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Scared Owls Wisdom


Scared Owls Wisdom
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Owls in Lore and Culture

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.

World Owl Mythology
Compiled by Deane P. Lewis 1999-04-04, last updated 2006-08-09
Abyssinia: the Hamites held the Owl to be sacred.
Afghanistan: the Owl gave Man flint and iron to make fire - in exchange, Man gave the Owl his feathers.
Africa, Central: the Owl is the familiar of wizards to the Bantu.
Africa, East: the Swahili believe the Owl brings illness to children.
Africa, Southern: Zulus know the Owl as the sorcerers' bird.
Africa, West: the messenger of wizards and witches, the Owl's cry presages evil.
Algeria: place the right eye of an Eagle Owl in the hand of a sleeping woman and she will tell all.
Arabia: 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.
Arctic 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.
Australia: 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 sister.
Aztecs: one of their evil gods wore a Screech Owl on his head.
Babylon: Owl amulets protected women during childbirth.
Belgium: 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
Borneo: the Supreme Being turned his wife into an Owl after she told secrets to mortals.
Brittany: an Owl seen on the way to the harvest is the sign of a good yield.
Burma: during a quarrel among the birds, the Owl was jumped upon and so his face was flattened.
Cameroom: too evil to name, the Owl is known only as "the bird that makes you afraid".
Carthage: 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.
Celtic: the Owl was a sign of the underworld.
China: the Owl is associated with lightning (because it brightens the night) and with the drum (because it breaks 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).
Croatia: The Owl is a symbol of City of Krk on the island of Krk, and is also protector of the island of Solta, where it is called "cuvitar". (Jadranka Lukacic)
Ethiopia: a man condemned to death was taken to a table on which an Owl was painted, and then expected to take his own life.
Etruria: to the Etruscans of Ancient Italy the Owl was an attribute of the god of darkness.
France: when a pregnant woman hears an Owl it is an omen that her child will be a girl.
Germany: if an Owl hoots as a child is born, the infant will have an unhappy life.
"A charm against the terrible consequences of being bitten by a mad dog was to carry the heart and right foot of an Owl under the left armpit." (Encyclopedia of Superstitions)
Greenland: the Inuit see the Owl as a source of guidance and help.
Hawaii: Owls feature in old war chants.
Incas: venerated the Owl for its beautiful eyes and head.
India: 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 the bat.
Indonesia: 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
Iran: In 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.
Ireland: 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 it.
Israel: in Hebrew lore the Owl represents blindness and desolation and is unclean.
Jamaica: to ward off the Owl's bad luck, cry "Salt and pepper for your mammy".
Japan: 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. They  would nail wooden images of owls to their houses in times of famine or pestilence.
Latvia: when Christian soldiers entered his temple, the local pagan god flew away as an Owl.
Lorraine: spinsters go to the woods and call to the Owl to help them find a husband.
Luxembourg: Owls spy treasures, steal them and hoard them.
Madagascar: Owls join witches to dance  on the graves of the dead.
Malawi: the Owl carries messages for witches.
Malaya: Owls eat new-born babies.
Mayarts: Owls were the messengers of the rulers of Xibalba, the Place of Phantoms.
Mexico: 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.
Middle East: the Owl represents the souls of people who have died un-avenged.
Mongolia: the Burial people hang up Owl skins to ward off evil.
Mongolia, Inner: Owls enter the house by night to gather human fingernails.
Morocco: 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."
New Mexico: the hooting of Owls warns of the coming of witches.
New Zealand: to the Maoris it is an unlucky bird.
Newfoundland: the hoot of the Horned Owl signals the approach of bad weather.
Nigeria: in legend, Elullo, a witch and a chief of the Okuni tribe, could become an Owl.
In certain parts of Nigeria, natives avoid naming the Owl, referring to it at "the bird that makes your afraid".
Persia: wizards use arrows tipped with a bewitched man's fingernails to kill Owls.
Peru: boiled Owl is said to be a strong medicine.
Poland: 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.
Puerto Rico: The Owl is called "Mucaro". Back in the 1800s, the people from the mountain coffee plantations used to blame the little mucaro for the loss of coffee grains. The belief was that the coffee was part of the owls' diet, and many owls were killed.
There are old folklore songs on the subject, one goes like this:
"Poor Mucaro
you're a gentleman
you just want to eat a rat,
then the rat set up a trap,
he eats the coffee grains
and people blame you."
Romania: the souls of repentant sinners flew to heaven in the guise of a Snowy Owl.
Russia: 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 Genghis Khan.
Samoa: the people are descended from an Owl.
Saxony: the Wend people say that the sight of an Owl makes child-birth easier.
Scotland: it's bad luck to see an Owl in daylight.
Shetland Isles: a cow will give bloody milk if scared by an Owl.
Siberia: the Owl is a helpful spirit.
Spain: 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').
Sri Lanka: the Owl is married to the bat.
Sumeria: The goddess of death, Lilith, was attended by Owls.
Sweden: the Owl is associated with witch's.
Tangiers: Barn Owls are the clairvoyants of the Devil.
Transylvania: farmers used to scare away Owls by walking round their fields naked.
Ural 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.
Illinois: kill an Owl and revenge will be visited upon your family.
Wales: 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.
In Welsh mythology, Blodeuedd, a woman made from flowers, is cursed by her husband's uncle, turning her into an owl. "You are never to show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you."
Browne, Vee. 1995. "Animal Lore & Legend: Owl". Scholastic
Collaborative. . "Wikipedia". Wikimedia Foundation
Knowling, Philip. 1998. "A Wisdom of Owls". Avenue Press
Weinstein, Krystyna. 1990. "The Owl In Art Myth & Legend". Universal Books Limited

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