The Owls of Legend and Mythology
Nocturnal animals have long fascinated humankind, so multiple legends, folklore and mythology have sprung up over time about these creatures, including the owl. It ranges from the ancient days of Greece and Romans to Native American folklore of North America. As people have migrated to other countries from the mother countries, they have carried their legends with them and these stories have become subplanted in the new culture. Stories passed down verbally from one generation to another that found their way into written forms from historians that have sought to preserve these folk tales for generations to come.
The owl is a mysterious bird, sentiment by day and active by night. Their haunting “hoots” are often heard through the stillness of a night as the only evidence of their presence. Their flights are usually swift and soundless as they strike with deadly accuracy on what ever game their keen eyesight as observed. A quick swoop and then airborne to enjoy the prey in a place high above the ground. The peculiar swivel motion of their heads and the largeness of their eyes gave people long ago the sensation of being observed and studied and at every angle. It was not until modern times that it was discerned that owls could not completely turn their heads in a full rotation but the side motions are so quick and undetected that the misconception of a 360 degree turn was impossible.
Their silent flight also earned them the stigma of being the harbinger of death among some cultures. Their composed and unruffled posture has given them the status of wisdom in other cultures. Man has attributed many qualities to owls that are mystic in nature and mythical in ability that actually have nothing to do with the bird’s natural habits but given a special allure to owls for humans.
The history of the owl legends can be traced back almost before recorded history.
The Greeks were great believers of a mystical universe in which their gods and creatures of the Earth took on great significance. One of the most revered deities in Greek history is the goddess, Athena or also referred to as Pallas Athene.
Athens, the city named for the goddess, eventually became symbolized as one with Athena and expressions were given way to make reference to that such as “taking owls to Athens” or “there goes an owl”. These could be foreseen as statements of victory or impending predictions of death, depending on how the terms were used.
The Romans, though very similar to the Greeks in the practices of their beliefs and ideology, developed their own legends of deities and owls. They also “borrowed” from Middle Eastern Cultures such as the Hindu belief of Manus as the first man and father of all humans. From the combination of the two came the goddess, Minerva. Minerva represented prophecy and wisdom. As time progressed, she lost her symbol of the moon and was given one of the owl, thus the owl was associated with the aspect of wisdom.
The Celts had their symbolism of owls as well.
It seems that no matter what country or nation that one can read about that there is something about owls if the birds exist within that climate. Before knowledge and science was so fully advanced, the people had to draw their own conclusions of why things were the way that they were. Perhaps it could be labeled as ignorance or just simply the unavailability of any other way of knowing, then Man’s imagination, fertile and vast thing that it is, formed these stories that gave a reason for the things he saw and knew.
When the first immigrants arrived on the North American continent, they brought with them their own folklore but they soon encountered a completely different set of stories from the indigenous people already there; the Native American Indian. For the hundreds of different tribes of these people, there were all similar stories but the Cherokee had their own versions which once infiltrated with the Celtic legends of owls. A great deal of Scottish and Irish ancestry populated the mountains of Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina. These people were often called “hillbillies” because of their choice of living on steep mountain and hill sides and scraped a precarious living out of the rocky soil, thus the reference to the “billy goat”. Many of them believed that if a screech owl came to your window for three nights in a row that it was a warning of death. If salt to the fire did not silence the bird, then death was unavoidable. The Indians and whites all gave credence to this superstition.
As time would prove as the United States became the home of more and more different cultures, so did the varied legends of the owl.