Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Fire in the Belly of Vulture

At the end of February I took part in a weekend-long workshop entitled ‘Activating Your Creative Force’ at the Blue Spirit Yoga and Healing Space. Run by shamanic practitioner Mirella Gleeson, and theatre director, writer and community arts facilitator Cymbeline Buhler, it was an opportunity to use shamanic methods to tap into creativity, to discover and destroy blocks/obstacles, to retrieve a lost soul part, and to work with a power animal.

I have been learning about and using shamanic techniques for some time now, and shamanism (and the ancient, earth-based wisdom that it originates from) has brought a great deal of transformation to my life, so I am always keen to find ways to deepen my practice. The workshop particularly interested me as I have come to believe that spirituality and creativity are one and the same, for they stem, ultimately (and magically), from the same source—whether you call that source Spirit, the Divine, the Otherworld or Creative Energy (or any number of other terms). Both spirituality and art give meaning to life, and life itself can be, should be, an ongoing creative process that produces meaning. 

Artists (of any kind) work by bringing into being that which was once invisible, intangible, inaudible. So making art truly is an act of Creation. 

It is shamanism, in part, that has helped me to find ways to journey to and connect with the source, that beyond place where ideas, stories and visions come from, and to have the confidence to believe in whatever I bring back, to let it have life, most especially in the form of writing.   

One of the first workshop activities that we did was a guided visualisation in which we had to imagine ourselves in a landscape, and for all my recent talk of water and wellsprings (see my previous post here), it was a desert landscape that immediately claimed my attention (though water did come to it, in the form of a life-bringing flood). This was not entirely surprising, as the desert has been a powerful symbol for me since I read Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés a few years ago. As she writes, ‘The desert is not lush like a forest or a jungle. It is very intense and mysterious in its life forms. Many of us [women] have lived desert lives: very small on the surface, and enormous under the ground’ (33). Ain’t that the truth! But, on this occasion I didn’t want to be in a desert. I wanted to be in that lush forest with golden sunbeams dancing down through green leaves. Yet isn’t it so often the case that we get what we need rather than what we want? The desert was where I needed to be, with aridity, heat and sun/fire. The desert was going to have her way. And it was where I met my power animal.

Now, I don’t usually speak about power animals publicly, but I am making an exception in this case, seeing as the animal in question has played a crucial part in the creation of this blog. So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to Vulture. 

As part of the workshop we made masks, and here is mine: Vulture with wings of fire—an alchemical fire of transformation—and a blue tail, symbolising the rain/river/flood that comes to the desert and makes it bloom. (I later learnt that the Mayans associated vultures with water and control of the rain!) The spirals symbolise the circling flight of vultures, and the cyclical/spiralling nature of time and all life processes. Vultures eat the dead, and are therefore at the forefront of the process of death and regeneration—and while the subject of death and decay may be something that we prefer not to think about, it is wholly necessary (there is no life without death), and a powerful subject to explore. After all, death is always with us. I don’t just mean literal death (though that too; and whether we acknowledge it or not, our cells are always dying and renewing themselves, for example), but all the little symbolic or psychic deaths we endure as we grow as people, as relationships end, as we leave places, as we lose our youth or our health, as our lives change and evolve. We are constantly required to let go of our past selves, to let parts of us die, to enable our new selves to live on, renewed, different, older, and hopefully wiser. Life and Death constantly dance together, spiralling around each other. In fact, where does one end and the other begin?

Estés says most eloquently:

This is our meditation practice as women, calling back the dead and dismembered aspects of ourselves, calling back the dead and dismembered aspects of life itself. The one who re-creates from that which has died is always a double-sided archetype. The Creation Mother is always also the Death Mother and vice versa. Because of this dual nature, or double-tasking, the great work before us is to learn to understand what around us and about us and what within us must live, and what must die. Our work is to apprehend the timing of both; to allow what must die to die, and what must live to live. (29)

Vulture embodies this important work.

Also, a realisation that came through loud and clear was that Vulture looks death in the face (quite literally), so she must be entirely fearless.

From a writing exercise we did to explore the main themes of our power animals, I wrote this very raw poem:

From spiral flight,
I see, I smell.
I go to the bones, 
the bones call. 
I eat death, 
and death is life is death is life. 
It spirals onwards. 
I see, I know, I eat. 
I re-flesh the bones. 
I come, I remake, I regenerate. 
I do not fear. I am Vulture.

Vulture is endless regeneration. Vulture is fearlessness. This is what I needed.

And the desert is not a place of lifelessness, though it may seem empty at first glance. As Estés makes clear, the life can be small, so you need to look closely, to pay attention; and sometimes it is hiding underground, just waiting for the right moment to emerge. In many arid places, animals, such as frogs, aestivate. (Aestivation is essentially the opposite of hibernation, when creatures like frogs, fish, insects and snails go into a state of summer dormancy or torpor, only waking and emerging again when it rains.) So the particular ‘belowness’ of the desert, the hidden underground life, is just as important as what is visible on the surface, if not more so. What is hidden might be huge and vibrant and magnificent. It just needs the right conditions to draw it forth.

I have been thinking much about cycles and seasons, that there is a time for all things, even the desert and dry summer. There is a time for emptiness, for being emptied, and then for regeneration. That is something of what the desert is for me: a place of possibility, where new life grows out of death, where transformation is possible. 

Overall, the workshop was a thoroughly rewarding experience, as well as being overwhelmingly FUN! It made me feel more alive than I have in years. That is the power of untrammelled creativity, of spontaneity and playfulness, and I am grateful to Mirella and Cymbeline and all the other people who took part for making it what it was. 

Furthermore, another good thing came from it. One of the participants was Michelle Genders, an independent artist who works under the name of Emma Kay Inks, and I agreed to take part in an idea she dreamt up—The Deep Scarlet Red Pen Project. This is the result (which has been featured on Michelle’s blog and Facebook)—a drawing in red (the perfect colour) of Vulture, done entirely left-handed. In this I have been inspired by the English artist Kate Walters, who not only works using shamanic methods, but also does a lot of her drawings left-handed (and even with her eyes closed!). 

Fire in the Belly of Vulture
Drawing with my non-favoured hand, while difficult, is strangely liberating. Firstly, it helps me to lower my expectations (which is very important for someone like me, who hasn’t done much drawing for years, and tends to be very self-critical); and secondly, the wonky wobbliness of the lines can in fact make the drawing more interesting than any right-handed drawing would ever have been. There is also a certain vulnerability to it, for as it was made with my weaker, less coordinated hand, I had to accept the flaws and work with them. Somehow that makes it feel more authentic as a work of art. 

I am in love with this creation, its imperfect perfection, the blood-redness, and the details of the feathers and wings which remind me so much of the textures in landscapes, of geological layers. I even like my very rough preliminary sketch.

The vulture depicted is a griffon vulture or Eurasian griffon. They are found in southern Europe, north Africa and parts of Asia, and at around one metre in height, with a wingspan of 240–280 cm, they are huge birds, with, I think, their own unconventional yet majestic beauty (which appeals greatly to the nonconformist in me; beauty takes many strange forms). Due to their size, they are relatively heavy (especially when they have a full belly), so to save energy in flight they make use of thermal air currents, which enable them to stay aloft for hours at a time without the need to beat their wings at all. Thus they provide an important lesson in how to use energy with efficiency, to actually draw upon the powers of the Earth and the ‘natural way of things’; and to be patient and resourceful, for they make the most of the opportunities that come to them—as scavengers, they simply wait for food to become available; they do not kill.

I won’t go into further detail about the traditional symbolism of vultures (for it is what they symbolise to me personally that is most important), suffice to say that they are quite a feminine bird in many traditions. Said to be fiercely protective mothers, they raise their young for longer than most other birds (around three months), and in Egyptian tradition they were associated with Nekhbet (goddess of childbirth and feminine energies) and Mut (the mother goddess). The vulture is also one of the many animal manifestations of the Great Goddess of neolithic culture. 

All of this is apt, right for me at this time; and from this encounter with Vulture’s powers, I felt ready to make my work more public by creating this blog. Vulture has been an integral part of the process, and will remain so, peering over my shoulder as I write, circling above me with her astonishing wings outspread in protection and blessing.

In my drawing, Vulture has eaten what is dead, so death can be transformed by the alchemical fire in her belly. Something new then begins to gestate (myself/art/stories/this blog?), preparing to be born; the bone she clutches will be re-fleshed. Death and Life, held together in an eternal paradox—Death Mother and Life Mother. Vulture easily embodies these contradictions, for though she is fire, burning things to ashes, she also brings rain, which leads to the sprouting of delicate shoots, and the greening and flowering of a desert place that once seemed so very empty. Death and life, decay and regeneration, fire and water, all held beneath her wings and spiralling out into the world. These opposites are linked. Contrasting elements join together to create wholes. Everything is connected. It would seem, in the end, that even in the desert water is not far away, for ‘even desert is not the opposite of sea but her daughter—for the sands of the desert are formed of seashells’ (Jay Griffiths, Wild: An Elemental Journey, 263).

Fire and Water


  1. Love this post, and your thoughts on Vulture... Barn Owl is my spirit animal, I'm learning her wise ways all the time :)

    1. Thank you so much. The writing of this post surprised me. It went in quite an unexpected direction (which is what I often love about writing). And lovely that Barn Owl is your spirit animal. I've been thinking a bit about Owl recently, due to the Winter Solstice, and Owl's association with the Cailleach. It seems the winged ones have much to teach me.

  2. What a truly wonderful and inspiring post, Therese. Thank you. I have always loved carrion birds and have learned so much from crow especially, who I think carries many of the same teachings as Vulture. And I love your left-hand drawing. I especially love how the figure in the vulture's belly looks as though she has grown butterfly antennae; another creature who teaches us that being 'broken down' leads us into transformation and new life...

    1. Oh, I love Raven too—all the corvids. But I have been surprised just how beautiful I find Vulture. It's an unconventional beauty, definitely, but still beauty. And I hadn't noticed the butterfly antennae, so thanks for pointing that out. As Bill Plotkin would say, the womb is a cocoon. ;-)


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