Nature Never Shuts Down

February 15, 2019
Photo: Jerry Kirkhart

During the December-January US government shutdown, over fifty female Northern Elephant Seals decided to turn Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore into a nursery. With most National Park employees on furlough, the seals settled in with no hassles and at this point cannot be chased off.

While I often saw Sea Lions when I lived in California, I did not become acquainted with Elephant Seals, though I hiked at Point Reyes regularly. There are numerous nursing colonies on isolated beaches from Oregon to the Baja region in Mexico. Elephant Seal populations are unknown since they live in poorly accessible regions even while breeding.

Photo: Frank Schulenburg

True to their name, these mamas are huge, weighing over a thousand pounds. Males are much larger. They roar like an elephant and have a funny nose. When not breeding, Elephant Seals live in eastern Pacific waters as far north as the Aleutian Islands. They eat fish, sharks, and squid.

Colonies will take off again around April, after pups have weaned and mothers have mated. They tend to return to the same breeding grounds year after year, so it is unclear whether Drakes Beach will be ever be open year-round again. The Park Service has established a viewing area for the public on weekends so as not to disturb the seals or place humans in danger.

The message the Elephant Seals have brought through their Occupy Point Reyes escapade is that despite stunts over government “shutdowns” that Congress and now our President have pulled, Mother Nature is in charge of this land. We can go on strike if we want, but she keeps going about her business.

Sources:
Associated Press, Elephant Seals Take Over California Beach During Shutdown.
US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Species Directory, Northern Elephant Seal.

Year of the Pig

February 8, 2019

Elephant seals next week.

The Chinese Year of the Pig began this week. The pig in Chinese astrology is a calm, prosperous, gentle animal, generous and focused. Here are some brief horoscopes for Year of the Pig.

A roundup of world folktales about pigs can be found here.

A four-part article I wrote several years ago about the sow in Western mythology is here.

I read once that you’re not supposed to clean the house for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, so as not to clean out the good luck. It seemed like good advice, and I started applying it to the Gregorian new year as well. What a boon to have days when you not only don’t clean, you don’t feel like you should be cleaning. I decided that the no-cleaning days should apply to Halloween (the Celtic new year) and Yule (the Heathen new year). Then I started celebrating Diwali and Rosh Hashana, by not cleaning of course. Now if I don’t feel like cleaning, I can say “It’s New Year’s somewhere.”

Excerpt from Divining with Animal Guides: Sherit’s Bid for Power

February 1, 2019


The journey of magician and apprentice to the cave is a ruse for presenting bare-bones accounts of Egyptian wizardry. To my knowledge the spells used by Thoth magicians to enliven their pieces of wax have not been written down and translated, though I have no doubt that even today there are people claiming to have the authentic Egyptian incantation, for a price.

One would think that the last thing on Sendjehuti’s mind as his sandals crunched over the desert floor was attack by crocodile. He was far from any body of water and he was headed west, away from the river. Still, crocodiles were in his thoughts. He was not afraid of any beast, but he had to be sensitive to the fears of others.

At the top of the hill he waited for the child, who was scrambling to keep up with him. Further back, her panting nurse paused and forced air into her stout body. “Are you certain you are prepared to proceed with this, Sherit?” he asked, giving her a final opportunity to turn around. The girl had been named for him, but they called her Sherit.

“Of course I am prepared!” the girl replied, indignant. “I have been repeating those words in my mind for days. I have memorized my lesson. How could you think I would be thoughtless about something you have told me to do?”

“No, I did not think you would be disobedient,” he soothed. “But perhaps you are frightened. What we are doing today is extraordinary. Many adults would decline this opportunity without hesitation, and you still wear a child’s hairstyle. There is no dishonor in retreating.”

“I am not frightened,” replied Sherit, now more incredulous than angry. “I am with you.”

“You must think of me, as well as yourself. What if you lose your nerve and this becomes a disaster? People will say it was my fault for leading you into this. They will say I am a poor father and do not deserve any children.”

The child laughed. “If anyone finds the nerve to criticize you, they had better watch out. You will send a pair of leopards to tear off their heads. You will point their severed heads toward their bodies and make their mouths tell their hearts how foolish they are.”

Sendjehuti snorted as he walked on. Yet he knew the nurse Khenty-Nebet, breathing heavily behind them, had an opinion of his capabilities not much less fantastic than his daughter’s.

“After today, people will call me Sobek-Sherit, instead of Sherit,” the child continued.

“You will never get a husband with that name,” he teased.

She appeared to consider this. “It will be a secret name, and you and Seti will call me that.”

Wer-Seti was Sendjehuti’s nephew and the reason for this expedition. A very bright boy with more persuasiveness than diligence, Wer-Seti had instigated a campaign to get pulled from his school so he could be tutored by his famous uncle. Finding the boy filled with more abstract curiosity than true commitment, Sendjehuti had brought his daughter into the lessons to spur Wer-Seti into making an effort. Now Sendjehuti suspected his nephew of pretending to be slow in order to prolong the agreeable companionship of his cousin.

“Hurry up Nebet!” Sherit squealed behind him. “We’re going to be late for the crocodiles.” Khenty-Nebet groaned.

Eventually they reached the mouth of the small cave. He was surprised to see a lamp burning, although no one appeared to be around. He had brought materials for starting a fire, but this would make things easier. Sendjehuti reached in the pouch around his waist for a vial of olive oil and a flax wick, which he placed in a second vessel.

“Do they leave these pretty lamps here for anyone to steal?” asked Sherit.

Sendjehuti chuckled. Several magicians in his coterie used this cave. Outsiders who knew about this place would sooner raid the Pharaoh’s tomb than dare to trespass here. He lit the second lamp and examined the outer room, which fortunately was free of debris.

Khenty-Nebet had arrived and her breathing had returned to normal. “I will wait here while the two of you go inside,” she said.

Sendjehuti said nothing for several seconds. “If that is your choice,” he replied coldly. He would make sure to tell his wife of the nurse’s dereliction of duty. The girl was safe with him, but still.

Khenty-Nebet appeared to deliberate over whether she was more frightened of the crocodiles or of him. “I will stay here while you are inside,” she repeated.

“Wait with Khenty-Nebet,” he told Sherit, then made a more thorough inspection of the cave. In the second room a large animal scurried away in a furry blur. He had no idea what it was, and it escaped into a crevice too tight for him to squeeze through. He returned to the outer room and motioned for Sherit to follow him.

At the second entrance she hesitated. “Father, what if I don’t say the words right?”

He looked back at her. “You know the words. You told me earlier, remember?”

“Yes, but what if I don’t say them right? What if the crocodile says, ‘You are only a small girl; I don’t have to listen to you’?”

“Come in here and sit down,” he said. The room was small, dominated by a pool of water the diameter of a large snake. Writing covered the walls and the girl examined the dedications with interest, even through her fear. She could read almost as well as Wer-Seti. This lesson had been planned for the boy’s benefit, but he had begged off this morning with a stomachache.

“Nefert-Satendjehuti,” he addressed her, using her real name. “You are growing up and growing older, and before long you will be grown. You will untie that braid and wear your hair like a woman and you will have a woman’s duties. Eventually you will die. You will make that terrifying journey that no one escapes. At the gate to the world below the Great Ibis will be standing, and he will ask you to justify your bid for a second life.

“If you are allowed to pass there will be dangerous animals for you to confront: snakes, demon wildcats, and crocodiles. There is a snake down there so huge he has swallowed a donkey. There is a big-headed cat with putrid flesh dripping from her teeth and breath that will make your eyes water. There are menacing crocodiles, eight of them, surrounding you from every direction. They will flap their tails and try to capsize your boat, so they can tear your body in pieces.

“And what will you say? Will you say the words to make them slink away or will you say, ‘I am just a small girl’? Will you command them to leave you alone or will you say, ‘I don’t know how to say the words’? The crocodiles will laugh at you. They will yell, ‘Where is your braid, little girl?’ They will yell, ‘Let us say the words.’ They will take your arms, your legs, your head, and your heart far underwater to dissolve into oblivion. Is that what you are waiting for? Is that what is going to happen to you?”

A chastened Nefert-Satendjehuti put her fingers on her eyes. “No, I will not let that happen to me.”

Sendjehuti took a piece of dyed wax from his pouch and massaged it in his palm to make it pliable. He gave the beast he was molding a long fat tail and pronounced spines, not neglecting the teeth and claws. The eyes he made larger than a typical crocodile, but they rested on top of the head in a realistic fashion. He turned toward the pool and in the old language pronounced loudly:

Out of the waters of Nun, hear your name Bulging Blinker
Out of the waters of Nun, turn your head to my voice
Out of the waters of Nun, roll your body and recognize yourself
Out of the waters of Nun, come to this place now
You must obey me, because I created you
You must obey me, because I bestowed your name
You must obey me, because I call you now


He plunked the figure into the water. As the droplets splashed upward they erupted into an enormous creature, far larger than the pool. He had not anticipated making the crocodile this huge. The child emitted a high-pitched scream. The crocodile raised his head, opened his mouth, and let loose a long bellowing roar. As the sound died away, he heard the thin, wavering voice of Nefert-Satendjehuti:

Back in the waters of Nun, Bulging Blinker
Back in the waters of Nun, you cannot molest me


As she spoke her voice gained volume.

Back in the waters of Nun, return to your abyss
Back in the waters of Nun, I command you to go
Back to the waters of Nun, I thrust a spear to your head
Back to the waters of Nun, retreat from my attack
You must obey me, because I am the one who commands you
You must obey me, because that is the way of Maat
You must obey me, because Thoth has written it so

The crocodile sighed and disappeared. There was a soft plop like a drop of water. Nefert-Satendjehuti put her arms around her father tight.

He held her a long while. The girl had performed surprisingly well; he had been sure when he saw the crocodile’s size that he would have to take over.

Eventually they heard a muffled sound outside the cave. Khenty-Nebet. “Go and tell her you’re all right,” he whispered.

The child scampered off and he followed, more slowly. At the exit from the inner chamber he raised his lamp to make sure he hadn’t left anything. From behind the dark crevice two eyes shone back at him.

Outside the nurse looked as though she had tussled with a crocodile herself. “Oh how great is the protection of the Two Ladies,” she wailed. “I thought that child had been eaten alive.”

“Nebet, I was fine the whole time,” Sherit protested.

Sendjehuti did not speak but began trekking quickly back to the village, leaving the two scrambling to catch up with him. He heard Sherit tell her nurse, “Nebet when we come here next time you will have to go inside. There is beautiful writing all over the walls.” He sighed with resignation. The girl had gotten a taste of power, and there was no possibility that the lessons were going to stop now, even if he succeeded in sending that lazy Wer-Seti back to school. He felt like he had been tricked into making his daughter his apprentice. He wondered if his nephew had masterminded the whole scenario, then wondered if he was giving the boy too much credit for guile.

He stopped and gave his daughter time to catch up. “Sherit, I think you know that you recited your spell today in an exemplary manner. Your speech was flawless. You did well.”

The girl responded with a grin. “I was not certain of that until you said so.”

He teased her gently. “I think you should make your mouth tell your heart how foolish you were, when you hesitated before the cave.”

She was silent for several seconds, then decided to acknowledge his point. “My heart, you must always remember that you have the ability to overcome the evil crocodiles. They can never harm you now.”

More about Divining with Animal Guides

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
BCE.

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.