The Legends and Lore of the Owls
Owls are a bird that features prominently in the myths and legends of a variety of cultures. These mysterious creatures are known far and wide as symbols of wisdom, omens of death, and bringers of prophecy. In some countries, they are seen as good and wise, in others they are a sign of evil and doom to come. There are numerous species of owls, and each seems to have its own legends and lore. Let's look at some of the best-known bits of owl folklore and mythology.
Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom, and is often portrayed with an owl as companion. Homer relates a story in which Athena gets fed up with the crow, who is a total prankster. She banishes the crow as her sidekick, and instead seeks out a new companion. Impressed with the owl’s wisdom, and levels of seriousness, Athena chooses the owl to be her mascot instead. The specific owl that represented Athena was called the Little Owl, Athene noctua, and it was a species found in great numbers inside places like the Acropolis. Coins were minted with Athena’s face on one side, and an owl on the reverse.
There are a number of Native American stories about owls, most of which related to their association with prophecy and divination. The Hopi tribe held the Burrowing Owl as sacred, believing it to be a symbol of their god of the dead. As such, the Burrowing Owl, called Ko’ko, was a protector of the underworld, and things that grew in the earth, such as seeds and plants. This species of owl actually nests in the ground, and so was associated with the earth itself.
The Inuit people of Alaska have a legend about the Snowy Owl, in which Owl and Raven are making each other new clothes. Raven made Owl a pretty dress of black and white feathers. Owl decided to make Raven a lovely white dress to wear. However, when Owl asked Raven to allow her to fit the dress, Raven was so excited that she couldn’t hold still. In fact, she jumped around so much that Owl got fed up and threw a pot of lamp oil at Raven. The lamp oil soaked through the white dress, and so Raven has been black ever since.
In many African countries, the owl is associated with sorcery and baneful magic. A large owl hanging around a house is believed to indicate that a powerful shaman lives within. Many people also believe that the owl carries messages back and forth between the shaman and the spirit world.
In some places, nailing an owl to the door of a house was considered a way to keep evil at bay. The tradition actually began in ancient Rome, after owls foretold the deaths of Julius Caesar and several other Emperors. The custom persisted in some areas, including Great Britain, up through the eighteenth century, where an owl nailed to a barn door protected the livestock within from fire or lightning.
The owl was known as a harbinger of bad tidings and doom throughout Europe, and put in appearances as a symbol of death and destruction in a number of popular plays and poems. For instance, Sir Walter Scott wrote:
Birds of omen dark and foul,
Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream --
All night long he heard your scream.
Even before Scott, William Shakespeare wrote of the owl’s premonition of death in both MacBeth and Julius Caesar.
Much of Appalachian tradition can be traced back to the Scottish Highlands (where the owl was associated with the cailleach) and English villages that were the original homes of mountain settlers. Because of this, there is still a good deal of superstition surrounding the owl in the Appalachian region, most of which are related to death. According to mountain legends, an owl hooting at midnight signifies death is coming. Likewise, if you see an owl circling during the day, it means bad news for someone nearby. In some areas, it is believed that owls flew down on Samhain night to eat the souls of the dead.
If you find an owl feather, it can be used for a variety of purposes. The Zuni tribe believed that an owl feather placed in a baby’s crib kept evil spirits away from the infant. Other tribes saw owls as bringers of healing, so a feather could be hung in the doorway of a home to keep illness out. Likewise, in the British Isles, owls were associated with death and negative energy, so feathers can be used to repel those same unpleasant influences.
Beliefs on owls varied between ancient American Indian tribes. Some tribes viewed owls as harbingers of sickness & death. Other tribes saw them as protective spirits, others believed them to be the souls of living or recently departed people & should be treated with respect. Some tribes even saw the owls as earthly incarnations of their gods, the Hopis believed the Burrowing Owl to be their god of the dead. The Inuit explain the flat face & short beak of owls, in the story of a beautiful young girl who was magically changed into an owl with a long beak, as an owl, she became frightened & flew into the wall of her house & flattened her face & beak. Some tribes referred to death as "crossing the owls bridge".
Some people believed that owls had magic powers, in Arabia it was thought that each female Owl laid two eggs - one with the power to make hair fall out, the other with the power to restore it. In Algeria, it was believed that if the right eye of an Eagle Owl was placed in the hand of a sleeping woman, that she would tell everything you wanted to know.
In contrast, the Romans saw owls as omens of impending disaster. Hearing the hoot of an owl indicated an imminent death, it is thought that the deaths of many famous Romans was predicted by the hoot of an owl, including Julius Caesar, Augustus & Agrippa. While the Greeks believed that sight of an owl predicted victory for their armies, the Romans saw it as a sign of defeat. They believed that a dream of an owl could be an omen of shipwreck for sailors & of being robbed. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, it was believed that the offending owl should be killed & nailed to the door of the affected house.
British beliefs about owls include the Welsh belief that if a owl is heard amongst houses then an unmarried girl has lost her virginity. Another Welsh belief is that if a pregnant woman hears an owl, her child will be blessed. In Yorkshire owl broth is believed to cure whooping cough, amongst other things. Because of its ability to turns its head so far & its habit of watching things intently, it was believed that you could get an owl to effectively wring its own neck by walking in circles around it.
In India 'food' made from owls was believed to have many medicinal properties curing seizures in children (owl eye broth) & rheumatism (owl meat). Eating owl eyes was believed to enable a person to see in the dark, while owl meat was believed to be an aphrodisiac. There were also beliefs about events predicted by the number of owl hoots (similar to seeing numbers of magpies in this country) :
1 : impending death
2 : success in imminent venture
3 : woman will be married into the family
4 : disturbance
5 : imminent travel
6 : guests arriving
7 : mental distress
8 : sudden death
9 : good fortune
It is believed that over 1000 owls, including the endangered Brown Fish Owl (Ketupa zeylonensis), are killed very year during Diwali by black magicians in the hope of warding off bad luck & gaining magical powers. This is despite the fact that owls are identified with the goddess of Wealth, Lakshmi, in whose honour the celebration is held (when she travels alone, without Vishnu, she travels on an owl - when she travels with Vishnu they travel on the eagle Garuda). Amulets made from the bones, beaks & talons of owls are in great demand.
Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) is one of the most important gods of the native Ainu people of Hokkaidu, in Japan. It is called "kotan kor kamuy", which means the "god of the village" or "god who defends the village".
In France owls were also considered with great esteem, with several named as dukes, for example the European Eagle Owl was called Hibou Grand-Duc & the long-eared owl was called Hibou Moyen-Duc. This probably stemmed from the custom during the middle ages that nobles below the rank of a duke could not wear a plume of feathers, hence the 'eared' owls must be of rank of a duke. Somewhere along the way though, this attitude changed, with the European Eagle Owl being classified as vermin until the late 1960's.
One of the Chinese names for owls is "xiao", these owls have the associated legend of being evil birds that ate their own mothers. The Chinese character representing "xiao" is used in expressions relating to ferocity & bravery.
In Poland it was believed that girls who died unmarried turned into doves, while those who died married turned into owls. It was also believed that owls did not come out during the day because they were so beautiful & would be mobbed by other birds out of jealousy.
In Russia, hunters used to carry owl claws, so that their souls could use them to climb to heaven when they died. The Kalmuks held owls sacred because one was believed to have saved the life of Genghis Khan.
In Welsh mythology, Blodeuwedd, the Goddess of Betrayal, is associated with the owl. According to the story in "The Mabinogion", Blodeuwedd was created from flowers by the magician Gwydion for the prince Llew Llaw Gyffes. She had an affair with Goronwy & they contrived to kill Llew. On his death, Llew was transformed into an eagle, but was healed & returned to human form by Gwydion. Llew returned to seek revenge, rather than killing Blodeuwedd, Gwydion turned her into a white owl, to haunt the night in loneliness & sorrow, saying "I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, you shall never show thy face in the light of day. And thou shall not lose thy name, but shall be always called Blodeuwedd." The word Blodeuwedd is still used in Wales to mean owl.
*Sources: (http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/othermagicspells/a/Legends-And-Lore-Of-Owls.htm & http://www.pauldfrost.co.uk/intro_o2.html)
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