Great Horned Owl
Commonly found in many countries the owl
throughout the ages has attracted the fascination and awe of many cults and cultures, from them many different
and contradictory beliefs have survived to the present day.
The owl has had many associations with witchcraft, medicine, the weather,
birth and even death, as such many superstitions
and fears about the owl remain. In
the past it was thought to have been both wise yet foolish, feared but venerated
and despised while being admired.
The owls is a nocturnal predatory bird distinguished by a large flat face, eyes surrounded by stiff-feathered disks, a short hooked beak, feathered legs with sharp talons, and soft plumage that facilitates soundless flight. The large eyes of the owl are encased in a capsule of bone called the “sclerotic ring” which directs the eyes forward allowing little movement. To look sideways the owl must turn its entire head, a relatively long and flexible neck permits the head to rotate through 270 degrees. As few owls hunt their prey in full daylight, their hearing is particularly important. Many owls have asymmetrical skulls with the ear openings at different levels; this enables the bird to pin-point any sound made by a prey animal.
The nesting habits of owls are highly variable. Some nest in holes in trees or among rocks while others nest in large trees, still others such as burrowing owl nests on the ground. Owls feed entirely on living animals, the size of the prey being proportional to the size of the owl, these can any be anything from insects to mammals as large as hares, a few feed primarily on fish. The indigestible portions of their food such as bones, hair and feathers are compressed and regurgitated as compact pellets, an analysis of these pellets often reveals their prey species. All owls lay pure white eggs.
The owl is comprised of two distinct families of the order “Strigiformes”. The typical owl makes up the family called “Strigidae” of which there are about 120 species, while the “Barn Owl” makes up the family called “Tytonidae” comprised of some 10 species, both families can be found worldwide. Some of the more common verities of owls are the “Tawny Owl” (Strix aluco), a brown-flecked species of Europe and the Middle East, the “Little Owl” (Athene noctua) is the Greek symbol of wisdom and the bird most associated with Athena, it can be found widely in many countries for it’s habitat is commonly near to human homes.
The largest of the owls are the “Eagle Owls” (Bubo bubo) of Eurasia and the powerful (Ninox strenua) of Australia; both measure up to 0.75-m/2.25 ft long. The “Snowy Owl” (Nyctea scandiaca) lives in the Arctic, while the worldwide “Barn Owl” (Tyto alba) formerly common in Britain but diminished by pesticides and loss of habitat, can now be found more frequently in Malaysia where it is used for rat control. The “Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) of North America, South America and Eurasia is a streaked tawny coloured owl about 38 cm/15 inches in length, it hunts at dawn and dusk and roosts mainly on the ground. The “Great Horned Owl” (Bubo virginianus) of North and South America measures 56 cm/22 inches; it has long ear tufts and lives in forests, grasslands and deserts.
Sadly some species of owl are in danger of extinction. The island species such as the New Zealand “Laughing Owl” and the Madagascan “Grass Owl” are most at risk.
In ancient Greek
mythology the owl was the preferred bird of Athena,
daughter of Zeus, the Goddess of
Wisdom and War (see Athena - Gods
and Goddesses (Greek Mythology).
Her preferred species was the
Little Owl, which often accompanied her perched on her shoulder. The owl had the ability to light up Athena’s blind side
revealing to her unseen truths and thus expanding her natural wisdom.
Due to its association with the Goddess, the owl gained protected status
in Athens and inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers.
As the symbol of Athena the owl became thought of as a protector, its
symbolism was adopted by Greek armies on their way to war as inspiration for
their daily lives. If before a
battle an owl flew over the army, it was taken as a good omen that victory was
immanent. The owl was also given
prominence in society and commerce being depicted on the reverse side of their
silver drachma coins:
Also from Greek mythology is the story of Demeter, the Goddess of Corn, Grain and the Harvest. As the story goes, her daughter Persephone was abducted against her will by Hades, the God of the Underworld to be his wife. In her anger at the loss of her daughter, Demeter laid a curse on the world causing all the plants and crops to wither and die, the world soon became a desolate place resulting in wide-spread famine. Seeing this Zeus became alarmed and sought Persephone's return. He agreed with Hades that Persephone could be returned to her mother provided she ate nothing while in the Underworld. Not wanting to lose his new bride, Hades deviously offered Persephone a pomegranate as a departing gift.
On her way home Persephone became curious by the seeds inside the pomegranate and tasted one, however she was seen to do so by Ascalpus who reported it back to Hades. By tasting the seed Persephone became eternally bound to Hades, for he decreed that she should spend four months of each year as his wife in the Underworld. During these months Demeter grieves her daughters absence and withdraws her gifts from the world, thus creating winter. On her return in the spring, Demeter is overjoyed and once again makes the earth bloom and bear fruit.
This could have been a fitting end to
the story but I’m afraid it is not, for all things including Gods and
Goddesses have light and dark, positive and negative aspects. Demeter in revenge for the time her daughter must spend in
the underworld, sought out Ascalpus
‘the tell tale’ and turned him into an Owl for his trouble.
Not just any old owl mind, but a sluggish ‘Screech Owl’ the most
loathsome of the owl species.
From Celtic mythology
we have the story of Blodeuwedd. Blodeuwedd
was a beautiful goddess created out of flowers by Gwydion to wed his son Lleu.
Lleu on seeing her immediately fell in love.
However Blodeuwedd had no heart for Lleu and instead fell in love with
Goronw Pebyr. Not wanting to marry
Lleu, she and Goronw conspired to kill him.
But Lleu had been made invincible by the gods and to protect him from
death could only be killed in a very special way.
Early one evening Blodeuwedd seduced Lleu into revealing his secret, and
being in love he told her: “he
could only be killed if it were twilight, if he was wrapped in a fish net, had
one foot on a cauldron and the other on a goat, and if the weapon used had been
forged during sacred hours when such work was forbidden”.
Hearing this Goronw snuck away and forged such a weapon, returning just before twilight. Blodeuwedd then asked Lleu to demonstrate how improbable such a position was to achieve by chance, and when he did Goronw leapt out from the shadows and struck him down. As the myth would have it, Llew didn’t die but was transformed into an eagle and eventually restored to human form, after which he in turn killed Goronwy. Blodeuwedd because of her treachery was transformed into an owl by Gwydion, and forever haunts the night in loneliness and sorrow shunned by all other birds.
I would like to say a special thanks to ‘Deane
P. Lewis’ for generously allowing me to feature the following information from
his website at - http://www.owlpages.com/mythology/other.html
Hamites held the Owl to be sacred.
The Owl gave Man flint and iron to
make fire - in exchange, Man gave the Owl his feathers.
Central: The Owl is the familiar of wizards to the Bantu.
Swahili believe the Owl brings illness to children.
Southern: Zulus know the Owl as the sorcerers' bird.
messenger of wizards and witches, the Owl's cry presages evil.
Place the right eye of an Eagle Owl
in the hand of a sleeping woman and she will tell all.
The Owl is a bird of ill omen, the
embodiment of evil spirits that carries off children at night.
According to an ancient Arabic treatise, from each female Owl supposedly
came two eggs, one held the power to cause hair fall out and one held the power
to restore it.
Circle: A little girl was turned into a bird with a long beak by
magic, but was so frightened she flapped about madly and flew into a wall,
flattening her face and beak. So the Owl was created.
Aborigines believe bats represent
the souls of men and Owls the souls of women. Owls
are therefore sacred, because your sister is an Owl - and the Owl is your
One of their evil gods wore a
Screech Owl on his head.
amulets protected women during childbirth.
Legend has it that a priest offered the
Owl his church tower to live in if the bird would get rid of the rats and mice
that plagued his church.
Bordeaux: Throw salt in the fire to avoid the Owl's curse.
The Supreme Being turned his wife
into an Owl after she told secrets to mortals.
Owl seen on the way to the harvest is the sign of a good yield.
a quarrel among the birds, the Owl was jumped upon and so his face was
evil to name, the Owl is known only as "the bird that makes you
The city was captured by Agathocles
of Syracuse (Southern Italy) in 310 BC. Afterward, he released Owls over his troops and they settled
on their shields and helmets, signifying victory in battle.
The Owl was a sign of the
The Owl is associated with
lightning (because it brightens the night) and with the drum (because it breakes
the silence). Placing Owl effigies
in each corner of the home protect it against lightning. The
Owl is a symbol of Too much Yang (positive, masculine, bright, active energy).
man condemned to death was taken to a table on which an Owl was painted, and
then expected to take his own life.
the Etruscans of Ancient Italy the Owl was an attribute of the god of darkness.
When a pregnant woman hears an Owl
it is an omen that her child will be a girl.
an Owl hoots as a child is born, the infant will have an unhappy life.
The Inuit see the Owl as a source
of guidance and help.
Owls feature in old war chants.
Venerated the Owl for its beautiful
eyes and head.
Seizures in children could be
treated with a broth made from Owl eyes. Rheumatism pain was treated with a gel made from Owl meat. Owl
meat could also be eaten as a natural aphrodisiac. In
northern India, if one ate the eyes of an Owl, they would be able to see in the
dark. In southern India, the cries
of an Owl were interpreted by number: One
hoot was an omen of impending death; two meant success in anything that would be
started soon after; three represented a woman being married into the family;
four indicated a disturbance; five denoted coming travel; six meant guests were
on the way; seven was a sign of mental distress; eight foretold sudden death;
and nine symbolized good fortune. In
parts of the Indian sub-continent people believed that the Owl was married to
Around Manado, on the isle of
Sulawesi, People consider Owls very wise. They
call them Burung Manguni. Every
time someone wants to travel, they listen to the owls. The owls make two different sounds; the first means it is safe
to go, and the second means it's better to stay at home. The
Minahasa, people around Manado, take those warnings very seriously. They
stay at home when Manguni says so. Information
thanks to Alex van Poppel .
Farsi the Little Owl (Athene Noctua) is called "Joghde-kochek".
It is said that this bird brings
bad luck. In Islam, it's forbidden (Haram) to eat.
An Owl that enters the house must
be killed at once, for if it flies away it will take the luck of the house with
Hebrew lore the Owl represents blindness and desolation and is unclean.
ward off the Owl's bad luck, cry "Salt and pepper for your mammy".
Among the Ainu people the Eagle Owl
is revered as a messenger of the gods or a divine ancestor. They
would drink a toast to the Eagle Owl before a hunting expedition. The
Screech Owl warns against danger. Though
they think the Barn Owl and Horned Owl are demonic.
When Christian soldiers entered his
temple, the local pagan god flew away as an Owl.
Spinsters go to the woods and call
to the Owl to help them find a husband.
Owls spy treasures, steal them and
Owls join witches to dance on
the graves of the dead.
The Owl carries messages for
Owls eat new-born babies.
Owls were the messengers of the
rulers of Xibalba, the Place of Phantoms.
The Owl makes the cold North wind
(the gentle South wind is made by the butterfly). The
Little Owl was called "messenger of the lord of the land of the dead",
and flew between the land of the living and the dead.
Owl represents the souls of people who have died un-avenged.
The Burial people hang up Owl skins
to ward off evil.
Inner: Owls enter the house by night to gather human fingernails.
The cry of Owls can kill infants.
According to Moroccan custom, an Owl's eye worn on a string around the neck was
an effective talisman to avert the "evil eye."
Mexico: The hooting of Owls warns of the coming of witches.
Zealand: To the Maoris it is an unlucky bird.
The hoot of the Horned Owl signals
the approach of bad weather.
In legend, Elullo, a
witch and a chief of the Okuni tribe, could become an Owl.
Wizards use arrows tipped with a
bewitched man's fingernails to kill Owls.
Boiled Owl is said to be a strong
Polish folklore links Owls with
death. Girls who die unmarried turn into doves; girls who are married when they
die turn into Owls. An owl cry
heard in or near a home usually meant impending death, sickness, or other
misfortune. An old story tells how
the Owl does not come out at during the day because it is too beautiful, and
would be mobbed by other, jealous birds.
souls of repentant sinners flew to heaven in the guise of a Snowy Owl.
Hunters carry Owl claws so that, if
they are killed, their souls can use them to climb up to Heaven.
Tartar shamen of Central Russia could assume Owl shapes.
Kalmucks hold the Owl to be sacred because one once saved the life of
people are descended from an Owl.
The Wend people say that the sight
of an Owl makes child-birth easier.
It's bad luck to see an Owl in
Isles: A cow will give bloody
milk if scared by an Owl.
The Owl is a helpful spirit.
Legend has it that the Owl was once the
sweetest of singers, until it saw Jesus crucified. Ever since it has
shunned daylight and only repeats the words 'cruz, cruz' ('cross, cross').
Lanka: The Owl is married to the bat.
The goddess of death, Lilith, was
attended by Owls.
Owl is associated with witch's.
Barn Owls are the clairvoyants of
Farmers used to scare away Owls by
walking round their fields naked.
Mountains: Snowy Owls were made to stay behind while other birds migrate
as a punishment for deception.
U.S.A: If you hear an Owl-cry you must return the call, or else take off an item of clothing and put it on again inside-out.
Louisiana: Owls are old people and should be respected. Louisiana Cajuns (individuals who share the French-based culture originally brought to Louisiana by exiles from the French colony of Acadia in the 18th century) thought you should get up from bed and turn your left shoe upside down to avert disaster, if you hear an Owl calling late at night.
Kill an Owl and revenge will be
visited upon your family.
An Owl heard among houses means an
unmarried girl has lost her virginity. If a woman is pregnant and she alone hears an owl hoot
outside her house at night then her child will be blessed.
Yorkshire: Give children Owl broth to cure the whooping-cough.
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