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Totems: Bighorn Sheep

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman


When you repeatedly do something, yet do not succeed in breaking through to a new place, you may feel as if you are butting your head against a wall. WE ARE THE RAMS AND EWES OF THE BIGHORN SHEEP. Rams in rut, butting horns are an example of meeting resistance head-on. Whether or not you learn through resistance or whether you choose to learn and change easily, without struggle, both work. Which do you choose to experience? We have both sweetness and stubbornness in our nature - a true polarity. Our totem energy can teach you how to navigate difficult aspects of your life with grace and a light heart. We trust that in every moment what we need is present, even without storing extra. You may see us perched on the edge of the precipice, without fear or dismay. We take the next step, holding fast to the abundance that exists in all situations when looked at from the right perspective. Trust that benevolence guides you through all things, and that is what you will experience underneath every circumstance.

Another foot of snow tops the two feet left by earlier storms as I sit to write about Bighorn sheep (Ovis Canadensis). Just the kind of weather in which their stocky, wool-insulated bodies thrive. Having amazingly agile and sure-footed legs, they are ideally suited for remote deserts, rocky cliffs or ledges, and all-round rugged terrain. However, these heights present a compromise because better food is found on lower, more exposed ground, yet higher elevations are safer. In addition sheep are somewhat gregarious. They live in bands, foraging and grazing together. This provides greater protection for lambs and ewes. While male sheep (rams) younger than three years band with the females, older males of sexual maturity segregate from the females in spring to put on weight for the autumn rut in November and December.

Sheep belong to the family Bovidae, consisting of 135 species of wild bovid, as well as domesticated sheep, cattle, goats and water buffalo. Bighorns migrated across the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene era. They range from the Arctic to Mexico. One of the reasons sheep can be found in many diverse, extreme habitats is because their long molars and four-chambered stomachs allow efficient digestion of wild, coarse grasses and sedges, as well as forbs like clover, sunflowers and milkweed. They feed by twisting vegetation around the tongue, and cutting it with the lower incisors. The four stages of digestion break down components to make the most of the nutrients the food contains. People with this power animal usually take awhile to digest new ideas. They look at every aspect of the situation before deciding how to act, and whether or not they wish to be involved at all. Mountain sheep make the same "baa" sound as domestic sheep, though for self-protection, they may keep silent. Bighorn folks, unsure of where they stand may also keep silent.

Today, three sub-species of bighorns are recognized: Rocky Mountain, desert and Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada bighorn is on the federal endangered species list. Arid Arizona has about 7000 Bighorns. They are lighter and smaller than those in the Rocky Mountains - home to the largest population of them. Colorado's state mammal is the Bighorn sheep. Have you ever wondered how bighorns manage to keep their footing on treacherous peaks, in gorges and on narrow ledges? Their split hooves are independently movable, separating to grasp and provide traction. The back half of each foot has a round, rubbery pad for extra grip, while they run on the tips. If this is your totem, you are light on your feet – as though you were starring in a martial arts film where you appear to fly. Balancing the parts of your life is important. Have you noticed you usually land on your feet? Realizing this should give you confidence to initiate projects dear to your heart. Climb beyond fear! Take a leap. After all, your totem climbs on 2-inch toeholds and leaps across 20-foot chasms. They have endurance and so do you.

Sheep horns signify wisdom. Ewes have short, pointed horns. Males have thick, curling horns that keep growing until age seven or eight. Young bighorns learn from their elders. Elders teach by example. Knowledge of migration routes has been passed down for generations. Having an elder or mentor for young people to emulate is a rare occurrence in this age, but one that has advantages. Sheep use their horns as weapons, shields, to clear snow, or dig up plants. Prehistoric people used horns for tools, utensils, ceremony, power objects and headdresses.

Have you ever considered where the term, "battering ram" came from? The size of a ram's horn determines rank. Only the largest vie for the right to mate. Contests can last longer than a day. We're talking massive horns weighing over twenty pounds. Luckily for the sheep, they have double-layered, reinforced skulls linked to their spines by a thick tendon. Unlike the deer family, sheep horns are never shed; they're made of hard, bony rings, covered in a layer of keratin. Though horns can be straight, curved or spiral, they always have pointed tips and are not branched. Both men and women of this totem may grow in wisdom their whole lives. The emphasis on the head area signifies both astute mental abilities and stimulated activity of the upper chakras for inspiration, openness, foresight and creativity. Do you start thinking about someone just before they call, or sense something is going to happen before it occurs? You may be clairvoyant. All bighorns have excellent eyesight so they can see predators from afar. Their field of vision ranges from 160-306 degrees with a slight turn of the head. For years they can remember and individuate up to fifty faces, even human ones.

A female chooses larger males to mate with, to give her lambs the best gene pools. She will mate with several different rams each rutting season. Generally, there are more female than male sheep in a herd. In their own band, the older ewes have seniority and provide leadership to the younger ewes, yearlings and lambs. Female bands may number fifteen; male bands usually have no more than five rams. Bands that forego flocking (safety in numbers) must then spend more time scanning the horizon for predators. There is less protection from cougars, wolves, lynxes, bobcats, coyotes and bears. Golden eagles take a heavy toll on lambs in their first week of life on rocky ledges that protect them from the other predators. Other problems bighorns face are poaching, over-interest by tourists, respiratory diseases from domestic sheep, acid rain causing lack of selenium in their food, weakening their immune systems, competition for grazing since alpine grasslands revert to sagebrush when overgrazed, and climate change; higher temperatures change the topography to more forested areas, which the sheep will not colonize, because they can't see their predators from far away.

So, back to the head-cracking duels: because females band together, a male has a lot at stake – a chance at an entire harem. Lip curling (the Flehman Response) enables the male to catch the scent of females in estrus, who in turn become determined to find the male with the largest horns. A chase, either playful or drawn-out precedes mating. If he is chosen, a ram will mate with all the receptive females in the harem. Men with this spirit animal tend to pursue desired mates relentlessly. Don't scare them away, guys. When the mating season begins, previously lone males assemble in bachelor groups and begin posturing to display size and strength, with such behaviors as huffing, hoof stomping, sneaky kicking and head-tossing. If he can get away with it, a smaller male that does not have mating rights may gain temporary access to a ewe, but the largest rams engage in spectacular duels - six-foot long males, weighing up to 325 pounds, charging full-speed into each other at 20-40 m.p.h. four or five times an hour. Skulls that collide with such great force sound like gunshots ringing out. Ultimately, this costs them greatly. Examination of ram skulls show a higher rate of mortality in those who have the greatest mating success, due to lowered immune response and susceptibility to predators from exhaustion.

After nearly six months (175 days), one lamb is born; twins are rare. If young sheep can survive their first two years, they have a good chance of reaching old age. Sheep are comforted by touch, so get frequent massages and access other opportunities for touch if you have this medicine. And if you are an Aries, or you are in a stage where you feel like life is all uphill, create a new beginning. Believing in yourself can give you a fresh start in life. That often comes down to making a decision to do just that. Perhaps the medicine of the rams' head-butting is to offer us conscious choice. When we accept ourselves wholly, cease resisting what is, and allow all feelings, we can truly be ourselves. Then the Beloved is present. Call it that or call it Truth, Love or Synchronicity. No matter what we call it, flow, ease and magnetism are always present. Even negative emotions when accepted and released can initiate new ways of being. Then, we can allow ourselves to move on.

Sheep have multiple associations in myth and symbol. The constellation of Aries and its power animal, the ram became the symbol of solar power. Thus the rising sun triumphs over darkness. Egyptians and Greeks often placed the horns of the ram on the foreheads of their gods. The hammer of the Scandinavian god, Thor was a pair of ram horns. In the American southwest, bighorn sheep petroglyphs express the great awe and reverence prehistoric man had for them. The Northern Pima associated them with the Wind. Villages often had shrines dedicated to both the wind and the mountain sheep (called Cheson). Bighorns were intrinsically tied to weather patterns and weather taboos because of their power, and what was considered their bravery.

The dualism of the lion and the lamb has always been a prevalent theme in art. Until the Fifth Synod, when the Catholic Church substituted the image of a crucified Christ, he was represented as a lamb. A church litany goes: " Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Grant us peace." In the Book of Revelation, no man was deemed worthy to open the book of the Seven Seals: "except a lamb - the Root of David" (Jesus Christ was born of the House of David). The gentle lamb is a universal symbol of purity. Interesting isn't it, that in both ancient Pagan mysteries and Christianity, the lamb is the symbol of the Universal Savior? The Golden Fleece also signified the Lamb of God that Jason and his Argonauts were forced to win before he could become king. Legend has it that a book was written on the fleece, containing the formula for the production of gold by means of alchemy (chemistry). Throughout history, there have been those who searched for this means to make gold; however, the formula is a metaphor for turning base ignorance into enlightenment. The Mystery schools facilitated this transmutation. And finally, there is the "black sheep of the family," one who insists on following his or her own path rather than family tradition.

In Chinese astrology, the person with sheep energy has refinement, can be timid, and likes to hang out with influential people. Who a person with sheep totem associates with has great importance. If this is your totem, or you are in a "bighorn sheep phase" do you see yourself as independent or do you tend to follow others? Are you a victim or victor? One with sheep as a power animal is cautioned to keep the desire to be victorious in balance. If not, this one may ride over others to get to the goal, as they are intent on getting ahead. Conversely, sheep people need healthy boundaries so others don't ride roughshod over them. Funny thing that polarity – lamb is yin to ram's yang. Timid lamb needs some of ram's aggression, while ram and ewe could temper their headstrong qualities with some of lamb's sweetness. What are you willing to work for in your life? Do you know yourself enough to be certain of who or what is good for you? Do you run with the herd, tending to feel victimized? Numerous talents, signified by wool can bring in abundance. Striving however can be exhausting, whether for getting ahead, doing more, or being more. Stop striving! Your real self is good enough now. Follow your heart through your feelings, and you will find the love that you already are. Folks with this totem seem to have a direct link to the Great Mystery and can energize others with their healing and teaching abilities, if they choose to develop them.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for over 35 years. As an interfaith minister, advocate and steward for the natural world, Cie lives and works shamanically, with light and sound, offering healing for animals and humans. For healing in person or by phone, for you or your animal, spiritual training, or to purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com


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