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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
Page 2 of 10


I see a likeness between the old, animist forest, where one could not be sure whether a screech owl's call came from a bird or an Omah[1], and the evolutionary forest, with its unclear distinctions between tree and fungus, flower and fir cone. The tree-fungus relationship is as mysterious in its origins and implications as the owl-Omah one. Both belong to a world that goes deeper than appearances, where a buried interconnectedness of phenomena renders behavior ambiguous, where one cannot walk a straight line.
Wallace 1983:83

Owls have always been part of the root metaphors of how humans relate to the land. One of the earliest human drawings dating back to the early Paleolithic period was of a family of Snowy Owls (Nyctea scandiaca) painted on a cave wall in France (Armstrong 1958). Rock paintings or petroglyphs of owls have been found in other disparate locations including the Victoria River region of northern Australia (Flood 1997) and the lower Columbia River area of Washington state, USA (Keyser et al. 1998). Owls played roles in the ancient Mayan cultures of Mesoamerica. A carved bas-relief of the ancient Mayan Ruler 3 of Dos Pilas, in what is now Guatemala, following the death of Ruler 2 in 726 C.E., is shown adorned with a screech owl, apparently a symbol of ruling power or the resurrection of government.

Owls also are very much a part of modern culture, in the sky as well as on the land. In the constellation Ursa Major, at a most dim magnitude of 11.20, is an irregular planetary nebula designated by astronomers as the Owl Nebula (more formally called M97 or NGC3587). In a more terrestrial venue, a query of the U.S. Geological Survey database on place names revealed 576 features in the United States in some way named "owl," such as Owlshead Canyon, Owl Mine, Owl Creek, and Owl Hollow. Records of the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names lists 88 current and 17 additional historic places in some way named "owl." Doubtless, many other countries have similar designations.

Etymologically, the word "owl" goes back to the Middle English word "oule," which may derive from the Old English "ille," which is cognate with the Low German "ule," in turn going back to the German "eule." The ultimate root of the modern word "owl" was presumed by Lockwood (1993:112) to be a proto-Germanic word "uwwalo" or possibly "uwwilo."

Another derivation of "owl" is the Icelandic "ugla," which is cognate with "uggligr," which gave rise to the Scandinavian "ugly," which led to the Middle English "ugly" and the Modern English word "ugly." The Icelandic "uggligr" does not mean "ugly" in modern connotations (that is, unpleasant to behold), but rather it means "fearful or dreadful." This is precisely the connotation of owl symbols and totems in many myths and legends. Thus, the very names that we use often speak of a deep history of traditional viewpoints and cultural perspectives.

Further, in Hindi, owl is "ul" (similar to the German "eule" or Low German "ule") or "ulu" if referring to one of the large owls (the Hindi or Urdu term for smaller owls is "coscoot"). The ancient Roman "bubo," the ancient Greek "buas," the modern Hindi "ulu," and the modern Hebrew "o-ah" (Holmgren 1988) are obvious onomatopoeias, as is the modern Nepali "huhu."

An awareness and understanding of the deep, complex perceptions of owls in the past may help support efforts to protect those species today. For example, the ancient cultural importance of owls in Europe helps modern conservationists there. The same is true in America. The blend of traditions carried to the U.S. by white immigrants and black slaves from West Africa (Ingersoll 1958) means that North American owl species have a strong cultural profile that may aid conservation measures. Ingersoll (1958) traced the bird beliefs amongst African-American slave and ex-slave communities. Such beliefs seeped into the dominant European-American culture just in the way that African rhythms were given to the world through blues and jazz music of black North America. Thus, current U.S. folklore about owls is an eclectic blend of European and African traditions, and Native American and Asian as well.

This can be extended to an environmental principle for the West (meaning all areas occupied by those of European descent, and also by mixed-race societies such as South Africa, where a highly developed conservation tradition exists.). Any animal or flower with a strong cultural profile, no matter how negative that cultural perception may once have been (such as with bats, wolves, sharks, and owls) is at a major advantage, for conservation, over an animal with no cultural profile whatsoever (such some rodents and sparrows). The advantage is that they are rooted and recognized in the social consciousness. In the case of owls, the deep fears and anxieties they generated and the prophetic status they once held (and still hold) present environmentalists with a handle with which to engage the interest and sympathies of a wider audience. But the critical element in these situations is the fact that most Western cultures no longer perceive owls as omens of evil, or retain only the dimmest vestiges of these old beliefs.

A good analogy would be our celebration of witches and the like at Halloween. We can enjoy the witches' Sabbath today precisely because we no longer believe in demonic power or demonic possession. It's been culturally degraded to the status of a parody. In a sense we mock our former frailties when we dress up as witches and ghouls. But we could never have done that without being detached from the intrinsic and original meaning of the event. In the 17th century, witches and Halloween were literally deadly serious. Now they're entertainment.

However for some or even many Africans, Native North Americans, Asians, and South Americans, these perceptions of owls are living traditions with deep and powerful roots. For example, in Africa, owls are still genuinely believed to be evil. Heimo Mikkola's surveys of attitudes towards owls in Malawi revealed that owls were regarded as bad birds by a very high percentage (> 80 percent) of the people surveyed (Enriquez and Mikkola 1997, MIkkola 1997a,b). One of us (MC) found in West Africa that most people do not like owls and regard them as evil. The standard pigeon English name for owl in West Africa is "witchbird" (Cocker 2000). Rather than garnering support for endangered species such as the Congo Bay Owl (Phodilus prigoginei), the ancient African mythic traditions relating to owls may present a barrier to their conservation. A classic parallel case is the Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) of Madagascar where the beast, down to a last few dozen, has been ruthlessly persecuted because of its cultural profile as a witch-creature. The challenge for conservationists is to turn the barrier to an advantage by understanding the cultural moors and helping to craft conservation actions taking these into account.

Conservationists should understand the role a bird like an owl may play in some societies. Conservation policies for a Red Data species, such as the Congo Bay Owl, should not be formulated without understanding local attitudes and any uses of that particular species. Conservationists too often inculcate their own positive view of the animal in question, but fail to change local cultural attitudes, that is, to replace deep fear with admiration and respect. The environmental community cannot tackle owl conservation without understanding the cultural profiles which most owl species have had foist upon them, some positive, and many negative.

[1] - In their stories, the Klamath Mountain Indians of northwestern California, USA, referred to "Bigfoot", an elusive bipedal hominid supposedly inhabiting the deep forests, as Omah.

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