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Owls in Mythology & Culture

Compiled by Updated 2005-05-13 Created 1999-03-20
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Owls in American Indian Culture

Among the different American Indian tribes, there are many diverse beliefs regarding the Owl. Presented here are some of those beliefs.

According to an Indian legend, the 'Spedis Owl' carving was placed on a rock to serve as a protector from the 'water devils' and monsters that could pull a person into the water. The owl on a rock may have also indicated the ownership of that location for fishing.

To an Apache Indian, dreaming of an Owl signified approaching death.

Cherokee shamans valued Eastern Screech-Owls as consultants as the owls could bring on sickness as punishment.

The Cree people believed Boreal Owl whistles were summons from the spirits. If a person answered with a similar whistle and did not hear a response, then he would soon die.

The Dakota Hidatsa Indians saw the Burrowing Owl as a protective spirit for brave warriors.

The Hopis Indians see the Burrowing Owl as their god of the dead, the guardian of fires and tender of all underground things, including seed germination. Their name for the Burrowing Owl is Ko'ko, which means "Watcher of the dark" They also believed that the Great Horned Owl helped their Peaches grow.

The Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak.
They also named the Boreal Owl "the blind one", because of its tameness during daylight. Inuit children make pets of Boreal Owls.

Native Northwest coast Kwagulth people believed that owls represented both a deceased person and their newly-released soul.

The Kwakiutl Indians were convinced that Owls were the souls of people and should therefore not be harmed, for when an Owl was killed the person to whom the soul belonged would also die.

The Lenape Indians believed that if they dreamt of an Owl it would become their guardian.

The Menominee people believed that day and night were created after a talking contest between a Saw-whet Owl (Totoba) and a rabbit (Wabus). The rabbit won and selected daylight, but allowed night time as a benefit to the vanquished Owl.

The Montagnais people of Quebec believed that the Saw-whet Owl was once the largest Owl in the world and was very proud of its voice. After the Owl attempted to imitate the roar of a waterfall, the Great Spirit humiliated the Saw-whet Owl by turning it into a tiny Owl with a song that sounds like dripping water.

To the Mojave Indians of Arizona, one would become an Owl after death, this being and interim stage before becoming a water beetle, and ultimately pure air.

According to Navajo legend, the creator, Nayenezgani, told the Owl after creating it "...in days to come, men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future"

California Newuks believed that after death, the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls. The wicked, however, were doomed to become Barn Owls.

In the Sierras, native peoples believed the Great Horned Owl captured the souls of the dead and carried them to the underworld.

The Tlingit Indian warriors had great faith in the Owl; they would rush into battle hooting like Owls to give themselves confidence, and to strike fear into their enemies.

A Zuni legend tells of how the Burrowing Owl got its speckled plumage: the Owls spilled white foam on themselves during a ceremonial dance because they were laughing at a coyote that was trying to join the dance. Zuni mothers place an Owl feather next to a baby to help it sleep.

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References:

Browne, Vee. 1995. "Animal Lore & Legend: Owl". Scholastic
Campbell, Wayne. 1994. "Know Your Owls". Axia Wildlife
Fleay, David. 1968. "Nightwatchman of the Bush and Plain; Australian Owls and Owl-like Birds". Jacaranda Press
Knowling, Philip. 1998. "A Wisdom of Owls". Avenue Press
Long, Kim. 1998. "Owls: A Wildlife Handbook". Johnson Books
Unknown. 1987. "Dictionary of Native American Art Symbols". Rock Art Research Education
Weinstein, Krystyna. 1990. "The Owl In Art Myth & Legend". Universal Books Limited
 
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