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Owls in Lore and Culture

Paper by B. G. Marcot, D. H. Johnson, & M. Cocker Updated 2012-10-31 Created 2000-06-15
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MARKERS OF GODS, KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, AND FERTILITY

Many children have grown up with nursery stories of wise old owls. From the ancient Greek legends to the wise owls in Wini the Pooh and The Owl and The Pussycat, we have all seen images in folk tales of owls as the quintessential bearers of knowledge and sagacity.

From ancient Athens, the silver four-drachma coin bore the image of the owl on the obverse side as a symbol of the city's patron, Athene Pronoia, the Greek goddess of wisdom who, in an earlier incarnation, was goddess of darkness. The owl -- whose modern scientific name Athene carries this heritage -- came to represent wisdom from its association with the dark (Saunders 1995). The owl was also the guardian of the Acropolis (Holmgren 1988), and the Roman statesman Pliny the Elder wrote that owls foretell only evil and are to be dreaded more than all other birds (Rackham 1997, as recounted in Martin 1996).

In many other cultures, owls represent wisdom and knowledge because their nocturnal vigilance is associated with that of the studious scholar or wise elder (Saunders 1995). According to one Christian tradition, owls represent the wisdom of Christ, which appeared amid the darkness of the unconverted (Saunders 1995). To early Christian Gnostics, the owl is associated with Lilith, the first wife of Adam who refused his advances and control. The owl had a place as a symbol in the King Arthurian legends since the sorcerer Merlin was always depicted with an owl on his shoulder. In Japan, owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics (Martin 1996).

Some Native American cultures link owls with supernatural knowledge and divination. In the Menominee myth of The Origin of Night and Day, Wapus (rabbit) encounters Totoba (the saw-whet owl, Aegolious acadicus) and the two battle for daylight (wabon) and darkness (unitipaqkot) by repeating those words. Totoba errs and repeats "wabon" and daylight wins, but Wapus permits that night should also have a chance for the benefit of the conquered, and thus day and night were born. The Pawnees view the owl as a symbol of protection; the Ojibwa, a symbol of evil and death, as well as a symbol of very high status of spiritual leaders of their religion; and the Pueblo, associated with Skeleton Man, the god of death and spirit of fertility. On a warm afternoon in August 1985, one of the authors (DHJ) observed Ojibwa peoples at a weekend cultural celebration in Duluth, Minnesota using dried wings of Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianas) as hand-held fans to cool themselves after participating in native dances.

In his book on "Mother Earth Spirituality," McGaa (1990) described the four directions of the Sacred Hoop (the four quarters with the power of earth and sky and all related life) of Native Americans. In this description, the Snowy Owl represents the North and the north wind. The traditional Oglala Sioux Indians (from central North America) admired the Snowy Owl, and warriors who had excelled in combat were allowed to wear a cap of owl feathers to signify their bravery. An old-time society of the Sioux was called The Owl Lodge. This society believed that nature forces would favor those who wore owl feathers and, as a result, their vision would become increased. The owl is a good example of a creature that possesses special powers not found in other animals (McGaa 1990).

Some Native American nations in the U.S. have strong taboos against owls. For example, the Apaches view the owl as the most feared of all creatures (Opler 1965). In 1997, a spokesperson for the Apache told one of us (PMC) about the deep taboo against owls. Historically, Apaches shared the widespread Athabascan fears of owls as the embodied spirit of Apache dead. John Bourke, in his "Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre," related a famous story of how Apache scouts tracking Geronimo became terrified when one of the U.S. soldiers found and brought along a Great Horned Owl. The scouts told Bourke that it was a bird of ill omen and that they could not hope to capture the Chiricahua renegades if they took the bird with them. The soldier had to leave the owl behind (Bourke 1958).

In another example, the consortium of Yakama tribes in Washington State in the U.S. use the owl as a powerful totem. Such taboos or totems often guide where and how forests and natural resources are used and managed, even to this day and even with the proliferation of "scientific" forestry on Native American lands.

The Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) was called "Kotan Kor Kamuv" (God of the Village) by the Ainu, the native peoples of Hokkaido, Japan. The traditional Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and believed that all animals were divine; most admired were bear and the fish owl. The owls were held in particular esteem and, like the people, were associated with fish (salmonids) and lived in many of the same riverside locations. The Fish Owl Ceremony, which returned the spirit of fish owls to the god's world, was conducted until the 1930's (T. Tekenaka, pers. comm.).

Owls have played various roles in Russian traditions (M. Sova, pers. comm.; Dementev et al. 1951). For example, in Slavonic cultures, owls were believed to announce deaths and disasters. Russians and Ukrainians sometimes call an unfriendly person a "sych," which is also the Russian common name of the Little Owl (Domovoy Sych; Athene noctua). Traditionally, little owls have been disliked and feared by people believing that these birds announce deaths. However, Russian common names of other owls, such as the Scops Owl (Otus scops) -- Splyushka, resembling its call, or Zorka, meaning dawn --do not carry this negative connotation. In old Armenian tales, owls were associated with the devil. In Central Asia [2], feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), particularly from its breast and belly, were valued as precious amulets protecting children and livestock from evil spirits. Talons of the Northern Eagle Owl were said to ward off diseases and cure infertility in women.

[2] - In Russian literature, Central Asia is the region to the east of the Caspian Sea including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

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