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.
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.