Monthly Archives: January 2016
Animals that hibernate easily capture the imagination. What do they dream about during those long months? Groundhogs and other marmots are the queens of the long sleep, being some of the rare “true hibernators.” This means that unlike most creatures that sleep during the winter, they don’t wake up even once, surviving in suspended animation with vital signs like pulse, temperature and respiration becoming extremely low. They must remain in this state so their body fat will last until spring. Sometimes marmots starve during their hibernation and never wake at all.
Those who do come back carry messages from very far away. Groundhog power brings the ability to travel through the veil separating the worlds of the living and the dead. Trance work and meditation come effortlessly to those who cultivate groundhog energy. They enjoy being alone and draw power from retreat. At the same time, they do not permanently dwell in the shadows and will take their place in the sun.
The groundhog is a fitting symbol for the sun festival Imbolc, since she loves to bask in the sun. Yet there’s no electricity and no candles down in that bunker, so she maintains a hidden life. Imbolc is the time for nighttime initiations, when new priestesses receive secret teachings as they embark on the Path of the Wise. Those already initiated choose this time to rededicate themselves to their path, in recognition of the sun’s fulfillment of her promise of return. If you are a groundhog lady, you carry the occult qualities of this special day.
With their superb burrowing ability, groundhogs have the power to push past obstacles and remove stuck energy. The groundhog keeps a low profile, never bragging about her accomplishments, and as a result she is underappreciated. Gardeners bemoan the theft of vegetables without recognizing the role of burrowers in soil fertility. The masses of dirt are viewed as a nuisance without considering the how tunnels channel snow and water more efficiently. In the world of magic and psychic healing, where the major work is generally about moving blocked energies, the groundhog is a powerful ally that is usually overlooked, perhaps because she is small and unimpressive looking—cute rather than glamorous.
Some key words for groundhog magic are: elimination of obstacles, fulfillment of promises, communication with the dead, initiation, hidden meanings, meditation, vision, discernment, balanced view, change-making, earth moving.
I can still remember my uncle sitting on his porch with a shotgun, determined to get the woodchuck that was decimating his garden. As I was very young, I marveled that he could sit quiet and still for such a long time. One man against one woodchuck. My money was on the woodchuck.
A woodchuck is a ground squirrel of the marmot family, also known as a groundhog and sometimes lumped into the catchall term for burrowing rodents, gopher, though technically a gopher refers to the Pocket Gopher of the northern Plains states. Whatever it is that answers to the name “gopher,” whether it’s a Pocket Gopher or a prairie dog or a groundhog or some other marmot, it’s still a vegetarian with a voracious appetite. Gophers decimate crops, compete with livestock for vegetation, and ruin vegetable gardens. They interfere with human engineering by piling up dirt where it isn’t wanted. Like all rodents, they sometimes carry diseases.
Gophers play an important role in the ecology, however, and eliminating gophers as pests causes many more problems than it solves. Their tunneling serves to channel snow and heavy rain back underground, reducing flash floods and standing water. They also aerate and enrich the soil, eliminating their waste underground and bringing deep soil to the surface. Foxes, snakes, skunks and many other small predators make their homes in abandoned groundhog houses, and these animals pray on mice and rats. (Foxes eat the groundhogs, too.) While prairie dogs do eat some of the same grasses as cattle or sheep, their foraging habits tend to diversify grassland, which actually benefits domestic animals. It’s only when prairie dog colonies explode that they cause a problem: prairie dog towns have been known to house several thousand pups over many acres of grassland. The rancher brought the prairie dog dilemma on himself, though, by exterminating the wolf and reducing coyote populations.
Prairie dogs live in “coteries” that will include a male and several females with their young, with the pups taking up residence close by. Quickly the town grows. Prairie dogs need to be highly social to manage life in a small town, and they communicate with a collection of chatter, whistles, clucks and barks that some linguists consider a true language. They also communicate by what looks like a kiss.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Pocket Gopher. Like most individuals who spend their free time in their apartments, the Pocket Gopher is a solitary creature. Mother kicks dad out of house soon after mating, and the youngsters mature quickly, then wander off.
Marmots are somewhere in between in sociability. The groundhog is monogamous, at least for a season, while the Western marmots live in harems. The youngsters like to box and wrestle. Marmot communication includes chatter, squeals, barks and a whistle that sounds a lot like a bird song. This gives marmots their other nickname of “whistle pigs.”
But marmots are not pigs and groundhogs are not hogs and prairie dogs are not dogs and, as mentioned before, it’s a bone of contention what is and isn’t a gopher. Even the word “woodchuck,” derived from an Algonquian word for another animal, is a misnomer, since they don’t chuck any wood. If you are allied with the burrowing squirrels, people will be confused about who you are or think they know who you are when they don’t.
The groundhog, like the snake, inhabits all three sections of the World Tree: the roots, the trunk, and the upper branches. Yes, groundhogs climb trees. They also swim. The ability to travel comfortably in many environments gives the groundhog, and women who cultivate groundhog energy, the power of discernment. They can understand the implication of events on many levels.
Possibly the most common Craft name among Witches with a Celtic bent (as well as many Witches who do not consider themselves Celtic) is Raven or some variant like Ravenwood or Ravenspring. At a Witch gathering when Raven’s name comes up, the most likely response is, “Which one”? Perhaps this is apropos, since ravens seldom travel alone and they are rather hard to tell apart.
In Celtic lore ravens and crows (who are often conflated) may be associated with heroes (Bran, Owin, Arthur), but are more often linked with frightening warrior goddesses. Badb Cath, whose name means “battle crow,” is a classic example. As her name implies, she waits at the edge of the battlefield to claim that the souls of the slain, like the ravens waiting to devour their flesh. Sometimes Badb appears as the soothsayer called The Washer at the Ford, a wailing pale woman with white-blonde hair who sits on the banks of a stream wringing out a bloody shirt that will not come clean.
Badb is not the only goddess linked with the Washer, nor is she the only goddess of the crows. Morrigan is another warrior who claims the dead. Like other Celtic corvid goddesses, she is not just a passive player who prophesies and accepts the dead: at times she actively challenges the hero, who can only parlay her attacks temporarily. This excerpt from The Ulster Cycle is illustrative:
One night while Cuchulainn was sleeping, during the time when he was still fighting the men of Connacht, during the time when the men of Ulster were still fighting their labor pangs, he was awoken by a piercing cry from the north. He scrambled from his tent to find his chariot driver yoking the horses, and the two drove out on the plain to investigate the sound. There they met a woman in a chariot pulled by a red mare. The woman had red eyebrows and red hair, a red dress and a red cloak. Tied to her back was a gray spear. “I hear you have performed heroic and wonderful deeds,” she told Cuchulainn, “and I have come to offer you my love.” “I have no time for lovemaking,” Cuchulainn replied emphatically, “for I am completely worn out. I have been fighting all day and must prepare for battle tomorrow. Your visit could not come at a more importunate time.” “I will help you in your struggle,” the woman countered. “I have already helped you greatly, Cuchulainn, and you have benefitted from my protection.” “It is not a lady’s help I need in this fight!” Cuchulainn argued hotly, “and I will not trust your protection.” “Very well,” she answered, “prepare to do battle with me as well as the others.” With that the lady in red, her mare and her chariot disappeared, and he and his driver were left completely alone, except for a crow sitting in the high branch of a tree. Cuchulainn felt his own pang of sickness then, because he realized he had been speaking to the warrior goddess Morrigan. [Quoted from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess]
Other Celtic raven/crow goddesses I am aware of (and this list is probably not exhaustive) are Macha, Nemain, Rhiannon, Branwen, Natosuelta, and Cathubodua. Like actual ravens, these goddesses are difficult to distinguish and debate continues over whether they are in fact different appellations for the same goddess. The inclusion of Macha and Rhiannon, who many know as horse goddesses, may be surprising, but ravens and horses appear together consistently in Celtic art.
Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. London: Routledge, 1992.
Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.
The year begins in an auspicious way with the publication of the Moon Books anthology Pagan Planet: Being, Believing, and Belonging in the 21st Century. This is a book about how Pagans in the Millennium are living their religion: some through activism, some through family, some through community involvement, all through conscious practice. This is an inspirational and varied collection of writings, one that looks beyond theory to real world practice. Yours truly has an essay included here, about practice in a wilderness environment.
I have three longer essays that I expect will be published this year in various anthologies. One is a feminist look at the self-help industry and another is about Native American roots of the Goddess Movement. I am finishing up a piece on witchcraft with the scorpion.
And of course I am working on another book. This one will move deeper into animal magic with a focus on divination. This is where I am devoting the bulk of my energies right now.
Here’s to a productive and enjoyable year!>