A few days ago, a sparrow landed on a podium at which Bernie Sanders was giving a speech in Portland, Oregon. The Internet being what it is, this peaceful and frankly adorable image was contrasted with the time Trump tried to pose with a bald eagle, with hilarious results. While we don’t want to get excessively political here at World Tree Healing, it seems evident that Mother Nature has cast her vote. In addition to being amusing and strangely appropriate, the manner in which that vote was cast is interesting from a totemic point of view as well.
For starters, these are both what I would call Messenger totems: that is, they appear as bearers of specific messages or tasks, and are not necessarily indicative of a person’s major Life totems. In this case, the message is broadcast and therefore as much a message to the people of America as to the individual candidates. In your personal life, Messenger totems can be fleeting or persistent: they are task-focused and will keep showing up until you’ve learned the lesson or done the job you need.
In the two public cases we’re looking at, Trump and Sanders have both received relatively unambiguous messages from bird totems. (Air totems are fitting for most politicians, as people who make their living with speech and who often have a flexible relationship with truth). Beyond the obvious differences in circumstances, there are many noteworthy differences between the two appearances.
I’d like to end this on a happy note, so let’s look at Trump’s little episode first. Trump agreed to pose with a bald eagle (named “Uncle Sam” of all ridiculous things) for a Time magazine photoshoot in August of 2015. They apparently got one decent picture before the eagle decided that he didn’t like Trump very much. Additional photo ops went hilariously haywire, leading to a video and several amusing GIFs of Trump dodging away in fear as the eagle swipes at him. The basic takeaways are obvious here: most of the media reports on the incident relish the “Presidential candidate rejected by the symbol of America” angle. But let’s look at it from a totemic, rather than a superficially symbolic, angle.
Eagle is a traditionally powerful totem in Native American and other belief systems (although most of the info you’re likely to find is either Native American or crappy, ripped-off versions of Native American beliefs). I am dead-set against ripping off or appropriating Native American beliefs in my spiritual practice, so I will concentrate instead on European beliefs. This is not in any way meant to exclude the applicability of Native American beliefs to this topic -- I simply don’t have the status with any Native American tribe which I would need in order to make public comments about those beliefs, and I refuse to presume.
In Europe, the eagle has long been a totem of royalty and power. (I use “totem” rather than “symbol” here because these beliefs have been around for a very long time, and aren’t limited to simple presentations in art. I think their usage in heraldry alone qualifies them as the European equivalent of totems -- but that’s a subject for another time. See the bottom of this post for more on my usage of the word "totem.") From the Greek connection of the eagle with Zeus and the Roman usage of it as the totem symbol of the Empire to the eagle’s connection with Christian beliefs as one of the “four creatures” symbolizing the four gospels/evangelists (the eagle is considered the symbol/totem of John the Evangelist in Christian iconography); to its usage in heraldry to indicate courage and judiciousness and its association with power and prestige across many cultures, it’s easy to understand why the eagle was chosen as the symbol of the United States (in spite of Ben Franklin’s apt assertion that it should have been the wild turkey instead). Going even further back, to the Indian roots of European culture, the Garuda is a Hindu eagle deity; the mount of Vishnu, a great protector (especially against snakes and poison), and the deity who first brought heavenly nectar to earth. There are mythological stories featuring eagles reaching as far back as Sumeria, indicating that the eagle has been a symbol of power, pride and fierceness since the origins of recorded history (and quite possibly before).
Trump is clearly aspiring to power -- and is just as clearly unsuited to it, as far as I can tell. Posing with an eagle -- that is, claiming ownership of an eagle totem and symbolically declaring himself a mandated ruler -- was presumptuous and foolish, if not outright hubris. Totemically speaking, his fright demonstrates what may happen to those who reach for totems which don’t belong to them: they get attacked, scared, and mocked. Taken to extremes, such presumption can be deadly (for example, Tim Treadwell getting eaten by bears in Alaska in 2003).
Remember this if you ever find yourself thinking about a totemic tattoo: if you’re not certain that the totem you’re getting tattooed is truly one of your totems, don’t do it. Totem spirits generally don’t take kindly to aspirational associations (that is, pushing for a relationship with a totem spirit just because you think you “should” have it).
Bernie Sanders, by contrast, did not and could not have engineered the sparrow alighting on his podium. That in itself is a more promising start than Trump’s. Also, whereas the eagle symbolizes many things Trump is not (regal, free from pettiness, justified in authority, connected to divinity), the sparrow is an apt symbol of Sanders’ politics and populist appeal.
The sparrow in a European context symbolizes the common people. In some contexts it symbolized vulgarity or lewdness (due in part to its omnipresence around humanity in Europe), but in medieval Europe (especially Britain), the sparrow came to symbolize the common people’s fight against the dominance of the feudal lords. Often characterized as lowly, insignificant, or evil by association, sparrows are common birds; generally ignored and occasionally killed as pests -- even though they do more good than harm.
From Animal Speak, by Ted Andrews:
“The sparrow has its share of lore, as with many birds. One story tells of how it was the one bird present throughout the crucifixion of Christ, making it a symbol of triumph after long-suffering. It was a symbol of household divinities in Britain; and during the Middle Ages, it was a symbol for the peasants and lower classes throughout Europe. Peasants, at this time, were often helpless under the power of overlords. Because of this, they loved to hear tales of how the insignificant sparrow triumphed over such powerful enemies as wolves, bears, and eagles -- the traditional symbols of nobility and those who mistreated the peasants.
Its ability to multiply and assert itself in spite of predation reflects the idea that nobility of the common person is inherently strong. For those who have a sparrow as a totem, look about you. Are you allowing others to take your dignity? Have you forgotten your own self-worth? Have you begun to think that you would always be under the heel of some tyrant -- human or social? The sparrow will show you how to survive. It will awaken within you a new sense of dignity and self-worth, helping you to triumph in spite of outer circumstances.”
It’s pretty much the perfect totem for Bernie, and for democratic socialism in general. And, crucially, it came to him rather than the other way around. It showed up the way genuine totems almost always do: out of the blue in the middle of something else, catching and holding your attention just by being themselves in the right place at the right time for you to recognize them for what they are.
Incidentally, here’s another article about the symbolic significance of Bernie’s sparrow (or, as they mention here, it might have been a house finch -- similar principles apply).
In my personal experience, sparrows can also indicate that the time is right to make a move that seems to go against the prevailing social current. When we were contemplating the idea that would eventually turn into World Tree Healing, just as we had reached the conclusion that it was probably doable but before we had made any real moves toward it, two sparrows landed on my windowsill and began raising a ruckus. As soon as Megan and I noticed them and went to go look up sparrow totems, they left. That evening we figured out the name “World Tree Healing” and bought the domain name to go with it.
(A note about my use of the word “totem”: Totem-like concepts are prevalent all over the world under different names. While the word “totem” is based on the Ojibwe word “dodaem” meaning roughly “that from which I draw my purpose and being” it has -- for better or worse -- become just as generalized and just as problematic in English as the word “shaman.” European cultures lost their words for many of these concepts under millennia of Christian-led destruction of their original beliefs. Here, I use the word “totem” because it is more familiar to a wider group, and conveys the spiritual aspect of my meaning more elegantly than, for example, “animistic soul symbol” or some other artificial concoction would. I acknowledge that I can borrow this word in large part because of my privilege as a white person, and I mean no disrespect.)