Concerns are often expressed about how perceptions of certain animals acting as a ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ for an undesirable event (e.g. death) may result in the species’ persecution. In Africa, owls exemplify this. But is this a fault of Traditional knowledge per se or is it symptomatic of the loss of Traditional knowledge?
While completing research on meaningful nature experiences, I encountered several persons who fiercely objected to the implications of belief systems which hold that certain animals may act as a ‘sign’ or ‘omen’ for certain events. In other words, the appearance of a creature at a particular moment is perceived to carry a meaningful message for the perceiver.
Such an idea is prominent among Traditional (non-Westernized) cultures. I was first exposed to its potency when spending time with Aboriginal Australians over a decade ago. It forced me to reflect upon such notions more seriously than I had done previously.
Visitations by certain birds are said to carry importance to Aboriginal groups and research has been carried out within Indigenous communities to document such knowledge. In addition to reading about Native American folklore, I have experienced firsthand such beliefs when visiting parts of Asia, the Americas and in southern Africa when spending time with Khomani San and Xhosa persons.
It appears quite universal.
The prevalence of such beliefs among Traditional cultures is not overly surprising – much has been written in anthropological literature and explanations and interpretations abound: e.g. the close relationships and observation of nature for physical survival equally provide for psychological inspiration and expression; that such perceptions tap into Man’s vast repository of collective archetypal symbols rooted in animate Nature; or that such beliefs fulfill our innate need to inject meaning into nature and seek affiliation with traits of animals…whether out of fear-based dominion (biophobia) or love-based kinship (biophilia).
But I became intrigued as to whether:
1. These beliefs are evolving or dissolving as Traditional cultures become more diluted under a Westernized influence? and
2. Whether ‘Westerners’ (a broad and imprecise term) still share similar perceptions somewhere in their collective unconscious?
From informal research and personal observation and , the answers appear to be ‘Yes’.
Traditional / Indigenous cultures may still elicit such perceptions toward the natural world but the underlying wisdom is being lost. With increasing fragmentation of culturally-specific knowledge, such perceptions become conflated, misunderstood or and then misused to justify actions which subscribe to fearful superstition rather than the respect and reverence, which was often the original intention. Is this a result of Westernization and/or the expansion (and often imposition) of the Christian doctrine?
Given that such animist beliefs were integral to early European cultures (e.g. Pagan, Celtic beliefs), it is little surprise that certain animals are still ‘charged’ with symbolism, retaining traits that feed our starved psyche’s need for meaning. Various modern ‘self-help’ books explore such ideas in terms of how animals can be used as guides (‘totems’) to support personal development (e.g. “Birds: Divine Messengers”)
Should such Traditional knowledge – or perhaps perceptual delusion – be given any currency in modern society and scientific thought? What are the implications? What are the broader benefits for giving weight to such worldviews or alternative ways of knowing?
Every year in South Africa, thousands of animals are killed due to the meaning bestowed upon them, a fact not lost on conservation ecologists who deplore and often deride such actions. Killings arise out of dreaded superstition, linked to traditional medicine (i.e. muti) or intentionality enacted for cultural rituals and ceremonies (e.g. the wearing of wild cat skins).
My mind harked back to an information display at Sabi Sabi in Kruger National Park which highlighted the widespread persecution of owls in South Africa. Using shocking imagery of these ill-fated birds, the supporting text decried their large-scale massacre across many parts of the country’s rural areas. Many South African Nguni cultures (as well as persons of KhoiSan descent) perceive it as harbinger of bad luck. It is said that if an owl is sighted on the roof of your or a relative’s house then someone in the family will soon die. It was not the cultural interpretation that I found immediately troubling but rather whether subscribing to such meaning automatically implies the slaughtering of the animal involved?
I asked a Xhosa friend – a local Christian minister and now also a sangoma, i.e. Traditional diviner (I find this co-existence of belief systems fascinating). He told me that animals take on different meaning for different people in a community depending on what ‘their’ particular (totem) animal is. If that animal were to cross their path then, yes, some people seek to kill it. But he said that that is not how it was meant to be.
I asked another Xhosa chap – a field ranger – who whilst not a sangoma himself, comes from a family with a strong lineage of traditional healers and diviners. Sitting in his remote peaceful office, he explained:
“Some of the people they are associated with the elephant. Some of the people are associated with the leopard. Some people interact with animals, and some people are associated with certain snakes. Some certain snakes, they can come and visit. They can come around the house and go and you are not supposed to kill it. Should you kill it, you are supposed to make a ceremony for asking forgiveness. It is a visit from the Ancestors.
On my other side, I am also associated with the bees. Because the bees, they are also my family. So there are times when they can visit our home. Last time, it was last year, they visited home, and they gathered and I made some honey. And I am not supposed to chase them. I have to make a traditional beer and talk with them and call some other elders, they will talk with them. And after some time they will go. So it is a visit. After that visit, there will be much pleasure and liking everything.”
That sounded nice and seemingly in support of a conservation ethic but what about those vilified owls?
“Ja, they are associated with the bad evils. There are different deaths. Deaths that are caused by evil. And also there is death, which is in nature, you see. Those evil things that are associated with the owls, they will be a calling that something is going to be happening in the family. So the family is in that bad luck. So those things should not be happening, and eventually somebody is going to die. So those things are very bad luck and death will continue and continue. There are some deaths, which cannot be stopped, you see. It will happen.”
Things were starting to become a little clearer, as were the intriguing intercultural similarities. Owls have always been at the centre of powerful symbolism or superstition. Around the world there are cultural associations with either death or wisdom – from the macabre in Mayan folklore to ancient Greek mythology, where the owl was held sacred to the virgin-goddess Athena whose supreme attribute was divine wisdom.
But I was seeking further clarity on contemporary South African perspectives.
I enquired with a Coloured bossiedoktor (bush boctor) and a Xhosa-Khoi sanusi (uppermost sangoma). Yes, owls on roof-tops, snakes by the river or water spirits in the pond all carry a powerful message. And should one go out and kill them? No, of course not, that would mean trouble…
I asked a lecturer in anthropology who had also received a ‘calling’ into the Zulu sangoma tradition. Same story. In fact, she said killing the animal in question may have even greater repercussions with the Ancestors who were often associated with (or embodied in) the appearance of that animal.
I asked a local Coloured friend of mine. He didn’t really believe in all that stuff the older people believed in. That was until he was in the bush with fellow community members and they experienced an incident when a bird foretold a certain negative incident which came true within a matter of minutes.
This immediately changed his perception.
So, I queried, “Should we kill these birds then?”
His answer was resounding and, in his delightful Afrikaans accent, it went something like this:
“No man. That bird is just the messenger. If that bad thing is going to happen, it is going to happen anyway. It’s not the bird’s fault. He is just giving you a warning. He is actually helping you, you see… you don’t kill the messenger!”
So the problem is not necessarily the meaning-making or the interpretation. The problem is a breakdown in the transmission of Traditional knowledge, a problem where the processes and deeper connections are no longer understood, no longer explained and where the values which were embodied and implicit in the stories and traditions have been corrupted, misinterpreted or forgotten.
The solution is regenerative education – not just to trumpet ‘educate them’ as an overused cliche – but to understand what that education means in terms of the specific cultural context, e.g. utilizing respected elders or mentors to pass on lineages and wisdom which cocoon the stories and moral values therein.
Mission impossible? Possibly…
If cultures evolve and stories are no longer ‘real’ or relevant, so be it. But then we need new myths which embody the core values and norms which the former beliefs contained, tailored to deliver respect and understanding of human-nature interconnectedness.
Credo Mutwa, South Africa’s most famous shaman, may have understood it best. This Zulu sanusi expresses the old African belief system matter-of-factly:
“We used to believe that in every one of us there lay a spiritual animal, bird and fish with which we should keep contact at all times, to anchor our family upon the shifting surface of this often troubled planet.”*
The Zulus call their great Earth Mother Nomkhubulwane, a name which means ‘she who chooses the state of an animal’* or what we might alternatively refer to as a ‘shape-shifter’.
Credo Mutwa continues:
“The great Earth Mother is capable of changing her shape into beautiful and gentle birds, animals and reptiles. She is capable of assuming the shape of an animal such as springbok, an eland, an impala, a lizard, or a python…We are taught that the reason that our forefathers told us that our gods and goddesses were capable of changing shape…is that they wanted to instil in the minds of their descendents the oneness of the human being, the animal and the Deity. By making us believe that the highest gods were part animal and part human being, we were taught to look upon animals with great reverence, love and respect.”
Maybe the Earth Mother and Ancestors were onto something.
Maybe their manifestation through the owl, snake, monitor lizard, mantis, eland or bird was indeed the most sublime way of accessing the human psyche, helping it to remember forgotten connections.
Maybe that way – more than any other – can deliver a directly felt understanding of the oneness of Human-Nature-Spirit.
Or maybe we are content to kill off all Mother’s messengers, and, ultimately, ourselves..?