Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Red Headed Woodpecker and Native Americans and More

This blog post is about how the woodpecker interacted with Native Americans back in Pre-Columbian time. There are many tales and some wisdom about how the woodpecker survived and interacted during this time. Here are a few myths, possible truths, and some wisdom that can be lived by, even today.

According to Hupa tradition, all customs were formed in an earlier mythological period of the peoples; existence. One notable custom concerned social status, which was defined by inheritable material possessions such as albino deerskin, large obsidian blades, and headdresses decorated with re-headed woodpecker scalps.

The woodpecker was a war symbol of the Cherokee Indians, and its head was used as a battle ornament, particularly by Plains tribes.

The woodpecker may reminds us to be mindful of our words. It has a narrow tongue, extremely effective for picking up food in narrow places. This is symbolic for using a narrow route to get the most profound effect. The woodpecker asks us to use fewer words to make a stronger impact in our statement. Native American wisdom also prescribes drumming as a means to journeying, and so many tribes considered the woodpecker as an other-worldly messenger, and a prophet.



In many cultures the woodpecker is associated with thunder and lighting. An Italian proverb claims that its pecking forecasts rain and in some areas the bird is thought to be a rainmaker. The opposite is true in North America where the Prairie Indians believe the woodpecker protects its friends from lightning and storms. Perhaps because of its fiery head, this bird is attributed with bringing the gift of fire to the Semang Negito.

According to Pawnee mythology, the woodpecker and the turkey once had a debate as to which bird should be called the protector of humankind. The turkey felt she deserved the title since she laid the largest clutch of eggs. However, the woodpecker's cautious ways won the argument since she kept her young safely nestled inside the tall tree trunks. Although the woodpecker laid fewer eggs, the survival rate of her young was greater than that of the turkey's because she taught them so well that they were certain to live to old age.

Greeco-Roman mythology contains a few stories about gods who were changed into woodpeckers. Circe turned Picus, the Roman god of agriculture and manure, into one because he rejected her. Since Picus was famous for his divination skills, this bird became a symbol of prophecy. In Greece, Celeus was changed into a green woodpecker for attempting to steal honey from the baby Zeus.
The woodpecker was associated with ploughing and agriculture because it appeared to use its beak to plow for insects. This bird was called the "Axe of Ishtar." (Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, and war. Her lovers tended to come to an evil end but the only death she regretted was that of her brother-husband, Tammuz. A fertility-agriculture cult grew up around the death, resurrection, and marriage of Tammuz and became so popular that Jewish women wept for Tammuz at the gates of the temple in Jerusalem. The woodpecker was sacred to Mars and fed his young sons, Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, as they hid in a cave.

According to a Lakota legend, the red-headed woodpecker taught a poor young suitor how to make and play the first flute. The suitor was then able to win the respect of his tribe and the hand of the chief's beautiful daughter. That is why their flutes are made to resemble this bird.

In Christian tradition, the damage done to wood by this bird makes it a symbol of Satan and heresy which weakens the human soul just as the woodpecker hollows or weakens the tree he pecks at. One legend states that when God called upon the birds to help Him dig rivers, lakes, and seas into the face of the earth, the woodpecker refused to join in. Because of this, it was forbidden to drink anything but rain and sentenced to peck wood.

This bird is a fertility symbol. It is considered a guardian of the trees, a traveler's guide, and a lucky omen. Its nest-holes are symbolic of security, protection, and a return to the womb.


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