Personal Challenge 12 of 20
Today I read about the Vulture. Let me back up...
I've been reading a book called Animal Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews and embedded in this book are dictionaries of animal, bird and reptile symbolism. I just finished the section on birds and bird symbolism and one of the last birds listed (thanks to the art of alphabetical-order) was the vulture.
It's funny because I feel like there has been some talk about birds (raptors in particular) within my family lately. Nothing super serious, but my cousin found a baby hawk by his house and then another cousin saw a bald eagle by the ocean and I'm over here photographing and talking about birds, so the subject has been coming up.
While talking about eagles and hawks the other day the subject switched to vultures and there was a general lack of enthusiasm. It's not the first time that the energy generated by spotting raptors was dissolved by adding the vulture into the conversation. The vulture seems (at least in my recent interactions) to come along with a sense of "yuck" or "just" as in "Oh, it's just a vulture." As if the vulture is itself inherently "less than" some other bird or animal. I'm not free of guilt when it comes to undervaluing this creature. I have the same response internally and (if I don't stop myself) externally as well. "It's just a.."
Let me take a tangent here to say that's probably one of the most harmful phrases to consistently plague my life. Seriously. Think about what is really being said in those three and a half words. It's a minimization technique but it implies a sense of "less-than" and insignificance that can become incredibly damaging.
End of tangent.
Okay so going back to the undervalued vulture. I finally reached the part in the bird dictionary to talk about the symbolism and it began with a story that caused me to tear up (granted I've been a little more sensitive lately so it doesn't take much for me to do that but still...). Here is what it said:
"In the earliest of times, the sun lived very close to the earth-- so close in fact that life upon the earth was becoming unbearable. The animal world got together and decided to do something about it. They wanted to move the sun further away. The fox was the first to volunteer, and he grabbed the sun in his mouth and began to run to the heavens. After a short while, the sun became too hot, burning the fox's mouth, and he stopped. To this day, the inside of the fox's mouth is black.
Then the opossum volunteered. He wrapped his tail around the sun and began running towards the heavens. Before long though, the sun became too hot, burning his tail and he had to stop. To his day the opossum has no hair upon its tail.
It was then that vulture stepped forward. Vulture was the most beautiful and powerful of birds. Upon its head was a beautiful mantel of rich feathering that all other birds envied. Knowing that the earth would burn up unless someone else moved the sun, the vulture placed its head against it and began to fly to the heavens. With powerful strokes of its wings, it pushed and pushed the sun further and further up into the heavens. Though it could feel its crown feathers burning, the vulture continued until the sun was set at a safe distance in the sky away from the earth. Unfortunately, vulture lost its magnificent head of feathers for eternity." (Andrews, p. 200-2)
The description goes on afterwards to talk about the vulture's appearance in different myths and some of the vulture's habits and their purpose, but I wanted to stop and unpack this myth. Here is what I got out of it:
According to this myth you have this bird. The most beautiful of all birds with a crown of glorious feathers. In a time of crises he sees others try to save the world and he sees that there are permanent, physical consequences to these courageous actions. He realizes that his beautiful crown of feathers will give him the padding he needs to successfully protect everyone, but in doing this he will lose them. He does it anyway and his status is changed from one of the most beautiful, respectable raptors, to "just an ugly vulture."
It made me want to cry because I realized that I had fallen into this common system of judging something by one or two characteristics without thinking about the meaning behind those characteristics. For example, I know that this is a myth, but think about the level of compassion someone (or a group of people) must have been able to tap into in order to see this bird-- a bird who is always around death and who has what is almost universally considered to be an ugly physical appearance-- and instead of making it into the villain of the story, this person (or group) wondered what happened to the feathers? And then turned the vulture into a hero.
I can't answer for anyone else, but I don't think that would have been my first instinct. I might have a tendency to follow a common norm of taking an animal associated with ugliness and death and vilifying it or else victimizing it.
This is the part that touches me. This story does neither. It honors the vulture and celebrates the great deed it did. The hero in the story is strong, brave, and knowingly gave up its "crown" for the sake of the world. There is nothing about that which screams "evil" or "victim". This guy is a proud, bold hero. One who is brave enough to sacrifice his greatest outward gift because he (or she) knew that his (or her) internal character and the safety of the world are worth so much more than outward approval.
It might seem silly for me to be so in awe of a myth about a vulture, but really, try to take some time and think about the meaning. Think about what it would look like in human form for a person who was the envy of all their peers to make the decision to painfully lose that which everyone else admired, in order to save those same people. Then think about what it means for the newer generations-- unaware of the boldness of such a decision-- to come around and mock this same person for their appearance. Instead of recognizing the beauty of who they are and what they did, they laugh at the difference and call them ugly or say "they are just a...(fill in the word)". How would it feel to be that person? How would it feel to be that kid who mocks a war-hero for his scars and then grow up to realize that those scars bought you your life and freedom? The implications are crazy to me.
It seems like the kind of lesson that can grow deeper every time some one takes the time to really think about it.
Anyway, that's what struck me. Here I am mocking and minimizing this bird and even if he didn't actually carry the sun into the heaven, he is a living breathing creature who doesn't harm other beings (vultures don't kill) but does protect the environment (including us) by eating rotting meat that would otherwise become diseased. Why would I mock this? What could I possibly find diminutive about an animal that literally does no harm, but does a lot of good?
I would be ashamed if I weren't so awe-struck by the change in perspective. And maybe that's the whole point-- not the shame, we have enough of that in the world-- the beauty of realizing how limited our own understanding is. Wow. What a beautiful world it turns out this place is. What a beautiful spirit this "ugly" bird truly embodies.
P.S. I wrote this post yesterday (May 28th) afternoon. In the evening while I was driving to the store I saw a black vulture sitting on a streetlight. I've taken that street hundreds of times because it is a main road and I grew up here. I've never seen a vulture or condor anywhere near it before. So I thought that was cool and wanted to say thanks to the bird for the affirmation.