Wandering through the side streets on a certain evening, I come across an awesome sight: hundreds of crows in the trees, on the streets, and on the lawns. The sky fills with black wings as the nearest take brief flight at my appearance, and the cacophony is almost frightening as they call to each other over my head.
Walking to work one morning, a crow swoops suddenly at my head, screaming. She doesn’t hit me, but flies so close I feel her passing, then wheels in the air above me and comes back towards me in another ferocious dive. I run to a nearby building and hug the wall, while she dives repeatedly down the edge as much as she can, unable to get me because of the steepness of the wall. I creep along the wall, crow screaming above me and cyclists and other pedestrians watching, until she gives up and flies away.
If I relate any of these stories to people of a certain mystical bent, they will tell me what eagles and crows symbolize and what these encounters mean about me. They may tell me that when “an eagle appears, you are on notice to be courageous and stretch your limits. Do not accept the status quo, but rather reach higher and become more than you believe you are capable of “. Since the eagles were on a cross, surely my goals must be spiritual in nature. They may tell me that crows are all about “prescience and precognition“, and that a big group of them might indicate an important magical happening coming up and that the attack is about me fighting my intuition or instincts. I worked in a new age store for several years; I heard these kinds of interpretations all the time (plus the woman who was sure that her deceased ex-boyfriend was haunting/stalking her in the form of pigeons, memorable only because she began sobbing about it on the store counter).
I know the truth, though. The eagles are a mating pair that nests in a nearby park. They like the steeple for its tall 360 degree view of the area, to better spot potential prey. The massive crowd of crows occurs nightly, the exact time shifting with the season, as the huge flock of crows that spend their days in Stanley Park cross the city diagonally to their evening nesting area in a park in Burnaby. And the crow who attacked me: I probably walked too close to a nest, and it is quite possible that I was wearing a hat similar to someone who is scared of birds and sometimes throws rocks at them. All very explainable; if I were to believe otherwise, I would need to get over myself. It isn’t all about me.
In my opinion, much of modern Paganism has an anthropocentrism problem. Basically, this is the belief that human beings are the most important species and that reality can only be understood in terms of our senses, values, and experiences. There are thousands of rituals based on this: spring is about growth, so what, metaphorically, are you planting and growing this spring? I’ve created a fair number of those rituals myself, as they are easy to write and are readily understood by a group. However, I have felt myself starting to balk a little at the idea that all our Pagan rituals – all our nature-worshipping, earth-honouring ceremonies – end up being about us. We step back from nature when we present Her stories only as symbols to be applied to our lives.
What it all reminds me of is when someone is telling me a story that reminds me of something that happened to me and I want to chime in and tell them about that. Even though I refrain from actually interrupting, my attention is not on what they are actually saying anymore, but on what I’m going to say. Their words are only important for how good or poor a lead-in they are for my story. I try to stay focused, but I don’t want to forget my response, so I am rehearsing my words and watching for an opening. I can hear them, but I am not listening.
If we see every story in nature, every bird and plant and season, in terms of what they symbolically mean to us, we are not listening to nature. And if our deities are to be found there, we are not listening to them either. We are taking their words and using them as excuses to talk about ourselves.
Now, I will conceed that if you believe in deities as literal beings, they may employ animals and other natural phenomenon to send messages to you. I personally believe that such messages would be rare – why would a god interfere with a real animal to tell you something that could be conveyed in a dream, vision, or meditation – and that they would be marked by a provable departure from ordinary behaviour for that animal. I believe no one is getting true divine messages from the crow migration because it happens every evening; that I should only stumble upon it once in a while does not change the fact that it has nothing to do with me.
If we are to respect the autonomy and individuality of the other beings with whom we share this earth, we cannot simultaneously cast them as props in our lives. The crow cannot have both freely chosen your tree to call from and be there as a symbol for you to interpret, and if asked to choose, I will always assume the crow’s free will. Just as someone with a disability is not here to be your inspiration, the crow is not here to give you meaning. They have their own lives and loves and needs, and it is isn’t all about us, as individuals or as a society.
I know I am asking a lot of myself and my fellow Pagans here. The culture that surrounds us, at least in North America, is anthropocentric to the core. Where we try to give animals voices, we tend to anthropomorphize them, thus silencing them further. In fact, as a society we still engage in extensive othering of other humans, so it seems an impossible task to stop the othering of animals, plants, and bacteria. But I believe in Paganism’s ability to create new culture based on new values; that’s the kind of magic I believe in.
I said earlier that I would have to get over myself were I to believe the eagles and crows were there for me, but I’ll take that a step further. I think Pagans should make an effort to get under and beside themselves; to fundamentally get outside of themselves to try to meet non-humans where and how they actually are. We may not always succeed – in fact, we may never succeed – but the effort itself is worth while.
Paganism’s Messiah Complex by Traci at “A Sense of Place”.
Defining Anthropocentrism by Alison Leigh Lilly at “Holy Wild”.
Anthropocentrism and Magic by Taylor Ellwood at “Magic Experiments”.