very real threat and in the Maldives, reclamation projects have started, and the government has looked at land in other countries to repatriate residents should it be necessary. On a more positive note, it seems like natural processes on coral reef atolls may result in better resistance to sea level rise than should be the case given their low elevation. It appears that most coral atoll islands remain stable but of course, the future will determine what happens.
It does feel like atolls show the completed cycle of creation, and highlight that even if it seems complete, it is still changing, that endings are just beginnings and we’re never going to reach a state of perfection where all is done. I know for me, if I feel overwhelmed by day to day things, I sometimes think that if I just get them all done right now, that’ll be it. And of course that’s not the case. I send one email and get another I need to respond to. This puts me in mind of pacing, a concept familiar to many disabled people. It’s a way of getting out of the boom and bust cycle; you don’t wait until you feel ready to face everything you need to do, instead if you have energy to do one thing, you do that. If you wait till you think you can face it all, you’ll most likely hit 75% of it, and then spend the next week in bed recovering. Doing it in a more gentle, intentionally paced way, means you do a thing, you rest a little, you do another thing.
In case this is helpful, the explanation that helped me really understand was about knitting. Say you want to knit a blanket. You could sit and do ten rows and then need to rest for two hours. Or, you do a single row, stretch and wiggle and grab a coffee and then do another. Repeat and repeat (but maybe not the coffee part!) and you’ll find instead of getting ten rows done in two and a bit hours, you get 30 rows done in the same time.
Similar to the atoll, we are not a constant, we’re always being shaped by our relationships and the world around us. Murray Ford, in the article about the Maldives, said:
“The key thing to understand is that these islands aren’t static. They don’t sit passively as if they were in a bathtub and slowly drowning. They are constantly being reshaped by oceanographic and sedimentary processes.”
Isn’t this so true?
If we turn to mythology, we find that in the islands of Tuvalu, it’s believed in some of their mythology that the atolls were created by Te Ali, or the flounder, with the flounder’s body becoming the island.
One website shares the creation myth, saying that they were created by Te Ali and Te Pusi (the eel):
“Carrying home a heavy rock, a friendly competition of strength turned into a fight and Te Pusi used his magic powers to turn Te Ali flat, like the islands of Tuvalu, and made himself round like the coconut trees. Te Pusi threw the black, white and blue rock into the air – and there it stayed. With a magic spell it fell down, but a blue part remained above to form the sky. Te Pusi threw it up again, and its black side faced down, forming night. With another spell, the rock fell down on its white side and formed day. Te Pusi broke the rest of the rock into eight pieces, forming the eight islands of Tuvalu. With a final spell, he threw the remaining pieces of blue stone and formed the sea.”
If we rely on Wikipedia, we learn that the word atoll comes from the Dhivehi word atholhu from an Indo-Aryan language spoken in the Maldives. Darwin took this and used it as atoll, referring to the word’s indigenous origin, meaning a lagoon island.
Sometimes I reflect upon literature in these posts, but for atolls, my findings were limited… I did find a poem entitled Atoll by Robert William Service which looks at the romantic ideal of visiting an island or atoll and being away from the rest of the world. A concept I’m sure we can agree is idealised.
So, in conclusion, we have themes of time, perseverance and long, deep time, as well as the cycle of creation.