Reading Omens, and My Moment With the Condors
“We have this language of the omens, the language of the signs. It is an alphabet that is directed to us…My omens are not your omens.” ~ Paul Coelho
I was all set to write about symbols and symbology this week, but these birds soaring on the left, at Zion National Park, shifted my focus. I know they are small in this picture, and so you will have to take my word for it, but they are California condors, and my family and I actually saw four this past Sunday, while hiking. This is extraordinary, because these birds were once almost extinct, and were only reintroduced into the wild in the last decade. They are the largest North American flying bird, with wingspans of up to 10 feet.
I was deeply moved by the sight of these birds soaring above us, and in fact it stopped me in my tracks.
And when something captures my attention like that, when it literally stops me in my tracks, I view it as an omen.
I think it is Don Juan, in Carlos Castaneda’s books, who discusses omens in terms of capturing our attention. Although of course various traditions define omens differently, in general omens are something that occurs in this world that is out of the ordinary, and has a personal significance for us. Often they involve animals. This varies from visions, or symbolic dreams, or meditative insights that take us outside our physical existence for a moment. Omens show up right here, when we are least expecting them.
I’m not one to see omens or signs everywhere and all the time. I know people that seem to find ‘agreement’ for decisions or insights they have daily in the events around them. Sometimes this feels real to me, and sometimes it feels forced. For me, something has to really jump out at me, set me back a moment, for me to see it as a true omen.
It is rare to see condors at Zion, and I had never seen one, although we hike there almost monthly. They were released into the Grand Canyon a few years back, and recently a few have migrated to Zion, although they tend to stick to the less-trafficked back-country. We saw not one or two, but four, which, based on my research, was either two nesting pairs hanging out (they mate for life) or parents with two fledglings (rare but not impossible) – the young birds typically stay with their parents for 2 years before going off on their own.
Seeing so many condors had particular personal significance to me, because as a young girl in the 70s I worked on a fund drive for the Girl Scouts or school (can’t remember which) to raise money for a campaign to help slow the environmental factors that were driving them into extinction. That campaign eventually evolved into the controversial capture and breeding campaign that has now led to their reintroduction and resurgence in the wild. At the low point, when the project was begun, there were only 20 or so birds left; there are now several hundred, living in the wild as a protected species.
Adding to my sense that I should view the sighting of these birds as an omen was the fact that it occurred on Sunday, which was both a new moon in my own moon sign, and the Chinese/Tibetan New Year, which I typically do observe in some form. It also was of course Valentine’s Day and President’s Day weekend, neither of which might seem particularly spiritual or occult in nature, but it is interesting that so many February events coincided this year.
So, how to interpret an omen? With omens or signs of any type, whether in waking life or dreams, I definitely hold to the Coelho quote above, in terms of their personal nature. For the most part, I don’t use dream or symbol interpretation ‘systems’. So the single most relevant factor to me was ‘what significance do condors have to me?’ And because of my past history with them, that was pretty easy: hope, and more specifically, hope and faith in humanity. Both the condors’ near extinction and their recent resurgence were brought about through human action. To me, they represent humanity’s ability to solve the problems we have created for ourselves.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think this was a message I really needed to receive right now. After reading so much 2012 doomsday prophesizing, reading A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency for BellaOnline, watching the horrific aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, and just generally observing the state of things these days, I was not in an optimistic place. And this moment, this sighting, really just instantly lifted my spirits.
But I felt there was more to this omen, and so in this case I decided to research how various traditions view condors. Since I do think reading omens is a personal process, I decided to focus in on three spiritual traditions that have greatly influenced my own journey: Native American/Shamanic traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, and Ancient Egypt.
The first seemed particularly relevant because the Zion area is rich in Native American history. And indeed, I found a lot of material on the condors. Some tribes believe they are the source for the symbol of the Thunderbird, which is prevalent in multiple tribes. The Thunderbird is a symbol of great power and creation in most stories, although it also has a connection with destruction in preparation for rebirth, in a very Kali-esque way.
I also came across the prophecy of The Eagle and The Condor, which was variously attributed to the Hopis or the Incas by different sources. In any case, most interpretations seem to predict a coming new age for mother earth if the formerly separate ‘eagle of the north’ and ‘condor of the south’ can learn to come together. I found in some tribes that the eagle was associated with the male/yang aspect of the world, and the condor with the female/yin aspect (and in the case of the Chumush tribe of California, eagles were thus ritually sacrificed to Venus as a gift, and condors to Mars.)
There are no condors in Tibet, but condors look very much like vultures, and like them are large carrion-eaters. Carrion-eaters get a bad rap sometimes, but I thought this quote from Khandro.net reinterpreted this in a quintissentially Tibetan Tantric fashion:
“The vulture is considered ‘unclean’ in many cultures because it feeds on carrion. However, unlike most other large soaring birds the vulture does not kill, nor cause to be killed, any living thing. It soars to great heights yet its clear vision allows for it to notice the subtlest hints of mortality in animals, large and small. It exhibits patience, and then it takes what is given.”
Vultures in Tibet are in fact revered in certain lineages as manifestations of flesh-eating dakinis (for the best book on Tibetan dakinis, check out Judith Simmer-Brown’s Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. ) While flesh-eating dakinis might not seem very appealing to us Westerners, they are viewed as powerful transformational agents in Tibet, and ‘sky burials‘ – where a body is ritually offered to the vultures instead of being cremated or buried – is a highly sought-after funerary method in certain areas.
Finally, in Ancient Egypt there also were no condors, but the related vulture had powerful symbolic significance there as well. The vulture is associated with Nekhbet, a goddess originally viewed as the protector of upper Egypt, and later evolving into a protector of heaven, royalty, and sometimes mothers. Vultures were believed by the Egyptians to be all female, and so were associated with feminine images and energies. The city of Nekhbet, the original source for the vulture goddess, was also the shrine for Egypt’s oldest Oracle.
So what does all this mean? Much of it had very dramatic significance to me, but I’m not going to share all of it here, because I do think some of our spiritual insights are best kept privately sacred. But I would love to hear if you believe in omens, and if so, how you interpret them, and any major ones you feel you have experienced in your life.