All Hail the Scavengers!

First off, before I get into the main topic of this post, I just wanted to give a brief squee of joy: I am not the only person to actively connect animism with bioregionalism! I got an appropriate comment on Bioregionalism and the Genius Locii with the above link, and having looked over the blog, I found it full of lots of good brain-foods (as well as some good ideas for further getting to know the bioregion I’ve chosen as my long-term home). Highly recommended.

So. Scavengers. A friend of mine over on Livejournal had remarked a few days ago that despite the importance vultures have had in various paleopagan religions and cultures, most notably Egyptian, neopagans really have a tendency to either ignore scavengers, or romanticize them as not-scavengers (think ravens as spirit guides–more on that in a bit). That really says a lot about the cultures that formed neopaganism; my experience is primarily with American neopaganism, so I’ll speak mainly to that.

In this culture, everything’s hygienic. Houses. Hospitals. Food production. Even the body-fluid-messy acts of sex and sexuality are presented as “glowing”. Because we are so far removed from our own bodily effluvia and that of other animals, we have the luxury of conveniently forgetting they’re there. So scavengers, animals that eat already-dead stuff that smells to high heaven, aren’t exactly the sexiest critters in the neopagan-totemic world. Well, okay–Raven’s pretty popular. But Raven’s also presented as intelligent, and with glossy black feathers, and associated with cool deities like the Morrigan. However, nobody wants to talk about the fact that ravens eat dead stuff–except for a few people who joke about ravens eating eyeballs. OTOH, ravens eating putrid, half-decayed intestines? Not so awesome. (Mmmm. I could go for some sausages right about now…)

(And let’s not get into glossy black feathers full of mites. Insects = NOT COOL according to a lot of modern totemists. Especially if they aren’t dragonflies or butterflies or other pretty bugs. And beyond that–tapeworms. Totemic tapeworms. Really.)

Ahem. I digress. But you get my point.

So yes. Nobody wants to play with the scavengers in the stinky dead stuff. Only a particular sense of humor would find this comic funny. (I laugh every time I read it–and the rest of the artist’s stuff is pretty good, if mostly more sanitary. /excuse for another parenthetical statement) Not surprising when you consider most people who eat meat have never killed or seen killed the animal they’re about to eat (except maybe crabs and lobsters, but those aren’t cute and furry and don’t count). And most of us here in the U.S. will never have to deal with what your average emergency room employee deals with, or clean up dead bodies–or, hell, see those bodies as anything other than the makeup-bedecked corpses in shiny coffins at funerals.

Lots of people don’t like human scavengers, either–again because we’re so removed from the processes involved with our basic needs. There’s a certain sense of entitlement on the part of some people in this culture. It’s the idea that because we can have access to food all the time, as well as medical care and utilities and other such things, that we’re not only allowed but encouraged to take them for granted. I see this every single time I see people leave a restaurant without taking substantial amounts of perfectly good leftovers home with them, instead leaving them to be thrown away (or, if you’re in Portland, at least they’ve a good chance of being composted). I saw it the time I was walking down a sidewalk behind a guy who was sorting out all the pennies in his pocket change and simply dropping them on the ground. I see it when people throw out perfectly good furniture and household items on trash day, instead of Freecycling it or having a local nonprofit thrift store come pick it up. Waste is a way of life here, because we think that we can get away with it.

So the dumpster divers and other people who take pains to salvage what others discard are seen as “strange” or “desperate”. I know of people who think that never buying anything used is a sign of success, and anyone who does otherwise is beneath them. Look at the trend of where our household appliances are going. Don’t worry about getting things repaired–just get a new one from the store! Anything else is seen as taking up too much time, and who’d be crazy enough to get a toaster repaired when Wal-Mart has a sale on them for ten bucks?

The thing is though…we do this because we do take what we have for granted. We assume that we’re always going to have access to food, water, shelter, safety, utilities, and other such things. We figure that the only way we can’t get a television at Best Buy is because they just had a huge clearance and everyone else beat us to it until they get the next shipment in–and even then, it was only on the one really fantastic new model that just came out. They still have televisions, but who wants those? Yet let there be one tiny hint of a shortage, and people panic. Remember what happened last year when it was reported that there was a shortage on rice? The stores couldn’t keep it in stock, partly because shoppers panicked and snapped up as much as they could. But we don’t actually have to worry about that happening for real, right?

Yet the scavengers say otherwise. They remind us of the uncomfortable truth that security is an illusion. They’re not afraid of that, though. They’re realistic. They make the most of the resources that are available. Most Americans are unfamiliar with just how precarious our situation is. Our economy is based on resources whose prices are artificially lowered thanks to government subsidies. Those resources drive our utilities that we take for granted, the things we assume will always be there that allow us to have the sort of lifestyle we have.

“How quickly you forget your history”, the scavengers say. I’ve heard people refer to the current recession as being as bad if not worse than the Great Depression. I don’t buy it. Yes, it sucks right now; I won’t deny that. But have you ever heard of a Hoover Hog? It’s a rabbit, a common, ordinary rabbit. During the Depression, numerous people, particularly in the southwest, ate rabbits because there was nothing else available. At least now we have the cheap hot dogs and burritos at the convenience store to fall back on. And if all else fails, there’s always ramen, staple food of poor college students everywhere!

And only a couple of generations ago, during WWII, we had rationing and Victory Gardens. Do you know how people would respond today if they had to ration? We’re still fighting multiple wars, and yet life goes on for most people because we don’t have any immediate reminders of the fact that there are hardships. There are still soldiers (and civilians) dying where these wars are happening–over 4,330 military personnel just in Iraq since the war began. And yet I guarantee that if rationing were imposed, you’d have more people out on the
street protesting that than were out with me and mine when the war first started. Priorities, what?

Scavengers are that reminder that we’re all gonna die. They’re the reminder that no matter how pretty a picture you paint of your life, nothing’s permanent. And it could all fall to pieces before you’re done with it. But, again, the scavengers aren’t afraid. They know what to do. They’re realistic, and prepared. And that’s their message that we so often ignore with our rose-colored glasses.

And the old pagans knew this, too. They didn’t have that luxury of being so removed from death and other unpleasantness. That’s why they didn’t just romanticize their view of nature to the point where it wasn’t real to them any more. We, on the other hand, have so removed ourselves from the reality of the way things are that we would prefer an imaginary stagnancy to the vibrant (and yes, sometimes subjectively unpleasant) variety and vigor of vida, vita, la vie!

Does this mean we should all walk around in sackcloth and ashes and bemoan our fates? Of course not. But what it does mean is (I can’t believe I’m about to use this cliched phrase) a shift in consciousness. We. Are. Privileged. The very fact that we can take basic things for granted that many, many people in other cultures–and yes, in America, too–have to scrabble for on a daily basis means that we have a metric fuckton of privilege. We shouldn’t let that be a reason to berate ourselves or, conversely, artificially inflate our importance. What we need to be doing is actively appreciating the technological and social advances that have made everything from indoor plumbing to antibiotics possible. It’s not just the basic actions we take–it’s the awareness guiding those actions that we need to start with. Many of the problems the human world faces today are due to taking things for granted and acting on some really shaky assumptions, as well as a big honking helping of deeeeeee-nial!

And we need to quit hating on the scavengers, human and otherwise. We need to stop glossing over the fact that yeah, Raven might be a trickster to some people, and a totem of a war goddess to others, and somehow a nocturnal (?) graveyard denizen to yet another, ah, demographic–but that Raven is also the totem over a species of birds that eat stinky dead corpses full of pus and other fluids, and that’s every bit as important as the mythos, if not moreso. Because whether we like it or not, they have important things to teach those of us who have our hands slapped firmly over our ears while we sing “La, la, la, la, I CAN’T HEAR YOUUUUU!!!!”

And if we can’t handle the very basic knowledge that death happens, decay happens, change happens, then how the hell are we going to be able to get anything out of the more esoteric lessons that the facilitators of those changes have to offer us in being more realistic and prepared for the things life may throw at us that we may not like, but need to deal with effectively anyway?

(Oh, and for the record, all you people with cool, impressive carnivorous totems like Wolf and Lion? Guess what? Your totems’ physical children eat carrion, too. Why go through the trouble and potential danger of injury of wandering across the land looking for animals to eat that may very well fight back, when hey–there’s a dead critter right there, ripe for the munching? It’s not just the scavengers who are practical, ya know. That’s why I don’t question whether I misidentified Wolf as my primary totem just because I love scavenging of numerous sorts–wolves aren’t going to turn their nose up at easy resources, no matter the origin.)

8 thoughts on “All Hail the Scavengers!

  1. I heart ravens, when they’re pulling up entrails, when they’re eating the beetles eating the remains while eating the remains, when they’re preening feathers or just flying in the sky.

    This post is awesome. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this! As one with Coyote in her totem, and who grew up in the Mojave Desert, it always amazes me how many claim kinship to coyotes and yet ignore the fact that they’re are scavengers.

    I think its too easy to ignore what most don’t face when they live within cities, or separated in some way or another from the physical representation of their totem. If you haven’t seen a coyote, thin and starving, on the side of the road eating that jack rabbit that wasn’t fast enough its easy enough to ignore the reality of it.

  3. Scavengers are so important to the life-death cycle, it disheartens me when I see them “romanticised”. Feral Pigeon, Brown Bear and Herring Gull, three of my most recent totem experiences, are all scavengers and I think what they do is beautiful and powerful.

  4. This is a great post! I totally agree about Raven (and found the vulture comic funny as well).

    I was thinking about some of this yesterday while foraging local blackberries. There are TONS of blackberries growing everywhere around here, right in the middle of the city. There are also plenty of people who are homeless or even just strapped for cash or going a little bit hungry… and yet the bushes were teeming with berries everywhere I looked, not having been picked over at all. In the fall, streets are littered with rotting apples that fall from trees, never having been picked or used. Such a waste. Why aren’t we at least using what is there for free, especially in these times of economic hardship? Makes no sense to me.

    Likewise, while I’m happy to see the advent of things like Craigslist and Freecycle, it still amazes me how many people *don’t* use them, or even their local thrift stores. If we all recycled our still-good-but-no-longer-wanted items in this way, there would be so much less need for consumption of new materials.

  5. Yay! I adore scavengers of all sorts and identify strongly with the scavenger aspect of Hawk. And then of course there’s Grackle… who is savage vicious glinting scavenging.

    (I idly looked up “Grackle as totem” writings recently. There was a Ted Andrews one that didn’t once touch on the scavenging, or the ruthlessness, how grackles will rob nests or just kill nestlings of other birds and then not even eat the nestlings half the time. The Andrews description was all “iridescent feathers!” and “harsh voices” and “family/friends/flock” and… blech.)

    (I need to write on Grackle as I experience him.)


    Well written as always, Lupa.

  6. Well, it’s not especially a joke that scavenging birds do go for soft, accesible bits like eyeballs early on as they work over corpses. To look upon a raven plucking out and devouring an eyeball can–as it did with me–go a long way in creating a totemic linkage.

    Plus, I’d have to suggest that as we practitioners establish linkages with certain dieties or guardians or entities, we do come to a better grasp of the scavenger’s part in things.

    But I’ll grant you that I’ve seen much more of animal scavengers on TV than I have in my local little patch of ground.

    FWIW, one of my Craft names is–Rusty BuzzardSkunk!!!

  7. Great post! I love vultures and they are a common part of of the urban landscape here in Miami. They’re seen circling the court house building downtown almost everyday (deliciously ironic and totally true). In Santeria, the vulture is a symbol of Oshun, the beautiful river goddess that is love and sexuality. There’s a myth about how she started as a peacock, but turned into a vulture as she was burned traveling upwards to the sun where Olodumare lives.

  8. Great post–and funny, too. Thanks for taking a swing at the sacred cows. I need to do a little scavenging myself right now, and you’re right about the cultural disdain for it. But how smart and resourceful and prepared we’d all be if we did this more often.

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