Thursday, July 11, 2013

Owl mythology

At left: On Sunday, I saw this owl on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, maybe 90 minutes before dusk.

He flew from tree to tree about 100 yards in front of me, which is when I first noticed him. He had an enormous wing span. I was walking in his direction, so when I arrived below the tree where he was, I spoke to him. He looked right at me and seemed to be listening. I suddenly understood all the stories about owls being "wise"--they do seem to be smart and attentive, with their immense, intense eyes.

Watching him for a few minutes, I realized he was carefully watching me too, looking me up and down. Very large black eyes; a creepy feeling, as if sizing me up to determine if I could be eaten.

I stood there awhile, sort of communing with the owl. I asked him a couple of spiritually-oriented questions that I won't repeat here. As I said, he seemed to be listening, so why not? The swamp is so, so hushed and quiet. It seemed appropriate to break the silence and say hello.

I then pointed him out to the next couple of cyclists as they whizzed by; these two expensively-sports-attired young fellows ignored me as if I was a crazy old woman (uh-oh). But the next two middle-aged women cyclists stopped and cooed appreciatively at him, taking photos also. A nice Baptist-looking family of cyclists also stopped, their teenage son especially impressed, exclaiming he had never been so close to an owl that was not caged.

On my way home, I idly considered the Lakota legend concerning the sighting of owls in the daytime (portent of death) and wondered if Lakota legends 1) applied to non-Lakota, and 2) applied in Carolina. (Wouldn't Cherokee or Catawba legends apply here instead?) And then I promptly forgot about the owl... until I dreamed about him.

He was answering my questions. He answered them very clearly, but not in "language." They were answers that formed in my mind, and when I woke up, I knew what I should do and what was going to happen.

So, I realize now that the owls are magic.

I posted the owl's photo on Facebook and received a couple of warnings about bad luck. And so I looked up some of the mythology and omens connected with owls. I discovered that throughout the world, they are regarded as signs of both good and bad luck. Also, I learned that the concept of owls being "sisters" originally comes from the indigenous people of Australia (see list below), which I hadn't known. There is a national women's organization called OWL (Older Women's League), which (as far as I know) has mostly regrouped into smaller, local chapters. I always wondered why they chose that particular name; I assumed it was a reference to the wisdom of age. I realize now that the connection of owls/women is part of the world's mythology.

The Owl Pages offers everything you ever wanted to know about owls. I discovered his species: Barred Owl, although many southerners call them Rain Owls, which is certainly an interesting (and appropriate!) name, since we have had so much rain lately.

From the Owl Pages, I found a list of fascinating world-legends and mythology about owls.

Here are some of my favorites:

Africa, Central: the Owl is the familiar of wizards to the Bantu.

Africa, Southern: Zulus know the Owl as the sorcerers' bird.

Africa, West: the messenger of wizards and witches, the Owl's cry presages evil.

Algeria: place the right eye of an Eagle Owl in the hand of a sleeping woman and she will tell all.

Arabia: the Owl is a bird of ill omen, the embodiment of evil spirits that carries off children at night. According to an ancient Arabic treatise, from each female Owl supposedly came two eggs, one held the power to cause hair to fall out and one held the power to restore it. Arabs once believed that the spirit of a murdered man continues to wail and weep until his death is avenged. They believed that a bird that they called "al Sada" (or the death-owl) would continue to hoot over the grave of a slain man whose death had not been avenged. The bird would continue to hoot endlessly until the slain man's death was avenged.

Arctic Circle: a little girl was turned into a bird with a long beak by magic, but was so frightened she flapped about madly and flew into a wall, flattening her face and beak. So the Owl was created.

Australia: Aborigines believe bats represent the souls of men and Owls the souls of women. Owls are therefore sacred, because your sister is an Owl - and the Owl is your sister.

Borneo: the Supreme Being turned his wife into an Owl after she told secrets to mortals.

Brittany: an Owl seen on the way to the harvest is the sign of a good yield.

Burma: during a quarrel among the birds, the Owl was jumped upon and so his face was flattened.

Cameroon: too evil to name, the Owl is known only as "the bird that makes you afraid".

Carthage: the city was captured by Agathocles of Syracuse (Southern Italy) in 310 BC. Afterward, he released Owls over his troops and they settled on their shields and helmets, signifying victory in battle.

Celtic: the Owl was a sign of the underworld.

China: the Owl is associated with lightning (because it brightens the night) and with the drum (because it breaks the silence). Placing Owl effigies in each corner of the home protect it against lightning. The Owl is regarded as a symbol of too much Yang (positive, masculine, bright, active energy).

France: when a pregnant woman hears an Owl it is an omen that her child will be a girl.

Germany: if an Owl hoots as a child is born, the infant will have an unhappy life.

India: The Barn owl is the "vahana" (transport/vehicle/mount) of the Hindu goddess of wisdom, Lakshmi. As such, the owl is held as a symbol of wisdom and learning. The eagle owls, especially the rock eagle owl [Bubo bengalensis] and the brown fish owl [Bubo zeylonensis] are called " ullu" in Hindi and the word is also used as a synonym for "idiot" or "imbecile". The most chilling sound during the quiet and cold winter nights in the plains of Bengal is perhaps the call of the " kaal penchaa", the Brown Hawk Owl. The rhythmic "kuk - kuk - kuk" is believed to be a foreboding of impending death.

Indonesia: Around Manado, on the isle of Sulawesi, People consider Owls very wise. They call them Burung Manguni. Every time someone wants to travel, they listen to the owls. The owls make two different sounds; the first means it is safe to go, and the second means it's better to stay at home. The Minahasa, people around Manado, take those warnings very seriously.

Iran: In Farsi the Little Owl (Athene Noctua) is called "Joghde-kochek". It is said that this bird brings bad luck. In Islam, it's forbidden (Haram) to eat.

Ireland: An Owl that enters the house must be killed at once, for if it flies away it will take the luck of the house with it.

Israel: in Hebrew lore the Owl represents blindness and desolation and is unclean.

At left: the swamp itself, which is much more ominous after heavy rains. I love love love it, except for the mosquitoes, which are humongous and always-starving. It is also home to the largest snake I have EVER seen that wasn't under glass in a zoo.


Japan: Among the Ainu people the Eagle Owl is revered as a messenger of the gods or a divine ancestor. They would drink a toast to the Eagle Owl before a hunting expedition. The Screech Owl warns against danger, although they believe the Barn Owl and Horned Owl are demonic. They would nail wooden images of owls to their houses in times of famine or pestilence.

Latvia: when Christian soldiers entered his temple, the local pagan god flew away as an Owl.

Lorraine: spinsters go to the woods and call to the Owl to help them find a husband.

Madagascar: Owls join witches to dance on the graves of the dead.

Malawi: the Owl carries messages for witches.

Mexico: the Owl makes the cold North wind (the gentle South wind is made by the butterfly). The Little Owl was called "messenger of the lord of the land of the dead", and flew between the land of the living and the dead.

Newfoundland: the hoot of the Horned Owl signals the approach of bad weather.

Poland: Polish folklore links Owls with death. Girls who die unmarried turn into doves; 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. An old story tells how the Owl does not come out at during the day because it is too beautiful, and would be mobbed by other, jealous birds.

Puerto Rico: The Owl is called "Mucaro". Back in the 1800s, the people from the mountain coffee plantations used to blame the little mucaro for the loss of coffee grains. The belief was that the coffee was part of the owls' diet, and many owls were killed. There are old folklore songs on the subject, one goes like this:

Poor Mucaro, you're a gentleman
you just want to eat a rat
then the rat
set up a trap
he eats the coffee grains
and people blame you.

Romania: the souls of repentant sinners flew to heaven in the guise of a Snowy Owl.

Russia: hunters carry Owl claws so that, if they are killed, their souls can use them to climb up to Heaven. It is said that Tartar shaman of Central Russia could assume Owl shapes. Kalmyks hold the Owl to be sacred because one once saved the life of Genghis Khan.

Samoa: the people are descended from an Owl.

Siberia: the Owl is a helpful spirit.

Spain: legend has it that the Owl was once the sweetest of singers, until it saw Jesus crucified. Ever since it has shunned daylight and only repeats the words 'cruz, cruz' ('cross, cross').

Sri Lanka: the Owl is married to the bat.

Sumeria: The goddess of death, Lilith, was attended by Owls.

Sweden: the Owl is associated with witches.


And so we see, Owls are often connected with women, and with spirituality... or both.

Since my dream, I choose to see my owl as a good omen. But I also realize that life IS impermanence, and what is regarded as "good" right now, may well be considered "bad" in the future.

Perhaps that is the lesson of the owl. Live completely in the present.


JoJo said...

I've never seen one outside of wildlife parks but Russell has. I love them too.

Anonymous said...

Owls are unreal. I saw one in my headlights once and almost peed my pants-they are so striking "in person." The only other things I have seen that came close was when I was walking on a country road at dusk. The sky was purple. I heard the most mystical noise and looked up to see 5 or so baby (i mean tiny) raccoons chasing each other around a tree trunk. Unforgettable.
-Corey Kooc

Blue Heron said...

What a nice article. Mind if I repost with proper credit?

DaisyDeadhead said...

Blue, I'd love that. :) Go owls!

Tamen said...

Here are a couple more about the Tawny Owl (from Norway):

When it hoots and it's clear weather then rain is coming. When it hoots and it's rain then the weather will clear up.

However, if it hoots sounds like "kle-vitt" it's an omen of death coming. "Kle-vitt" sounds like "dress in white" in Norwegian - as in shroud used for corpses.

If the hoot also sounded like "kun-hu" (only she) it was an omen of a woman dying.

If the hoot sounded like "to-vitt" it meant good luck or that guests are coming.

The Eurasian Eagle-Owl (called Hubro) is a much larger owl and was considered much more dangerous.

The reason for the local name Hubro has many legends tied to it; one is this: "Hu bror" (hey brother) said Kain while he rammed his knife into his brother's gut. Since then he became a bird and cannot say anything else.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl is considered an omen of death. Some places it was dependent on what the hoot sounded like, if it sounded like "bær-ut" (carry out) it meant that soon a body would be carried out of the house. If it hooted "hu" it meant a woman was to die, while an "hu-bro" meant a man was to die.

If one heard the Eurasian Eagle-Owl hoot one could save oneself by shooting the owl, because then it would be it's own death it had warned about.

Some places the Eurasian Eagle-Owl were called "utburd" - which is the name for infants carried out into to the forest and left to die - aka myling. The unbaptized souls of the dead child takes the form of the owl.

Just about any small community had it's own local version of superstition tied to the Eurasian Eagle-Owl.

I have been so lucky to have observed both of these in the wild.

DaisyDeadhead said...

Tamen, I saw both of their beautiful photos on "The Owl Pages" that I mentioned. Very cool!~

Blue Heron said...

I am surprised at no mention of Athena.

If I may shamelessly self promote, I wrote a similar treatise on crows and ravens some years back which you may want to peruse. Tedious in the beginning but then has its moments.

I have reposted your post on my site. thank you!

John Powers said...

Seeing the dark as well as the light is scary. You know the lyric:

Hey you know something people
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lotsa times
I wish I could say I’m not white

That's kind of how I feel about the meaning of Owl mythology. It's seeing stuff plainly enough that it's uncomfortable.

The really important quality to bring into it is gentleness for ourselves so we can respond in humility and not just be frozen.

Alvaro said...

This is cool!