An Owl is a very intriguing bird probably because it is a nocturnal bird. Besides, its nocturnal habits, it is also supposed to be amongst the oldest of the vertebrate animals in existence as fossils dated back to more than sixty million years back have been found, and surprisingly it hasn’t changed much. Just as Wisdom over the ages doesn’t change much!
Owls have a special place in mythology across the world. Some mythologies see them as a very important bird whereas some see them as a sign of bad omen. Let us see how some of the cultures treat the owl as a bird.
In Hindu mythology, owl is the vahana of the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi. There are mixed interpretations of the bird. Some feel that sighting an owl brings luck whereas some feel that it’s a sign of bad omen. However, one common observation has been that a white owl brings luck, whereas any other owl is a sign of bad omen. Owls also have their association with things dark and sinister and death. Popular representations have associated an owl with the cemetery and the hoot of an owl is always associated with spooky feelings, and sometimes as harbingers of death.
Like the Hindus, the ancient Greeks too believed that owls were a symbol of good fortune and it had its association with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena. But the Romans, like some Hindus, felt that the owls were bad omens and their cries always indicated death. It is said that the deaths of famous people was always predicted by owls, including that of Julius Ceaser and few other notables. The Romans also felt that sighting an owl before a battle was a prediction of defeat and dreaming of an owl by sailors was an indication of shipwreck.
The Welsh have a very interesting myth associated with Owls. According to the Celtic mythology, Blodeuwedd was a beautiful goddess created out of flowers by Gwydion to wed his son, Lleu. Blodeuwedd did not want to marry Lleu who was madly in love with her; instead she wanted to marry someone else. Together, Blodeuwedd and her lover conspired to kill Lleu, but Lleu was protected from death by the gods who had made him invincible, and could be killed under some very strange circumstances. Blodeuwedd seduced Lleu to reveal the secret, and later she and her lover manage to kill Lleu. However, Lleu still did not die since he was restored back to his original form. For this treachery, Gwydion cursed Blodeuwedd to turn into an owl and since then the owl haunts the night in loneliness and sorrow and is rejected by all the other birds.
According to the Sumerian mythology, their goddess of death was attended by owls. Besides the Sumerians, ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, Japanese and the Indians of Central and North America, also associate the owls with death. However, in the Navajo creation myth, an owl resolves a dispute between men and women, leading to the creation of the human beings.
Though the early cultures in Mexico considered the owls as sacred to their rain gods, the Aztecs later saw them as evil.
William Shakespeare in some of his plays has referred to the owl as harbingers of death. In spite of all its sinister leanings, the owl is also associated with wisdom and learning. The Greek goddess, Athena had an owl perched on her shoulder, which had the ability to see things that Athena couldn’t focus on, thus adding to Athena’s natural wisdom.
I think it is the nocturnal aspect of the bird which makes it so evil and deadly. The hooting of the owl too is not a very pleasing sound and this too seems to have added to the common thinking of the owls being the harbingers of bad news.
But a recent sighting of an owl from very close quarters convinced me, that it needs some attention and study. I hope I have been able to do justice to the poor owl who had got lost in the concrete jungle that I live in!