Welcome to the first installment of Animal Voices! Today I’ll be exploring the messages that Bee brings through my tarot and oracle decks.
The Animal Wisdom Tarot by Dawn Brinks & Ola Liola, CICO Books ©2013; The Animal Wise Tarot by Ted Andrews, Dragonhawk Press ©2007
Both The Animal Wisdom Tarot and The Animal-Wise Tarot place the bee on the Lovers card. Each of these decks emphasizes the role that bees play in the process of pollination. Without this process, many foods that humans rely on would be in danger. Here, Bee speaks to doing the work that is necessary to not only survive, but to thrive. I think the imagery of flowers in this process can also speak to beauty in work. Not all work has to be draining and awful. (Some will be – sometimes a lot will be depending on where we are in our life). Work can also be fulfilling and enlightening – something we can love. As a teacher, grading is not exactly my most favorite thing in the world, but those meaningful classroom discussions or aha moments are divine. They leave me glowing and feeling like I’ve really accomplished something and witnessed something beautiful.
Both decks also associate bees with sexual energy, which would be hard to ignore as a possible reading in The Lovers. However, bee sex isn’t exactly super sexy. For honeybees, the male drops dead right after, and the queen is the only female that mates. Very utilitarian, which a lot of animal sex is I suppose. The other females are sterile. While maybe a dolphin or bonobo (or indeed humans) would make a more “sexy” commentary on sex, I think this is actually super interesting.
Starting with the obvious, these bees are not reinforcing ideas about monogamy, which is a pretty powerful norm in U.S. culture (speaking for my own culture). Moving to what may seem less obvious, I’m curious about the celibate workers. While U.S. culture has pretty strong norms (that are indeed beginning to shift, but still powerful) regarding monogamy, heterosexuality, gender as binary, etc — we are also kind of sex-obsessed. We are surrounded by messages that put romantic love and(/or) sex on a pedestal. How many songs, tv shows, movies, magazine stories, popular books, and more center on love, sex, or both? Sexually romantic relationships are held up as the best, most valued kind of relationship — worth more time and effort than any other. The cultural assumption is that everyone wants and wishes for this type of relationship, but this is not in fact true of everyone.
So what are bees doing on The Lovers card if so many are lover-less? Because this card deserves to be read with more nuance. There’s nothing wrong if a romantic or sexual relationship is what the card speaks to in a reading, but that should not be the default assumption. I think these non-sexual bees can be read in at least two ways. First, we can love ourselves (which can be sexual, but doesn’t have to be), we can love our family and friends, we can love our community, we can love the divine. And all of these types of relationships are valuable — no sex, sexual tension, butterflies, or baseball metaphors needed! And in a culture so obsessed with sex and romance, we should stop to evaluate whether we are giving each of these areas enough of our love and attention.
Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Riverhead Books copyright 1996
Secondly, I think these bees can speak to celibacy — whether someone is sexual or asexual, whether celibate by choice or by circumstance. The first book that awoke my spiritual seeking was Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk. Her discussion of celibacy is one of the pieces that has stuck with me most closely over the years. She says that in a sex-obsessed culture, “Orgasm becomes just another goal; we undress for success. It’s no wonder that in all this powerful noise, the quiet tones of celibacy are lost; that we have such trouble comprehending what it could mean to dedicate one’s sexual drives in such a way that genital activity and procreation are precluded. But celibate people have taught me that celibacy, practiced rightly, does indeed have something valuable to say to the rest of us” (117). Celibacy doesn’t have to be an idealized state, nor does it have to mean a hatred of sex (116). Without sex, how might sexual energy be expressed? What kind of care might be put into all relationships? At the same time, I know that for many folks, reclaiming or owning the sexual parts of themselves is also empowering and freeing – there are so many double standards and mixed messages in U.S. culture regarding sex. It’s an amazingly complex topic culturally, and for so many, personally. Bees can perhaps help us to examine the different facets of sexuality, sexual energy, and love, what these mean to us, and what we would find personally empowering. I know these are all things I am seeking to understand in my own life.
In The Animal Wisdom Tarot, I love the renaming of this card to “Heart Awakener.” Where The Animal-Wise Tarot emphasizes creation, choice, and sexuality, The Animal Wisdom Tarot further emphasizes to us that love is not only externalized, it can and should be internalized as well. Dawn Brunke writes in the guidebook, “[T]his card also indicates a profound opportunity to come home to self. […] Through Honeybee we recognize – and may actualize – our longing to meet our soul, to discover who we really are, and awaken spiritual divinity within” (24).
So The Lovers card at face value certainly can be about romantic and/or sexual relationships, but I think that the bees here do a good job of showing us the nuance that is not only possible, but deeply important as well.
The Animals Divine Tarot and The Animal Totem Tarot both place the bee in the suit of Wands. This seems very fitting since bees are such hard workers, always gathering and creating. And of course Wands can speak to sexual energy as well.
Animals Divine Tarot by Lisa Hunt, Llewellyn Publications ©2005
For The Animals Divine Tarot, the bee represents the Seven of Wands. Hunt writes that this card can speak to doing the hard work even when there are obstacles. Not letting the barriers in your path keep you from pursuing your dream. I love the colors in this card. So vibrantly green and yellow — the colors of life and growth and light. Often the Seven of Wands is represented as a stressful scene of self-defense, and this is a lovely departure from that. This isn’t to say that overcoming obstacles is easy peasy, lemon squeezy, but I always enjoy a new depiction. While sometimes obstacles really will be too large to overcome, I think there are many times that what is needed is this bee’s stick-to-it-ive-ness. If we have come up against failure many times, if others have ridiculed or scoffed at our dreams, we may be tempted to slink away and let them go. This message from the bees of the Animals Divine Tarot encourages us to keep trying, when possible.
For the Animal Totem Tarot, the bee is found on the Six of Wands. This deck speaks to the idea that a success for one person is a success for the community. When a bee finds a flower, it is not just a win for that bee, it will ultimately help the entire hive. I think the depiction of the bee in this deck speaks well to its guidebook meaning of communal wins. We see a blue ribbon hanging on a wreath. The ribbon may be a prize for the construction of the wreath itself, or perhaps the wreath is part of the prize.
Animal Totem Tarot by Leeza Robertson & Eugene Smith, Llewellyn Publications ©2016
Either way, we seem to be set in a country or pastoral place, a farm perhaps. Whether this ribbon has been won for the lovely wreath, the biggest zucchini, or a prize pig, bees have played a part in pollinating the flowers, the zucchini, or the plants that the prize pig feasts upon. The bees may not go back to their hive with the ribbon, but that doesn’t mean that they have done nothing of value. I think this is a beautiful representation of what we often find in the tarot community. I don’t see a lot of cutthroat competition. People encourage each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and generally seem to really believe that there is room for us all and that we can all learn and grow together.
Carl Sagan said, “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” Say you made an apple pie “from scratch.” You cut up fresh apples, but did you grow them? Maybe you did, but did you pollinate the flowers? Did you build your oven, mine the metals for your knife, dig up the clay for your pie pan? If we go far enough back, it all goes back and back and back until we reach a capital-B Beginning – to perhaps Spirit, Source, Creator, the Divine. We are all a part of community and cannot do anything really and truly alone. This isn’t an example to make us feel bad (gee, I don’t grow my own fruit so my cobblers aren’t good anymore), but to show us how embedded in community we are. It can be a beautiful thing to realize.
The three oracle decks that provide messages from the bee also emphasize the collective, community aspect of bee life. It’s essential, integral, central to how bees function. Though humans may not share a hive-mind, we are social creatures and work, love, play, and exist within community. Some may be more extroverted, some may not actually interact with other people very often, but we are fundamentally social creatures.
Creatures of the Moon: A Storytelling Oracle by Rebecca Schoenecker ©2017; The Druid Animal Oracle by Philip & Stephanie Carr-Gomm, Connections Book Publishing ©2005; Creatures’ Secrets Animal Divination Cards by Yelizaveta Bakhtina ©2015
In Rebecca Schoenecker’s Creatures of the Moon guidebook, she tells a story of how Queen Bee used to try and do all of the work herself. She collapsed under the weight of so much until other bees came to help and nursed her back to health. This is a wonderful warning against taking on too much ourselves as individuals. We can’t carry the weight of the world, and there is nothing wrong with embedding ourselves in a community of others who wish to mutually support each other and work toward the same goals or with the same values. And in the Bees card of this deck, we see four bees buzzing around their hive. This is the most number of bees we see in any of the cards examined here; this card visually emphasizes the community message that bees can bring to us.
In The Creatures’ Secrets guidebook, Yelizaveta Bakhtina cautions against too much inactivity. While rest is an important part of a healthy, balanced life, too much can send us into a slump — I know that is true for me, especially with my depression. Being active or busy doesn’t have to mean unpleasantness. What is something you can do that would bring you joy? That you can lose yourself and not even feel like you’re “working”? Different ability statuses can change what this means, so don’t expect this bee’s message to apply identically to everyone. Adapt it to your own capacities.
Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm’s description of the bee in their guidebook offers another message of hard work and community, but with the addition of celebration, which we haven’t seen in the other cards so far. Bees produce honey, which is used me make mead, which can be used for making merry. This can speak to both celebration within community and reaping the sweet fruits of your labor. Honey alone, without alcohol, is reason for celebration I believe! Mr. Donkey, who does not drink alcohol, always makes sure I put plenty of honey in his tea when I make it because it is delicious and wonderful! Celebrate the beautiful things you create through your work, and celebrate with loved ones whenever you can — you don’t even need to have a “good” reason to do so.
Like with all things, there are shadow aspects to the message of the bee as well. As I mentioned earlier, not everyone has the same capacity for work. Bees can bring a message that may make some of us feel badly for not being able to “pull our own weight” in various areas of our lives. And while bees’ message can be tricky here, I think this can be combated by another bee message: we are all interdependent. Western culture fiercely values independence, and this message can be so damaging for marginalized folks who are told that if they don’t succeed it is due entirely to their own failure (lack of drive, not trying hard enough, etc) rather than the socio/structural organization of many cultures. So I think it is important to tease out bees’ message of interdependence to counter-balance the message of “hard work” that is often used synonymously with rugged individualism.
Bees on purple coneflowers from my last trip to MN.
Bees also function so well as a group because everyone knows their “place” and what they are supposed to be doing. For folks who are marginalized or feel different or outcast, this could potentially feel like a scolding to conform or to assimilate. Or perhaps as criticism for daring to be different. We don’t have to conform to all the norms and expectations around us to be a valuable person or community member. As a counter-point to the praise of community, the Animals Divine Tarot (Seven of Wands) cautions us to maintain our individuality. Like at the core of so many messages that tarot delivers, balance is important. While community can be supportive and uplifting, if we lose sight of who we are as individuals, community has the potential to be unsafe. If we allow a group identity to subsume our own, then we may cease to think critically for ourselves or think that any poor treatment we are receiving from our community members (family, friends, work, etc) is justified. Self-esteem and a healthy sense of who you are as an individual is important.
I was gifted the bee as a personal symbol by a group of amazing, incredible women at a retreat hosted by Rachel Maddox earlier this year. Since then, I have shared an intensely personal connection with bees as role models and messengers. This exploration of the different ways that bees are represented in my tarot and oracle cards has further deepened my love for and appreciation of this animal. While so much of Bee’s message is about community, this experience allowed me to find myself as an individual on such a deep level. And that has allowed me to more fully be engaged in community in healthy ways.