The Universal Approach to Animal Divination: Roadrunner

November 30, 2018

Video: Katja Schulz

The Black-Throated Sparrow doesn’t realize she’s in danger.

Pecking between the gravel bits for ants, she knows there are no hawks circling above and no foxes lurking nearby. A snake could be heard gliding along the desert floor in plenty of time to fly away. She is aware of the woman standing a few feet away, but not particularly concerned. When the roadrunner races in, scooping her up without breaking stride, she never knows what happened.

How do Witches and followers of other Euro-shamanic paths interpret animal encounters for which there is no body of culturally specific folklore? Roadrunners are native to the Western Hemisphere and the vast families of sparrows are too diverse to be generalized. The temptation is to plunder indigenous American folklore for direction, but this approach requires caution, as spiritual conceptions among Native American tribes differ widely and may be incompatible with European ones.

An alternative to consulting a book or scouring the Internet for a canned interpretation is to employ a methodological approach. A methodological approach looks at the context in which an encounter occurs as well as the characteristics of the animal herself. Context can be cultural, individual, or environmental. It can apply to a discreet encounter or to a series of encounters. It can be tentative or incomplete, awaiting further encounters for clarification. I call this methodological approach to interpreting animal signs the Universal Approach to Divination.

Applying the Universal Approach to the introductory scenario, we have a predator-prey encounter. Which bird the woman observing the kill identifies with depends on her personality and life situation. Let’s suppose she feels drawn to the roadrunner and has been observing this bird for awhile.

Greater Roadrunner. Photo: PhreddieH3

The Greater Roadrunner is a large desert-dwelling bird native to Mexico and the American Southwest, about the size of a raven. She has pronounced tail-feathers and a scruffy crown. She flies infrequently, mainly short distances to access nesting sites or to escape predators. Her preferred mode of transportation is bipedal, and she can run 15 mph or more, faster than a human. The placement of the toes, two in front and two in back, forms an X print that makes it challenging to decipher when tracking which direction the bird was traveling. Encountering roadrunner tracks might signify a confusing upcoming situation where you “don’t know if you’re coming or going.”

The scraggly roadrunner can devour large prey such as rattlesnakes by banging the reptile’s head against a rock. Meeting a roadrunner with a venomous animal in her beak might signify a thorny problem ahead requiring resourcefulness.

Sometimes roadrunners hunt in tandem. Like most birds, roadrunners form long-term monogamous bonds and cooperate in nesting and rearing chicks. Two or more roadrunners together might signify a cooperative endeavor.

Most people are familiar with the roadrunner through the Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons, which feature a hapless coyote attempting to prey on a roadrunner who continually outwits him. While in reality a roadrunner is no match for a coyote, in popular culture the roadrunner represents the triumph of the underdog by virtue of ingenuity. The cartoon roadrunner emits a beep-beep sound like a car horn, an allusion to the bird’s name bearing no resemblance to the actual call. The sound a desert wanderer is most likely to hear from a roadrunner is a rapid bill-clicking territorial burst reminiscent of light machinery. The characteristic clicking might be analogous to a car horn telling you, “Heads up! Be alert!”

Black-Throated Sparrow. Photo: Kevin Cole
So how to interpret the opening scenario? If it is the latest in a string of encounters, it may signify another characteristic of this fine bird the woman who observes the kill is working to emulate. Taking this discreet encounter on its own, a possible interpretation is of a chance at a choice acquisition in the near future, perhaps some easy money with no down side requiring no deviation in plan. It may require speed and decisiveness, key roadrunner traits, but little else.

Unless of course the woman identifies with the Black-Throated Sparrow. Then it’s a different bird altogether.

Bill clicking of Greater Roadrunner (Bob DuHamel)

Shapes of Deer

October 4, 2018
Photo: Shenandoah National Park

Driving back from town yesterday in the early evening, I saw more deer by the road in more places than I could count. Seeing so many deer made me think of this passage from Divining with Animal Guides.

The Scottish goddess Cailleach Bheur roams the hillsides herding giant deer and drinking their milk. Cailleach, under various spellings, has been characterized as a deer, hare, cat, grain, serpent, gray mare, mountain, stone, and hag goddess, or as a hag goddess alternating with a maiden alter-ego. The pervasive characteristics of this deity are: female, old, and very large (even giant). I believe Cailleach is a word for a pre-Celtic concept of ancestress, and hence we should expect to find many Cailleachs. The deer Cailleach may be a reindeer, since milk and herding are part of her lore. Reindeer were indigenous to northern Scotland up to the thirteenth century. Alternatively, the deer Cailleach may be linked with Red Deer, who also live in groups and are larger than other European deer species. Another possibility is that the deer Cailleach could be an Irish Elk, a huge species of deer (not elk) that inhabited much of western Eurasia through the Ice Age. It is speculated that the changing climate could not support the Irish Elk, but the species was able to Into the Mist survive in isolated pockets throughout the Neolithic, documented in the foothills of the Ural Mountains even in historical times. The male Irish Elk had beautiful, formidable antlers.

The Scottish word for shape shifting, fith-fath, literally means to take the shape of a deer. It is easy to see why deer, having such a fey quality, would be equated with this concept. Deer are crepuscular creatures, active in the gray periods of the day, and seem to appear and disappear at will. I once stood next to a doe in an open forest and did not see her, so invisible did she make herself. It was almost like she transformed herself into a tree. I have heard many anecdotes about women changing themselves into deer—always women for some reason—and I have even witnessed this phenomenon myself.

Megaloceros (Irish Elk) from Lascaux Cave. France, 17,000

What is a Familiar?

August 9, 2018

Familiars are spirits which help witches with their magic. The term has morphed in common usage to mean any beloved pet owned by any person. In the strict magical sense of the word, this is incorrect.

A familiar can be an incarnate spirit or an embodied one, as long as the familiar is dedicated to the witch or magician. It does not have to be an animal and can be a plant or a stone. It is never a person. The magical relationship between a witch is a conscious one, actively employed.

There is a strong psychic bond between a witch and her familiar, and the familiar may help a witch with divination. It may magically carry out a witch’s bidding. It may carry messages to otherworldly realms. If you don’t do divination, cast spells, or communicate with the dead, you don’t have a witch’s familiar. That would be like saying you have a barber when you never cut your hair.

It is possible to have more than one familiar, but in practice that is difficult, and many witches move sequentially from one familiar to the next. Having a familiar takes a lot energy. Maintaining any close relationship takes energy. In addition, there is the energy expended keeping the familiar in check. An effective familiar will try to steal your power, so be attentive.

Photo: Jana M. Cisar/US Fish & Wildlife

First Harvest Blessings

August 3, 2018
Goshawk nest in birch tree. Photo: Jensens

Well, the goshawks, reportedly, have flown the nest. The trail is open and people report traveling unmolested. Not sure when I’ll walk that path alone again.

I heard reports last month of two other trails in the county where Northern Goshawks were threatening mountain bikers. The prevalence of goshawks in the Adirondacks has been a matter of speculation for years, with one theory being that they are too shy to give an accurate count. But now it seems that for one month out of the year they are more than willing to make their presence known. I wonder if numbers are recovering or if we’re having an irruption. Time will tell.

Here are some fun facts I learned about the Northern Goshawk.

1) They have such strong talons and are so aggressive that they’ve been known to pierce bicycle helmets in attack.

2) They hunt starlings, which is a major point in their favor. While starlings are famous for their accomplished singing skills, in North America they are an invasive species. Starlings are loud and obnoxious in large groups.

3) Goshawks kill a lot of Blue Jays and keep that native species in check.

4) They like to consume their prey on the ground and don’t have a lot of enemies (unsurprisingly).

5) People are more likely to be attacked when hiking solitary, although this year groups, including groups with dogs, have been attacked.

Things are returning to normal in the village. People are reporting nuisance bears who have learned to open garage doors, but that’s an ongoing problem, and at least the bears run away when they’re confronted.

Well That Was Interesting

June 29, 2018

Last Friday I had a frightening wildlife encounter, the most upsetting in my life so far. I was not harmed in any way, only badly shaken. A friend of mine, upon hearing about the episode, said, “Oooouuuu! You can write about this!” It is a testament to how unnerving the experience was that a day later it still had not occurred to me to write about it, ever. Maybe I will, next week or next month or someday, but I’m not ready to revisit it yet.

People who have read my books must be wondering, “What would it take to shake her up?” Trust me however: I have been humbled. Stay tuned.

Gone Fishing

June 15, 2018

… or the vegan equivalent thereof.

Rainbow Trout. Photo: Ryan Hagerty/USFWS

Indie Shaman Review for Divining with Animal Guides

May 18, 2018

Thea Prothero writes: “The book is brimming with wisdom and exceptionally well researched; this in turn guides the would-be diviner to access the natural world form a uniquely well-grounded and refreshing perspective.”

Indie Shaman is always a recommended read. The theme of this issue of Indie Shaman is “Shamanic Lands: The Otherworld,” and there are many in-depth articles about the worlds of the ancestors, from a breadth of perspectives and modalities. I have an article in this issue titled “The Weasel Underground.”