Category Archives: Animals

Great Gray Owl

My photo of the owl. I was close, but I don’t have a very good camera.

The big excitement this week has been the appearance of a Great Gray Owl, a boreal owl rarely seen in the United States. As the name implies, this is a very large owl, bigger even than the Great Horned. The wingspan is huge, but a blur in my camera even flying slowly.

No one knows if this is a female or male, though one birder thought this owl is female based on the size (female owls tend to be slightly larger, but the difference is not great enough for identification). The owl was unconcerned about the group of people nearby and concentrated on hunting rodents. As word has spread, people have been flocking here from out-of-state.

What does it all mean? On one level, that food for this bird in the far north has been scarce this winter. Possibly we have had a greater mouse or vole irruption, though I haven’t noticed it. Gray Owls have also been spotted in the past few weeks in Maine and New Hampshire.

This relief, often identified as Lillith or Ereshkigal, is probably Ishtar. Photo: BabelStone.

This was not a personal sign since I was told where the bird was feeding in the late afternoon and went looking for it, but it is a sign for the nearby community as whole, which has talked of little else this week. I ordinarily don’t place credence on superstitions about seeing owls in daylight and don’t know anyone who does, partly because we see so many owls during the day around here.

The owl is the sacred bird of Ishtar, probably because the owl protects the grain by hunting rodents. The owl was also a women’s symbol in Mesopotamia. Women wore owl amulets during childbirth and the prostitutes’ union used the owl as their totem. I interpret this owl as an intervention from outside to rid the community of the vermin of noxious ideas.

In the next day or two as weather becomes warmer, the owl is expected to move north.

Great Gray Owl photographed in Ontario by Jok2000. Wikimedia Commons.

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Frigga: A short sketch

Grey Heron. Photo: Manfred Schulenburg.

Then said Gangleri: “Which are the Asynjur?” Harr said: “Frigg is the foremost: she has that estate which is called Fensalir, and it is most glorious.”
The Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson, translated Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur.

Deities tend to become conflated over time, particularly female deities. When a major goddess enters the historical record in an obscure manner, the situation becomes more pronounced. Such is the case with Frigga, possibly at one time the most widely worshipped of the Germanic gods. Often confused with the beautiful and loving Frejya, Frigga is very much a goddess of her own realm.

The term “Asynjur” mentioned above means “goddess” in this case, though it can refer specifically to the branch of Germanic deities known as the Aesir. Marija Gimbutas classifies the two branches as a conjoining of Old European and invading Indo-European pantheons: “The Vanir represent the indigenous, Old European deities, fertile and life giving. In contrast, the Aesir embody the Indo-European warrior deities of a patriarchal people.”(1) I view this assessment, and Frigga’s place in it, not as false but as overly facile. The Vanir was undoubtedly drawn into the Aesir, with the Aesir All-Father Odin the dominant deity of the new pantheon, but the more populated Aesir had probably absorbed other pantheons at an earlier time. I believe Frigga was a central goddess of a matriarchal culture who was absorbed into Odin’s cult by “marriage,” a time-honored way of combining pantheons. Frigga’s marriage to the head of the patriarchal pantheon signals her importance. Her cult seems never to have been entirely subdued, because she retains her own sphere and is more than a match for Odin. In two stories she outwits the All-Father.

While Germanic deities have their own personalities, their individuation is expressed less with symbols and functions, which often overlap, than with territory. Frigga’s place is the slow-moving, marshy river and her glorious estate of Fensalir is an island within the freshwater marshland. The Grey Heron dominates this type of landscape, and Frigga is said to wear a crown of heron feathers. She has also been mentioned as owning hawks, which might be a conflation with Frejya, but could allude to another bird of this landscape, the osprey. I think of her as the great fish eater. She harvests souls swimming in the water of life and so rules over fate.

Frigga’s tree is the European White Birch, which grows well in wet soil along rivers. No doubt her house — or nest — is birch. (For more on this association see my post Frigga and the Birch.) She is the goddess of spinning, with the stars her distaff, which makes her the goddess of the year. Frigga’s status as sun goddess is revealed by her function as goddess of time and her association with gold. If twelve other goddesses mentioned in the Prose Edda are Frigga’s handmaidens, as Diana Paxson maintains(2), this further support the conjecture that she is a sun goddess.

As mother goddess Frigga rules that other fishy place, a woman’s vulva. The sexual connotations of the word “frigg” are derived from her name. (For those who don’t know what frigging is, I explain it here in this video.) Christianity has successfully divided the mother from the sexual being in our minds, thus encouraging the distinction of Frigga as mother goddess as opposed to Frejya as love goddess, yet earlier Pagans knew no such separation.

Frigga is described in the literature as the goddess who knows the future but seldom speaks of it. Herons also walk silently in the still waters, typically quiet except in the rookery. Frigga gives the child her destiny at birth. Her mastery of divination can be traced to her death-goddess huntress aspect or to her spindle which commands time. Birch bark as writing medium ties Frigga to the runes and their association with divination and spells.

While Frejya and Odin divide the heroic who die in battle between them, those good souls who lead a humbler life go to Fensalir after death. This gentle, loving goddess did not rise to prominence in a warrior culture.

I associate Frigga with the smell of fishy water, which I love, and quiet ponds teeming with dragonflies, frogs, and vegetation. She is the stately heron stalking the water’s edge. She is also the beautiful composed matron, the mistress of a rich but comfortable house. She is wise beyond measure, and though we hang on her words she listens more than she speaks.

The fate of all does Frigg know well,
Though herself she says it not
The Poetic Edda, translated by Henry Addams Bellows

 

Notes

1. Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999), p. 191.

2. Diana L. Paxson, “Beloved: On Frigg and Her Handmaidens,” at Hrafnar: Twenty Years of Re-Inventing Heathenry

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Feline Fascism

It’s been a frustrating week in foreign language study. For some reason, Samhain has been on patrol a bit more than usual, enforcing the household English-only policy.

This policy was instituted by the cat. She yowls whenever I review my Munsee vocabulary. A Siamese can yell louder than any person, so this is a ban she can enforce. She has an Irish name and her ancestors immigrated from Thailand, but she won’t tolerate any spoken word other than English. Today I thought she was taking a nap, so I opened my language materials, and then she walked in and I thought “Oh no.” Then I said (in English) “This is ridiculous.”

The cat I had before used to start crying when Spanish was spoken in the house, and since we were living in Tucson at the time it couldn’t always be avoided. Don’t tell me animals can’t understand what we’re saying, because they go berserk when they think we’re talking in code. When I was a teenager we had a poodle who was unusually smart, and we actually had to start spelling certain words instead of saying them, because if he got wind that we were up to something he wanted included in, he would begin campaigning strongly to go along. Eventually he became suspicious whenever we started spelling. Nobody likes being left out.

Munsee is actually not a foreign language but one of the Native Algonquian languages, so Samhain is not only a fascist but a colonialist. Starting today, I am going to push back against this reign of tyranny I find myself living under.

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A Hare at Heart Lake

So again I am musing, as I do every winter, about the plethora of Snowshoe Hare tracks with no Hares in sight. Yet during this outing I did spy a Great Horned Owl gliding between the branches. Snowshoe Hares are hard to spot, but I suspect this owl is up to the challenge. In most photos it’s taken me about a minute to spot the Hare even though the frame is small and I know it’s there. I’ll bet these bunnies are all around me and I just don’t see them.

I’m more and more aware that it’s not just the trees, rocks, and water that witness my presence in the woods. All around me are eyes peering behind twigs and bushes. I’m never alone.

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No articles, no photo essays, no poems today

No reviews either. I’m getting ready to submit the manuscript for my next book so I’m a bit distracted from blogs and blogging. I’ll let my cat Samhain handle the post this week. This picture was taken right after she threw my pen on the floor. Part of an international cat conspiracy to infiltrate the homes of writers and decrease the output of literature. Cats do not like books.

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The Antler Wagon

I’ve written a lot about deer, especially reindeer, this year. Here is a poem about the Saami reindeer sun goddess Beiwe.

She rides across heaven in antler wagon.
She rides across heaven in antler wagon.
Holding her daughter, she defines the day.
Holding her daughter, she defines the day.
She crosses antler heaven holding her daughter,
defining a day in the wagon ride.

Bring peace to hearts in the blackness.
Bring peace to hearts in the blackness.
Offer red blood of white reindeer.
Offer red blood of white reindeer.
In the heart of the blackness offer red blood.
White reindeer bring peace.

Bring light to wake forest in springtime.
Bring light to wake forest in springtime.
Make rings of birch branches.
Make rings of birch branches.
Birch forest light rings, bring branches, make
time wake the spring.

Her reindeer daughter brings heart. Her reindeer
antlers hold the light of day. In the
forest she wakes blood in birch. Time
branches, crosses heaven, makes
an offering. Black, red, white define
the wagon ride. Peace.

Photo: Alexandre Buisse/Wikimedia Commons.

Photo: Alexandre Buisse/Wikimedia Commons.

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Elen of the Ways

Photo: USFWS.

Photo: USFWS.

Again from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

An increasingly popular conception of the Deer Goddess goes by the name of Elen or Elen of the Ways. Knowledge about this goddess was disseminated through the research of Caroline Wise(1) on Elen of the Hosts, who appears in a short section of the Welsh Mabinogion. While researching ley lines in Britain, Wise discovered this passage:

…Elen thought to make high roads from one stronghold to another across the Island of Britain. And the roads were made. And for that reason they are called the Roads of Elen of the Hosts, because she was sprung from the Island of Britain, and the men of the Island of Britain would not have made those great hostings for any save for her.(2)

The “hosts” refers to the army that utilized Elen’s roads. Elen of the Hosts is a historical figure, the queen of a usurper in the Gaulish Empire who assassinated the Emperor Gracian. Also known as Saint Helen (and not to be confused with the Saint Helen who is mother of the Emperor Constantine), she is reputed to have established Christianity in Wales. Wise theorized that the roads of Saint Helen were created by migrating reindeer, and that the Elen of the Hosts described in the Mabinogion is conflated with an older deer goddess. The most convincing part of her argument, from a scholarly point of view, is the prevalence of deer words sounding like Elen in many European languages. My Google translator confirms that “eilit” is Irish Gaelic for “doe,” while “jelen” is Polish for “deer” and “elen” is Bulgarian for “deer.” “Elain” is Finnish for “animal.” The Dictionary of Word Origins has this to say about the English word “elk”:

The Indo-European base *ol-, *el- produced a number of words for deer-like animals – Greek elaphos ‘stag,’ for example and Welsh elain ‘hind,’ not to mention English eland.(3)

“Elen” may be a root Indo-European word for “deer,” and if so would be an appropriate appellation for the Deer Goddess. If the roads of Elen were established by reindeer, however, it is doubtful that a reindeer goddess was worshiped on the British Isles at that earlier time by that name, since the large scale Indo-European migrations, unlike those of the reindeer, were fairly recent.

The most compelling case for Elen as a deer deity is the number of people who attest to connecting strongly with a deer goddess by this name. Chesca Potter seems to be the first modern artist to channel Elen as Reindeer Woman in the 1980s, but Elen is probably now the most commonly depicted Horned Goddess.

(1) Caroline Wise, “Elen of the Ways,” andrewcollins.com, http://www.andrewcollins.com/page/articles/elen_1.htm accessed July 9, 2016.

(2)The Mabinogion, translated by Gwen Jones and Thomas Jones, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 77.

(3) John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins, (New York: Arcade), 197.

 

Further Reading

Wise, Caroline. Finding Elen: The Quest for Elen of the Ways. London: Eala Press, 2015.

Sentier, Elen. Elen of the Ways: Following the Deer Trods Hants, UK: Moon Books, 2013.

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Reindeer and the World Tree

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

Deer much at the foliage on Yggdrasil. Iceland, 17th century.

 

More from my forthcoming book on animal divination:

The stag of Artemis being in fact a reindeer raises questions about the four stags who nibble on the branches of the Germanic world tree, Yggdrasil. This is the tree that holds the nine worlds, three each in the lower, middle, and upper regions. A snake nibbles at the roots of the tree, an eagle claims the high branches, and four deer browse the foliage. These animals create balance by tempering the growth of the ever-growing tree. The deer are identified as stags in the only source that mentions them, the Prose Edda, so this is not a case of a picture being misinterpreted, at least not in modern times. It is curious that reindeer would not be prominent in the mythology of the Norse, when reindeer memory survives as far south as Greece. Another stag, called Eikthyrnyr, lives atop a tree called Laerad in Odin’s upper realm of Valhalla. Eikthyrnyr munches the leaves of Laerad along with a nanny goat named Heidrun. From the udders of Heidrun flow mead. From the antlers of Eikthyrnyr flow the waters that make up the rivers of the worlds. Eikthyrnyr could also be a reindeer doe. Default male bias being the pervasive affliction that it is, assertions of maleness in animal deities must be entertained with skepticism. The presence of so-called stags where we would expect to find reindeer, amid the absence of mention of any does, suggests either naiveté or a patriarchal rewriting of mythology.

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Artemis and the Reindeer Doe

Herakles capturing the Ceryneian Hind as Artemis and Athena look on. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Heracles capturing the Ceryneian Hind as Artemis and Athena look on. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Here is another short excerpt from my forthcoming book about animal divination:

In antiquity the deer familiar of Artemis was a reindeer, which some confuse with a stag. Both horned and hornless does are depicted driving the goddess’s chariot. These does are magical and can run faster than an arrow. A fifth doe, called the Ceryneian Hind, was too fast even for Artemis to catch, but the doe was later given to her by one of the Pleiades sisters, Taygete. The third labor of Heracles (Hercules) involves capturing the Ceryneian Hind and bringing her alive to Mycenae, a city in the Argolis region of the Peloponnese. This quest, which takes exactly one year, begins at the temple of Artemis in Oenoe (the Oenoe located in Argolis). Though the journey begins and ends in about the same place, Heracles chases the Hind through the upper Balkan region and into Hyperborea, a vaguely defined place in the north. The indomitable Hind then leads Heracles south to the temple of Artemis atop Mount Artemisium, where she allows herself to be captured. This is a shaman’s journey, an initiation into the cult of Artemis. The giant Hind, with her gold antlers and brass hooves, may have been a statue in the temple with those features.

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The Deer Shifters: Another deer article from the past

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Several years ago a North Country man shot and killed a member of his hunting party, the girlfriend of his son. This is an all too frequent tragedy, not worth a mention anywhere but the local news. The man said he thought the girlfriend was a deer, which is also not so unusual. More perplexing is that the woman was standing not far away from the shooter and was immobile, leaning against a tree. Regardless, the victim’s family and the prosecutor believed this was an accident, and the shooter was offered a reduced prison sentence that left some observers looking askance. Was it plausible that a sober man with good eyesight could accidentally shoot a person at close range, no matter how crazed he was to “get his buck”?

Or, could the victim-hunter – thinking about the deer, struggling to perceive the deer, trying to get in the mind of the deer, willing the deer to come closer – actually have turned into a deer? This alternative may seem more fantastic than the first, yet I have seen women (always women for some reason) momentarily turn into deer.

Moreover, I once received validation of sorts for my perception, during a women’s ritual. I glanced over to the woman beside me and saw that she had turned into a deer, and I thought I must be mistaken. This woman was very infatuated with bears, and I would never have associated her with deer. She was not fazed by this, however, explaining that her Cherokee great-grandmother had believed her to be attuned with the deer and had lobbied unsuccessfully to give her a deer name.

In the story of Sadb and Oisin the Irish heroine Sadb is turned into a fawn by one of her father’s enemies. She evidently retains the power to change back and forth, because she becomes the lover of the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill after he spares her cervid form during a hunting expedition. The enraged druid changes her back into a doe, this time permanently, and in this form she gives birth to their son Oisin. The child appears human in all ways, save for a fawnlike forelock of hair, yet he can run as fast as a deer. (A slightly different version of this story appears in my book Invoking Animal Magic.)

The Scottish hag Beinne Bhric changes into a gray deer, echoing legends of the Cailleach Bheur, the giant crone who keeps a herd of magic deer. The generic Scottish word for a shape-shifting charm, fith-fath (fee faw), literally means to take the shape of a deer.

Make no mistake: women can take the shape of deer, at least some women can. It is the stuff of legend, but nonetheless true. Serious inquiry has not been made into the qualities of the children of doe-mothers, but perhaps this is how shape-shifting ability is passed on. If you think you might be part deer, make your way carefully in the woods.

 

Sources:

Celtic Mythology. New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 1999.

Matthews, Caitlin and John. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook. Shaftsbury, UK: Element Books, 1994.

Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York: Checkmark Books, 2008.

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