Bittern -Ghost of the Reed Forest
Voicing the invisible
I was walking through marshland in Somerset on an early Spring day. There was a large expanse of reedbed to my right. I heard a strange, low-frequency sound, very loud and booming, unlike any other sound you normally hear in nature. There was a bittern somewhere in the reeds.
One of the unique things about the bittern is its habit of standing and stretching its long neck up towards the sky, as if looking to the sun. Hence some Native American tribes have called it the ‘sun-gazer’. The Plains Indian tribe Pawnee call the bittern sakuhkiriku, meaning, ‘looks at the sun,’ and the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes use the term ganawaabimogiizisweshiinh, which means ‘the bird that looks up at the sun.’ The Blackfoot tribe of Montana, Idaho and Alberta call it Itapksissi natosi, meaning ‘pointing beak to the sun’. All these names illustrate that the bittern teaches us to reach for the light within, to find one’s authentic self. It means to shine, and to express your creativity and lifeforce. Looking towards the source of light denotes awareness, understanding, and enlightenment. The message this mystifying bird gives is to awaken.
The bittern is a solitary bird, and so secretive that many people don’t even know it exists. It spends most of its time out of sight in the reedbeds of marshlands. Sometimes it will fly up and scout its surroundings briefly, and then disappear amongst the reeds again, its brownish plumage making it a master of camouflage, able to blend with the reeds, the feathers even swaying like reeds in the wind. It carries the medicine of becoming invisible when needed.
But then there is its mating call. Loud and booming, it can be heard for miles. On a symbolic level, this signifies that it is time to share your secrets, to free yourself, and to no longer carry alone the weight of burdens from your past. The bittern tells you there is great healing power in sharing your story. The call of the bittern can also be a message to dare to speak about a topic that is normally avoided, hidden away, and not spoken about. Its otherworldly sound can also invite us to get in touch with, and to express, grief that may have been hidden away in the dark corners of the soul.
However, the bittern lives most of its life unseen by human eyes, hunting in shallow water, feeding on fish, small mammals, frogs and insects. This represents the ability to find nourishment and renewal in the source of life. Knowing yourself, and going about your business without needing to draw attention to yourself, is another lesson from the bittern. Being comfortable with your own company and resting in your own centre indicate self-acceptance, self-appreciation, self-knowledge and self-realisation. The bittern is fiercely independent, and humility is one of the qualities this elusive and mysterious bird.