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Totems: Praying Mantis

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

You call me Praying Mantis, because I hold my front legs in the position of prayer. You should call me Preying Mantis, because when I am focused on having something, these same front legs grasp it and hold it securely. That is part of my mystique. Whatever I focus my attention on becomes mine…and then the twist is that I become it, as well. For that is the nature of trickster energy – what your native people call "heyoka." The process of becoming your true self breaks down the illusion that any of us are separate from each other, because the more you individuate, the more you release the perimeters that keep you separate from the rest of life. More heyoka! How would you treat me if you knew I was you? Can you see how transformed, life on this garden planet would be? Can you dream the possibilities?

Watching an Arizona sunset from a creosote bush, its green body blends with the plant's leaves. In Central America, its body color matches the greens, blues and oranges of the local lichen; in Burma, it may be pink and ocher to match the stamens of the flower upon which it rests in stillness, awaiting its insect supper. In rainforests, dark and light shades of green camouflage it from the ferns upon which it walks with stilted legs. In the dry season of Africa or Australia, it may be brown like the lizard it is eating, or turn pervasively black after a brush fire. Desert-dwelling mantis nymphs can resemble their prey, ants, or become invisible by appearing to be stones. Perhaps its most intriguing disguise in Malaysia is an exact replica of a dead leaf, though the head is recognizable to any snake, spider, toad, bat, bird or rodent preying on it. (preying is a hint). Yes, all of these are one of the more than 1800 species of Praying Mantis. They are masters of adaptability and camouflage. This and the willingness to wait in stillness for what they want are the two primary characteristics of mantids and those with this totem. These folks have "invisibility" medicine. They blend in so well, no one notices them, unless they want to be noticed. By then they have already scooped the situation, news event, or negotiation.

There are eight families of mantids (Mantodea). Fossils from as long ago as the Oligocene era (34-24 million years ago) have been found. Mantids have triangular heads, with large bulging eyes that face forward. Unlike most insects, their heads can move freely atop a long, narrow prothorax. It's not unusual for a mantis to swivel its head to look over its shoulder. If this is your power animal, you have great clarity. You are accustomed to making difficult decisions based on foresight. Mantids have binocular vision, which means they can judge distance with split-second accuracy, allowing them to strike out even for insects flying by or prey larger than themselves like turtles, birds, some lizards or frogs. Smaller prey are spiders and other insects. For people with this totem, it's all about strategy and precision timing. There is nothing heavy-handed about them. They are the ones you want mediating delicate disputes, and thoughtful discussions.

Sexual cannibalism is often remarked upon, because females may devour males during or after mating. Perhaps this happens more often in captivity, when the male cannot escape. If this is your totem, your mate must be your equal. Because cannibalism of their own offspring and that of other mantids is frequent, mantid mothers are usually very protective of their young, even with mates. Female mantids can lay up to 400 eggs in a horn-like capsule called an ootheca. Last summer I got two of these attached to twigs, from the Butterfly Conservatory, but they didn't hatch. Perhaps it was a species where the mother must straddle the ootheca until the young emerge. One American species is all female (parthenogenesis) produced by unfertilized eggs. Mantids produce so many eggs because few survive the first molt. There may be parasitism by certain wasps even before emergence.

Mantids defend themselves in many ways. Camouflage, running or flying away are first-line strategies. As Bushmen knew, there is no lack of courage in mantis. If you were to get too close, you would experience a painful jab, while a predator smaller than you, like a monkey might receive a colorful display meant to scare, or eyespots on mantis's hind wings or abdomen. If picked up, mantis will bend its forelegs over its prothorax, or use the spines on its legs as weapons. In the most extreme danger, mantis will sacrifice one of its mid or hind limbs. Known as autotomy, the limb shedding results from the contraction of a special muscle at the base of the leg. Regeneration may occur if the limb is shed early in mantis's life. If praying mantis has come into your life, perhaps it is time to heal that childhood wound that drives everything you do. It's never too late to start growing again.

The Greeks knew they were noteworthy. They associated them with oracles. They were the first to name mantis, which means "prophet" or "seer." Mantis represented the achievement of consciousness. To the first people of the world, stories were their most prized possessions, even beyond hunting tools, for stories nourished the spirit. A story was the basket, which held meaning for the soul. Stories told of creation, of all-important cosmological events, and taught about relationships with the inhabitants of their world. Life for the aboriginal human was a living story. Oral traditions and moral precepts were handed down through beloved stories. There were stories about all creatures, plants, stones and weather inhabiting the scope of the first peoples' world. Such was the revered position of mantis in the Kalahari desert world of the Bushman. He was Kaggen, the great hero of creation. In a wonderful parallel with the Bible ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God"), mantis was called, "bringer of the word" (he gave things their names) and "old maker of fire." Imagine what that meant to people who depended on fire for life. It provided the only light at night, heat for cooking, safety from danger, and life-giving warmth.

Mantis is also a trickster. In experiences with various birds, he exploits them and then comes to grief through his selfishness. Ultimately, he learns to give back. In Bushman myths mantis, seeing fire for the first time, realizes its advantages and schemes to steal some from ostrich. The teaching medicine of tricksters is that they suffer or perish in their own trick. Cautionary tales if this is your totem! In the "stealing fire" myth, mantis died in the very fire he stole. Yet from his ashes and bones, two children (next stage of consciousness) arose. There is fire at the beginning of the mantis saga and fire at the end. Fire reunites mantis with his true self. After dying, a Bushman is buried in the red sand, facing East; beside him or her is an ostrich egg full of water for the long journey. A great fire is lit at the foot of the grave, for firelight guides one to the next life.

The mantis stories introduce the famous Bushman sense of humor to us, for as the saga of the two young mantises continues, they vanquish a herd of elephants by jumping on their shoulders and farting in their faces! Mantis is also a dreamer. People with this medicine strongly rely on their dreams for guidance and help. Over and over in mantis tales, when it appears all is lost and futile, mantis has a dream that saves the day. Bushmen say, "There is a dream dreaming us." Though tragically persecuted and exterminated by both blacks and whites in their own homeland, and only a remnant of what they were, the Bushman embodies the greatness of those who live so close to the land, that they know themselves to be the land. They feel themselves to be one with all beings, animate and inanimate, inhabiting their world, even the smallest of creatures. They say that after the Great Flood (recorded in so many of the world's cultures), mantis was carried by a bee over the waters, and laid to rest on a great white flower, half open above the flood. Before dying, the bee planted the seed of the first human being inside mantis, safe until the waters receded.

It may seem odd to some, that on a continent with mighty animals like elephants, antelope and gorillas, that mantis was chosen as the central Bushman god. The diminutive apricot-colored Bushman understands the power of the small. His triangular face reminds one of mantis. Greatness is not measured by size, but by worth. There was no separation between the dream that moved them and that of the animals they moved with. All followed the rain. Bushmen can read signs in the earth, like you are reading this. A Bushman can tell you the sex and age of the animal he is tracking, as well as how long since it's been there. To survive in the harsh climate of the Kalahari desert, Bushmen must be prodigious hunters. When a male child is born, the mother holds the child high above her head to the stars, offering the little heart of her child to the stars in exchange for something of their heart. Because the stars are great hunters, she asks them to give him the heart of a hunter. This trait is revered above all others, and recognized in mantis. A hunter must wait patiently, in stillness as mantis does, waiting for its prey. This is the predominant energy of this totem. This energy can be used for focusing on the demands of physical life, as well as on spiritual matters. All the various animals and energies of Mantis' family were representatives of original creation, a symbol of the spirit of wholeness in life. If praying mantis is your totem or has crossed your path, you may be a hunter of hearts, in a world that has closed theirs. You may do this as a storyteller, a navigator of the dreamtime, or one who meticulously pursues his or her dream (a hunter). What are your living stories? Your family's? Do they contain scenarios you wish to repeat or fulfill? Are you creating stories that demand to be lived?

Mantis medicine is about the creative process of becoming. Personal and direct kinship with everything and everyone is the very process of life itself. Has modern life made you feel overly critical, analytical, isolated and powerless? Can you say that you know yourself, or are truly known by another, your community, or by the creatures and plants where you live? Feeling yourself to be yourself, you could commit to a daily practice of meditation, facilitating knowing and accepting yourself in the stillness of the dreamtime, thereby experiencing oneness with yourself and kinship with all beings. Call upon Mantis to help you live a life of universal kinship. Then, wherever you go on earth, home will always be with you, in you.

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Starwoman has been a healer and writer for 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, to attend Cie's Arts Salon, or 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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