Birds of Omen

‘Birds of omen dark and foul,

Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,

Leave the sick man to his dream –

All night long he heard your scream’

from an Ancient Gaelic Melody by Sir Walter Scott

As early man was fearful of the night it is not surprising that ancient stories depict the owl as a harbinger of death, and a bird of ill omen.

There are so many stories and superstitions about the owl from different cultures around the world, too many to write here, but here’s a few I found interesting during my research.

In Greek mythology  the underworld spirit Ascalaphus, reports Persephone for eating pomegranate seeds. Dementer punishes him for telling tales and buries him under a rock. However Persephone takes pity on Ascalaphus by releasing him and transforming him into a screech owl (barn owl).

According to the Roman poet Ovid, Ascalaphus became ‘a loathsome bird, ill omen for mankind, a skulking screech-owl, sorrow’s harbinger.’

In ancient Rome and later throughout the Medieval age it was believed that witches would turn themselves into owls and suck the blood of babies and malevolent  spells were made with owl feathers and eggs.

The Romans gave ‘auguries’ by listening to birds and ‘auspices’ by watching the direction of their flight, as a form of fortune telling.  The owl was always an ill omen. If they heard one or saw one close to their home they would nail a dead owl to the door. By accepting the evil in this way they hoped it would  stop any more bad luck that might befall them.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses he tells us about a girl called Nyctymene who was seduced by her father. Out of shame she fled to the forest refusing to show her face in daylight. Taking pity on her the goddess Minerva transformed her into an owl which, as we will see, in later Greek mythology, becomes the symbol of the goddess.

In the Celtic story of Mabinogian, the tribal chief Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘ mother places a curse on him where he will never have a wife. So the magicians Math and Gwydion make a spell to counter the curse. With flowers from the oak, broom and meadowsweet they make a beautiful wife for him and name her Blodeuwedd (Flowerface) . However she has an affair with Gronw Pebr , lord of Penlynn and together they conspire to murder Lleu. Lleu escapes by becoming an eagle and chases Blodeuwedd and her lover into a lake where they are drowned. There Gwydion turns her into an owl, the most hated of birds, so that forever she will be attacked by the other birds.

In other cultures they are seen as a spirit guide to fly the dead to the after-life. Native American tribes would place an owl feather in the hand of the dying person to help them to make a safe journey to the other side. In China during the Shang dynasty (1500 – 1045 BC) owl figures were placed in graves for the same reason.

Ollie the barn owl
Ollie the barn owl

(stained glass, marble, ceramic tile, copper wire on cement structure)

Athene Noctua

In contrast to the Roman hatred of owls, the Greeks came to revere them. Athene Noctua, the little owl, was associated with the Greek goddess Athene (Roman Minerva). She had an owl as a companion and guardian, which we see in depicted in ancient Greek art works and coins . Due to this the owl became a symbol of protection and wisdom and even today in Athens there are little owl trinkets and model sculptures you can buy for good luck, prosperity and to remind you of beautiful Athens!

little bronze guardian owl from Athens
little bronze guardian owl from Athens

Due to the Roman beliefs and superstitions the owl had a bad image in England. Later this was further exasperated  by Shakespeare’s writings such as…

‘It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night.’ (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth)

The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign’ (King Henry in King Henry 1V)

In the Victorian era they were killed in their hundreds, shot for their feathers for fashionable hats or by farmers who believed they were eating their chicks . This led to a sharp decline in numbers which still hasn’t fully recovered, and today pesticides and loss of habitat due to farming and housing hasn’t helped either.

Right now I think we should be inspired by Athen’s many years of owl veneration!

Hail the owl!

Athene Noctua
Athene Noctua (Little Owl)

(ceramic and glass tile, marble, pearl shell rounds, milliefiori, copper wire on cement structure)

Available to purchase in my shop here

I love this poem by Aaryan Deshpande who describes the Little Owl in a much more positive light …

‘Oh nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.
At sunset your eyes’ iridescency,
And as you’re lunar wings expand,
In the dark you shimmer brightly;
As there is no sound by the wings you fan.
Large eyes, body brown,
Dressed in a spotted gown;
Your tufts like the moon crescent,
Your holy appearance as wisdom is my present;
Warrior of light, advisor of the moon,
Annihilating demonic snakes,
As I see you will leave soon.
Whatever the world says about you is fake;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.

Messenger of Athena, Vaahan of Laxmi,
Your beauty is felt close by me;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The wisest of all the fowls.’

Aaryann Deshpande 2013

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0 comments

  1. that’s great nd amazing art

  2. magnificent! indeed the owl has received a bad rap, but oh the sheer beauty in those eyes and wings – you captured it!

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