The Visitation

December 6, 2019
Photo: Jerry Segrave/USFWS

There is a 3-legged deer in the village that has attained almost mythical status. People who spot the deer limping around at night are alarmed, only to be reassured that, “Yeah, she’s missing part of a front leg, but she gets along okay. Been that way for a while.”

The other night I glanced up and saw the 3-legged deer peering in the window at me. Wildlife, mostly deer, do this, and I feel sometimes like my house is a zoo cage and I’m on display for the wildlife.

I learned last night that our gimpy deer is not a doe, but a buck. He has a small rack going. I don’t see many bucks around, because they are hunted and they don’t have antlers much of the year. The 3-legged buck stood awhile at the window and then limped away.

Happy Turkey Day!

November 28, 2019
Here comes a car. Let’s run out in the road! Photo: Tim Ross

Yes, the Bald Eagle is the US national bird, but I’ll bet you secretly like the Wild Turkey best.

Though once endangered, the Wild Turkey has made a comeback and is found in most US states (and in northern Mexico). In New England, she has become a bit of a nuisance, flocking onto roadways and chasing suburban children.

Turkeys are social animals, the females at least, and sisters sometimes raise their next brood together. They can be aggressive, which makes sense, since their chicks are grounded. Adult turkeys can fly and swim, though they usually choose to run and walk.

They are quite fast runners. Once a turkey challenged me to a race. I was riding my bicycle on a paved country road, and a turkey began trotting next to me. Just for fun, I sped up, and the turkey continued running alongside of me. Finally I broke loose and pedaled as fast as I could, and the turkey and I were in tied in a fiercely competitive race. Eventually we left farmland and passed into a copse of trees, and the turkey had to fly up into the branches.

The word for turkey in Munsee Delaware is puleew, and the turkey is the totem animal for one of the major clans. Delaware women would wear cloaks of turkey feathers during important ceremonies.

The turkey has been the downfall of many a vegetarian. Many have told me that they stayed away from animal flesh completely for a year or more until one day, when they were really hungry, there was turkey….

Eye of the Tiger Shark

November 8, 2019

I learned today that sharks have rather interesting vision. Many species have both rods and cones, and they demonstrate an excellent ability to detect contrast. Like cats and other night animals, sharks have a tapetum lucidum, a layer of mirror-like crystals behind the retina which enhances vision in very low light. Apparently sharks hunt primarily by sight, even though they are also sensitive to vibration, electromagnetic fields, and chemical changes in the water. Tiger Sharks have a clear membrane that can cover their eyes like a see-through eyelid while on the attack. Tiger Sharks, like tigers, are one of the few animals that view humans as food. (Great White Sharks will attack humans, but they haven’t actually acquired a taste for us.) They are predators with superb vision, particularly in the watery depths.

Shark cones register light in the blue range. Photo: Albert kok

In my book, Divining with Animal Guides, I write about the eyesight of many animals and how that applies to divination.

Ghost Rabbit

October 25, 2019
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service

Several years ago, I ran over a rabbit in the car on a lonely stretch of highway. I don’t remember what kind of rabbit; it wasn’t important at the time, probably not even to the rabbit. What mattered was that the rabbit was alive, and then it was dead.

As is typical of deserted roads in the Adirondacks, it was several miles before I could find a place to turn around, but I felt it was important to return, to take responsibility for my action, inadvertent as it was, and honor the life taken. When I returned I discovered the rabbit had hopped or been thrown to the side of the pavement, where it died. I was struck not with pity or regret or self-recrimination, but with confusion and then with wonder. Because the rabbit was not there. The body lay beside the road but the rabbit was gone gone gone. The rabbit had hopped away, with no attachment to the physical form or the place of death. Perhaps I could call its spirit back and ask forgiveness, but why do that, except to placate my own spirit? It happened. The rabbit had moved on. I needed to do the same.

I tend to think that the ease with which the rabbit slipped out the world had to do with the temporal nature of cornerstone species, their short lives making their foothold in this world a tentative one. I imagine that the long-lived elephant would leave with a long good-bye, especially from what I have read about elephant funerals and elephant graveyards. Then too, our North American leporidae are not social creatures, unlike elephants and Old World rabbits. A social hierarchy seems to anchor a species to the earth, creating as it does a more complex system of obligation.

Given the rabbit’s ease in slipping into the world of the dead, it is interesting that graveyards provide such a hospitable living environment for rabbits, hosting open grassy spaces in metropolitan or densely forested areas. While we usually think of bats and spiders at Halloween, the rabbit seems like a highly appropriate animal to meditate upon as the veil grows thin.

In my book, Invoking Animal Magic, I devote a whole chapter to folklore about rabbits and hares.

Feline Easily Forgotten

October 11, 2019

In Divining with Animal Guides, I write about three momentous encounters with Mountain Lions, but I have also had encounters with the smaller wild cousin of the Mountain Lion, the Bobcat.

One of the things I like best about the Bobcat is that she doesn’t view me potentially as food. She is much too shy and small. The Bobcat is about twice the size of a kitty cat and weighs 20 pounds on average. She has tufts of fur on her ears like a lynx and a short tail that is the source of her descriptive name. Her fur ranges from tawny yellow to gray and her spots may be prominent or indistinct.

This Bobcat with hare gives a good perspective on size. Photo: Linda Tanner.

The Bobcat will run away rather than stand her ground with a human and is therefore rarely seen. The ubiquity of Bobcat tracks in the Adirondacks assure me that the population here is robust. I’ve seen a Bobcat in the Adirondacks in the middle of the day, in winter, though she is supposedly nocturnal. She was standing in a forested area along a highway. In the Sonora desert we did think of Bobcats as night animals, because they would creep into housing areas late at night, drinking from swimming pools and hunting domestic cats.

My best close-up encounter with any wild cat happened in the daytime in Arizona with a Bobcat. The house I lived in had a glass sliding door that opened onto a brick paving area, too small to be called a patio, with a spigot on one side. The Bobcat was drinking leisurely from the shallow well under the spigot. My cat Misha alerted me to the Bobcat’s presence by crying and pacing in front of the door. Misha and I sat in front of the glass watching the Bobcat for about five minutes, Misha’s tail wagging furiously the whole time. Certainly the Bobcat was aware of us sitting there, not even three feet away, with Misha crying, but she acted like we were invisible, or at least unimportant. I was surprised that Misha didn’t run away. Apparently both cats understood how doors work.

Northern Bobcats are darker. Those that I have seen have less prominent spots. Photo: Conrad Fjetland.

To me, one of the symbolic issues of the Bobcat has to do with deception. We hear so much more about the big cats – lions, cougars, leopards, panthers, jaguars – and even the Canada Lynx, only slightly bigger than the Bobcat, attracts more interest. It’s easy to dismiss the Bobcat, but the Bobcat is the wild cat most likely to be skulking around the margins of your experience.

Desolate Places

August 22, 2019

It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman
Which gives the stern’st good-night.

~ William Shakespeare, MacBeth

Two of the most forsaken places in popular imagination are cemeteries at night and deep outer space. I spent an evening earlier this week at Norton Cemetery stargazing with a friend who has a really good telescope.

Photo: Greg Smith

As we waited for twilight to deepen, a bat flitted over our heads. Eastern Coyotes wailed in the distance. As the night got underway, a Long-Eared Owl began her subtle one-note song.

The Ojibwe call death “crossing the owl bridge,” and the Tohono O’odham bury owl feathers with loved ones. The association in Western Europe of owls with death is thought to carry over from the pre-Indo-European practice of excarnation, the placement of dead bodies on platforms to be devoured by birds. But all the bodies in this cemetery were in the ground.

Photo: Rawastrodata

I heard the territorial scream of a Long-Eared Owl a few years ago, and I’ll never forget it. A friend and I were camping and awakened in the night by the sound, so piercing that we scrambled out of our sleeping bags trying to place it. In contrast, the single long note of the placid Long-Eared Owl could easily be missed if not repeated.

The stargazing was great. We looked at Saturn with his rings and Jupiter with his moons and debated how “Io” should be pronounced (I say EE-oh, you say EYE-oh).

One of the most awesome sights through the telescope, six thousand light years away, was the Wild Duck star cluster. It was discovered in 1681 by Gottfried Kirch and included in Charles Messier’s 1764 catalog (M-11). It is supposed to resemble the tale of a duck in flight. Honestly, I couldn’t see it, but it is a beautiful cluster.

All Hail the Fisher

August 16, 2019

This week I participated in a storytelling project about the Adirondacks. I chose the fisher as my subject, an animal I did not know existed before moving here.

The fisher is a member of the weasel family, the size of a large cat and sometimes called a fishercat. When pussies go missing in the Adirondacks, though, the culprit is often a fisher.

Fishers are quite aggressive, snarling and hissing at people who surprise them rather than running away. They feed on animals much larger than they are and can even kill and eat porcupines! Once a fisher lunged at me, probably defending a kill.

The fisher who frightened me so badly was on the ground, but fishers spend most of their time in the trees. They need large expanses of uninterrupted forest, so they are only found in sparsely populated areas of North America.

If you encounter a fisher in the wild, give her plenty of room. She is not impressed by your larger size, and she is much meaner than you.

Iphigenia in Aulis

August 9, 2019

I was reading Iphigenia in Aulis this week, and another thought struck me about this myth.

The Greeks performed a ritual to Artemis prior to attacking Troy, offering Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to her priestesshood, in order to secure favorable winds and other blessings from the goddess, who was venerated along the coast of Asia Minor. Buttering up the gods of the people you planned to attack, trying to get them to move over to your side, was an ancient war strategy. The story goes that Iphigenia was going to be killed at the altar, but by a miracle Artemis substituted a deer (or sometimes, a bear) at the last minute. This made a better story, but it (probably) was an embellishment. Maybe as part of the ritual to Artemis a deer was sacrificed. Maybe Iphigenia initially protested being relegated into chastity. Her mother almost certainly wasn’t onboard with the plan. But I’m not going along with the miracle substitution.

Photo: Elfer

I was thinking this week about how Judy Grahn and other feminists have viewed the Trojan War as a last stand against Western patriarchy, the defeated Trojans representing the matriarchy. The all-women priestesshoods were relics from the matriarchies, their continuation an uneasy truce, or even a condition of surrender. As patriarchy gained a firmer hold, the Witch hunts of the Catholic (later Protestant) church sought to eliminate these relics of female power. The persecution of Dianics by American Witches are a continuation of that quest to subdue female power under male domination. Thinking of the autonomous priestesshood as a term of surrender puts the attacks on Dianics within Paganism in sharper focus. The three major methods of maintaining female subordination under Patriarchy are violence, economic oppression, and religion. Destruction of religious self-determination for women is an essential part of patriarchal control on the left and the right.

I tell the story of Iphigenia in my book, Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess.

A Priestess for Artemis

Iphigenia means “mother of strong children” and is probably an early name for Artemis or another bear goddess who became merged with Artemis. It later became an honorary title for her priestess. There are conflicting versions to the following story, but this much is not in dispute: The hero Agamemnon, leading an offensive against Troy, made little headway with his fleet due to unfavorable winds sent by Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. After consulting an oracle, Agamemnon offered Artemis his eldest daughter Iphigenia, thus earning the implacable wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra.

King Agamemnon of Mycenae was on the wrong side of Artemis from the start. His father had failed to honor a vow that he would sacrifice a prized lamb to the Huntress, and there is no record that the son felt an obligation to make good the pledge. Agamemnon, so capable in manly pursuits, once slew a white stag with a single arrow and boasted that Artemis could do no better. So true this boast: the beast was a member of the Virgin’s chariot team, and she would never have slain it.

When Queen Helen ran away with the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon took command of the retaliatory mission. Here was a chance to lead a great coalition and gain heroic stature. So much more the pleasure of Artemis, whose sympathies were inclined toward the Trojans, in thwarting Agamemnon’s plans. As the fleet readied to embark, an unfavorable northeast wind stranded them in the harbor of Aulis for weeks. Some say the goddess was miffed over the killing of a hare and cursed the whole expedition. Impatient to sail and bewildered by the persistent bad wind, Agamemnon called for an oracle. A chicken was gutted and the seer declared Artemis must be coaxed with a sacrifice of Agamemnon’s oldest daughter.

At first Agamemnon demurred. His wife would never surrender the girl, he protested. The military cohorts devised a scheme: send a messenger to the mother explaining that the demigod and prince Achilles wished to marry the princess, and she must come at once.

Clytemnestra, whose ambitions were wholly channeled in securing an advantageous match for her beautiful daughter, hastened to Aulis with Iphigenia, where a comedy of errors—or perhaps a tragedy of errors—awaited them. Agamemnon’s secret letter to Clytemnestra exposing the ruse had been intercepted, and the strong-willed matron arrived against her husband’s expectations demanding a marriage contract. Achilles, innocent and uninformed of the subterfuge (and married to someone else besides), was protesting there had been a mistake. Priests were completing preparations for Iphigenia’s dedication. The bamboozled daughter was balking at the plan, and her mother began begging Agamemnon and then threatening him. Surely there was a face-saving way out of the mess, by declaring Achilles an unknowing partner to deception if nothing else, but the fact remained that ships were stuck in harbor and men were itching for war.

Iphigenia, realizing her father’s ambitions and her country’s future revolved around her, finally stepped forward and declared she would go to Artemis. Iphigenia was as loyal, devoted and obedient as she was beautiful. Or maybe filial duty and patriotism were just a piece of it, and Artemis herself seduced the girl. Perhaps Artemis promised her adventure in a far flung country. She could be mistress of a great temple. The possessions of rich ladies who died in childbirth were sent to this temple, and Iphigenia’s beauty could be displayed against the finest fabrics and jewels.

Iphigenia’s acquiescence stirred a whirlwind. At the altar of Artemis the priests raised their knives to slit the girl’s throat, but at the last moment a bear cub was switched in her stead, and Iphigenia was swept on a red cloud to the land of Tauris. The same wind that whisked the new priestess filled the sails of the Greek fleet, and they were off to conquer Troy.

In offering Artemis the coveted maiden, Agamemnon was given the favorable wind he requested, but the act never improved the disposition of the goddess toward him. Later she abandoned him to the wrath of Clytemnestra.

It would be inaccurate to say the sacrifice of Iphigenia turned Clytemnestra away from her husband, for he had earned her hatred long ago. There comes a point, however, where dislike becomes disloyalty, and the proud mother had envisioned a greater future for her daughter than being exiled in a remote temple wearing dead women’s clothes. That the victorious Agamemnon returned from the war to be trapped in his wife’s net should surprise no one.

Iphigenia did not learn of her father’s fate for many years, until her brother Orestes was cast ashore at her temple under mysterious circumstances. As high priestess, Iphigenia presided over the slaying of refugees at the altar of Artemis, and during the pre-ceremonial interview learned of his identity.

What was Orestes doing in Tauris? Orestes admitted he was running from the horror of his actions. He had killed Clytemnestra, with Apollo’s approval, to avenge her murder of their father. After the filthy deed, Orestes was called to account before the Olympians, where Apollo spoke in his defense. The gods quarreled over his fate along political lines until the goddess Athena cast a vote with Apollo, tipping the verdict in Orestes’ favor.

An acquittal won through a brilliant defender and a stacked jury does not automatically erase the pangs of conscience, however, and Orestes had committed a horrendous deed. The Furies, sister deities who rule the conscience, tormented him for his crime until, driven to the edges of insanity, he consulted an oracle for a remedy. The oracle instructed him to steal the sacred statue of Artemis at Tauris and carry it to Brauron, where he was to build a new temple to the goddess. If he was unable to carry out this feat, Orestes declared, he might at as well die in Tauris; he could not go on living with this torment.

Surprisingly, Iphigenia decided to help her brother. She had grown tired of her exile and longed for the customs, faces and clothing styles of her native country. She told the Taurian king that Orestes and his companion were polluted by matricide and must be cleansed before sacrifice. That much was true; Orestes was not fit to have his throat slit on the altar of Artemis. She further told the leaders of her host country that she was borrowing the statue of the goddess for the purification rites. Iphigenia was certainly the double-crossing daughter of Agamemnon

Orestes consulting the oracle. Notice the snakes on the priestess hovering above the tripod. Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Miraculously, with much adventure and intercession of the gods, the brother and sister eventually reached the ancient shrine in Brauron. A new temple was built, with the sacred image installed therein, and Iphigenia was named high priestess of the complex.

The presence of an important temple to Artemis so close to the city was an honor that made the Athenians nervous, as the wrath of Artemis had already sparked so many misadventures. Every family that could spare a daughter for a year sent the girl to Brauron to attend the goddess and learn the Brauronia ritual. The girls were called little bears and charmed the goddess with their dances. In this way, Artemis extended her healing side to Athens, protecting against plagues and enhancing the survival of infants and their mothers.

For the Love of Scorpions

July 4, 2019

The heat of summer is full upon us, excruciating in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, and this makes me think of scorpions. It’s a reminiscence, not a vigilance, because I now live far enough north that I don’t have to check my shoes every time I put them on. No wonder people in Arizona like sandals!

Selket greets the deceased as a woman with a scorpion on her head. Egypt, 1100 bce.

Scorpions are fascinating, multi-faceted creatures. They embody mystery, in the sense that they become more intriguing the more you learn about their secret world. They embody boundaries, in the sense that much larger creatures are respectful of them and their venom. They embody transformation, in the sense that their venom has huge effects on the human body.

Scorpions are dangerous and live in a dangerous world, hunted continually by birds. Even mating is dangerous. Summer is scorpion courtship season, involving a dance pincer-to-pincer under the starry sky. That sounds sweet, but since both parties are heavily armed it can involve stinging. Some scorpions reproduce parthenogenetically, which seems like a better idea.

Here is an excerpt from a chapter on scorpions in Divining with Animal Guides:

The Egyptians had a scorpion goddess, Selket, who was called upon for protection against—you guessed it—scorpions. Selket was one of the guardians of the “canopic jars,” the containers holding the pickled remains of four vital organs of the deceased: liver, intestines, lungs, and stomach. The heart, the all-important anchor of the soul within the body, was preserved, wrapped, and returned to the body cavity. The brain was thrown in the trash. Each of the four organs was guarded by a specific deity, and Selket protected the intestines. The guardian deity was depicted on the outside of the jar along with hieroglyphic prayers to invoke that deity’s protection. This label also helped the expired prince remember which jars housed his various organs. Labeling funerary objects was an important precaution: not only did the rich take a lot of stuff with them, the world beyond had so many people—as many people as had ever trod the earth—that mixups were a potential complication. Thus everything was tagged, and clothing and bedding contained laundry marks. This consistent attention to organizational detail in preparation for the final voyage may strike some people as absurd, but think about it: would you want to root around in someone else’s canopic jar by mistake? Selket was entrusted with an important responsibility.

Selket’s other major role was helping the deceased draw their first breath in the afterlife. Most “death goddesses” are really death-and-birth goddesses, and breath is the fundamental connection to life. Selket initiated breathing in both worlds. To emphasize this nurturing aspect of Selket’s character, she was sometimes depicted without a stinger or as a stingless Water Scorpion. The Water Scorpion is not an arachnid but an insect in a family biologists call the “true bugs.” Water Scorpions are true bugs and fake scorpions, and most of them don’t even faintly resemble scorpions, but there are a few with pincer-like front legs and long tails that look vaguely reminiscent. The “tail” is actually a breathing tube that sticks out of the shallow water. The Nile species depicted in art has a double-breasted air tube.

Here is an excerpt from a longer article on scorpions in the anthology, iPagan:

Renaissance scorpion magic was unequivocally combative, used surreptitiously for destroying personal enemies. Outside of hot climates a scorpion would have been a scarce commodity, all the more so because there was no use for the creature which enjoyed public approbation, and this must have heightened the allure for those dedicated to intrigue. Picture a man in tights with a ridiculously large shirt collar gazing down at a desiccated scorpion while rubbing his hands together and saying “Hahahahaha.”