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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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Marcot, B. G., P. M. Cocker, and D. H. Johnson. Owls in lore and culture. Presented at Owls 2000: the biology, conservation and cultural significance of owls. International conference. Canberra, Australia, 19-23 January 2000.

Note - this is an early version of more extensive book chapter:
Marcot, B. G., and D. H. Johnson. 2003. Owls in mythology and culture. Pp. 88-105 in: J. R. Duncan. "Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior and Survival" Key Porter Books, Ltd., Toronto, Canada. 319 pp.

ABSTRACT

Throughout human history, owls have variously symbolized dread, knowledge, wisdom, death, and religious beliefs in a spirit world. In most Western cultures, views of owls have changed drastically over time. Owls can serve simultaneously as indicators of scarce native habitats and of local cultural and religious beliefs. Understanding historical and current ways in which owls are viewed, and not imposing Western views on other cultures, is an important and necessary context for crafting owl conservation approaches palatable to local peoples.

INTRODUCTION

I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls. Job 30: 29

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. Psalms 104:20

Long before there were ornithologists and graduate students, keen observers in other tribes and bands roamed the forests and plains. In their search for resources they encountered winged denizens of the night and incorporated such spectral figures into their lore and culture.

The North American Cherokees call them uguuk, the Russians sovah, the Mexicans tecelote, the Ecuadorians huhua or lechusas, and aboriginal peoples of the Kaurna area of Australia winta. For centuries, indeed millennia, owls have played diverse and fascinating roles in a wide array of myths and legends. In this era of rapidly shrinking habitats for many owls of the world, a first step toward garnering concern for their conservation is to better understand of the role of owls in cultural stories and lore. In this paper, we hope to foster an appreciation for the breadth by which owls have been invited into the mythos of human societies. We offer this as a celebration of the diversity of response to owls by humankind the world over. The spectrum of human responses is both remarkable and wonderful. No other bird family has aroused more universal fascination and interest, and better can serve as a basis for conservation. For conservation must proceed from respect for diverse cultures and creeds, as much as for the organisms that share our sphere.

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