Prairie Dogs

“Peace, harmony, and abundance don’t just happen by accident; they happen by design, one step at a time.  You have to know what to bring closer to you and what to keep away.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Prairie dogs aren’t a species I’m familiar with but I’ve really enjoyed learning about them.  There are 5 species; black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.  They live in grasslands and aren’t dogs, instead being closely related to ground squirrels.  They live in close knit family groups called coteries, which usually consist of an adult male, one or more adult female and their various children.  The coteries are grouped together, forming a ward, and wards come together to make a colony or town which can be home to thousands of individuals.

Family is important to prairie dogs and they are here to ask you about your relationship to family – literally, how is your relationship with your family and how do you feel about the concept?  Today, we are much more open to the idea of found family and that is fantastic!  Beyond family, prairie dogs are asking you to think about your place and role within the local environment and neighbourhood. 

Coteries have complex tunnel networks, with multiple entrances and different rooms for different activities; sleeping, storing food, getting rid of waste, raising young etc.  Living underground provides them with protection against the environment, protection from predators and space to carry out daily living in safety.

In many ways their set up is akin to ours, and like our species, they are sociable.  About half their live is spent underground in the burrows and when they aren’t there, they are nearby.  They stay close to home and, whilst they live mostly peaceful lives, they will defend their territory.  They are a reminder to us that we can, and should, protect our own boundaries, whether that is literal in the sense of gatekeeping who is allowed into our homes or more metaphorical by protecting our emotional boundaries.  Set your boundaries and maintain them.  Let in only what you want to let in.  And don’t forget to set boundaries around your dreams, your goals and your projects.  Not everything need always be open to comments.  If you have a work in progress and you aren’t ready to share, don’t.

In the morning, prairie dogs leave their burrows to harvest grass, but this is a risky job, so one will feed, while another keeps watch.  This is just one example of how they cooperate with each other for the greater good of the community.  They also groom each other, play fight and even ‘kiss’ upon meeting.  It’s thought that through kissing, oxytocin – a pleasure hormone – is released.  During these greet kisses, they open their mouths and touch tongues for a couple of seconds.  They do this a lot, but male-female kisses are rarer than female-female and female-pups so it’s thought that it helps to reinforce bonding.  It is also thought to be a way of communicating whether you are friend or foe. 

As they stay in the same area their whole life, they are vulnerable to predators – once the predator knows where they live, they know where to find a meal.  To protect themselves, prairie dogs have a large array of alarm calls.  They use different sounds for different dangers and can indicate whether the threat is coming from the air or from the ground.  Further they can describe the threat in detail; if a human is approaching the call includes information about the fact it is a human, what size they are, what colour clothes they are wearing and even if they are carrying a gun.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  This language is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  For example, tail flagging – where they way their tails around – and their wonderful ‘jump-yips’ which seem to be an expression of joy, and which look like they are engaging in a full body prayer.

 “When a prairie dog sends out the alarm that a predator is coming she or he packs a lot of information into that call.  Prairie dogs say something like, “Hey! Watch out! Here comes Joe, that medium-sized, brownish coyote, over the ridge on the left, coming towards us at a steady pace.” While they may not use these “exact” words, they communicate pretty exacting information about a potential threat.”
– Jennifer L. Verdolin

Verdolin relates this to communication in human relationships, highlighting the value in being very exact and precise.  Her point is that whilst we think we have communicated a message we may have shared less than we think.  She gives the example of a person asking their partner to do the dishes, they say they will, then the first person gets annoyed because they haven’t been done ten minutes later.  The second person hasn’t meant to annoy them or lie about their intent because they are planning on doing the dishes, just in half an hour.  Learn from the prairie dogs and be precise about your communication, it will save you hassle in the long term.

These animals are also referred to as prairie rats as it was once thought they bred like rats, but this isn’t the case.  They breed only once a year and females are only receptive for about 5 hours a year.  This makes baby prairie dogs seem a bit of a miracle!  More so once you learn that half of pups don’t live long enough to breed themselves. Those that do make it show a tenacity that you don’t see if you just glance at them.

Prairie dogs have an important role to play in the environment around them.  Their tunnel systems create shelter for other animals including toads and rattlesnakes.  The bare patches of ground created by grazing attract insects which in turn are food for a number of bird species.  And of course, the prairie dogs themselves are food for animals such as coyotes and hawks…  Kristy Bly from the WWF claims that at least 136 other species are supported by the activities of the prairie dogs.  They even help to aerate and fertilise the soil, allowing for a diverse array of plants to grow.

In terms of symbolism, the Jicarilla Apache associated the prairie dog with water and thought that they could lead thirsty people to water in times of need.  This association is also found in Navajo culture.

A number of websites took the burrowing aspect of prairie dog life as a call to retreat:

“Prairie Dog…calls me when it’s time to rest, when it’s time to honor the internal quest. I go into retreat so I may see, a way to replenish the potential in me.”
— Jamie Sams & David Carson

Other messages from these animals are about the importance of community, treasuring the small things in life even in the face of strife and the importance of setting strong boundaries.  Given their incredible, complex language system, precise communication is also emphasised here.

I nearly didn’t include this, not wanting to end on a sad note, but unfortunately Prairie Dog populations have plummeted as they have become seen as pests. They have been subject to poison and other methods of extermination. They are shot for sport and, like so many animals around the world, are experiencing habitat loss and destruction.

As we’ve seen, these are highly valuable creatures which provide a huge service to their local area and are giving scientists a fantastic insight into non-human languages. Please share what you’ve learnt about their communication skills – it will help others to see prairie dogs in an intriguing light, as well as helping to break down the myth that only humans can talk.

Links

Alpacas

Before diving into the alpaca, I wanted to highlight the difference between them and llamas.  The two are related and can interbreed but there are also some important differences:

  • Alpaca tend to be smaller than llama
  • There are differences between face and ear shapes
  • They have been bred for different purposes; alpacas for fibre and llamas as pack animals. This means they have different fleeces; alpacas produce more fleece, it is finer and there are more variations in colour
  • Llamas are more independently minded than alpacas

But let’s focus on the alpaca.  They are a bit like a cross between a sheep and a camel and are naturally found in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile.  Their fleece is used to make clothing, rugs and wool, the latter has no lanolin so is good for people with allergies. The alpaca speaks of abundance and having the resources you need.

Alpacas are social animals, living in herds which have a territorial alpha male, females and young but which also sometimes include other species such as goats and sheep.  It is thought that there may be a hierarchical social order within the group. 

As a social species, communication is important and they use most of their body when communicating.  This includes body language and spitting when distressed, when scared or to show dominance.  In terms of vocalisations, they make a variety of sounds – humming, grumbling, clucking, screaming, screeching, bleeting, clicking… When another alpaca invades their personal space they snort (personal space seems to be important to alpacas) and when the male is making sex he ‘orcals’.  Being able to express in a number of ways means they can warn the herd about danger and it is likely that the communication is also used to establish and/or maintain order within the pack. 

We can learn from the alpaca that there are many ways to communicate and some of these will be unconscious.  When you’re talking to loved ones, remember that you may be contradicting yourself through nonverbal messages.  Also, let the alpaca stress the importance of personal space!  We all have different boundaries and need different amounts of space and time alone and it is ok to tell someone you need them to leave you for a bit.  It is also ok to ask someone if they need a bit of space – giving them this is an act of love and shows you care, even if sometimes all you want to do is be with that person. 

Alpacas can be aggressive, and this has been exploited by farmers who use alpacas for sheep guarding duty.  Whilst they can be aggressive, they are also gentle, intelligent and very observant.  In addition to their sweet and peaceful nature, they only have bottom teeth so they can’t bite but of course this doesn’t mean they don’t fight…  Males will fight to defend their hareem and engage in neck wrestling which can look ruthless and exhausting but their necks have specially thickened skin.

A wonderful thing I learnt about alpacas is that they are especially organised and neat, defecating in one designated place that becomes a communal dung pile, even if this means walking further away than they might need to.

So often humans bring disaster to the animals I’m looking at and the alpaca is no exception; Spanish conquistadors brought disease to the Andes which turned out to be fatal to alpacas and their populations plummeted.  Today there are no known wild alpacas.

As alpaca’s were heavily relied on, they were used in rituals and religious practices.  They were thought to be a gift from Pachamama, an earth goddess, and archaeological evidence shows they were sacrified. 

A legend tells of how alpacas came into the world.  A goddess fell in love with a man but her father would only let them be together if he carer for her herd of alpacas.  As well as this, he also had to carry a small animal for the rest of his life.  The goddess came to earth and the alpacas would follow her.  All was fine until the man, foolishly, set the small animal down.  The goddess fled back to her home but the man tried to stop her and her herd of alpacas.  Whilst he didn’t succeed in stopping her, he did stop a few of the alpacas from following her.  These alpacas are the ancestors of those we have today. 

Whilst the moral of the story is probably to honour your word and don’t put down the small animal, I do think it’s nice that in breaking his pact, the man gave us alpacas.

Links

Animal Diversity

Llamas and Alpacas

Page of Pentacles

Blue footed booby

When it comes to the blue-footed booby, magic lies in their feet, in their – unsurprisingly – bright blue feet!  They are a comical looking seabird which have long, brown wings and white plumage as well as a blue bill.

When it comes to pairing up, it’s all about those feet and the bluer the better as it’s a hard colour for them to make so it’s an indication of how healthy the suitor is.  To make sure the girl you’re wooing knows how blue your feet are, you will engage in a mating dance which is all about showing her your magic.  Show your feet, bow long, wings out, give her a gift and show off your feet!  If it’s going well, you might both dance; mirroring each other helps to form a partnership.  Even though you no longer build nests out of twigs, you’ll then try to impress her with your nest building skills and may offer her pieces of nest building material.  If all of this goes your way, you’ll continue your courtship display even after you’ve mated but be warned, your girl isn’t just yours – when you’re away, she’ll flirt with your neighbours.

About half of blue footed boobies have extra relationships but whilst sexual monogamy doesn’t seem important, they are socially monogamous and will raise their family together.  Creating a successful family unit, in partnership, is more important to them than any extra marital affairs.  This might be a call to consider your own views on social and sexual monogamy.  They are not always united, for some people social monogamy might be more important than sexual monogamy but your feelings will be mingled with your feelings about sex and relationships.  This is a good time to remind yourself that different people have different sex drives and different sexual interests and being in a great relationship with someone doesn’t mean that those will automatically match.  Talk about what you consider to be cheating, talk to your partner(s) about your relationships and expectations.

Once they’ve mated, a female will lay her eggs in a shallow depression on flat ground and they like to have plenty of room between their nest and those of others in the colony.  This makes me think of new parents and interfering relatives who all feel like they know best and who crowd in around the mum with no respect for her boundaries…   They also surround their nesting area with guano, just to really get the message across.  I’m not going to suggest you go that far, but if the blue footed booby has entered your life, it might be worth reinforcing your own boundaries.

As the female blue footed booby doesn’t have brooding patches like most birds, she’ll use her webbed feet to incubate her clutch.  When they begin to hatch, she’ll support the eggs on top of her feet and the young will stay there for a month.  Both parents will feed the chicks.  It’s been discovered that the key to a long term relationship is the equal sharing of nest duties, year after year.  Something I’m sure many women around the world would raise a glass to!  In terms of breeding success, young seem to have the best chance in life when one parent is young and the older is old so if you’re looking for your own long term partner, maybe through the idea of ‘age appropriate’ out of the window!  With the caveat that we should still abide by laws of consent and so on…

They are named, clearly, for their blue feet but the word booby comes from Spanish sailors who thought that the way they walked meant they were stupid or foolish.  Despite their clumsiness on land, they are agile in the air and great underwater – judge someone by their skills in their preferred environment.

People don’t always think these birds are real, and certainly their feet can look photoshopped, additionally, the majority of the population is found in the Galapagos Islands – far from most people’s eyes.  It is also probably because of this that I struggled to find much symbolism related to the blue footed booby.  Generally, when I’m researching animals, I will at least find some cultural or symbolic meaning from their natural homeland, but I really struggled with this bird…

There is clearly importance in paying attention to foot health, to communicating through your body and in reflecting on your relationship models.  They are confident and don’t let their comical walk bring them down and that is a lesson we all need reminding of from time to time.  In fact what makes them seem odd and awkward is actually one of their greatest assets and one they have decided to make the most.

Apparently they are symbols of fearlessness but as their main predators are sharks, and humans, I wonder about this.  It’s easy to be fearless when you’ve rarely needed to be afraid…

“The blue footed booby is also a symbol of creativity and dreaming. It might be time to take that dream and make it a reality. The booby is telling you to keep in touch with your creative side. Anything is possible, as long as you can imagine it. Use your creativity to make it happen.”
Free Spirit Meg

As they are agile in water, an element which is associated with emotions, they are able to dive deep into their inner world and are comfortable at navigating their feelings.  So often, so many of us push our feelings down or try to turn them off but that will backfire at some point.  Instead, the booby suggests we get to know our feelings, we feel them and we let them go.

As I couldn’t find out very much about the blue-footed booby, I thought I’d turn briefly to the symbolism of the colour blue.

Blue is said to symbolise trust, loyalty and confidence – all aspects that we’ve seen, to different degrees, when we’ve looked at the booby.  It is a calming colour that apparently slows down the human metabolism and it associated with cleanliness and purity.

“Blue represents both the sky and the sea, and is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration, and sensitivity. Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven, and intelligence.”
Bourn Creative

As there are so many different shades of blue, it can have contradictory meanings dependant on the specific colour.  Light blues are associated with health, healing and tranquillity whereas dark blue is associated with knowledge, power and seriousness.

Links

Flamingos

The flamingo is iconic, highly recognisable and charismatic with its bright cheerful plumage, crooked, spindly legs and that quintessential pose.  These birds of light, with their fiery feathers, naturally occur on five of the seven continents and their name is derived from flame.  I find this interesting – a bird that is often seen as comical is actually incredibly powerful and that is a theme we will come across again as we look into the flamingo in more depth.  There is much more to them that the tropical, amusing symbol of fun.

A key distinguishing feature of these birds is their colour which is due to their diet.  They eat organisms which contain carotenoids which in turn create the shades of pink that the flamingo is known for.  Their babies aren’t pink, in fact they don’t get their bright colouring until they are between two and four years old.  Whilst you might covet a beautiful flamingo feather, you will be disappointed, once shed, they quickly lose their colour.  Not all that glitters is gold.

The flamboyant colour is used to attract mates and not just because it’s striking, but also because it’s a signal that the individual is able to locate great sources of food and is in good health.  Perhaps your own body is trying to communicate with you about your health – when we are stressed or under the weather, there are signs of this that we can see; poor skin, hair loss, nails breaking…

In addition to the plumage, the pose of the flamingo is a key part of the iconic look.  They stand on one leg because it’s easier than standing on two.  Maintaining their one-legged stance has been proven to require very little muscular involvement whereas two legs means balancing which works their muscles harder.  In fact, it is so easy, that even dead flamingos can stand on one leg!  To us it might seem obvious that standing on two legs would be more efficient than one but perhaps this is a call to consider whether we are doing things in our life in the most energy saving ways.  This puts me in mind of the tips and tricks that help those of us with pain and fatigue use to maximise what we can do, eg using a basket to carry things from room to room instead of making multiple trips.

Flamingos also use large flocks to live efficiently.  There is safety in numbers and it means you can spend more time feeding and less time being alert to danger.  The flocks also mean that they can create calm patches in the group, protected from the wind.  To promote group cohesiveness, they will use ritualised movements.  They also use ritualised displays to stimulate hormone production and hence to promote breeding amongst the flock.

They also use vocalisations and posturing to communicate within the group.  When it comes to attracting a mate, flamingos make use of fancy footwork to find a partner.  They take part in a group dance, moving and displaying as a unit.  Typically the oldest or tallest males will start the process and then the rest of the flock – male and females – will join in.  There are nine signature moves which are designed to show off what a great partner they will make.  If a female is impressed by a male then they will mate for life.  This seems like a lot of work but sometimes you need to make a song and a dance about finding a great flamingo to share your life with, or if humans are more your type, then think friends and partners.

It’s also worth celebrating because flamingos breeding isn’t all that easy… there is a narrow range of conditions which are conducive to breeding:

“If there is too little rain, there may not be enough mud to build nests or enough food resources to feed both adults and their chicks.  If there is too much rain, nests can be flooded or washed away, and the diluted standing water supply may no longer be saline enough to support the flamingo’s preferred prey species.  Additionally, flamingos are unwilling to breed unless their flocks obtain a critical mass.”
– Kight

If they manage to produce offspring then the adults (both male and female) provide the chicks with a red substance that is high in fat and high in protein.  This is similar to the milk produced by mammals and also occurs in pigeons and emperor penguins.  They feed this way every 45-90 minutes for the first week and then it gets less regular as the chicks get older.  In sharing this substance, the adults lose some of their pinkness.

So far, everything we’ve seen feeds into the narrative of the flamingo as being soft, gentle and delicate, however this is not the case.  They can cope with incredibly tough, savage conditions.  This includes high altitude wetlands where their legs freeze as the water they stand in turns to ice, only melting when the sun rises.  They can live in very salty, caustic water that would damage human skin and are able to do this because their legs are covered in keratin scales.  They can drink water that is almost boiling and is so hot that they have to hop from foot to foot.

Whilst earlier I said that maybe the flamingo was here to ask you to reflect on what your appearance is telling you about your inner world, it may also be here to remind you not to judge a book by it’s cover.  Yes, the flamingo may look dainty and fragile, but it is extraordinarily tough too!

“Because so few animals can tolerate extremely salty environments or figure out how to collect the tiny particles of food available there, flamingos have been able to exploit this niche virtually uncontested.”
– Kight

Despite being able to tolerate these intense conditions, they are incredibly sensitive to changes in temperature and precipitation so often find themselves having to move habitat.  Somehow, possibly to do with barometric pressure, they are able to identify where to move onto with reasonable success.  For example, in Africa, flamingos rely on lakes which are prone to drying out and in Namibia, greater flamingos have seemingly known when rain is due 500km away…

Turning to the symbolism of the flamingo, we find them often used to signify silliness, fun and as a nod to holidays and warm, tropical places.  They have also been an icon of cheesy campness and were used by gay men in the 1960s to advertise their sexual orientation.

For the ancient Egyptians, the silhouette of the flamingo was used to represent the bird itself, the colour red and also the reincarnation of the sun god, Ra.  In ancient Rome it was said that eating flamingos would help in all diseases as well as helping to maintain health.

“Old Islamic texts also indicate that Muslims used flamingos in a variety of medical contexts; sore joints, for instance, were sometimes treated by flamingo-fat ointment or by plasters containing, essentially, liquefied flamingos (obtained by boiling the birds whole for long periods of time), while ear troubles could be cured by the application of pastes made from flamingo tongues.”
– Kight

But perhaps the most striking use of the flamingo was in association with the phoenix.

“Flamingos are regarded as the embodiment of the firebird Phoenix.  This is reflected in its scientific name – the Phoenicopteridae, the Phoenix-winged… The motif of the Phoenix and its descendants embodies the dreams of the people.  In the various cultures and religions, the Phoenix-like birds symbolize rebirth and resilience.”
– Lesser Flamingos: Descendants of Phoenix, Lothar Krienitz

Perhaps the flamingos’ tendency towards large flocks, moving location and ability to survive harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions added to their mystic and wonder, seeming to appear out of nowhere, en masse.

“Descriptions of the phoenix’s self-(re)generation call to mind the beliefs of some East African native peoples who used to think that flamingos emerged from the salt pans fully formed”
– Kight

“Like the mythical phoenix for which phoenicopters may have been an inspiration, flamingos have been reincarnated, time and again, in the human consciousness: as a delicious indulgence, a mascot to rally behind, an embodiment of poor taste, and, now, an emblem of awareness of many groups in need – including, sadly, some of the pink birds themselves.  Thanks to their unusual and unique physical attributes, flamingos have always caught our attention and have never failed to impress.  Although they may look delicate and slight, these deceptively hearty birds manage to survive in some of the harshest habitats on earth, and have been doing so for millions of years.”
– Kight

The flamingo puts me in mind of this quote, attributed to Winnie the Pooh:

“You are braver than you believe, smarter than you seem, and stronger than you think.”

Do not let the world underestimate you.  You are tough, you are strong and you are a survivor.

Reading

Moles

“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?

Links

Ostrich: Animal Totem Tarot

The ostrich; the bird that forgot to fly.

ostrich

Ostriches are the largest living bird, the fastest living bird and one of the weirdest.  At 7-9 foot tall, these watchtowers are well placed to scan the horizon, vital because there is danger coming at them from all sides.  They have been living in Africa for 12 million years and are a favourite food for lions.  But don’t feel too sorry for them, one well placed kick can be enough to kill a lion.  At the end of their powerful legs are huge feet with 7 inch toes and 4 inch claws.  Don’t make assumptions about this odd looking bird!

The males have striking black and white feathers whilst females blend into the land more easily with greyish brown plumage.  Their feathers are very useful; they fluff them up and fold them as a way of regulating body heat and moisture so they can tolerate high temperatures and don’t need to find shade.  The ostriches use their feathers for communication and remind me of semaphore and fan dancing.  And of course, we use them for hats and boas.

Ostriches walk dozens of miles a day for food – they don’t need to search out water so frequently as they get most of what they need from their food.  When frightened or shocked, they will run in a zig zag way which can confuse the predator.  This can seem a bit like the ostrich is confused and is trying to run in a million directions at once and this might be the case for you, you may be trying to do too many different things at once.  Conversely, doing a couple of different types of things can be positive for our brain, switching between them gives the brain a break and that can be where we find our best ideas.

There is a myth that ostriches were capable of digesting anything including iron, with one medieval scholar claiming they could eat keys and horse shoes.  This rumour probably arose because they do eat stones.  They don’t have teeth and don’t have a ruminating stomach – no chewing the cud here – so have to tear at grass with their beak and swallow the fibres whole.  The rocks then grind the food down so it can be digested.  This habit, along with the false idea that they bury their head in the sand when facing danger, left people believing the ostrich was stupid.

The ostrich mating process is fascinating.  It begins with the male posturing, showing off his wings and showing the female he is interested.  His neck turns bright red and after a prolonged flirtation period, she lets him know she is ready.  The elaborate ritual can take a few days but the actual procreation takes a few minutes.  As an aside, unlike many birds, the male ostrich has a penis.

“The breeding system of the ostrich has been shown to be both varied and complex.  It is highly unusual amongst birds.”
– Brian C R Bertram

A dominant couple will establish a nest and the dominant female will be the first to lay eggs in the nest.  They lay the largest eggs in the world but compared to their size, it’s actually comparatively small.  Secondary females, who’ve had sex with the dominant male, will then lay their eggs in the nest.  This means that in one nest there are eggs from a variety of mothers.  Interestingly, the dominant female’s eggs will generally be in the centre of the clutch.  The secondary females leave their eggs for the dominant couple to incubate and raise.

The male will incubate the eggs at night when their dark plumage doesn’t stand out in the landscape and the more camouflaged females will take the day shift.  When they change shifts, the ostrich who is taking over incubation will do a dance as part of a recognition ritual.  This just confirms to the sitter that this bird really is their partner.

Even before birth, ostrich chicks are vulnerable.  Eggs are laid on the ground and are exposed to a number of threats.  Of a large clutch, 90% of the eggs won’t hatch because of predation.  Of those that do hatch, 15% of them will make it to their first birthday.  If you are one of the lucky babies that makes it through incubation safely, then you have to break out of a really tough shell, making for an exhausting start to life.  If you have pulled the ostrich card then ask yourself what shell are you breaking out of?  Are you going through a bit of a metamorphosis?  If it’s challenging, then this might the encouragement you need.

And of course, unlike other birds, ostrich chicks don’t need to know how to fly to leave the nest which is interesting to ponder metaphorically.

Ostriches have historically been hunted and maximum use was made of the bird once killed.  The skin is tough but flexible and has been used to make protective jackets.  The feathers have been used for decoration including the headdresses of African warriors and in fans used to fan the King.  In ancient Egypt, the ostrich plume was used as a symbol of justice and truth.  As a large bird, and a visible creature in Africa, they have of course made their way into the culture and the myths of the land.

Ostriches feature in folklore and carvings of the Kalahari Bushmen and were considered holy by the Assyrians.  Their eggs were prized by both bushmen and European sailors as a valuable food source, and the empty shell was used as a water vessel.  Holy properties of the shells were used to help and protect Ethiopian Coptic churches and buried Phoenicians.  Shell fragments have been heavily used to make beads for necklaces.

In The Ten Little Ostriches, a story from Kenya, a mother ostrich has ten little chicks that she’s very proud of, and one day she has to leave them to get food.  On her return, she can’t find the chicks but sees lion paw prints and challenges the Lion.  She demands Lion give her back the ten little chicks that are nestled in Lion’s arms but Lion says that she has no ostrich chicks, just her own lion cubs.  Ostrich asks Mongoose for help and in return Mongoose asks for Ostrich to build a hole under an anthill.  Later that day, all the animals arrive to help Ostrich get her chicks back.  But Zebra and Antelope, Baboon, Giraffe and Wildebeest all declare they see nothing but lion cubs.  Mongoose however jumps up and declares that mothers with hair don’t have babies with feathers.  Lion snarled angrily at Mongoose but this didn’t scare Mongoose.  Instead Mongoose stepped closer and shouted that Lion was a thief and immediately spun around and ran into the hole under the anthill where Lion couldn’t follow.  Whilst this was happening, Ostrich was able to rush into the Lion’s den and get her chicks back.  Mongoose meanwhile had run away via a back exit.

The bestiary notes, obviously that the ostrich has wings but does not fly, and goes on to discuss the mating ritual:

“now when the time comes for it to lay some eggs, the ostrich raises its eyes to heaven and looks to see whether those stars which are called the Pleiades appear.  When, however it perceives that constellation, round about the month of June, it digs a hole in the earth, and there it deposits the eggs and covers them with sand.  Then it gets up, instantly forgets all about them, and never comes back any more…. Now if the Ostrich knows its times and seasons, and, disregarding earthly things, cleaves to the heavenly ones – even unto the forgetting of its own offspring – how much the more should you, O Man, strive after the reward of the starry calling, on account of which God was made man that he might enlighten you from the powers of darkness and place you with the chiefs of his people in the glorious kingdom of heaven.”
The Book of Beasts

As the knight of wands, the animal totem card focuses on the idea of confidence, of energy and that things aren’t always as they seem.  This bird is probably best known for something it doesn’t even do – burying it’s head in the sand – and so is asking us to look at how we define ourselves and how others define us.

“Don’t let someone else create a set of myths, stories, and beliefs about who you are.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Instead of being cowardly or delusional, the ostrich is actually brave and grounded in reality.  Do not underestimate yourself.  Stand your ground.  Protect yourself.

Move forcefully.  Move quickly.  Be decisive.

This is not a time for pondering, for chewing the cud, for taking your time.  This is the time for action.

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Panda: Animal Totem Tarot

 

panda

Pandas are an icon of both China and conservation, and as such a high platform creature, you’d think we’d know them well.  As this post will explain, so much we think we know about the panda, is actually about PR.

But first, let’s get to know this adorable black and white bear.  These highly distinctive animals diverged from the ursus lineage 20 million years ago and whilst we know this today, in the past the taxonomic classification of the panda was debated.  After all, they are very different to the rest of the bear family, they are black and white and have the look of a raccoon.

Pandas were carnivores up until 4 million years ago when they moved over to bamboo, a seemingly specialised diet until you remember that their native mountains are covered in this food.  Despite there being over 300 types of bamboo, pandas are picky and do only eat a few of these…. As if finding the food wasn’t tricky enough, it’s hard to eat.  Bamboo is tough and so the panda has powerful cheek muscles which let them break through the tough outer layer.  It is this feature that gives it the iconic round head and a bite almost as powerful as a lion’s.  Bamboo also requires a lot of digesting so pandas wake very early, spending half their time eating bamboo and the other half digesting it.

This behaviour put me in mind of the idea of chewing the cud.  Take your time here, mull things over.  Consume a lot of information, digest it slowly and then make conclusions.

One really fun thing about pandas is that they can hold onto bamboo whilst climbing trees because of a sixth ‘finger’.  Perhaps the panda is actually evolutionary advanced, rather than an evolutionary mistake as they are so often portrayed.

And so we move to the image of the bumbling, clumsy creature who can’t take care of herself, let alone any babies they may ever actually have.  This is a lie.

They aren’t actually as endangered as we be told.  Their main issue is not that they are rubbish at reproducing but that their habitat is being destroyed.  They are regularly portrayed as incompetent breeders, as an evolutionary mistake, but are actually excellently adapted to their eccentric lifestyle.  After all, they’ve been around for millions of years!

This idea of them as vulnerable vegetarians, with their big needy eyes, who aren’t interested in sex is a Disney washed image, a PR stunt, that allows us to ignore the role that humans have had in their demise.  By shifting the blame to the panda, we can continue to destroy their habitats without a conscience at the same time as painting ourselves as heroes.

It is important to know that they do have a very brief fertility window but they are also able to delay implantation of the foetus so they can wait until circumstances are better.

Breeding attempts in captivity have famously failed, but this isn’t all that surprising when you realise that some of these have been same sex pairings… Pandas are, it turns out, hard to sex. But attempts to breed them have continued, perpetuated by the idea that pandas are in trouble and that pandas are bad at creating more pandas.  In fact, the main issue is pandas breeding in captivity.  A zoo enclosure is not the most conducive environment, pandas are only fertile for a short period and often they’ve only just met their supposed partner, would you be in the mood?

In the wild, the picture is very different:

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex, with a taste for flesh and a fearsome bite.”
– Lucy Cooke

In one afternoon, a wild panda can have sex over 40 times, and males have sperm which is much better quality than human males.  Panda sex involves biting, barking and just the right about of submissive-dominant behaviour.  Scent markings on specific trees provide other pandas with information about their sex, age, identity and fertility and males are attracted to female scent markings from far and wide.  In response, males attempt to leave their own scent as high up a tree as possible, engaging in acrobatic poses to achieve this.

But still, we continue to attempt to get zoo pandas to breed and what I can only describe as baby panda factories are found in china which use a variety of methods to stimulate and fertilise pandas which would not know how to live in the wild and so can’t be released…

“It’s all about politics and money… Panda breeding is a full-time, multi-million dollar industry, particularly if one can convince the public that pandas are incapable of reproducing on their own.”
– Kati Loeffler

Despite this, China repeatedly uses the panda as a sign of their conservation work and commitment to the planet.  These ambassadors for Asia are highly valued and have a long history.  Panda diplomacy goes at least as far back as the 7th century when a pair of live pandas were presented to the rulers of Japan.

“The panda can be used to seal the deal and signify a bid for a long and prosperous relationship.  If a panda is given to the country, it does not signify the closing of a deal – they have entrusted an endangered, precious anumak to the country; it signifies in some ways a new start to the relationship.”
–  Kathleen Buckingham

There are many things we could take from this, but for me, the big message from the panda is that you shouldn’t take things on face value, especially in this era of fake news.  Dig deeper, do your own research, look to sources that you trust.  A more fun message is that you can’t tell how kinky someone is just by looking at them!

Turning to folktales, there is a lovely Tibetan story about how the panda was originally all white and how it got its black markings.  Essentially a hurt cub was adopted by four shepardesses and a leopard wanted the panda for lunch.  The shepardesses sacrificed themselves protecting the panda cub.  When the other pandas heard, they were very upset and attended the funeral with their arms smeared with black ashes, as was customary locally.  During the funeral they cried and when they wiped away their tears, their eyes became smudged with ash.  Their ears turned black when they covered them because the other funeral guests were wailing loudly.  When comforting each other with hugs, more black ash got transferred.  In honour of the brave shepardesses, they vowed never to wash the ash from their fur.  Then the ground shock and up from the graves, a mountain rose far into the sky, turning into four peaks.  Ever since, the pandas have found safety in the arms of the four peaks, the arms of the four shepardesses.

Looking at the panda in the context of the Ace of Swords, we see again that this is a message about gathering information (or bamboo, whichever you need or prefer).  The message in the deck is around the idea of distracting yourself from the problem you are trying to solve – by food or whatever else frees up your mind – and how this can often result in that lightbulb moment.

The sword suit is about the mental realm, it covers thinking and information and truth and communication and the slow and steady panda reminds us that these things often cannot be rushed.  Take your time, enjoy the gathering stage, do what you need to do to get clarity.

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