It was just before Christmas, when I was driving back from Hawkshead in the gathering dusk, that I noticed a shadowy object sitting in the middle of the road. I drew the car to a stop and my headlights captured a large, tawny coloured owl resting, nonchalantly, on the centre line of the darkening, windy country lane. Thinking the bird hurt, I went to get out of the car, but as I did so, the owl turned its head and fixed me with its glowing yellow stare; rose up onto its feet; stretched its wings almost the width of my car; and launched itself gracefully and silently into the trees above.
I sat there for quite a while, mesmerised by what I had seen. What an amazing sight to behold. How many people have ever been lucky enough to experience such an event?
Was it really lucky, though? I certainly believed that’s what an encounter with an owl represented, but looking back at the things that have gone wrong since that momentous event, I am not so sure. And, to be honest, if I hadn’t snapped out of my trance when I did and carried on my journey, I doubt I would be here now to tell this tale. For, dear reader, not everyone takes heed of what is on or in the road as they drive.
Owls. Such majestic, ghostlike, formidable, eerie, breath-taking creatures, but do they actually bring us luck when we cross paths with them or, are they really omens of things to come? Do we believe the wise old owl interpretation, which allows our young girls to be watched over by Brown Owl, Tawny Owl and Snowy Owl? Or, should we pay more attention to the mythology and folklore surrounding the owl, which points to more of a portentous meaning to these stunning birds?
Owls. Owners of the night; stalkers of the dusk and the dawn; and sometimes thieves of the daylight. It isn’t difficult to see where their dark and sinister reputation comes from. For, whilst we humans stumble blindly through the darkness, the owl sweeps silently through the air; all-seeing of what is on earth and in the heavens. Our innate fear of the dark and the feeling of impotence it evokes, leads us to hold both in awe and in fear, any creature without such disabilities.
Like vampires; like werewolves; like ghosts, owls are, in essence, creatures of the night. To see an owl sweep passed you in the darkness, is to shudder at the phantom or the vampire that stalks you; to hear a hoot or a screech as you walk alone along that path, is to evoke in you the same cold dread that the howl of the werewolf would bring.
So, where does this duality come from? How is it, that one creature can evoke two very different beliefs about its symbolism? I guess it boils down to what happened or took place around the time an owl was seen or heard. After all, isn’t this how all legends and folklore begin and are kept alive; the constant retelling handed down through generations?
In Ancient Greece, the owl was seen as good fortune and it may be here that the legend of the ‘wise’ owl was borne. For, it was here, in Athens, amongst the nesting Little Owls in the Acropolis, that Athena, goddess of wisdom, found her new mascot; crow having been banished for his pranks. The Greeks believed that the owl was all seeing and all knowing; that the owl could see what others couldn’t, which, in essence, is true wisdom. Mythology has it that the owl revealed unseen truths to Athena, thus enabling her to always speak the whole truth, rather than half-truths.
The owl was seen as a protector by the Ancient Greeks. It accompanied armies to war, to provide inspiration, and it was believed that if the owl flew over the Greek soldiers before battle, then they would be victorious. The owl also kept a watchful eye on Greek trade and commerce, being the image on the reverse side of the coin bearing Athena’s portrait.
The owl, according to Roman mythology, however, held a whole different meaning. Roman armies saw the owl as a sign of impending disaster and defeat and the hoot of an owl was said to have presaged imminent death, with those of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius and Agrippa, being the more well known.
The Romans believed that by nailing an owl to the door of a house, it would avert the evil it had caused there earlier. Travellers believed that to dream of an owl, meant they would be robbed or shipwrecked on their journey. It was also a Roman superstition that witches transformed into owls and sucked the blood of babies.
Some of these beliefs carried into English folklore, in some form or other. For the English, though, it was the Barn Owl that had the most sinister reputation. This fear was borne due to the Barn Owl being a bird of darkness and darkness being associated with death. After all, medically speaking, most deaths do, apparently, occur at night.
The English believed that the screech of an owl, flying passed the window of a sick person, meant imminent death for that soul. They also used the screeching as a forecast for cold weather or an approaching storm. Coincidentally, if the screeching was heard during bad weather, then a change was due.
The nailing of owls to doors in English folklore, tended to be to barn doors, where livestock was kept, as it was believed to ward off evil spirits and lightning strikes, which would cause fire and, hence, burn down the barn.
The link to magic lay in the use of owl medicine. A raw owl egg was said to cure alcoholism and, if given to a child, protected it from drunkenness. Eggs, cooked to ashes, were used in potions to improve eyesight, while owl broth was given to children to cure Whooping cough.
In Europe, owls were see as harbingers of bad tidings and doom and were symbols for death and destruction. An Appalachian mountain legend tells that, the hoot of an owl heard at midnight, signified that death was coming. Should a person see an owl circling during the day, then bad news would befall someone nearby. Some areas also believed that owls flew down on Samhain night to eat the souls of the dead.
Most Native American tribes saw the owl as a very bad omen. The Hopi had the Burrowing Owl as their god of the dead and hence the protector of the underworld and all things that grew in the earth, which, in a way, contradicts the bad omen philosophy. The Cherokee shamans valued the Screech Owl, believing it could bring on sickness and punishment. The Apache believed that dreaming of an owl signified approaching death, while the Cree believed that the whistle of the Boreal Owl was a summons from the spirits. If a person answered, but received no reply, then that person would soon die.
As the eighteenth century wore on and zoological studies demystified owls, the superstitions started to die out and, as the twentieth century came into being, people were more inclined to see the owl as a symbol of wisdom again, just as the Ancient Greeks had.
You have to wonder, though, dear reader, for, as I always say, these stories have to start somewhere. So, I ask you to think back, as I have, to a time when you have encountered an owl. Think how awed you felt; how touched; and how lucky you thought you were, to have such a majestic creature grant you a moment of its time. Then, dear reader, think hard about the events that happened in the days, weeks, or even months that followed.
Was your encounter wise and foretelling of good fortune? Or, did the wide staring eyes, piercing cry and demonic horned tufts of feathers on its head, signify an omen of bad luck; of illness; or maybe even of death?
Whatever the mystical encounter meant for you, take heed. For, as you lie in bed at night and listen to the screech of an owl, be mindful of Shakespeare’s line, in the days preceding Caesar’s death:
‘And yesterday the bird of night did sit even at noon-day upon the market place, hooting and shrieking.’
And, as you contemplate the meaning of such a call, be cognisant of this - the owl is said to be the only creature that can live with ghosts and so, think on, for the sound of an owl nearby could signify it’s nesting in a neighbouring house.
So, dear reader, look around for that old abandoned house that no one will go near, or, go and check your own attic and roof because, know one thing - should you discover that most awe inspiring of creatures in residence; rest assured that house is a haunted one.
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.