Taking Soul Birds Seriously.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Peacock Butterfly, Aglais Io.

Appropriately, on this variously named festival of the first fruits of the northern hemisphere harvest, Saturn, a.k.a. the Reaper, so named both for the necessity of death-in-life, and as ‘the one who harvests fruitful deeds'(1), turns direct in the heavens and starts to move forward across the last degrees of Scorpio, resonating with a potent configuration of other planets. (see astrological footnote**).

Having stumbled upon Peter Fenwick‘s finding that encounters with a personally significant animal, bird, or butterfly, are quite often reported around the time of a death, I wove this into an article that can now be found online in the latest issue of Paranthropology,  Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal ‘Taking Soul Birds Seriously, a Post-secular Animist Perspective on Extra-Ordinary Communications revisits a series of kingfisher dreams and appearances that preceded and followed the death of a very dear friend in 2012, in the context of debates around contemporary animism.

One strand in these discussions has been whether we should abandon the term ‘spirits’.   Because it comes to us saturated in dualistic (neo-)Platonic and Christian assumptions that privilege celestial realms (‘Heaven’) over ecological concerns and the wonders of material embodiment, its uncritical use has undoubtedly distorted Western understandings of indigenous traditions.  My preference, however, has been to reclaim ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’, with due care, for earth-centred spirituality.

Having cited Graham Harvey on this, and sensing considerable scepticism about extra-ordinary experience in his Food Sex and Strangers, I was pleased to hear from him that he has no scepticism about the otherworld or its inhabitants.  His critique was, apparently, aimed at the casual approach of some Pagans towards otherworldly beings.

In the Paranthropology article I argue that we need terms that unambiguously signify discarnate persons or beings, whether or not we accept the possibility of their existence, and that the ontological status of visions, voices, or presences, may well be less important than their meaning and effect, and the power relations surrounding them.  I pick up on Brian Morris’s reminder that binary distinctions need not be interpreted dualistically, and on Patrick Curry’s similar argument that ‘contingent local distinctions between spiritual or mental and material … are not the problem, any more than are either rationality or spirituality per se. It is their conversion into an ideology and programme (rationalism, spiritualism, etc) which is pathological.”(2)

I wouldn’t want to ‘pathologise’ ingrained discursive habits such as dualism, but since, from a human perspective, nature seems riven with dualities -none more radical than the apparent chasm between ‘life’ and ‘death’- this simple move hopefully enables us to separate accounts of ecstatic or transcendental experiences and realities from their dualistic misuse, whilst ‘End of Life Experiences’, not least those involving the arrival of helpful and  loving presences, whoever they are and however we perceive and address them, appear (one way or another) to affirm existential continuity.

B.T. 1/8/15 (updated 2/8/15).

Astrological Footnote:  On the first of August 2015 Saturn went direct on 28 Scorpio, square Venus and Jupiter (on 27 and 29 Leo), and semi-square Pluto (on 13 Capricorn).  Pluto was therefore ‘with’ the midpoints Venus-Saturn and Jupiter-Saturn at 13 Libra.  Stationery periods, when a planet appears to hover at one point for a while, are said to concentrate the planet’s astrological effect – or if you prefer, to intensify the phenomena being signified.  Interestingly, Saturn is concerned with boundaries, thus also binary distinctions and ‘othering’, and (as Chronos) with time.  Death is undoubtedly a ‘limit experience’, and temporal boundary.


(1) Alan Leo, Saturn: the Reaper, Samuel Weiser, 1916.

Graham Harvey, Food, Sex, and Strangers, Understanding Religion as Everyday Life, Acumen, 2013.  

(2) Patrick Curry, (2012) Revaluing Body and Earth, in Brady E. and Phemister P (eds), Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice, Dordrecht, Springer, 41-54.

Click to access Revaluing%20Body,%20Place%20and%20Earth.pdf

A Right Royal Visit

I was nodding off yesterday afternoon (don’t ask) when my partner rushed in announcing that she’d found “a fantastic moth”.  I grabbed my camera and followed her out to our small garden, where a wonderful buff, grey, and white female Emperor moth was perched in a perfect viewing position.  Her mate, the smaller male, with ‘brownish pink forewings and chestnut brown hindwings’, and lovely ‘pectinate’ (comb-like, toothed, feathery) antennae, that may have detected her pheremones from over a mile away, was clasped against her.  Two naturalist friends, one of whom is a keen ‘moth-er’, hurried over, and the four of us stood basking in the sheer beauty of these impressive creatures.  We were all quietly excited and felt intensely protective.  It was a lovely moment.  I was particularly impressed by how long the moths’ delicate embrace lasted.  We must have watched them joined together for over 20 minutes, but had no way of knowing how long this had been going on for previously.  Was it the chilly weather?  Were they comatose?  Were they dreaming?  Were they locked in unimaginable bliss?  I’ve no idea, but it was beautiful to watch.

Female Emperor Moth, Saturnia Pavonia.

Female Emperor Moth, Saturnia Pavonia.

Pair of Emperor Moths, showing the male's feathery antennae.

Pair of Emperor Moths, showing the male’s feathery antennae.

Our friend told us that the female would only just have emerged.  The beautiful moth form is the culmination of an extraordinary process of metamorphosis.  The caterpillars make a cocoon of coarse silk -this being Britain’s only silk moth- that apparently has a lobster-pot style trap door designed to prevent predatory insects or spiders from entering.  Once safely inside the cocoon, the caterpillar’s internal organs liquify, and then, gradually, the moth ‘condenses’ -one might say- cell by cell.  This pupa stage can last up to three years, but the moth only lives for four or five days, using up its fat reserves, but not eating.  What an incredible body-mind process.

We photographed our motionless royal visitors.  Then, eventually, the top corner of one of the male’s wings began to flicker.  He was, we were told, ‘revving- up’ his wings to fly.  As if suddenly weightless, he fluttered effortlessly skywards.  Our moth-er friend decided to move the female (with the aid of an egg-box) across to some heather, the caterpillar’s favourite food plant, on the nearby hillside.

Female Emperor Moth.

Female Emperor Moth.

Emperor moths are formally referred to as Saturnia Pavonia, and are part of the family Saturniidae, named from the ringed planet Saturn because of the ringed ‘eye’ spots on their wings.  As an astrologer, I’m curious about this.  Names are often meaningful, but I don’t want to press the question of symbolism, other than to say that we are both sun Capricorn, so Saturn is our ‘ruling planet’.  She-who-found-them has Saturn rising, and, I think, was in need of a lift.  This was her best ever moth encounter.  She said it felt as though they were saying ‘you’ve appreciated us all this time, now we’ll show you what we’re like’.  So, there she was, grinning from ear to ear, clapping with joy!  Don’t forget that Saturn is the planet of the Walled Garden of Paradise, and the proverbial Golden Age.  Its’ not all doom, gloom, and duty!  But the female’s exquisitely patterned buff, grey, and white regalia does have an unmistakeably restrained Saturnine quality.

I don’t want to interfere with the memory of the moment, so I’ll go no further along the symbolic track, except to warn readers that there’s some dire New Age material on the web claiming, for instance, to summarise the ‘wisdom’ of this species.*  As a confirmed symbolic thinker and paid-up believer in other dimensions (of reality/cosmic Nature), my response to such guff is to suggest that the Emperor moth’s story is a prime example of the extravagant complexity, wonder, and ‘sacredness’, of ‘vital materiality’.  It needs no mythopoetic adornment.  Appropriating the Emperor moth’s metamorphosis as an allegory of transcendence would be an affront to the miracle of embodiment.


Learn About Butterflies.com/Britain website.  Sorry I can’t get the web address for the page to work here.


* One website, having wrongly stated that the female Emperor moth is smaller than the male, claims that the species teaches us ‘respect for male and female differences’, and how to ‘use smell to good effect’.  You couldn’t make it up!

Comments by e-mail

E-mails (sent using the contact form at the bottom of the home page) can be shown here.  Just say which part you’d like included.

“What a wonderful encounter and sensitively described. I especially like your ending about an affront to the wonders of embodiment and the last bit about male/female differences!  Cultural values get everywhere!  Beautiful moths.  I shall have to look them up to find the size, though I think they are quite big.  Great photography too.  I’ve seen spiders mating; they go on for hours.”  Jo Pacsoo.

Equinox Greetings; Organic Time.

Daffodils Shaking off Late Snow

Daffodils Shaking off Late Snow

The Equinox feels like a good time to ponder the way in which time is organically embedded in the fabric of the living world, and its symbolic correspondences.  This insight would seem obvious to most of our premodern ancestors.  The so-called Venus of Laussel, for example, a figurine carved in limestone and sprinkled with red ochre some twenty thousand years ago, rests her left hand on her swelling/waxing belly, and holds a curved/waxing horn incised with thirteen notches.  Since the Moon waxes for thirteen days between the first crescent and Full Moon, and there can be thirteen cycles in an observational lunar year, this gesture almost certainly celebrates an association between the Moon, fertility in nature, and motherhood.  Jules Cashford comments: ‘a more eloquent testimony to the unity of celestial and earthly orders would be hard to find’.  The Moon makes time measurable, and causes living forms to wax and wane.  Mircea Eliade refers to these basic rhythms as ‘Living Time’.

I was fortunate to meet the late Charles Harvey, an eminent late twentieth century British Astrologer.  He used to point out that we’re much more likely to be able to see planetary principles at work in the world around us than Sun signs.  There’s a considerable degree of consistency in planetary lore across astrological traditions (that often disagree about other horoscope factors) stretching back to Ptolemy, or even Mesopotamia.  Ultimately the roots of Western Astrology recede into the depths of prehistory.  Engaging with just one or two planetary principles can be a lifetime’s work.

When approached carefully, and with due respect, astrology can provide a powerful symbolic map of the significance of a moment.  Here is one such map, showing the positions of the planets at the time of a memorable Spring Equinox meditation fourteen years ago, that turned out to be biographically important.  I hope the following brief note does justice to it as an example of ‘testimony to the unity of celestial and earthly orders’.

Horoscope of Kingfisher Meditation,  Spring Equinox 1989. Calculated using Solar Fire V5.

Horoscope of Kingfisher Meditation, Spring Equinox 1989. Calculated using Solar Fire V5 (Placidus house system).

Contemporary Western astrology accords prominence to any celestial body on one of the angles (at each end of the horizontal and vertical axes) of a horoscope.  Turning to this map, my attention is drawn to the Moon, on the midheaven, and to Pluto, Lord of the Underworld or Dark Mother, rising in his/her own sign Scorpio, and thus ‘ruling’ this horoscope as well as ‘the Great Place Below’.  Pluto signifies the principle of Moira/Fate, or Necessity, that we find personified in underworld deities such as Hades, Dis Pater, Ereshkigal, Kali, or Maasaaw.

In the meditation, I received (rather than constructed – the distinction is important) some unusually vivid imagery of Kingfishers, a bird I had been strongly attracted to over the previous few months.  At the time I was unaware that my mother had long identified with the species.  Over the next two years or so the appearance of Kingfishers in the flesh, and in dreams, came to be associated with her struggle with cancer, and eventual death, and with my own process of bereavement.  With the benefit of hindsight I can now see that this horoscope, with its angular Moon (the mother) and Pluto (transformation/death), prefigured this unambiguously.

Another striking feature of the chart is a close conjunction between Saturn (giver of form, boundaries, limits, the material real) and Neptune (boundless unity, water-mother, the flood, dream-time, meditative vision).  Referring to this planetary combination Liz Greene talks about ‘the gift of incarnating vision’.  The conjunction therefore seems to describe both the process of meditation, the condensation (Saturn) of visionary images (Neptune), and the content of those images.  Because Saturn is concerned with the restrictions of Old Age, The Fisher King comes to mind.  Unsurprisingly, Kingfishers are also associated with flood mythology.  Another image evocative of Saturn-Neptune is the walled garden of Paradise, with its crystal streams.  Turning to Liz Greene again, she writes: ‘paradise is the world of the already-born, immersed in the bliss of the breast’.

This biographically significant map is moored to my natal horoscope by Neptune, which makes a partile – exact to the degree and minute of arc-  ‘square’ (90 degree aspect) to it’s position at the moment I was born.  The Sun in this horoscope illuminates the position of the Moon at the time of my birth.  That, no doubt, is why, around the time of the Spring Equinox, I remember my mother, and think about the Kingfishers, who are out there, at this very moment, laying their next clutch of eggs.


I’ve written about my affinity with Kingfishers at:


Note:  Two planets simultaneously occupying two of the angles in a chart are said to be ‘in paran’ (in  paranatellon).  Such double crossings are regarded as symbolically powerful.  The Moon and Pluto in the above chart are also in quintile aspect.

Note:  good astrological practice is not about making loose definitions fit the task at hand.  I recently spent a full day writing a post about another significant moment, only to find, on checking my diary, that, ten years ago, I’d made a mistake when recording the date.  The piece had to be scrapped!


Jules Cashford, The Moon, Myth and Image, Cassell Illustrated, 2003.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology; Vol 1 – The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Liz Greene, The Astrology of Fate, George Allen and Unwin, 1984.

Liz greene, The Astrological Neptune, and the Quest for Redemption,Samuel Weiser, 1996.