OWL MYTHS AND LEGENDS
by Shani Freidman
Owls and humans are connected from the dawn of history. The nighttime activity, large eyes, acute vision, and "wisdom" of owls were known by the ancients. Dating from a Sumerian tablet (2300 to 2000 BC),
Lilith, the goddess of death, has talons for feet, wears a headdress of horns, and is flanked by owls. She is probably the inspiration for Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare. The rock crevices of Athens and the Acropolis were filled with small owls, believed to be the embodiment of Athena. When the Athenians won the battle of Marathon from the Persians in 490 BC, the warrior goddess Athena assumed the shape of an owl and led them from above.
The Romans, who appropriated many of the Greek beliefs, associated owls with Minerva, the goddess of prophesy and wisdom. Minerva's role was similar to Athena's. The prophetic qualities of owls were known. Virgil writes that the hoot of an owl foretold the death of Dido. Pliny reports great confusion and fear in the Forum when an owl entered. Horace associates owls with witchcraft. Romans used representations of owls to combat the evil eye. Owl feathers and internal organs were found in magical potions and pharmaceutical remedies. For example, the ashes of an owl's feet were an antidote to snakebite, and an owl's heart placed on the breast of a sleeping woman forced her to tell all her secrets.
The Ainu of northern Japan placed carved eagle owls on their houses to ward off famine and pestilence. They revered the Eagle owl as a messenger of the gods or a divine ancestor. They drank a toast to the Eagle owl before a hunting expedition. The Screech owl warned against danger, but the Barn owl and Horned owl were demonic.
The owl was an emblem of a royal clan of Chinese masters of the thunderbolt (because it brightens the night) and the regulators of the seasons. Associated with thunder and lightning, owl ornaments were placed at the corners of houses to protect them from fire. The Owl is a symbol of too much Yang (positive, active, masculine, bright energy).
In the Middle East, the owl is linked with destruction, ruin and death. They are believed to represent the souls of people who have died un-avenged. Seeing an owl on the way to battle foretells a bloody battle with many deaths and casualties. Seeing an owl at somebody's house predicts their death. Seeing an owl in your sleep is fine as long as you don't hear its voice. An owl's sound forecasts a bad day. A person who nags and complains a lot is compared to an owl. When someone is grumpy or is delivering bad news, they are said to have a face like an owl.
In India, seizures in children could be treated with a broth made from owl eyes. Rheumatism pain was treated with a gel made from owl meat. Owl meat could also be eaten as a natural aphrodisiac. In northern India, if one ate the eyes of an owl, they would be able to see in the dark. In southern India, the cries of an owl were interpreted by number: one hoot was an omen of impending death; two meant success in anything that would be started soon after; three represented a woman being married into the family; four indicated a disturbance; five denoted coming travel; six meant guests were on the way; seven was a sign of mental distress; eight foretold sudden death; and nine symbolized good fortune
Many peoples tie owls to death and witchcraft. Some Asians believed that the owl carried away the soul of the deceased. If an owl hooted in a Chinese village, the people thought it was telling them to dig a grave. In Europe, Sicilians believed that an owl sung around the house of a sick person for three days before death. Italians, Russians, Germans and Hungarians continue to regard owls as the bearers of deathly omens.
In Polish folklore, girls who die unmarried turn into doves, whereas girls who are married when they die turn into owls. An owl cry heard in or near a home usually meant impending death, sickness, or other misfortune. Another Polish story tells how the owl does not come out during the day because it is too beautiful, and would be mobbed by other jealous birds.
You may have heard that owls are the familiars of witches. This belief persists in many parts of Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Because of the more sinister associations regarding owls, the early Christian church seized upon the owl as a symbol of evil and demonic possession. Its affinity with darkness, haunting calls and nocturnal hunting prowess led early clerics to consider the owl a seeker after vain knowledge, one who was unable to perceive the truth. In medieval carving and illustration, owls were seen in the company of apes, the worst of all beasts often representing Satan himself. Just as the devil trapped unwary people, the ape and the owl lurked together in the shadow of the Tree of Knowledge to attract and capture innocent birds.
In North America, a strong link between the supernatural and owls exists. Remarkable parallels exist between many indigenous people's beliefs and those of the people of Asia. In many, if not most tribes, owls are closely associated with impending death. Frequently, an owl is a vehicle by which the spirit of the dead reaches life beyond. For example, for the Ojibwa, the bridge over which the spirit of the dead passes is called the owl bridge. The Oto-Missouri tribes believe that an owl brings a message of death.
The owl also contained unique powers. The Cherokees bathed the eyes of children in water containing owl feathers to help them remain awake all night for ceremony. Creek shamans kept an owl skin with their sacred amulets. In a beautiful ritual of the Pawnees, the ceremonial pipe was decorated in part with owl feathers, stemming from the following visionary instructions:
Put me upon the feathered stem, for I have power to help the Children. The night season is mine. I wake when others sleep. I can see in the darkness and discern coming danger. The human race must be able to care for its young during the night. The warrior must be alert and ready to protect his home against prowlers in the dark. I have the power to help the people so that they may not forget their young in sleep. I have power to help the people to be watchful against enemies while darkness is on the earth. I have power to help the people keep awake and perform these ceremonies in the night as well as the day. (Fletcher, 1900-1901)
Native American creation myths include a part for the owl. Sometimes the losing of a contest by an owl led to the delineation between day and night. According to the Menominee, Wabus (the rabbit) saw Totoba (the Saw-whet owl) perched on a bank of a river. The light was dim, so Wabus said to Totoba, "Why do you want it so dark? I do not like it, so I will cause it to be daylight." Totoba replied, "If you are powerful enough, then do so. Let us put our powers to a test. Whoever wins may decide as he prefers." All the birds and animals came together to witness the contest. The rabbit started repeating, "Light, light..." as quickly as he could. The owl repeated, "Dark, dark..." If one mistakenly spoke the other's word, the erring one would lose the contest. Eventually, the owl repeated the rabbit's words. The rabbit decided that it should be light, but he granted that the night should have a chance, for the benefit of the defeated owl.
The Hopi identify the Burrowing owl with Masau'u, their god of the dead and the night. The same deity is also the guardian of fires and attends to all underground things. As such, he is responsible for the germination of seeds, which lends a more positive aspect to the owl.
To the Hidatsa of the Dakotas, the "big owl" (Great horned owl) was a keeper-of-game spirit, who watched over and controlled the buffalo. "Big owl" had an assistant "little owl" (Burrowing owl) to help with these essential buffalo herding duties. "Little owl" was a protective spirit for a warrior, flying above him if he went to attack an enemy.
Perhaps we need to establish a new mythic view of our North American owls - one that celebrates their aesthetic beauty and sense of mystery, while acknowledging that their sharp sensory awareness is superior to ours. Whether they are seen as power possessing beings or harbingers of death, owls inspire humans wherever they are found on Earth.