The Beauty of Vultures: Eco-animism, Astrology, and Underworld Deities – Part 1.

Vulture Poster

Vulture Poster, Aditya Roy.

I’ve never really had the travel bug, so have only seen vultures in the wild once, in Andalucia, soaring over a limestone gorge, and spiralling on thermals above the mountains.  I was quite taken with them, so I watched Charlie Hamilton-James’s painstaking B.B.C. documentary –Vultures, Beauty in the Beast (21.00 p.m on 31st January), with great interest.  Hamilton James turned out to be a persuasive advocate for a species that, with their hairless serpentine necks that can exert a force of 40lbs, and stomach juices capable of dissolving metal, are formidable ecological specialists!  Filming in Africa, he pointed out that if hyenas fail to turn up, vultures will plunge their heads into the rear ends of animal carcasses to dine.  Adult vultures can soar a hundred miles to bring food to their fast growing chicks.  The lovingly crafted documentary showed these maligned birds to be caring parents.

But, as Hamilton James found out, the demise of several species has caused a major ecological crisis in India, and may soon do so in Africa.  Veterinary diclofenac, a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug used in cattle, causes renal failure in vultures.  Its use has  wiped out 97-99% of the 40 million vultures that used to consume about 12 million tonnes of rotting flesh each year in the Indian subcontinent.  In their absence, the spread of wild dogs, and then of rabies, lead to an estimated 50,000 additional human deaths.  The vulture crisis is said to have cost India around $34 billions in just one decade.(1)

There are readily available alternatives to diclofenac, yet the drug is now being legally sold in Italy, and Spain, the country that hosts the bulk of Europe’s Vulture population.  The Vulture Conservation Organisation, and other conservation organisations are campaigning for it to be banned in Europe.

Rupell's Griffon Vulture.

Rupell’s Griffon Vulture (Gyps rueppellii). Creative Commons.

As an astrologer, it seemed clear to me that these magnificent undertakers of the natural world would be ‘ruled’ by Pluto, planet of the underworld, so I was not at all surprised to find that the documentary was aired under a tight conjunction of Pluto with Venus (Beauty in the Beast), both closely opposite Jupiter (amongst other things, the planet associated with large size and high places).  It turns out that the huge Rupell’s vulture has been recorded flying at 36,000 feet -the altitude typically used by jet airliners- higher even than those bar-headed geese that cross the Himalayas.  They have apparently developed a special kind of haemoglobin that makes their oxygen intake more efficient.  So the astrology,  as usual, included a concise symbolic picture or signature of the subject matter of the film.

Of course, brief statements such as this obscure the material reality of Pluto as a body of rock and ice that’s currently about 4.8 billion kilometres from earth.  There is, I think, a terrible beauty -of the kind often characterised by the term sublime- in the apparently consistent synchrony between planetary motion and the unfolding of meaningful occurences on planet earth.  ‘As above, so below’.  I haven’t looked at other horoscopes involving vultures, but having looked in some detail at the astrology of the underworld, would expect to find confirmation of Pluto’s rulership in carefully observed events  (another project!).

There is much debate between those who conceptualise astrology as divination and those who see it as spiritual science.  Suffice it to say here, that I tend towards the former, and would be looking for the persuasive force of a carefully observed single moment, or sequence of moments (such as expressed in planetary cycles), rather than for a statistically significant population of data.  Astrology is about cultural meaning, the poetry of the planets if you like, so it feels important to resist the Western temptation to curate an underworld ‘archetype’ (in the manner of Jung’s collective unconscious).  In some parts of the world the ‘second most massive known dwarf planet’ we call Pluto, is named after indigenous underworld deities such as (Hindu) Yama, or (Maori) Whiro.  I might be interested in hearing about Izanami, Anubis, Masaaw, and the often invoked Ereshkigal, but there’s a limit to what I can hope to say about them.

There is, of course, a considerable amount of lore, mythology, and cultural practice involving Vultures.  In India, Vultures no longer visit the Parsi Towers of Silence, to consume the bodies of the dead.  The ancient funerary practice of dokhmenishini is now in crisis.  In both Parsi dokhmenishini and Tibetan sky burial, there’s a sense of  giving alms to the birds, and expressing gratitude and respect for the vital work they do.  Asked when vultures started to disappear from Mumbai, a Parsi woman recalled them coming for the bodies of her grandmothers but said that when her father died only kites and crows came.(2)

All of which raises interesting questions about how some other-than-human animals seem to specialise in certain ecological niches, and develop gifts and skills associated with the corresponding planetary principles or deities (principles sounds rather dry, but do we know who deities are?) becoming in the process emissaries, and teachers in the shamanic sense.  Charlie Hamilton-James did a good job flagging up the perils of disrespecting vulture persons, but I was left feeling that he may have got closer to their beauty if he had paid more attention to the many and various cultural stories about them.

(1) Tony Juniper, What has Nature Ever Done for Us?

(2) Thom van Dooren, Vulture, Reaktion Books, 2011.

To be continued shortly in Part 2.

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9 thoughts on “The Beauty of Vultures: Eco-animism, Astrology, and Underworld Deities – Part 1.

  1. I think the sky burials have a beautiful paradoxical circularity and effectiveness; the vultures carrying away the deceased into the lofty mountainous realms, when otherwise the permafrost grounds would not provide the same speedy efficient passage of disposal.
    The vultures – so popularly aligned with death and decay and thus despised – serve a vital hygienic, life sustaining role, connecting and uniting worlds.
    In a similar vein, particular intestinal worms now being sought out by people who sufffer with certain gut ailments, the worms working as cleaning agents.
    Or, even cases of people with certain cancers who deliberately seek out malaria carrying mosquitoes to catch the disease, the reason being the malaria induced fevers providing dramatic increases in body temperature with all the detoxifying effects and immune strenthening qualities that that involves, (providing the organism is able to cope with the additional stress of), and thus can heal the cancerous state of the body.
    Those bird, parasite or insect beings that are so popularly reviled are actually gods to healing, continued life and hygiene.
    Beautiful.

  2. interesting to hear about the worms and mosquitos. Thom Van Dooren opens his book with a mention of the 19th century naturalist John George Wood, who called vultures ‘purifiers’.

  3. Reblogged this on Eaarth Animist and commented:
    I LOVE VULTURES. One of my most awestruck moments was going to the park in Ohio where hundreds of migrating vultures stop together. Half dozen vultures in each tree, staring at me. I adore the scavengers because they “close the loop in the ecosystem” humans like to ignore: “waste.” Turkey vulture energy teaches about riding with the flow, discovering value where others see none, and that one person’s death is another person’s dinner. (They do not kill their meals, they eat what is left over which protects us from disease.) Deep level healing medicine, that. In many ways they are the most innocent, pacifist animals, as they don’t kill, they clean up. It is such a gift from them to us and we have very few animals that fill that niche any longer. A world without vultures is a corrupt, filthy one I hope to never see.

  4. That’s depressing. It seems such a twisted turn of fate a bird whose stomach juices can dissolve metal is decimated by something as simple as an anti-flammatory drug.

    Interestingly, many of the British underworld deities are associated with animals who are ‘death eaters’ – Morrigan with her crows, Arawn / Gwyn ap Nudd with the Hounds of Annwn. I wonder if any of the Hindu underworld deities are associated with vultures?

  5. I’m interested by how we all bring our own histories to bear when responding to stories like this. I tend to get angry or feel numb, rather than depressed, which may be a gendered response(?). However we feel, I think there’s a place for something like Joanna Macy’s ‘despair and empowerment’ practice, so that we can process our emotional repsonses (and perhaps just get them out of the way while we do something positive? -which I know you do). Its hardly surprising that we humans find death, and the work of ‘death-eaters’, difficult to deal with. There’s some very negative lore about vultures, so its good to know that many cultures have also revered them as caring and compassionate ….

  6. Reblogged this on Blau Stern Schwarz Schlonge and commented:
    My comments – “Interesting first part and looking forward to reading the second part. As Lorna said it is interesting how such an iron stomached bird can be wiped out by an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle, and how the decline in their population has brought up the canines scavengers who are also predators and have so much rabies that kills so many people. I guess the spirit of the vulture is getting its revenge, making more dead bodies if it is denied them naturally. I am reminded in the high Himalayas how there was (now there is mined natural gas and coal) no wood for cremations and the ground frozen for burials how they used “sky burials” much cheaper and eco-friendlier than the former. And just how the Native Americans used All parts of a buffalo how high Lamas bones would be artistically made into kapalas and kanglings. [ …] I will read the second part then reblog this so TY for another fine writing on nature Brian.” Also check out Part Two of this post on the Vulture.

  7. It is distressing to hear how these drugs are harming vultures as it is how anti-depressants are doing damage to starlings here in the UK. Harder in that is human medicine leaching into the wider ecosystems doing the damage. Vultures are incredible and valuable members of their countries’ ecosystems. We harm them, we harm us. It is a lesson we, as a human species, still resist coming to terms with because of our self-proclaimed superiority would have to be reassessed on a huge scale.

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