Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Trusting Hawks and Celtic Augury

I wanted to reclaim my Cherokee ancestry back when I was in college, and have tried to study some Cherokee traditions for many years. Some traditions lasted in my oh-so-passing family, especially about plants and animal lore, and one cultural tradition that my family did pass on to me was to watch and follow birds. Birds as messengers, birds as bringers of fortune, birds as signs of weather and seasonal cycles, all were part of my childhood. Later, in the UK and Ireland, I learned more of Cornish, Irish, Welsh and Scottish bird lore, and thus began my still ongoing studies in augury.

Augury means divining the future from the study of natural animal movement. Birds have been especially important in multiple cultures - the Romans had entire religious orders established around reading the auspices. (In brief, mark out a field - called a templum, build a camp, call in flutists and harpers, draw the auspices - which means dividing the field and sky into sections that indicate signs and derive their powers from the gods, light a fire, throw in incense, play the music, and wait for the augur to make a pronouncement.) Bird lore, often as intensely complicated, exists world wide. (You can watch bird tracks, bird flight, bird nesting, bird migration, and of course those infamous bird entrails.)

I was brought up to believe hawks brought luck. The bigger the hawk, the greater the luck would be (sorry Cooper's hawks!). During one of the hardest times of my life, when dealing with my infertility, the one thing that kept me going was the many hawks here in the Allegheny mountains, including the Red Tail that lived in my woods during those ugly years of fertility specialists and awful drugs. I walked daily, and saw that Red Tail daily, and held on to the signs that somehow in all the ugly infertility mess, the auspices were auspicious! Certainly that dreadful time was especially marked with daily Red Tail sightings, a record number of hawk visits that still stands out in my life.

(And now, 16 years and 3 adopted children later, I have to admit that that neighborly hawk was absolutely right. The signs, though I couldn't see them through the treatments and sense of failure, were auspicious indeed: apologies, gentle readers, but I have the best children in the world!)

Early on, after my eldest's birth, I remember seeing the red tail (though I still walked daily, with babe in sling) less often, but offering my prayers of thanks to her when she did wing by. Hawks lived on in our woods, Red Tail, Cooper's and Harris, and watching them for signs of luck became second nature. Unsure of my road ahead, I watch hawks when I take job and school applications to post; feeling overwhelmed with work, kids, school, church, I take comfort from hawks perched on street lights overhead. A hawk winged above on the way to dd's music competition this past weekend, and yes, she won. Hawks and I have a special bond.

And yes there are other birds. I am deeply connected to my beloved carolina wrens; here on the northern edge of their range, carolina wrens need my feeders to get through cold snaps, and I need their bug-eating to survive summers of chiggers and mosquitos. Little brown flit-flits, carolina wrens are happy, cheerful and domestic, busy with their small territories, busy rooting out bad bugs and keeping woods and garden neat and tidy. For work at home moms like me, carolina wrens are soul mates and happy reminders of the importance of home and hearth - and hearths, of course, are ever sacred not only to children and pets, but also to Bridget. Since I hear endless comments of the "oh you don't really work" variety, the cheerful companionship of wrens is an endless source of support.

The easiest way to learn augury is to begin watching birds. Hang some bird feeders, spend time outside watching trees and sky, and start checking out what the birds evoke in you. Hawks meant luck to Cherokee traditions, but hawks may mean something else to you. I have a good friend who loves ravens; many, many friends love owls (we had a barred owl waking us up all winter), and my youngest daughter loves the cheerful and talkative chickadee. All of these birds bring different messages and different auspices.

You can take augury to more complicated heights. Drawing a templum on land or sky, and dedicating, say, the NE corner of your yard to Bridget, adds meaning to bird sightings in that area of your yard. A crow in the NE corner could then mean some trickster energy in your hearth, inspirational life, or your crafting. Crow energy is ever fun to translate and predict! (Or you could see that oh-so-social bird as indication of a future handcrafting party. . . or connected to Morrigan's ravens and indicators of battle. . . )

Dedicate the SW corner of the sky over your home to Cailleach, and an owl flying there at daybreak could mean dawning wisdom. Or from Cherokee and Creek traditional beliefs, an owl would mean approaching death. Back to me and my wrens, in many Welsh legends, wren is the trickster, often wise and vanquishing other birds. Of course Boxing day, is the day of wrens, the King of the Birds in so many legends. So put the wren in that SW corner dedicated to Cailleach, and you have a message of intelligence, wisdom, trickery, and kingship!

Augury, then, requires only two things: learning bird lore, and practicing. It is thus one of the cheapest of divination practices, and also one of the most personal. (Perhaps carolina wrens have an utterly different meaning for you. . .)

Augury also brings us to tending, that oh so Bridget activity. Birds, like our planet, are in increasing trouble. Tending to the planet, to the pesticides on our lawns and the chemicals in our foods, is the only way we and our birds will survive. I keep my small two acres organic, and a safe haven for birds escaping my Scotts lawn, shrub trimming neighbors. My yard is a Back Yard Habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Fund (which offers a sign for sale after you get certified, to show your neighbors why you only mow twice a month and never trim your bushes at all. . .) Putting out small offerings to the birds, from peanut butter or lard on stale bread, to pine cones trimmed with sunflower seeds, to hanging old apples and oranges, all are not only offerings to the birds, but as messengers to the gods, feeding birds is an offering to the holy.

And the results are neverending and profound. My youngest, budding ornitholigist who knew the names of about 20 backyard birds at age 2, and I have fallen in love with the Franklin Institute Hawk Cam where two parents are daily caring for their three nestlings. Youngest and I have spent the spring watching the mom lay 3 eggs, watching the long and boring nesting, and screamed in delight when the 3 eggs finally hatched. Now the nestlings are growing quickly, and youngest and I worry daily that they are going to fall from the nest in downtown Philly, as the fledglings start to explore their wings. It is a daily drama to watch the 3 baby birds wiggle near their nest edge.

My eldest, however, has no patience for this. Eldest is my warrior, interested in swords and battle and black belts. Hearing me and youngest bemoan the birds antics, my eldest offered this pearl, which I now share with you:

"Mom, just trust in the hawks," eldest told me, hands in the air for emphasis, "just have faith in the hawks."


  1. I have always seen hawks as harbingers of good fortune, too, though I have no recollection of having been told that. Maybe I was and have forgotten; maybe I just absorbed it from the ether. How delightful to find out that there are long traditions about this very thing! It amazes me the number of things I've done instinctively my whole life that turn out to be meaningful for others as well. Reading this post was another of those "Atta girl!" moments from the divine. :-)

  2. Take those atta girl moments when you get them! Seems to me, dailycompost, you have a lot of druid in you. . .


    Mommy hawk placed leafy branches around the edge of the nest today, effectively preventing the little ones from getting to the edge and danger;
    a hawk kiddie lock, so to speak.

    "Trust in hawks, Mom. . ."