Almost everyone, city-dweller or rural resident or lifelong suburbanite, has met them, and has a name for them. Also known as the roly-poly, woodlouse, or doodle bug, the pillbug is perhaps the most innocuous non-mammal children encounter. Certainly it’s safer than the family dog or cat. It doesn’t bite or carry disease, and is left without any defense other than “conglobation” — doing that “armadillo thing” that gives it the first half of its scientific name.
So I’m still repeating “armadillidium vulgare” (ar-mah-dil-LID-ee-um vool-GAH-ray) to myself every hour or so, just for the pure fun of the name, since yesterday morning when I did some research to learn more about the little creatures. Why? That’s less interesting to me right now than the pillbug itself, but I’ll explain the reason in a bit. (If you’re just skimming, in a hurry, and want to arrive at what you imagine is the “Druidic payoff” straightaway, go the final section of this post.)
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A native European, the pillbug has spread to North America and the rest of the world, where it flourishes in damp and shady environments. If you’ve encountered them, you most likely did so when overturning a garden pot or stone or board in a woodpile. Pillbugs actually aren’t insects, but crustaceans, most closely related to crabs and crayfish. They breathe through gills, and unlike the vast majority of species with iron-based blood, pillbugs use copper — hemocyanin rather than hemoglobin, for the nerds among us — an ancient alternative oxygen-bearing respiration system, making them literal “blue-bloods”.
Pillbugs recycle body wastes, can absorb water at several locations along their body, and carry their young in a belly pouch called a marsupium — if that makes you think “marsupial”, like a kangaroo or possum, you’re not so far off track.
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Which brings me to “why the pillbug as a blogpost topic?”
Workshop 5 at the recent Gulf Coast Gathering in Mandeville, LA, focused on spirit and animal guides. Here’s Lorraine leading the workshop, her own cat guide prominent on the t-shirt she’s wearing:
photo courtesy Kezia Vandilo
As often happens during guided meditations and visualizations, I work on patience. Whether or not anything “comes through”, the practice itself has value. It builds energy and receptivity to things outside the “enchantment of the apparent world” as OBOD rituals put it. Lorraine asked us to travel with our guide to a clearing where we could encounter a new helper.
Nothing … nothing … nothing. My boar guide, happy to explore the Louisiana woods, kept away. Or at least I experienced no trace of him. Instead, inner mist, overcast gray, drowsiness … Then, almost at the end of the visualization: pillbug! I swallowed my laughter. My amused surprise at the unexpectedness of this particular animal guide disturbed its inner form not at all. I’m small, but like all things I have my dignity, I seemed to hear. Pay attention.
As I wrote here a little over a year ago,
When something like this grabs me, I start trying it out, trying it on for size. What does my spiritual path do with it? Does it stir me, even — or especially — if I resist it? (I’ve found that’s one good test for the value of my path, too.) Do I want its insight with me over the next meters and miles, minutes or months? Is there a place for it in my backpack or tool-kit? If so, what? If not, why not? … Why has it arrived on my doorstep at all? Has it come to me now, or in this particular form, because I’ve already rejected it at least once?! Will I at least remember to write it down in my journal, so when it knocks me upside the head again, sometime in the future, a review of what I write today will help the lesson sink deeper, enough that next time at least I’m able to act?
I’m a Druid so also I count the non-human world among my teachers. That doesn’t mean I have to stay in class, or stick with the same teacher. It means, if I need to, that I can learn and move on. It means — thank the gods! — I have many teachers. It may well mean, if I really need to learn something, that the classwork I don’t finish here may reappear somewhere else, in another class, on another arm of the spiral. But it also means I can call on teachers I adore and who support me to help me with teachers who challenge me, rub me the wrong way — teachers who don’t make it easy …
So what do I take away from this encounter, this new guide? Stay small and inconspicuous? Keep to the undersides of things? Protect my belly and curl my back against trouble?
Or maybe pay attention to things that may seem too small to deserve your notice. Disdain nothing that can teach you. (And what can’t teach me, after all? Only what I ignore …) Stay flexible enough to adapt, to bend. Keep in touch with the earth. Know that my dignity and worth don’t depend on anyone else. My value in a supersize culture has nothing to do with quantity but with quality. And, always, listen.
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Images: pillbug; conglobating pillbug.
[A version of this post appeared in my column in the online Druid magazine Amethyst. My thanks to the editors for providing their well-edited forum for OBOD’s East Coast Gathering (ECG) community.]
I offer this post on the chance it may prove useful if you’re grappling with some aspect of animal guides, power animals, personal totems — the usages and terminologies haven’t settled down yet.
Last September, as I sat engrossed in the ECG 2013 workshop on Animal Guides, I simply had to laugh at myself. It had become clear to me over the weekend that sometimes your animal guide pursues you, rather than the other way around. In my case I’ve learned that gods, spirits, and guides often have to shout and do handstands to get me to notice at all. I’m just grateful they think it’s worth Their while.
With Boar, my obliviousness ran deeper than usual, and lasted much longer. Maybe (I say, trying to excuse myself in any way I can find) it’s only because I’ve looked at my obtuseness more closely than usual. Maybe following two paths has scrambled the inner circuits. Maybe my inner discipline needs work (whose doesn’t?!). Laughter may be appropriate – and fitting for Boar, who can be a bit of a trickster anyway. As long as laughing isn’t all you do, I hear inwardly. Clues pile up. Here are some I’ve managed to account for so far.
My father, a city boy who grew up in Niagara Falls, NY, became a full-time dairy farmer a few years before I was born. For some reason he could judge pigs well, recognize the outstanding animal, pick out the prize pig. In fact he won several judging competitions when I was still a baby. But the ability perplexed him. He’d mention it from time to time, amused. (Now I ask myself, is Pig or Boar some kind of family or ancestral totem? One more quest to add to my list of quests.)
I was born in the year of the Boar, according to the Eastern 12-year calendar. OK, I thought. Interesting piece of trivia. Entertainment, really. Chinese restaurant lore. Fortune cookie material. My nominally Christian family never paid any attention to such things. And in my adolescent arrogance and ignorance, I considered myself professionally immune to astrology, which I was sure was for wackadoos. It didn’t help that it was part of the national conversation at the time. If you’re old enough to remember the Reagan presidency and the First Lady’s Nancy Reagan’s admitted fascination with astrology, you know what I’m talking about.
When I was in my early teens, and walking the Wyoming County fairgrounds in late August, a show pig at our local county fair lunged at me as I passed – a serious, front-legs-over-the-top-of-the-pen, get-to-you-if-I-could attempt. I was passing by a good ten feet away, one person in a crowd of visitors to the week-long fair in our agricultural county. What set the pig off? Something I was wearing? A scent of sweat or lunch or shampoo? Pitch or timbre of my voice? I never did find out. But I’ll note that I was fascinated around this time by the Greek myth of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, and the relationship between Meleager and Atalanta, a fleet-footed huntress sent by the goddess Artemis, who had also sent the boar. Why? To punish the king of Calydon for his neglect of the rites due to the gods. (You have to understand: goddesses feature in another of my lists of embarrassing interactions with the universe. Sometimes when I get it down on paper it’s just downright embarrassing. But, I can hope, maybe my embarrassment will be useful to others.)
I reflect, too, on my long* fascination with Old English, Anglo-Saxon society, and the war (and boar) themes in poems like Beowulf. To the left you can see the stylized (and outsized) boars on the warriors’ helms.
To cite just two instances from one poem, at one point the poet equates the warriors directly to the boar and to its symbolic importance as a fighter: “The armies clashed — boar struck boar” (lines 1327-8). And some hundred lines later, Beowulf’s own helmet is described in detail: “A smith crafted it, set boar-images around it, so that ever after no sword or war-axe could bite it” (1452-1454).
Fast forward a decade and I’m teaching English in Japan in Musashino, a western suburb of Tokyo. One weekend my wife and I were visiting Asakusa Jinja, a large Shinto shrine in downtown Tokyo. As I was poring over trinkets for a cheap souvenir, a servant of the shrine insisted that I take a small carved wooden boar token. It didn’t appeal to me at the time – I thought some of the other images were more artistic renderings. But I made a small offering and went home with the image.
The Wild Boar serves as the mascot at a private high school where I taught for almost two decades. Every day classes were in session, I entered the campus dining hall passing beneath a stuffed head of a wild boar mounted over the entrance. The animal had been shot decades ago by one of the first headmasters of the school, an avid hunter.
About a dozen years ago, my wife and I took a vacation to Italy and the Tuscan hill country, where not once but twice I ate wild boar, and was sick both times. You’d think at some point it might have dawned on me that I shouldn’t eat my animal guide.
In fact, a few years ago an alum donated to the school a replica of Il Porcellino, a famous boar figure from Florence, Italy by the Renaissance sculptor Pietro Tacca. I now walked past Boar twice a day, outdoors and in. I can’t claim the universe rearranged itself for my benefit (or embarrassment), but the effect was the same.
Why such resistance on my part? I still don’t know entirely. But Boar appeared in a vision during the East Coast Gathering drumming session with Thomas Deerheart and Maya Minwah, and gave me some very specific health advice for a longstanding issue I’m dealing with. Ever since then I’ve been drawn to touch Boar, run my hands over his coarse fur, feel the ridge along his back.
The Druid Animal Oracle entry for Torc, the Boar, notes: “… he is a representative of the Goddess—his skin can heal you” (Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, The Druid Animal Oracle, Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 39). It’s important to note I finally read the Oracle only after I wrote a second draft of this column (yet another resistance – I’ve had the volume on my shelves for over a year).
We say “my guide” or “my power animal,” but I’m finding that for me at least it’s the other way around. I belong to them. Whatever I think I’m looking for, it’s been looking for me even longer. The hunter is hunted. They track me down till I’m cornered and I have to listen, till I can’t ignore them any longer.
Recently Magpie has caught my attention again. I’m trying to listen better this time to whatever this new guide wants to communicate. What with running with Boar, and flying with Magpie, at least I’ve got the opportunity for plenty of inner exercise.
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As I look over these notes, several points stand out. (I’ll put them in first person and speak only for myself, not to presume too much about who you are, or what your experience may be.) First, to my mind, is the desire (I don’t know how else to put it) of the Other — Spirit or spirits, guides, deities, totems — to connect with me. Second I must concede my own obliviousness. I ask for help, or a “sign,” but even when it lies down in front of me and trips me up, I STILL manage to ignore it.
Next is the likelihood that once I start looking, the coincidences begin stacking up until it’s clear there’s more than coincidence going on. Common themes emerge. The animal I seek is also seeking me — in dreams, “accidents,” images, unaccountable emotional reactions to seemingly “unimportant” things– in all the different ways it can reach me, in case one or more channels of communcation are blocked (usually on my end).
Animal images in poems also cry and echo for the nerd-Bard that I am. We repress the animal guides in and around us, so that like other repressed things, they eventually spring, animal-like, into our psyches elsewhere, in sometimes strange and nightmarish images, in art, dream, eventually, even, in national obsessions and pathologies. If they pool and accumulate enough cultural energy, they manifest in personal and societal outward circumstances, in political and cultural movements, in wars and other conflicts. Think of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” which famously ends “what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
Or consider Philip Levine’s “Animals are Passing from Our Lives” in the voice of a pig approaching its slaughter. Apocalyptic and angry poems like these, like most art, aren’t “about” only one thing. Run them to earth and they keep meaning something more. We use animals (animals use us) to communicate what we sometimes cannot say directly. Among all the other things they do, animals help us express that deep love, that bitter grief, anger and darkness, comfort and healing, that simply may not be able to manifest in any other way.
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Images: boar; boar-helmed warriors; Asakusa Jinja; Il Porcellino; Druid Animal Oracle.
*Like many English majors, I studied Old English as an undergrad and grad student. Like some others, my interests in things Tolkien and Old English stimulate and nourish each other. Since then I’ve kept up my amateur’s interest by attending conferences, writing and presenting papers, shoring up my grasp of the language in discussions and translations on online forums, and in rendering portions of OE poems and prose into modern English, as with the lines above. I say “amateur,” because with the exception of occasionally teaching the poem in translation to high schoolers, I pursue my interest out of personal obsession rather than professional necessity.
Magpie religion says pick it up if it’s shiny. Add it to your collection. Don’t worry if it “matches” or “fits” — shininess is its own category. It stands out from everything else.
Magpie religion is normally practiced alone, though its origin lies in the genetic stamp all Magpies carry. Aloneness is not a bad thing — the Magpie, at least the Eurasian variety, passes the mirror test for self-awareness. Magpie doesn’t need a flock to find its own way. The world of shiny awaits.
Magpie religion says don’t worry so much about God, an afterlife, and so on. Magpie religion means be a Magpie as best you can, and that means “do Magpie things.” You’ll begin to see that God comes to you. Sometimes wearing feathers. Sometimes not.
Magpie religion means, while you sit on your branch, if you can, sing.
Magpie religion seeks no converts. If you’re born a Magpie, you’re already a member. You belong. If you’re something else, BE that something else. No copy-cats, or copy-birds. Everything belongs, has its shiny. Go find it, says Magpie religion. Bring it back to the nest.
Magpie religion says beautiful exists on its own terms. It needs no excuses. It also doesn’t need a runway, an ad campaign, backers or models. It doesn’t go in or out of style.
Magpie religion says “Magpie” doesn’t signify anything, even if death or bad weather happens to come along. Other beings signify using “Magpie.” Magpie doesn’t mind. It could mean more shiny.
Magpie religion says the order is important: magpie first, then religion. Remember that when you sort your shiny.
Magpie religion says don’t worry if others call you Magpie, which is a silly name, after all. By BEING Magpie, you make the name beautiful. Ruffle those feathers, preen a little. You’ve earned it.
Magpie religion says if someone wants to make an animal guide out of you, introduce the Trickster. Then fly away.
Magpie religion says you carry bright and dark in your own bodies. No need to go far to seek them, to “understand” them. You stand under them already. Literally. Without trying. Want a vision, check a mirror, see yourself — recognize it.
Magpie religion says “Magpie religion” is a set of sounds, a set of ripples and sparks in your nervous system. Where are you flying today?
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Images: sitting; in flight
The Eurasian magpie, the variety studied more extensively, also appears to possess episodic memory — the ability to recall/distinguish “what, where, when.” Magpies have been observed using tools, and groups of Magpies showing what has been interpreted as grief over the death of one of their number. The Magpie is not only one of the most intelligent of birds, but of all animals — an intelligence now recognized to have arisen independently in both corvids (crow and magpie-like birds) and primates. See Eurasian magpie for more info.