Reframing Our Relationship With Animals and Related Divination Practices

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”

Anatole France

At times it amazes me how we can share this beautiful earth with so many other forms of life and yet because of industrialization, spend so little time with them or in their presence. Animals have an incredible ability just by existing at providing outlets of emotional stimulation, inspiration and a sense of calm. Naturally, this isn’t often the case, as it can be upsetting and traumatizing witnessing the interactions with the natural world, the raw and violent way lifeforms attack, eat and effect other species. At the top of this list and the hardest to witness is the effect we are having as humans on the natural world and animal life.

At worst, we would be terrified to be in a particular wild animal’s presence such as a mountain lion or any number of poisonous animals or insects. The world can be incredibly dangerous, stressful and harsh, pushing us to the point of starvation, insanity and ultimately, death in any number of experiences, accidents or interactions. However, amazingly, I have witnessed times of ease and relaxation between species. For example, having curiously watched squirrels perch calmly on a deer’s back while nibbling on seeds as well as sit peacefully amongst birds at my feeders.

As long as nothing is trying to eat or attack something else, animals regularly interact and give healthy space and respect to one another as well as impact one another positively through the plant or fungal based food web and interconnectedness. For example, dolphins have frequently intervened to save other species from shark attacks, particularly humans, which exhibits a large capacity for empathy. I’ve found that when I sit calmly, truly calm in nature, animals will sometimes approach me seemingly out of sheer curiosity despite my bigger size. It’s as if a barrier is attempted to be crossed as we meet another physical form. There is an unseen magic and energy in these interactions that fuels consciousness and our own growth.

Friendly horse near Carrowmore Complex, Sligo, Ireland

Animals are met in the best way we’re capable, in stillness, in attempts to read the other’s intentions and communicate the only way we can, through our energy itself. At times it has felt telepathic. Animals often are witnessed purposefully going to humans asking for help or relaxing when they know they’re being helped out of a trap. I have witnessed this myself in the eyes of a fox when releasing it out of a trapper’s snare. It was not only the way it stayed still when being released, while it had previously been observed flailing, but in the way it took its time walking away once free, stopping once to sit and just simply look at me.

That’s not to say that what I did wasn’t incredibly stupid because it absolutely was and I could have easily been attacked or bitten. I chose to take that risk to interfere given the circumstance. However, as humans we often pay the price for not respecting boundaries with animals, so I share that with reluctance. Yet, I have seen this language too in the eyes of deer I’ve come across on the trail measuring me to interpret if I was a threat and turning their backs casually after deciding I wasn’t. Puffins on some isles of Scotland have been observed coming out of their dens in the cliffs to feed more frequently when a human is sitting nearby because we scare and keep the seagulls away that feed on them and their young.

Birds that become acclimated to people in nature reserves will often fly to our hands to feed on seeds and it’s not as if they couldn’t find food elsewhere. I wonder is there some small sense of exhilaration in this behavior for them interacting with another as well? Animals have an innate sense as we do, of our calm, intent, excitement or malice. Through focusing on our ability to be stewards, to rescue or help animals when opportunity arises (as other animals are known to do), we step into a more fully realized power. By focusing on what good I can do for other animals, I’ve been able to fully absorb and internalize how and why, we as humans are in such a place of miraculous ability and capable form, and thereby infused incredible depth and gratitude into my day to day experiences.

Puffin on the Isle of Staffa, Scotland

Naturally, many animals have been domesticated, particularly cats, dogs and horses. Cats interestingly, domesticated themselves and fittingly, many jokes are made of cats owning their owners verses the other way around. Wolves and dogs have been some of our oldest companions since Neolithic times. Many people are surprised to know, it wasn’t the horse, but the dog that was the longtime companion of First Nations people for thousands of years.

Dogs have been trained for ages to protect their owners and were fierce companions in hunting and warfare, readily fighting to the death (such as Irish wolfhounds) from ancient Europe through to Asia. That level of loyalty is a speechlessly beautiful gift and is it any wonder that the loss of our pets is grieved for so viscerally and deeply? They transcend barriers and truly become our family. Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian steppes approximately 15,000 years ago and are also some of the most incredible healers that exist.

Humans have been keeping pets of all sorts from monkeys to wild dogs to raccoons and bears for thousands of years and it is still very common even among remote Indigenous communities. However, in most of these scenarios it is unique in that an animal was injured or lost it’s mother or family and needed caring for, then became reliant. That is to say that the Indigenous or Native practice of keeping pets related to their locale is wholly different than purchasing an exotic or wild animal.

All and any pets have often turned out to be intensely sensitive to people and become a conduit of an array of diverse feelings. Dogs, for instance, can comprehend a huge number of the words we use, yet they’re surprisingly often better than us at interpreting our manner of speaking, non-verbal communication, and unconscious signals. All animals tend to particular investigate the windows to our souls very closely, our eyes, likely attempting to comprehend what we’re thinking and doing just as we do when looking back at them. Having animals as our allies strengthens our own innate instincts and our very ability to heal.

Observant robin that stopped to say hello

From an evidence based perspective, relationships with animals have the very real ability to significantly lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, and sadness, ease loneliness, support exercise, and our own fun-loving nature, and also increase our overall cardiovascular function and well-being. All of these factors can significantly lower cortisol levels, the stress hormone which wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds in countless nuanced ways. Interacting with animals has an even larger impact on children and encourages a more well rounded understanding of the world as well as empathy for other creatures beyond ourselves. Animals can genuinely improve our health but also infuse friendship, joy, loyalty and unconditional love into our lives, often beyond what can be put into words.

With all this said I can’t help but think how harshly animals are mistreated and at times contemplate how we deserve their company. Collectively, there are incredibly contradictory reactions and impulses regarding our collective treatment of animals. I think the way forward to truly being able to appreciate, enjoy and love animals is to take a full step back and really analyze how we treat them and all the many ways we can improve and fuel positive changes through awareness and political pressure. Pet ownership would continue to be more responsible in general with dogs and cats being more readily spayed and neutered and huge progress has been made in this regard the world over in recent years.

I think more land would be preserved as parks so that animals have more space to flourish. Zoos would nearly always look like sprawling parks with ample space instead of being reminiscent of insane asylums. Illegal pet trades would become nonexistent while rescue and release more common. Yards would be regrown with native plants where little creatures are appreciated (for the most part aside from the occasional termite or tick) instead of pushed to the brink of extinction by way of the modern lawn wasteland. Meat consumption would be curbed and farming practices improved. Even as hunter and gatherers of old, we likely wouldn’t have been eating meat 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. In medieval references, meat was generally only eaten on special occasions up until fairly recently.

I often feel that punishments for animal cruelty should be harsher than they are and studies show that the precursor to human violence is violence against animals. We don’t typically need fur and unless something readily available is caught from hunting or involving Indigenous communities or sustainable Native reclamation skills, I don’t believe animals should be made into accessories or clothing. With all that said, there are some aspects of our use of animals that does arguably provide a sustainable and healthy choice as long as ecologically friendly and humane methods are used such as in wool or honey production on a small scale. Finally, I think corporations need to be held more accountable for the way their mass produced plastic products and other crap is impacting our environment and animal life so severely.

Sheep on the Isle of Skye, Scotland

At times people have no choice but to choose the bottom dollar option out of sheer necessity and affordability so the burden largely lies on corporations and governments to fix the plastic and chemical soup they have allowed to accumulate in our waterways, oceans and soil. Of course, the common citizen, myself included is not without burden or responsibility of our choices. However, when someone is given ‘bad’ drugs and dies, do we blame the creator of the bad drugs or the person doing the drugs? Ultimately, both are responsible but the drug addict wouldn’t exist to begin with without the person who is creating or more apt to the point, pushing these harmful practices.

Overall, I think as a world we really need to look deeply into our interactions with nature and animals and address the many issues we are facing before the sprinkling of extinctions turns into a waterfall. We have so many infinite things to humbly learn from animals and so many left to meet and become acquaintances with. In summary, animal interactions strengthen our own intuition, spiritual gifts and insight. Being immersed around wildlife (safely) or domestic animals reduces blood pressure along with a host of other positive physiological effects. They surely each have a magic all their own just as we do.

When we attempt to see the world the best we can through ancient animistic Druid eyes, it’s easy to see why animals were used in divination, particularly birds. Given all of the above reasoning, they were possibly seen as extensions of spirit, as much co-conspirators in our collective reality as we are, as deeply connected into all that is. When we sense into this connection, it’s easy to see why it could have been interpreted that animals are ‘sent’ across our path for a symbolic reasoning we are left to puzzle over and piece together. Or, that we may observe natural patterns and be able to spiritually sense into what comes through symbolically as we observe animals in their element.

a brown and white long coated dog sitting on sand

In essence there may have been and seemingly are two forms of augury, the passive or spontaneous form that happens suddenly around us such as a lunar eclipse, and then the intentional divination where we purposefully sought out something in nature to glean insight such as the clouds or birds in our nearby tree. Typically I think, spontaneous augury involving animals would relate in some capacity to having them come much closer to you, follow or land on you but maybe also during moments that were akin to coming of age experiences, traumatic life events or surrounding the timing of an injury or death of a loved one.

Most of us are very familiar with the fact that the Druids of old were said to perform divination using augury, that is the pattern of bird flight or natural phenomena to predict events or outcomes but also possibly to find herds, missing people or simply seek answers to generalized questions. Birds were likely heavily focused on for this purpose simply given their liminal role as being inhabitants of multiple realms (land, sea, sky) and being mediums and messengers of the Otherworld.

“The system of divination is not even neglected among barbaric peoples, since in fact there are Druids in Gaul; I myself knew one of them, Diviciacus, of the Aedui, your guest and eulogist, who declared that he was acquainted with the system of nature which the Greeks call natural philosophy and he used it to predict the future by augury and inference.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero, 1st century BCE

It was also referenced when discussing the Briton warrior Bouddica when she released a hare from the folds of her dress to interpret it’s movements and the outcome of the upcoming battle with the Romans. Flocks of birds were also used to determine the auspicious location of homesteads or towns as was told in various classical Greek and Gaulish examples…

“The king, now old, wishing to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng, announced that he meant to send Bellovesus and Segovesus, his sister’s two sons, two enterprising young men, to find such homes as the gods might assign to them by augury; and promised them that they should head as large a number of emigrants as they themselves desired, so that no tribe, might be able to prevent their settlement. Whereupon to Segovesus were by lot assigned the Hercynian highlands, but to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far pleasanter road, into Italy. Taking with him the surplus population, Bituriges, Arverni, Senones, Aedui, Ambarri, Carnutes, Aulerci, he set out with a vast host, some mounted, some on foot.”

Titus Livius, Roman, 59 BCE – 15 CE

Near to the river Arar stands a mountain called Lugdunum, which was given its name because of the following event. When Momorus and Atepomarus were dethroned by Seseroneus, in fulfillment of the oracle’s command they decided to build a city upon the top of the hill. But when they had laid the foundations, great numbers of crows with their outstretched wings covered all the neighboring trees. When this happened Momorus, being a person well skilled in augury, called the city Lugdunum, as lugdon in their language [i.e., Gaulish] signifies a crow, and dunum signifies any spacious hill.

Plutarch, Greek, 2nd century

“When the Gauls had grown so numerous that they were no longer able to live off of the produce their homeland, they sent out three hundred thousand men, like a sacred spring, to seek new settlements. Some of these adventurers settled in Italy, and took and burnt the city of Rome; others penetrated into the remotest parts of Illyricum under the direction of a flight of birds for the Gauls are more skilled in augury than other nations.” 

Marcus Justinus, Roman, 4th century

In medieval through modern era references there are many straight forward examples of spontaneous augury that were passed on through the generations. For example, the appearance of wild geese as well as the cheerful singing of robins signified good weather. Additionally, the appearance of a snail on bad soil was a sign of bad luck. (1) There are other related examples in the Irish Folk Duchas such as… “To find a spider in the folds of the wedding gown is a good augury for great wealth and prosperity.” (2) Without a doubt, we know as already discussed that black and white animals, especially birds, were often involved in augury and prophecy. The magpie to this day has many common superstitions surrounding it’s sudden appearance across our path as do black cats.

Augury and superstitions in general were and are heavily focused on by folklorists such as the likes of Lady Wilde, Alexander Carmichael and Kevin Danaher.

“On arriving at her future home, the bride was met on the threshold by the bridegroom’s mother, who broke an oaten cake over her head as a good augury of plenty in the future.”

Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions, 1887

Many men in the Highlands and Islands were famed augurers, and many stories, realistic, romantic, and extremely curious, are still told of their divinations... The ‘frith,’ augury, was a species of divination enabling the’ frithir/augurer, to see into the unseen. This divination was made to ascertain the position and condition of the absent and the lost, and was applied to man and beast. The augury was made on the first Monday of the quarter and immediately before sunrise. The augurer, fasting, and with bare feet, bare head, and closed eyes, went to the door- step and placed a hand on each jamb. Mentally beseeching the God of the unseen to show him his quest and to grant him his augury, the augurer opened his eyes and looked steadfastly straight in front of him. From the nature and position of the objects within his sight, he drew his conclusions.”

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 2, 1900

Sometimes the practice was mentioned in incantations such as one to Brigid…

“Brigit of the mantles, Brigit of the peat-heap, Brigit of the twining hair, Brigit of the augury…. I shall not be slain, I shall not be wounded, I shall not be put in cell, I shall not be gashed, I shall not be torn in sunder, I shall not be despoiled, I shall not be down-trodden… Nor sun shall burn me, Nor fire shall burn me. Nor beam shall burn me. Nor moon shall burn me. Nor river shall drown me. Nor brine shall drown me. Nor flood shall drown me. Nor water shall drown me. Nightmare shall not lie on me, Black-sleep shall not lie on me. Spell-sleep shall not lie on me, ‘Luaths-luis ‘ shall not lie on me. I am under the keeping Of my Saint Mary; My companion beloved Is Brigit.”

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Vol. 3, 1940

Of course, it nearly goes without saying that the Celtic tribes were not the only people to use augury related to animals to guide their lives. These sort of superstitions surrounding animals exist the world wide over but it was particularly a common classical means of divination within the surrounding Roman, Greek and Norse cultures as well. One of the most famous examples of Roman augury comes from Tacitus in The Annals when he said that…

“Meanwhile there was a most encouraging augury. Eight eagles, seen to fly towards the woods and to enter them, caught the general’s eye. “Go,” he exclaimed, “follow the Roman birds, the true deities of our legions.”

I also can’t help but consider a belief related to augury in the fact that certain animals were considered to be shapeshifted sídhe, seers, witches, druids or even souls that had passed on. As an example, butterflies were commonly thought to be a relative that had passed on whom was fluttering by to say hello. Again, we are harkened to the belief in reincarnation as well as animism and the idea that everything held an interrelated energy that could be convened with.

So, how can we guide our animal divination practices today?

There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do this. Just going on intuition, I’ve found it necessary to firstly, closely observe the patterns of the animals around us so that we can determine what is normal verses not normal behavior. We also want to learn and study the classic or innate symbology of various animals. For example, crows and ravens have a connection to death, transformation, the Otherworld and Herself so when we see one or multiple of these birds, we can better interpret the message based on their generalized symbology.

Then, we want to look at the number of animals that appear. Typically, it’s thought in most Native traditions, the higher the number of animals or birds, the stronger the message. Witnessing a specific number of animals that would have been seen as auspicious varied but certain mythical and folkloric references point to 3, 6 or 9 but also 7 or 10. You may also want to observe their flight path whether it is coming from the right or left, going clockwise or counterclockwise. Clockwise or coming from the right would be considered a favorable sign while going anti or counter clockwise or coming from the left is unfavorable or a warning.

As a first hand example for reference of one of my own experiences, I typically have 3 to 6 doves near my bird feeders on any given day, any time of the year. A few days after my grandmother passed away, 50+ doves appeared near my front door and feeders just sitting there for a good twenty minutes before suddenly flying off in a large flock. Many of them didn’t move nearly the entire time. I variously stood at the window and then opened the front door watching them. My daughters opened the window singing to them and nothing seemed to spook them unless we had really wanted to put effort into running them off. That amount of doves had never appeared before and has never appeared after in over ten years. I couldn’t think of a time I saw that amount of doves in one place that wasn’t a city square anywhere before in my life, let alone right near my front door. Their energy was calm, stable, loving… it ‘felt’ like my grandmother saying goodbye. Of course, all of these experiences are subjective and not without context or perspective and unique interpretation.

monochrome photo of flock of flying birds

Ultimately, again, I surmise spontaneous augury relates to the combination of the timing of an animal’s arrival, their behavior or movements as well as their symbology and energy that illuminates their message. If we are actively going out into nature looking at flocks to glean insight into the future, we first would naturally want to meditate very intently on what it is we’re asking. Then, when it feels right, allow ourselves to ‘open’ to any messages that may come through for us as we are observing animal patterns.

A journal is helpful for these activities as well. I enjoy the playfulness of this mode of divination and I find it keeps me fresh and in a more child like and creative state of wonder. This inevitably sharpens my intuition and here again, we can cycle back around to as mentioned earlier, animal’s ability to inspire us and spark the innate life force within ourselves. I try not to take any of this too seriously, and it’s great fun while feeling spiritually tuned in at the same time.

Further Reading and Footnotes

The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them by Wayne Pacelle

  1. Forbes, A.R. Gaelic Name of Beasts. Edinburgh, 1905. Pg. 278, 330, 419.
  2. Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0989, Page 163

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