In my forthcoming book, Divining with Animal Guides, I have a chapter on woodpeckers. I mention that woodpeckers are associated with rain, thunder, and the god Thor. The red cap on some woodpeckers is how Thor gets his red hair. I was looking at pendants representing Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and noticed that the bottom part of the hammer has a beak-like point. The pointy Mjolnir is not the only depiction, but it has been found in many graves. This replica from Sweden (Kurck collection, date and site unknown) has a particularly strong bird resemblance.
The Eurasian Wryneck is a drab black-and-cream bird in the woodpecker family without the woodpecker’s typical coloring, long bill, or pecking habit. She forages on the ground and appropriates abandoned tree cavities. She twists her neck in an uncanny way and for this reason she has traditionally been used in reversing spells, especially spells to win back an errant lover. In one of the Greek epics the unwilling heart of Medea, a witch-protégé of Circe and priestess of Hecate, is won using a Wryneck spell. In another myth the goddess Hera changes the nymph Iynx into a Wryneck in retaliation for messing up Hera’s love life. Iynx’s name is the root of the English word “jinx.”
Although the Wryneck sounds like a woodpecker and is placed in the woodpecker family by modern taxonomists, it is unclear how the ancients linked the two. Pan, son of Dryope, is father of Iynx, so they seem to have some relation.
Mars is not the only Classical deity associated with the woodpecker. There is a hero named Picus, a son of Mars who is changed into a woodpecker by Circe, the witch of the Aegean. When he returns to his manly form he has acquired awesome powers of prophecy due to his ability to understand the speech of woodpeckers. Picus later becomes the father of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the wilderness god Pan.
Alternately, Picus is the first king of the central Italian Peninsula and the son of Saturn. A female woodpecker lands on his head one day, and the Etruscan augur interprets this as a sign of a disastrous armed conflict for the country. Picus personally wrings the neck of the messenger bird, thereby diverting the misfortune onto himself. This self-sacrificing act is more in line with that of a tribal chieftain than a stereotypical king, indicating that this story goes quite a bit back in time.
Among female woodpeckers, there is a Greek deity named Dryope, whose name according to Robert Graves means “woodpecker.” She seems to be a type of dryad. In one story she is transformed into a Lotus Tree and in another into a Black Poplar. Both times she is trying to escape the dastardly clutches of the god Apollo, which is a theme associated with the usurpation of a goddess cult by the priests of Apollo. Dryope is the mother of the god Pan.
After a feast of new material, I have not been posting much original content lately, so I thought I’d tell everyone what I’m up to right now.
I just finished a short essay with photos for Moon Books Blog and will have that link up next week. I also finished a piece recently for the Mago Books anthology She Rises volume 2, which I believe will be out later this year. I have articles in three other upcoming anthologies but don’t have dates for those yet.
I am focusing on finishing my second book as much as I can. Right now I’m working a chapter on (surprise!) the woodpecker. I will have a short graphic story in this chapter, which is something I’ve never tried before. I’ve had to learn how to draw in order to do this, which means it has been very time consuming. It is coming along well though.
I am enjoying the sun and the warmer weather today. The ice is gone and water birds are returning. So grateful for spring!
This is the Pileated Woodpecker, in my opinion the most handsome of a very beautiful group of birds. Both males and females have this striking red crown.
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm writes in her 1901 woodpecker treatise:
one of the most persistent of our tree-climbers and more than any other woodpecker I ever observed given to scratching rapidly round and round a tree-trunk, clinging at ease in almost any position except head-downward, and drilling incessantly and at all seasons for grubs; he is a typical woodpecker of the largest size
Source: Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, The Woodpeckers. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co.: 1901.
One of the most startling experiences for people new to the Sonora Desert is the loud metallic rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that rattles the early mornings. It sounds like a machine gun. It’s made by Mars, the god of war, in his woodpecker form.When I first moved to the desert, the earliest thought that would enter my drowsy morning brain was, “Those stupid woodpeckers. They don’t know the difference between a tree and a heating vent.” But when you decide people or animals are doing something because they’re stupid, it’s usually because you yourself are ignorant. Desert Gilded Woodpeckers love those aluminium roof vents because they make a loud noise. Mars is also the god of metal. And they’re not looking for battle; they’re showing off for the girls. Woodpeckers make noises to signal that they’re looking for a mate. Or they’re defining territory. Or they’re drumming for some other reason, but at any rate the whole purpose is to make the biggest racket possible. They think that’s really cool. In time the rattling becomes like the coyote chorus: one of those familiar comforting sounds of the desert.Mars was not, originally, the god of war. He was the father-god who brought bread to the divine Roman twins while their wolf-mother nursed them. Male woodpeckers do most of the work scraping out the family home, and they help incubate eggs and care for the young. A woodpecker god would naturally be the archetype for the nurturing male.Robert Graves agrees that Mars was not originally a war god, calling him a “Spring-Dionysus” figure. During the Greco-Roman era, Mars became conflated with the Greek Ares, who according to Graves was originally a Thracian god given the hateful “war god” moniker as a reflection of Athenian attitudes toward the Thracians. Classical Greeks had a more ambivalent attitude toward war than Romans of the early Common Era, viewing war as a threat to prosperity rather than a means of sustaining it.Properly speaking, no deity is a war deity, or else they all are. When people go to war, they invoke their protective deity to aid them in the battle, be it Athena or Mars or Andraste. I’ve seen pictures of rebels with the Virgin Mary painted on their rifle butts, and we certainly wouldn’t call her a warrior goddess. In glossaries a good three-quarters of the Celtic goddesses are identified as warrior goddesses, but this mostly reflects the understanding of the Romans, who focused their studies on the behavior of their Celtic adversaries in war.After Mars became conflated with Ares, he gained a great deal of prominence as a war deity in a culture that was by this time centered (and dependent) on military prowess. Still, Mars was also invoked as father and civic leader, reflecting an importance among the Latin tribes that long preceded Rome’s ascendance as a military power. That he was not necessarily seen as a war deity is reflected in the other gods he became conflated with, such as Mars Nodens (for the Celtic healing god Nodens) or Mars Silvanus (for the Roman–possibly Etruscan–god of the countryside).The modern strict association of Mars with war has affected how we view the planet Mars, the astrological sign of Aries (ruled by Mars), and even the beginning of spring. Michael Jordan says that March is named for the god Mars because of “its violent weather.” We do think of March as violent, but is it really, compared to say, November, when harsh weather begins, or February, when bitter cold can claim toes and noses? Was the March weather violent in Italy 3,000 years ago? When we think of Mars as woodpecker rather than warrior, the association with the first month of spring doesn’t take a lot of thought or empirical data. This is when woodpeckers are dating–and making a lot of racket in the process.We think of Aries people as combative, but are they really? Do people view Aries, and do Aries view themselves, as combative due to the warrior reputation of Mars? Comparing Aries to woodpeckers, would aggression be interpreted as defense of territory and protection of vulnerable dependents?We think of the planet Mars as bloody, because it’s red, but is Mars stained with bloodshed or red like the throat, head or wings of the various woodpecker species?Mars is now retrograde, a phenomenon that only happens every couple of years. For me, retrogrades are times when we review, reflect and re-examine things. Perhaps this is a good time to be rethinking Mars.SourcesRobert Graves. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.Michael Jordan. Encyclopedia of Gods. New York: Facts on File, 1993.For another unconventional look at Aries, see my post from 2009 from Yellow Birch School.Why would anyone provide acoustic support for woodpeckers? The folks at this site have a blueprint if you’re interested.