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Elements of Fantasy: Owls

Of all the bird species, owls have a unique talent for scaring the dickens out of people. They hide during the day and bellow haunting hoots throughout the night. Owls can have a panoramic view of the landscape by rotating their necks like possessed teens. They can stare down the fiercest creatures, which makes them down right creepy. Typically, man perceives owls to be evil creatures.

Owl Cave PaintingEvery culture recognized owls long before literature applied symbolisms to them. The earliest record of snowy owls is from from the Paleolithic era and appears in France inside a cave. Other ancient drawings are located along the Victoria River in northern Australia and the Columbia River in the State of Washington in the United States.

The Mayans use owls to represent the power to rule others. It was the symbol for a king who once presided over the region now called Guatemala. Coins in ancient Athens depict an owl, which was the symbol of Athena Pronaia their wise patron goddess. An owl protected the Acropolis. Romans believe owls bestowed evil omens. The Dakota Hidatsa Native Americans view burrowing owls as guardians for warriors who were brave. Burrowing owls also oversee the underworld, fire, and budding seeds.

One of the oldest written collections of books, the Bible, describes owls negatively. When Job reaches a low point, he states, “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.” Christian Gnostics award Lilith with the owl imagery because she refused unwanted sexual advances.

One reason owls are considered sinister is because they are rarely known for having a presence during daylight. Snowy Owl in Flight by rrobertsphotoAboriginal superstitions claim that if an owl lingers around a person for several days, the victim will have a dear person die. On the other hand, owls are associated with wisdom because of their nocturnal ability to stay up all night. The Hindu goddess, Laxmi, who represents wealth and prestige, rides on an owl’s back. While Indians consider a foolish person to be like a rock eagle owl or a brown fish owl, their mythology views a white owls that flies into a home as a sign of good fortune.

Legends regarding owls simultaneously developed all over the world. In Afghanistan, owls give iron to man, which results in the creation of fire. Japan mythology calls for figures of owls placed around the home as a way to rid the family of famine and diseases.

Algerians place an eagle owl’s eye in the right hand of a woman while she is asleep to make her spill the beans. If an owl hoots in alleyways near homes in Wales, a girl in the neighborhood is no longer a virgin. Women enter the forest in search of owls for help in finding a husband in Lorraine.

Scops Owl on Branch, Full Moon by Ohara KosonOwls are often associated with women. Aborigines believe the spirits of women enter owls when they die. French lore provides that a baby girl will be born to any pregnant woman who hears an owl hoot. Any childbirth in Germany accompanied by a nearby hooting owl causes the newborn to have a difficult life. On the flipside, if a pregnant woman in Wales is the only person to hear an owl hoot, then her child will be blessed.

Owl hoots in southern India provide information on many topics. One cry means death is on the horizon. Two cries means the next venture started will reap rewards. Anyone who hears three owl cries can expect a new woman to marry into the family. A fourth hoot is a sign of pending destruction. A fifth call by an owl results in a journey. Guests can be expected to arrive shortly when there are six cries. Seven hoots result in mental disturbances. Eight guarantees an unexpected death. Nine is a sure sign of good luck.

William Shakespeare referred to owls often. They must have kept him awake because he refers to them as clamorously hooting at spirits in A Midnight Summer Night’s Dream. In “Winter”, Shakespeare refers to the horned owl to describe a woman cheating on her husband.

Great Horned Owl by studebakerbirdsAmong the numerous Native American tribes, owls play a strong role in legends. Carving an image of a spedis owl on a rock protects man from water monsters. Apaches believe anyone who dreams of an owl is about to die. Cherokees call upon screeching owls to inflict their enemies with diseases. Tlingits hooted like owls during warfare to frighten and disorient their enemies. While the Sierras viewed the great horned owls as creatures that captured the dead and forced them into the underworld, the Mojaves believed man temporarily became an owl upon death, and later transformed into a beetle. The Crees whistle to boreal owls to hear messages from the spirits. If there is no answer by the boreal owl, then the person is about to die. The courageous and kind Newuks became great horned owls at their death while the evil tribesmen transformed into barn owls. Native American Kwakiutls avoid killing owls because they carry half of a man’s spirit and each time an owl dies, a man dies.

Owls are a positive sign within many cultures. In Britanny, an owl flying overhead while a man harvests his crops means he will have a high yield. In Chinese culture owls symbolize an overabundance of masculine, active energy. Figures of owls within a home deflect lightning. Germans used to carry the heart and right foot of an owl under their left armpits to prevent wild dogs from attacking them.

The clever general defending Syracuse in 310 BC used owls to attack his enemy warriors during battle. Native American Zuni tribeswomen put an owl feather beside their sleeping babies to protect their infants. Indonesians listen to the tunes of owls before traveling. One sound means it will be a safe trip, another tune means they should stay home.

Athena and Owl Terracotta VaseNumerous legends give owls evil powers. Owls in Arabia hold devilish spirits that kidnap sleeping children. If a man hears the brown hawk owl in Bengal, he is sure to die. In Bordeaux, people used to toss salt into their fireplaces to avoid curses carried by owls. Jamaicans would shout out, “Salt and pepper for your mammy,” to rid themselves of bad luck cast by owls. Irish tales instruct man to kill any owl that flies into his home to avoid having all his luck removed from his family. Owls inflict illnesses on children living in East Africa. In West Africa, owls cry out evil incantations to victims on behalf of wizards and witches.

Literature often references owls for the underworld and for spirits of the dead, which likely stems from Celtic folklore. Likewise, witches and Halloween are associated with owls. Legends in Madagascar tell of witches and owls dancing on graves in cemeteries. Arabian folklore calls for man to avenge unjustified deaths. Otherwise, an owl will sit at the dead man’s tombstone and hoot until the scales of justice are balanced. The Zulus in South Africa consider the owl to be a sorcerer.

Not only are owls associate with magic and evil, they carry supernatural qualities within their bodies. Homeopathic remedies in India include boiling a broth of owl eyeballs as a prescription for children suffering from seizures. Congealed owl meat gets rid of rheumatism and is also an aphrodisiac. Eating owl eyes provides night vision.

Saw-whet Owl by Alex ThomsonMuslims are not permitted to eat owls. Iranians consider the little owls to have bad luck. Similarly, owls represent blindness and uncleanliness in Hebrew stories.

Many tales explain why owls have such unusual characteristics. In Burma, during a fight between two birds, one was attacked and his face was flattened. Owls around the Artic Circle were created when a naughty girl of the Inuit Native tribe was magically transformed into a bird. She was so frightened, she flapped her wings wildly and slammed into the wall, thus flattening her face and beak.

The folklore surrounding the mysterious owls appears in fantasies. Owls play a strong role in fairy tales and children’s books. “The Owl and the Pussycat” presents owls as wise beings. The same sage imagery is depicted in Winnie the Pooh and The Sword in the Stone. Arthurian folklore portrays an owl on the shoulder of Merlin the magician. More recently, owls are the theme characters of young adult books. Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky presents owls as law-abiding victims and warrior rebels. Good vs. evil, all portrayed by owl characters. Caroline Pitcher wrote The Littlest Owl for all the younger kids who want to do big kid stuff.

Legend of the GuardiansWhether owls are depicted as evil spirits or wise scholars, it is their amazing skills that make them such contrary symbols. Owls see well in the dark. Their asymmetrical ears surrounded by feathers give them heightened hearing. Strong talons can crush their prey with one, quick snap. The tips of their beaks slice their meat. Their plumage acts as a camouflage, making it difficult to see them during the daytime. Owls inspire fantasy lore about superhuman talents and fighting skills. And now we hope they inspire you as well.

Title image by Ohara Koson.

Article was originally posted on June 8, 2012.

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10 Comments

  1. Larik says:

    Very interesting article. I didn’t know much about that. In the book I’m writing, I mentioned a scene where one of the characters was “almost scared out of his skin by the hooting of an owl,” so this is a very pleasant coincidence. Owls sure are mysterious creatures to inspire such diverse myths and lore.

    • Janie Bill says:

      Apparently, if an owl makes an appearance at your home, there will be a death. Eight owls live in my backyard. Perhaps the death is a general, across the globe, occurrence. Their ability to see at night and rotate their head 180 degrees gives the impression they are wise and all-knowing. Too bad laws prohibit owning them as household pets.

  2. ediFanoB says:

    The owl is one of my favorite animals.
    Thank you for an interesting and informative article.

  3. Tim Ward says:

    I love that second picture. Owls are the coolest bird. I sometimes see them during the day, as I work the front desk with a great view of trees. Magnificent birds. Thanks for the info. This article is full of story fodder.

  4. Diana Alsobrook says:

    Great article! I’ve been fascinated by owls ever since I watched Twin Peaks. “The owls are not what they seem!”

  5. Ann Marie says:

    I was compelled to look up the significance of owls, after getting up early this morning and hearing an owl hooting from the woods during a beautiful full moon. I also found that Great Horned owls will hoot during a full moon, but this is also the time of year when Boreal owls will call for mates. What ever kind of owl I heard, I can’t think of a better way to start the day than being reminded of the beautiful world we live in!

  6. John says:

    Nice article.
    I read a fictional book , along the same lines as Watership Down, about owls.
    More specifically it was about either an Eagle Owl or Snowy Owl killing all the owls when expanding it’s territory. A smart owl gathers the rest and hatches a plan for the Eagle Owl and Snowy owl to meet in battle.
    For the life of me, i cannot remember the name of the book.
    I do know it’s NOT The Guardians books and i think it was written by Richard Adams although can’t be 100% on that.

  7. Richard Marpole says:

    Great article! I’m definitely mining it for material for the ow-girl character in my novel.
    Thanks for writing this.

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