From Paul Shepard's The Others
WH E N S T U D E N T S in my class on animals and culture consider oracles, augury, omens, or divination, the effect at first is silence. Even in a world of daily weather forecasts, predictions of freeway traffic, imminent volcanic eruptions, and the newspaper horoscope, nothing seems further from modern taste than "superstitions," wherein the call of a frog foretells the future, or seems more repulsive than the close examination of warm liver or small intestines, taken still steaming from the body of a sheep. With the exception of popular astrology, no rite today seems more suspect or remote than trying to assess the future by scrutinizing the flights of birds, as did the ancient Greeks and as do modern Navajo Indians, the colors of cows, as did the Egyptians and as do the modern Nuer, or the livers of sheep, as did the Mesopotamians and as do modern pathologists.
Both the old and the modern practices necessitate watching animals closely, studying the details of organic form and structure as they relate to some larger whole, for there are subtle connections between the behavior of animals and earth events, between the color of an organ or the texture of a mammal's pelage and the universe. The natural world is rich in signs--as when dogs and other animals foretell earthquakes by sensing the first pulses of earth movement, or a zoologist, reading the chemical signatures in the viscera of a hare or a sea lion, can anticipate the imminent death of large numbers of mammals and a windfall for the scavengers of their bodies, followed by hard times for the predators, including humans.
There are many synonyms for such foretelling. The abundance of terms is a measure of the importance of such ideas in history. "Oracle" refers to dike, the Greek notion of judged fate, a deserved destiny. Oracles traditionally inhabit sacred places, especially caves, and have a perennial, almost timeless, existence. "Prophets"--individually unique, often chosen, and itinerant--are part of biblical tradition."'Augury" depends on natural signs, or omens, which need interpretation. It is a form of divination that signifies rather than pronounces. It portends through a net of relationships. It lays a matter open by disclosure rather than depending on inspiration, as among oracles and prophets. Augury is less pretentious than prophecy and often depends on reference to animals.
Among animals the bird is seen as part of a greater system through which it moves, rather like time itself, a fleeting signature taken in at a glance. The cow, to those who see it as a microcosm, does not flash across the earth but remains to be studied out, not as a fugitive bit of the whole, but a contraction of it. While the whole animal represents the cosmos, the sheep's stomach, liver, or entrails are the tacit parts, as pregnant with meaning as the womb is with new life.
As the old, preclassical, Mediterranean world declined, the holy connections of animals went with it. Priests began to look beyond nature for truth, and the spiritual apostles and deities of Western religions became human in form and otherwordly in orientation. Our modern perception of animals as automatons denies the significance of augury as a marvel fraught with sacred presence.
THE BIRDS were among the numina longest to survive. Many qualities touch them with such powerful magic--flight, migration, song, eggs and nests, seasonality--that even the ideologies of transcendence retained them as angels. Bird life is a highly visible, poetic analogy to human life. Individuals in many species share food as a social bond in courtship and care for nestlings. Many dance and sing in formal, almost ritualistic, fashion. Their plumage is like costume: put off and changed in different seasons, repaired and replaced when tattered, the feathers together and individually beautiful to behold. Living or moving together, cooperating, roosting in great murmuring flocks, they are among the most social of animals. In flight they wheel in synchrony, as though keyed to some central mind. Yet they are kin to the earthbound, cold-blooded reptiles, egg-layers with scaly legs and toothless mouths. Some hibernate. Finally, they are masters of travel, mysterious appearance and disappearance, astonishing migrations.
"They come and go where man and beast cannot go," writesJane Ellen Harrison, "up to the sun, high among the rain clouds; their flight is swift, their cries are strange and ominous, yet they are near to man; they perch on trees, yet they feed on earth-worms; they are creatures half of Gaia, half of Ouranos." The Etruscan word templum is a space marked out, as in "template," "contemplate," "temporal," that section of the sky across which the augur was expected to fly. The first temples were probably oriented shrines without roofs. Unlike the medieval cathedral or "city of god," they were open to the natural world rather than an escape from it.
Birds are auspices, a term derived from avis, which appear and disappear and are thus like the past and future. They are not only omens but "knowing" in the year's unfolding in the sense of expertise, bringers rather than passive signs. In Old World traditions, the crane's arrival told when to plow and the swallow's when to prune. Calls of the cuckoo forecast rain because the cuckoo was part of the rainstorm. Notions that birds signified oncoming weather was wedded to the older idea that the bird made the weather, brought the rain, the thunder, the sunshine, and the spring. "Birds are not, never were gods . . . but there are an infinite number of bird-sanctities."
Ordinary folk, who did not expect signs from the great gods, watched for such omens as the magpies in a flock:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for a birth.
Bird lore was so rich that mastery was regarded as the "mantic art," from mantikes, "prophetic." When there were neither clocks nor calendars, the birds signaled the season's activities with precision. The foretelling by animals was a matter of practical things. As the early Greek poet Hesiod put it:
Lucky and blessed is he, who, knowing all these things,
Toils in the fields, blameless before the Immortals,
Knowing in birds and not overstepping tabus.
Among farmers who had no printed calendars or agricultural colleges, the key to the season's round lay in traditional signs. Ignoring the signs, even by a few days, could put a crop at risk. "The small Boeotian farmer is not a sceptic," observes Harrison, "but a man hard pressed by practical necessities. What really concerns him is the weather and the crops and the season; how he must till the earth and when.... It was all you could do to keep body and soul together by ceaseless industry and thrift, by endless watching out, by tireless observance of the signs of earth and heaven.... But first and foremost you should watch the birds who are so near the heavenly signs, and who must know more than man. This watching of the birds we are accustomed to call the 'science of augury.' . . . In its origin it is pure magic, pure doing; the magical birds make the weather before they portend it."
Our loss of sensitivity to birds is most evident in the spiritual destitution of the woodpecker, Picus. Zeus in a Greek myth stole the scepter of the green woodpecker, Keeleos, the old rain and medicine king of Eleusis. Picus was a numen who "enshrines a beautiful lost faith, the faith that birds and beasts had mana other and sometimes stronger than the mana of man . . . in their silent aloof golngs, In the pertection of their limited songs, are mysterous still and wonderful." One could divine by them, but more important was their presence in "making" or "bringing."
In many traditional societies, the woodpecker's drumming signaled the onset of the rainy season, making Picus the "rain bird" of Old Europe. The human significance was that ceremonies to start the rainy season required drumming, and so the drummer was a rainmaker. The bird did not accompany the human drummer but was said in the beginning to have "taught" the skill of bringing on the spring rains, drumming as the woodpecker does in making nest holes, eating, and signaling. Like the woodpecker's nest cavity, the first drums were made from sections of hollow logs. Associated with the tree--in myth, the great tree of life--which it entered and left (bringing its young forth), the woodpecker had a special place in the human sense of creation, moving between the ordinary world and the womblike spaces within the living trunk. It is not surprising that, as a prototype of all founders, the woodpecker had a close association with holy trees--which, according to folklore, were saved by it--and with the wolf, as the two of them saved and nourished the abandoned twins, Romulus and Remus, the found ers of Rome. The white eggs inside the tree seemed to be the model of potency and becoming.
As the forests went down, the woodpecker receded from everyday view. Another rainmaker, the cuckoo, likewise diminished, although both persist at the most conservative fringes of rural society. In rural America the cuckoo is the "rain crow," for no apparent reason, although it takes no special knowledge to observe that it characteristically calls as clouds cross before the sun.
In the bourgeois world birds were clean, refined in their sexuality, devoted as mates and parents, homebodies, singing, industrious. They were felt to be refined "paragons of bourgeois virtues," members of nuclear families of their own, natural symbols of middle-class virtues. Bad birds, predators and scavengers, were like the occasional criminal; the grubby sparrows in the streets were a lower class. The birds' instinctive behavior was one side of a tension profoundly experienced in proper society between indulgence and restraint. The clean and virtuous side of birds was a Victorian moral example, while their defects confirmed the superiority of ourselves to animals, or at least our opportunity to become so. Birds became a veritable catalog of human traits within the new mercantile economy, represented in the vernacular by projections of role and personality onto persons as vultures, old hens, cocks of the walk, parrots, hawks, lovebirds, geese, magpies, turtle doves, or cuckoos. Cheating in business or marriage, avarice, the hidden vices of a decorous society, were evidence of the natural self hidden beneath the plumage of acceptable housebroken animality.
In the twentieth century pets continued to signify status and class, evident in advertisements in which high-bred dogs and horses, or exotic lions and eagles, connect social status with choice brands of automobiles and other commodities.'9 Abstract categories in human thought continue to require concrete reference. The species model implies an imaginary, ecosystem-like superstructure. Such names embrace activity and color and are a vivid counter to the reduction and stylization of categorical signs in museum art, the tendency to become hieroglyphs. Groups tend not only to equal species taxonomy but to borrow it for the names of clubs, genders, corporations, political parties, age groups, or teams (bulls, timberwolves, hornets, bucks, broncos, dolphins, cardinals, rams, eagles, buffalos, tigers, panthers, blue jays, hawks, orioles, sharks). There are Lions Clubs and lodges of the Elks and Moose, loan sharks, hawkers of goods, militant hawks and pacific doves, colonels wearing eagles on their shoulders, squadrons of flying tigers, an immense, self-typing of pet-keepers, boy scouts belonging to wolf and beaver dens. All inherit the idea of making groups visible by an identity with species of animals. Thousands of athletic teams are named for animals--not only because the "panthers" are synonyms for ferocity, but because the taxonomic system creates the cognitive facade of difference. That there are more "hornets" than "banana slugs" and more "lions" than "anteaters" attests to the poverty of social/ecological analogies and to the deracinated, modern appeal to the raw strength of animals.
The modern world of work roles, professions, and mix of religious, political, psychological, and economic classes opens unlimited possibilities for the cloak of animal species--extending on the one hand the skin-wearing distinctions among Swazi aristocrats and Renaissance European merchants and, on the other, the totalitarian obsession with sheer animal power. "Does not society turn man," wrote Balzac, "according to the settings in which he deploys his activity, into as many different men as there are varieties in zoology? The differences between a soldier, a workman, an administrator, a lawyer, an idler, a scholar, a statesman, a merchant, a sailor, a poet, a pauper and a priest, are just as great--although more diffficult to grasp--as those between a wolf, a lion, a donkey, a raven, a shark, a sea-cow, a sheep, etc. There always have been, and there always will be, Social species as there are Zoological species."
Clothing still signifies social or economic status, sometimes with leather, feathers, and skins as well as animal pins and jewelry, as it has perhaps from the beginning of human society. Until recently the sable collar marked the bishop among the clergy as it now separates the afffluent from the poor. Costume adds to our own native pelage--or our naked absence of it. The derivation from the animal is indicated in fashion's "coordinate" sense. Only in a society rebelling against traditional siglufication does one mix the parts of one symbolic attire with parts of another--beaver-skin top hats with bullskin sandals or the lion's pelt with the belt of cowhide. Yet the chosen act of disarray emphasizes the power of the signs. Worn by humans, the pelt or feather ceases to resemble the animal from which it came and persists as an abbreviation, as in the yellow and black football uniforms of the "tigers" and red of "cardinals," or as logotypes, stylized forms, ideograms, and, finally, letters of the alphabet. The eventual form of the badge is not important. What matters is that it represents a species idiom, a means of belonging in the world. Clothing and other adornment based on animals became the mark of social difference because it is the most effficacious way ever discovered of representing the gaps so obsessively desired by society with its bone-deep primate heritage. Nothing else in the given world lends itself so perfectly to stressing disjunctions in a series and representing the perfect embodiment of typology.
The true richness of these social/natural metaphors depends on knowledge of the natural behavior of the animals themselves, on the diversity and complexity of those animals, a habit of watching we have lost by stages. We disavowed the animal mind and soul three centuries ago, reduced the beasts to representations of the appetites twenty centuries ago, replaced the wild forms in our environment with simpler domestic animals of fewer species sixty centuries ago.
Like wild herbs in cooking and medicine, notions of tapir ancestors and parrot paradigms have the quaint air of rustic stories. The species system of animals as images of their own social rules may seem far indeed from our own habits of thought." Yet in a time of deeply felt loss of "nature," which we mistakenly think of as a kind of pastoral anodyne, we may wonder about the necessity of "thinking" animals. Terence Turner observes: "That human (cultural) beings should . . . represent social and cultural phenomena to themselves through the symbolic medium of animals . . . raises a number of questions.... The 'nature' incarnated in animal symbols is not simply the biological domain of animal species, adopted as a convenient metaphor for human social patterns.... It consists of aspects of human society that are rendered inaccessible to social consciousness as a result of their incompatibility with the dominant social framework. These alienated aspects of the human (social) being, which may include the most fundamental principles of social and personal existence, are therefore mediated by symbols of an ostensibly asocial, or'natural,' character.""
It seems to follow that there are political and social adjustments which would make us less alienated from the "most fundamental principles" and reduce the need for animal metaphors. But there is another interpretation: that the alienation of which he speaks is a result of the burden of selfconsciousness, of the human condition, our being what Neil Everenden has called "the natural alien." If this is true, no philosophy will end it, and we may freely accept and affirm our peculiar use of animal terms for social membership as part of the ecology of mind. It is one small bit of cement that helps keep us connected to our animal kin while other aspects of our culture drive us away.