The Spirit Chasers
The owl, night's herald. William Shakespeare 1564-1616 Venus and Adonis , l. 531
In many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death; in other cultures, owls represent supportive spirit helpers and allow humans (often shamans) to connect with or utilize their supernatural powers. Among some native groups in the Pacific Northwest of USA, owls served to bring shamans in contact with the dead, provided power for seeing at night, or gave power that enabled a shaman to find lost objects (Ray 1939 and Cline 1938, as cited in Keyser et al. 1998).
As with the owls of the ancient Roman statesman Pliny the Elder, many forest owls have played key roles as signalers of death. The mountain tribes of Myanmar (Burma) know the plaintive song of the Mountain Scops Owl (Otus spilocephalus) in such legends (Smythies 1953, Voous 1988). In one Navajo myth, after death the soul assumes the form of an owl (Saunders 1995).
In India, the Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica), Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), and Brown Fish Owl (B. zeylonensis) are found in dense riparian forests of Ficus near streams and ponds, sites often considered as sacred groves, or in cemeteries that bear the last of the largest trees with cavities and hollows in an area (Marcot 1995; B. Marcot, pers. obs.). Old-forest owls, particularly the Forest Eagle-owl, play major roles in many Nepali and Hindu legends. As heard calling at night from cemeteries and sacred groves, such owls are thought to have captured the spirit of a person departed from this world. In one sense, then, many of these owl species can serve as indicators of the religious value of a forest (Marcot 1995); conserving the religious site equally conserves key roost or nest sites.
Members of the animistic Garo Hills Tribe of Meghalaya, northeast India, call owls dopo or petcha. Along with nightjars, they also refer to owls as doang, which means birds that are believed to call out at night when a person is going to die; its cry denotes the death of a person (Nengminza 1996; B. Marcot, pers. obs.).
The aboriginal peoples of North Queensland, Australia, view owls in a similar way. In January 2000, a female aboriginal elder relayed that owls are special to her people. A little apologetically, she added that owls are also considered an ill omen, signifying a death in the family - but only if the owl hung around the home site for several days (R. Loyn, pers. comm.).
Throughout India, owls are construed as bad omens, messengers of ill luck, or servants of the dead. In general, owls often have been treated badly both in daily life and even in Indian literature. For example, in India it is very common to call a foolish person "an owl." But in Indian mythology the owl has been treated at times reverently and given some place of prestige. For instance, Laxmi, the Hindu goddess of money and wealth, rides on an owl. Even in present times, some people of India, particularly Bengali, believe that if a white owl enters a home it is treated as a good omen by relating it to the possible flow of wealth or money into that home (A. Saxena, pers. comm.; also see Box 1).
In India the Forest Eagle-owl is known to take peafowl, junglefowl, hares, jackals, and even young barking deer (Ali 1987). Ali noted that its cry is a low, deep, and far-sounding moaning hoot and a blood-curdling shriek as of a woman in grief, earning this creature the name of "Devil Bird." The call of the Ceylon Forest Eagle-owl subspecies (Bubo nipalensis blighi) consists of "shrieks such as of a woman being strangled" but that "the dreadful shrieks and strangulating noises are merely its 'mating love-song,' which would also account for their rare and periodic occurrence" (Ali and Ripley 1987). In related accounts, Ali described its noises as "a variety of weird, eerie shrieks and chuckles" and a scream "like that of a demented person casting himself over a precipice." Holmgren (1988) also noted that in history, eagle-owls have been variously called Bird of Evil Omen, Death Owl, Ghost Owl, Mystery Owl, Knows-All Owl, and even Rat Owl.
In India, one of us (BGM) was told (see Appendix 1) that the Devil Bird or Devil Owl can be found in graveyards and big dead trees - evidence, albeit anecdotal rather than scientific - that this owl species associates with old forests and big old trees -- and death. Graveyards often contain the last old growth trees, and in India, the Muslims, especially, revere everything in a cemetery including the vegetation. Thus, the eerie cries of the Devil Owl are heard mostly in cemeteries, portending death. And here converge myth, culture, and biology to a consistent whole, as they should for successful conservation of cultures, people, and wildlife.
In China, owlets have been believed to pluck out their mothers' eyes (Saunders 1995). Saunders (1995:112) also noted that "The owl's night excursions, staring eyes and strange call have led to a wide-spread association with occult powers. The bird's superb night vision may underlie its connection with prophecy, and the reputation for being all-seeing could arise from its ability to turn its head through almost 180 degrees." In a similar vein, on Andros Island, Bahamas, an historically extinct species of flightless owl, Tyto pollens, scientifically known only from subfossils, stood one meter tall and may have been the source of old local legends of "chickcharnies" or aggressive leprachaun-like imps that wreak havoc, have three toes, and can turn their heads all the way around (Marcot 1995). This owl likely inhabited the dense stands of old-growth Caribbean pine (Pinus caribbeanensis), so much of which had been clearcut on Andros during the latter 20th century by American companies.
In ancient Egypt, India, China, Japan, and Central and North America, owls were the bird of death. In other cultures and religions, however, such as ancient Greece, they bore the role of supernatural protector. Some Native Americans, for instance, wore owl feathers as magic talismans (Saunders 1995).
Along the northwest coast of Alaska, the Yup'ik peoples made masks for a final winter ceremony called the Agayuyaraq ("way, or process, of requesting"), also referred to as Kelek ("Inviting-in Feast") or the Masquerade (Fienup-Riordan 1996). This complex ceremony involved singing songs of supplication to the animals' yuit ("their persons"), accompanied by the performance of masked dances, under the direction of the shaman. In preparation for the ceremony, the shaman directed the construction of the masks, through which the spirits revealed themselves as simultaneously dangerous and helpful. The helping spirits often took the form of an owl. The majority of masks contained feathers from snowy owls. Carvers strove to represent the helping spirits or animal yuit they had encountered in a vision, dream, or experience. In all cases, the wearer was infused with the spirit of the creature represented. Together with other events, the ceremony embodied a cyclical view of the universe whereby right action in the past and present reproduced abundance in the future.
On Java and Borneo, the Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) has survived thanks in part to the fact that it is viewed in legends there with reverence or as an ill omen (Voous 1988). These owls are taken in China and Korea for medicinal use and many have been lost annually for such purposes (Austin 1948, Gore and Won 1971, Voous 1988).
Shakespeare wrote of "The owl, night's herald" (Venus and Adonis, 1593, Line 531) and recognized the role that owls have as the "fatal bellmen" (Macbeth, 1605-1606, Act II, Scene ii, Line 4) of that final deepest sleep. In this way, owls have been seen as harbingers of eschatology or the ultimate fate of humans.
Owls as Environmental Indicators
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
The moping owl does to the moon complain.
Thomas Gray 1716-1771. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard , 1st. 3
In China, owls have been associated with thunder and the summer solstice (Saunders 1995). Elsewhere, owls associated with old forests have been seen more recently by modern natural resource management agencies as prognosticators of the health and fate of such environments. These owls have been called management indicator species by agencies such as USDA Forest Service, who has identified the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) as such an indicator of old-growth conifer forests of northwestern United States.
But the Spotted Owl has other cousins that have been, or can be, used to indicate the health of the vanishing ancient forests of the world. For example, in the greater Indian subcontinent ranges the Brown Wood Owl, Strix leptogrammica, which likewise inhabits mostly old and lesser disturbed forests of sal (Shoria robusta). In the Himalayas resides the Bay Owl (Phodilus badius), a rare denizen and indicator of dense evergreen submontane forests of cedar and other conifers. In the Russian Far East, the endangered Blakiston's Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) also serves this function, found thinly scattered only in the increasingly rare dense riparian forests of old fir, larch, pine, and hardwoods in southern Siberian Ussuriland. Throughout the world, some 82 owl species are closely associated with old forests (Marcot 1995), most awaiting recognition as useful indicators of old-forest conditions.
Toward a Tolerant Conservation
Owl mythologies have come virtually full circle in Europe and America. From the worst bird in the world the owl has become almost the most popular. And old mythologies actually make owl conservation easier. The old bad news has become a way of making owls appealing for a contemporary audience.
This transformations in the owl's image is yet to be fully researched, but we can offer some initial comparisons. Firstly, understanding European and American owl myths may help us better understand or interpret contemporary African and Asian attitudes. It also may help us understand owl taboos amongst today's Native Americans and Canadians, tribal South Americans, and other First Nations.
Secondly, if owl mythologies have evolved so dramatically in the West, then perhaps they offer an insight into the way owl mythologies could eventually metamorphose in other parts of the world, such as in Africa and Asia.
Thirdly, by understanding the patterns of owl mythology in modern day Africa and possibly South America and Asia, we might be able to better understand better our own cultural past.
Overall, the contemporary conservation community has not grasped the deeply negative image of owls in less developed parts of the world. In fact, conservationists in general tend to think of birds or other wildlife mostly or only in terms of their own Western ecological-science-based and conservation-oriented system. By failing to appreciate other patterns of belief about birds they are actually putting themselves at a disadvantage. In the case of the owl, this is especially significant, because the overwhelming nature of owl beliefs is that the beast is evil. Even in Western cultures, until the 1950s owls were routinely nailed to barn doors in France and U.K. to ward off lightening and the evil eye. There is even evidence to suggest that these practices continue today in parts of rural Britain.
In this brief review, we have but highlighted a few of the many roles of owls in myth and culture. We encourage readers to pursue additional sources, particularly Cenzato and Samtopitro (1990), Holmgren (1988), Ingersoll (1958), Medlin (1967), and Weinstein (1989).
It is important not just to understand historical views of owls in myth and culture, but also how such views have changed over time to the present and travelled geographically as human cultures have moved. A major problem with bird folklore is that some texts repeat the same ideas without any critical analysis of the truth of what they say. Most of these ideas about owls probably refer to the early modern period and were almost certainly gathered in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. But now many of them have completely died out, depending on the cultural development of the people in question. For example, Batchelor's (1901) book, "The Ainu and Their Folklore," analyzes this northern Japanese community's beliefs about animals, especially owls, at the end of the 19th century. These old cultural ideas sometimes are still retailed as if they were living traditions, when, in fact, modern Ainu may consider their ancestors owl beliefs as no more than old wives' tales, a part of their own colourful but quaint past. We should therefore attempt to weed out the living from the archaic.
However in Africa deep taboos about owls are still powerful and living traditions. In fact, in West Africa the pattern of owl beliefs probably reflects European attitudes up until the Medieval age.
By incorporating owls once again into our modern cultures, and by understanding the roles they have played in diverse societies throughout the world and do play in ecosystems, we can admit and proffer their legitimacy as denizens of those environments we otherwise seek to exploit. Owls have served as marvellous and fantastic symbols of recreation, aesthetics, art, science, lore, political power, ethics, and even death. In the case of owls, the deep fears and anxieties they generated and the prophetic status they once held, and still hold in some cultures, present environmentalists with a handle with which to engage the interest and sympathies of a wider audience. By inviting owls into a full cultural circle, we can build a more tolerant understanding of all societies and ages, and incorporate wildlife conservation into the broader tapestry of human endeavors.
Our thanks to those who searched for or helped us trace stories of owl lore: Ajai Saxena, V.B. Sawarkar, and Baban, India; Eric Hansen, United States; and Max Sova, Russia, Armenia, and Central Asia.