Between superstition and wisdom, wise and prophetic owls, through history and cultures, have been feared, venerated, despised or admired while often associated with witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely, unknown and profane places.
Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom in ancient Greece, impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the Owl, honoured the night bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures, "the Athene noctua" in the Acropolis, with the belief that a magical "inner light" gave Owls night vision. As the symbol of Athene, the Owl was a protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental inspiration for their daily lives. If an Owl flew over Greek Soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Little Owl also kept a watchful eye on Athenian trade and commerce from the reverse side of their coins.
Hoot, Hoot... a presage of imminent death...
Dreaming of an Owl meant that a traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed.
Another Roman superstition was that witches transformed into Owls, and sucked the blood of babies.
In Roman Mythology, Proserpine (Persephone) was transported to the underworld against her will by Pluto (Hades), god of the underworld, and was to be allowed to return to her mother Ceres (Demeter), goddess of agriculture, providing she ate nothing while in the underworld. Ascalpus, however, saw her picking a pomegranate, and told what he had seen. He was turned into an Owl for his trouble, "a sluggish Screech Owl, a loathsome bird." ...
In English literature the Barn Owl had a sinister reputation, a bird of darkness, associated with death, like the belief that the screech or call
of an Owl flying past the window of a sick person meant imminent death.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth used the Barn Owl as their favourite "bird of doom."
The Barn Owl was also used to predict the weather in England like hearing a screeching Owl was an omen for a cold weather or a coming storm, while the Custom of nailing an Owl to a barn door was current to ward off evil and lightning and persisted into the 19th century.
A preacher in the12th Century explained that the nocturna owl stole the rose, prize of beauty, letting all the other birds to punish the owl by allowing it to come out only at night.
In parts of northern England it is good luck to see an Owl.
Owls in American Indian Culture
Among the different American Indian tribes, there are many diverse beliefs regarding the Owl. Presented here are some of those beliefs.
According to an Indian legend, the 'Spedis Owl' carving was placed on a rock to serve as a protector from the 'water devils' and monsters that could pull a person into the water. The owl on a rock may have also indicated the ownership of that location for fishing.
To an Apache Indian, dreaming of an Owl signified approaching death.
Cherokee shamans valued Eastern Screech-Owls as consultants as the owls could bring on sickness as punishment.
The Cree people believed Boreal Owl whistles were summons from the spirits. If a person answered with a similar whistle and did not hear a response, then he would soon die.
The Dakota Hidatsa Indians saw the Burrowing Owl as a protective spirit for brave warriors.
The Hopis Indians see the Burrowing Owl as their god of the dead, the guardian of fires and tender of all underground things, including seed germination. Their name for the Burrowing Owl is Ko'ko, which means "Watcher of the dark" They also believed that the Great Horned Owl helped their Peaches grow.
The Inuit believed that the Short-eared Owl was once a young girl who was magically transformed into an Owl with a long beak. But the Owl became frightened and flew into the side of a house, flattening its face and beak.
They also named the Boreal Owl "the blind one", because of its tameness during daylight. Inuit children make pets of Boreal Owls.
Native Northwest coast Kwagulth people believed that owls represented both a deceased person and their newly-released soul.
The Kwakiutl Indians were convinced that Owls were the souls of people and should therefore not be harmed, for when an Owl was killed the person to whom the soul belonged would also die.
The Lenape Indians believed that if they dreamt of an Owl it would become their guardian.
The Menominee people believed that day and night were created after a talking contest between a Saw-whet Owl (Totoba) and a rabbit (Wabus). The rabbit won and selected daylight, but allowed night time as a benefit to the vanquished Owl.
The Montagnais people of Quebec believed that the Saw-whet Owl was once the largest Owl in the world and was very proud of its voice. After the Owl attempted to imitate the roar of a waterfall, the Great Spirit humiliated the Saw-whet Owl by turning it into a tiny Owl with a song that sounds like dripping water.
To the Mojave Indians of Arizona, one would become an Owl after death, this being and interim stage before becoming a water beetle, and ultimately pure air.
According to Navajo legend, the creator, Nayenezgani, told the Owl after creating it "...in days to come, men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future"
California Newuks believed that after death, the brave and virtuous became Great Horned Owls. The wicked, however, were doomed to become Barn Owls.
In the Sierras, native peoples believed the Great Horned Owl captured the souls of the dead and carried them to the underworld.
The Tlingit Indian warriors had great faith in the Owl; they would rush into battle hooting like Owls to give themselves confidence, and to strike fear into their enemies.
A Zuni legend tells of how the Burrowing Owl got its speckled plumage: the Owls spilled white foam on themselves during a ceremonial dance because they were laughing at a coyote that was trying to join the dance. Zuni mothers place an Owl feather next to a baby to help it sleep.
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:
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."