Myths, symbolism and legends of some Gulf animals

The Gulf of Mexico is home to more than 400 endangered animal species. I’m going to contain my fury rant about the current situation (deep breath) and instead focus on myths, legends and symbolism associated with some of the species threatened by the current crisis.

This list, while by no means complete, includes not only animals native to the region, but migratory birds who use the Gulf marshes as a resting and hunting ground while en route, as well as animals further inland who may still suffer through secondary effects as the crisis travels up the food chain.

CRANE: The crane symbolizes longevity and eternal life, as well as fidelity, solitude, independence, and grace. In ancient times, the Chinese believed the White Crane represented wisdom, and considered it blessed. Cranes were also thought to be mounts of the gods, able to fly them to the Isle of Immortals. The Egyptians also saw cranes as the gods’ messengers. Since cranes sometimes feed on snakes, in early Christianity they were viewed as Satan’s natural enemies. They were sacred to the goddess Demeter in early Greco-Roman myth, as their annual migration concurred with Persephone’s return from the underworld. The ancient Greeks saw the crane as a guide to Hades, the realm of the dead. The crane was also a symbol of the Celtic god Pwyll, king of the underworld.

SONGBIRDS: Symbolic of solitude and poetry, as well as spring, the songbird is a protective spirit closely associated with, of course, music. The Navajo have an interesting myth about the creation of songbirds. More recently, sailors adopted the habit of tattooing a songbird (swallow) for each 50,000 miles sailed. Some Norse myths depicted swallows picking up fallen soldiers by their shoulders. There is a fairy tale about a king who cages a songbird, hoping to protect it. The songbird dies, and is replaced by a mechanical bird.

DOLPHINS: Dolphins are friendly spirits, as anyone who has ever been lucky enough to have a dolphin escort their boat (myself included) can testify. It is no surprise that dolphins symbolized protection to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Native Americans, Australian aborigines, and Celts. There are many legends of dolphins saving sailors and drowning swimmers, including Arion the bard, Taras, the son of Poseidon, and Telemachos, the son of Odysseus. In New Zealand, Maoris legend claims a group of dolphins guided the tribe to their new home. The Greek god Dionysus sometimes transformed himself into a dolphin. Ancient Greeks also considered the murder of a dolphin a crime equal to the murder of a human being; the punishment was death. Dolphins’ playfulness evokes the inner child in all of us. Other dolphin meanings include harmony, intelligence, friendship, contentment and resurrection.

WHALES: In various Slavic, Arabic and Russian myths, whales support the earth, while in Chinese mythology a whale/human hybrid is the ruler of the seas. Christian mythology paints a less friendly picture, with the whale being more symbolic of hell or purgatory. Perhaps the most compelling mythology about the whales I have seen is that of the Australian whaledreamer tribes, who believe that the whales, through their dreams, are able to reach other dimensions, and that the heartbeats of whales, being close to the center of the earth, are the heartbeats of the earth itself. The movie Whaledreamers takes a close look at this mythology, and I recommend it to anyone interested in it.

MANATEES: The manatee is thought to have been a perpetrator of the mermaid mythology, though they failed to impress Christopher Columbus, who noted in a logbook that these ‘mermaids’ were “not as beautiful as they had been painted.” In some cultures, the manatee and their cousins, the dugong, were thought to be the descendants of elephants that ran into the sea, while ancient Greeks may have mistaken them for sirens. Manatees were also considered sacred in some West African cultures. There actually aren’t a whole lot of stories to be found on manatees, perhaps because these gentle, friendly sea cows don’t do a whole lot other than eat and float around in our rivers. They are, however, extremely cute, and their faces have an oddly human look to them.

TURTLES: Symbolic of both earth and sky (because of their rounded shell), turtles are one of the more unique creatures on the planet. Ancient Greeks believed they were denizens of hell, but other cultures had a more positive outlook. A Native American myth depicts a giant turtle supporting the world. In another Native myth, the Earth Diver turtle swam to the depths of the seas, then resurfaced with mud which was used by the Creator to make the earth. Also, as beach shores are associated with doorways to the faerie lands, the turtle is sometimes seen as a guardian of those doors. A Japanese fairy tale tells of man who saves a turtle from being tormented by boys. The grateful turtle brings the man before the King of the Ocean, who presents his daughter, a beautiful water sprite, to the man as a bride. Traditionally, the turtle symbolized female sex organs and female sexuality to Nigerians and also to Native Americans. Also, since some turtles’ shells have a total of thirteen segments, and perhaps because they use lunar cycles  in nesting and perhaps navigation, turtles are associated with the lunar calendar, which is comprised of thirteen full moons or thirteen new moons (this may be where the female cycle symbolism originated from). The turtle can also be symbolic of Mother Earth and, of course, of persistence and steady determination, as shown in the more modern story of the tortoise and the hare.

Of the seven remaining species of sea turtles in existence today, five live in the Gulf.

ALLIGATOR: Like the crocodile, the gator represents aggression and male sexuality, perhaps because of its long tail and ferociousness. They also represent, unsurprisingly, hidden dangers and lurking threats. A powerful predator, the alligator is a cousin of the crocodile, which is found in several Egyptian myths: the Egyptian god Sorbek, for instance, wore a crocodile’s form. Though the alligator is hardly in danger of going extinct, as any Florida resident can tell you, it is a part of the marsh/swamp ecosystem, and it could create problems if it has to look elsewhere for food and/or shelter. There are no crocodiles in Louisiana, but they do inhabit the Gulf, mainly in the Everglades, where their territorial boundaries sometimes overlap with those of gators.

DRAGONFLY: The dragonfly is quite respected in Japan, where it symbolizes summer and autumn, new light, and joy, and also represents the warrior class. During the festival of Bon, the Dragonfly of the Dead, Shoryo Tombo, returns the souls of the dead to their descendents. Akitsushima, or Dragonfly Island, got its name from an emperor who thought the island represented a dragonfly. The dragonfly (one of the few insects I can tolerate) is also symbolic of happiness to the Japanese, who made it their national emblem, and to the Chinese, who consider it lucky. To the Navajo, the dragonfly represented pure water, though in early Nordic cultures, the dragonfly was less revered and was given names like ‘The Devil’s Dart’ and ‘Water Witch.’ Romanian folklore portrayed dragonflies as the souls of dead horses. Elsewhere, the dragonfly is associated with speed and purity.  As it is a being associated with both air and water, dragonflies also represent a sense of self and change, and remind us of how brief life can be and the importance of living fully. In other cultures, the dragonfly is associated with  prosperity, swiftness, purity, harmony and strength, while in some Native Americans cultures, they were thought to be the souls of the dead  In Celtic myth, the dragonfly is also associated with the faerie realm. Because of the way their fragile wings bend and reflect light, they also remind us of the importance of seeing truly.

Also, dragonflies can fly backwards.

LOON: The loon symbolizes peace, tranquility, and generosity. The call of the loon, especially when heard through a morning mist, can be quite haunting. The loon’s song, which can be mournful or quite animated, sounding like laughter,  is also the source of the term ‘loony,’ signifying madness; this call was also thought to be an omen of death to some tribes. Other tribes, believing the birds escorted souls to the netherworlds, buried loon skulls with their dead. The tale of how the loon got its ‘necklace’ from a blind man is the heart of a Tmishian legend, which was the basis for the story depicted in the 1950 movie The Loon’s Necklace.

SHARK: The shark represents stealth, hunting ability, strength and power. A frequently misunderstood predator, the shark is central to the Hawaiian legend of Kauhuhu, the tale of  The Shark God of Molokai, in which said shark god helps a man avenge the deaths of his sons.

HUMMINGBIRD: In some cultures the hummingbird was considered a messenger who had the ability to stop time. This little bird also symbolizes joy, purity, and love, and reminds us to savor our brief time here.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but that’s enough for today.

39 Days of Prayer – Day 9

Day 9 – A Simple Gratitude Prayer

Mother of the Moon and Sea

Father of the Sun and Forests

Thank you for your love, protection, and compassion.

May your presence be felt in my life this day.

Spirits and ritual

As I mentioned in my first post about spirits of place honouring spirits in druid ritual is tremendously important. To be in a place for ritual is to be surrounded by the spirits who dwell there. Without their blessing, consent and support, how can a ritual hope to work?

Finding an appropriate place for ritual is something to undertake before you mean to carry it out – especially group rituals. Take the time to find somewhere with a welcoming atmosphere, and speak to it of your intentions. Then before you actually commence the ritual, take time to tune into the place, and listen to the spirit there. Do not expect to hear words or voices, but be open, and you may find some awareness of what is around you and how it relates to your presence.

The first British Druid Order rituals at Avebury, highly influential in the development of current ritual forms for many groups, included acknowledgement of spirits of place, but it happened a fair way into the process. My own Gorsedd, Bards of the Lost Forest, honour spirits of place first, and time I’ve spent with other groups suggests this is a way of working that is gaining popularity. Not least because it makes a lot of sense.

Once the human participants are organised into a circle and the ritual has been opened with a few words, it makes absolute sense to then communicate with what is around us. You’d hardly do a ritual in someone’s house without talking to them early in the process! A grove of trees, a field, or garden is no different. Here’s a sample of what I might say in such a moment of ritual:

Hail spirits of this place, spirits of soil and wood, you who have watched over us so many times before. We thank you for the blessings and protection you give us, for the inspiration of your presence. Hail spirits of forest, with your dancing leaves and rising sap energy. Hail and welcome.

We do not command, demand, or invite. We recognise that the spirits were there first, and we honour them.

Sometimes in ritual people make offerings. It’s important that these be biodegradable, or taken away. I personally can’t see much sense in picking a flower one place in order to leave it in another. These too are spirits, and are not ours to give. Ritual offerings to spirits of place should (I think) either be useful – water in dry times, removing of litter, or should be gifts of personal creativity where energy has been invested.

We best honour the spirits of place when we engage with them. Sitting quietly, listening, fingers against the soil, leaves in hair… relinquishing everyday conversation, becoming quiet and opening to the voice of spirit. In ritual, I’ve made temporary altars out of whatever was to hand, created patterns with leaves and twigs, an offering of inspiration. Beach pebbles arranged in ways that will be destroyed by the next tide. Ephemeral offerings, moments of connection. Music is a gorgeous thing to offer to the spirits, especially when it is improvised in the moment. I’ve had some amazing experiences that way, when music has flowed and I’ve felt like the vessel through which it poured.

At the end of rituals, we give thanks to the spirits of place, with reference to things that have happened in the ritual, and with intention to return (if relevant). We leave nothing that is out of place, and if we can we take away things others should not have left. We treat the land, and its inhabitants with respect.

 Relating to the spirits of place in ritual, and letting their presence permeate a circle and inform the shape of what we do, is incredibly powerful, and brings a depth and resonance to all that happens in circle.

Ancient Calendar: May 31, 2010

_Letting_Go__by_freaky665.jpg picture by Beloved_Isis

We have to let May go now…and all that happened in it. But not yet. First, we have to get through today.

And it’s going to start off being about Hecate…second day, which started yesterday.

We also have a bit of a history lesson for you….because the annual Gloucestershire CHEESE ROLLING takes place in England on Cooper’s Hill, Brockworth.

Two hundred people or more will chase a seven pound wheel of cheese down a steep hill. This event has went on for the past two centuries….until recent years, in which it was canceled because people got hurt.

The Cheese Rolling event is said to have originated and adapted from Rome which did somewhat the same thing only theirs involved fertility rites.

Links for further reading:

Link 1

Link 2


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