The Bird of Shadows

April 4, 2019
owl amulet
Re-creation of an amulet appearing in Frederick Thomas Elworthy’s The Evil Eye.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in Invoking Animal Magic.

Western traditions regard the owl with ambivalence. She is a repository of wisdom, but a harbinger of death or other unwelcome news. Not only Shakespeare, but Spenser and Chaucer describe the owl as presager of doom, making the verdict of the English literary giants unanimous. Yet the owl only goes visiting if the messages are unclaimed. When the situation becomes dicey enough for her to hunt down the recipient, can she be blamed if the news is dire? 

Distinctive in tone, varied in repertoire, hidden under cover of night, owl talk strikes the listener as steeped in significance. In talking to their own kind, owls can be establishing territory, courting, migrating, defending themselves or calling for mother. But of course we know they are mostly talking to us. Not only do owls carry messages, they carry secrets. Spells from archaic Roman and English sources use the owl to pry secrets from a sleeping victim. The owl is an emblem, by admission or reputation, of various secret societies, including the Masons, the Bohemian Grove and the Illuminati. On the corner of the one dollar bill there is a minute figure that could be an owl, which people who subscribe to conspiracy theories attribute to an occult fraternity among the Founding Fathers. 

The owl’s most conspicuous feature is her large eyes, which give the impression of seeing everything. Most birds, including other birds of prey, obtain a field of vision approaching 360 degrees by having eyes located on either side of the head. The owl’s forward facing eyes give her excellent depth perception— important for seeing in low light—and make her appear more human. Her flexible neck allows her to turn her face to the rear. She needs large eyes and wide head movements because her eyes are fixed and cannot move, hence the staring that unnerves some people. Her immovable eyes seem supremely confident and all-knowing. Since the owl sees so clearly into the night, she is credited with the comprehension of death, evil, uncomfortable truths, disquieting outcomes and everything else we place in the rubric of “shadow.”

Great Gray Owl

March 10, 2017

My photo of the owl. I was close, but I don’t have a very good camera.

The big excitement this week has been the appearance of a Great Gray Owl, a boreal owl rarely seen in the United States. As the name implies, this is a very large owl, bigger even than the Great Horned. The wingspan is huge, but a blur in my camera even flying slowly.

No one knows if this is a female or male, though one birder thought this owl is female based on the size (female owls tend to be slightly larger, but the difference is not great enough for identification). The owl was unconcerned about the group of people nearby and concentrated on hunting rodents. As word has spread, people have been flocking here from out-of-state.

What does it all mean? On one level, that food for this bird in the far north has been scarce this winter. Possibly we have had a greater mouse or vole irruption, though I haven’t noticed it. Gray Owls have also been spotted in the past few weeks in Maine and New Hampshire.

This relief, often identified as Lillith or Ereshkigal, is probably Ishtar. Photo: BabelStone.

This was not a personal sign since I was told where the bird was feeding in the late afternoon and went looking for it, but it is a sign for the nearby community as whole, which has talked of little else this week. I ordinarily don’t place credence on superstitions about seeing owls in daylight and don’t know anyone who does, partly because we see so many owls during the day around here.

The owl is the sacred bird of Ishtar, probably because the owl protects the grain by hunting rodents. The owl was also a women’s symbol in Mesopotamia. Women wore owl amulets during childbirth and the prostitutes’ union used the owl as their totem. I interpret this owl as an intervention from outside to rid the community of the vermin of noxious ideas.

In the next day or two as weather becomes warmer, the owl is expected to move north.

Great Gray Owl photographed in Ontario by Jok2000. Wikimedia Commons.

Now is the Time to Buy

August 7, 2015

hmr.hirescover

I happened to notice the other day that my book Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the pagan priestess is priced at $16.56 at right now at Amazon.com. That’s over $10 off the cover price and lowest I’ve seen it offered yet. So, if you haven’t read the book yet or you’re thinking about getting it for a friend, this might be the time.

I was thinking the other day that although I have an excerpt at the book’s website, invokinganimalmagic.com, and excerpts have appeared in quite a few magazines, I’ve never put one on my blog. So here is a retelling of a traditional folk tale from the book.

Why the Owl Hunts by Night

There are many tales explaining mobbing. A few have beauty as the rationale. An English fable has the owl mobbed for stealing a rose set aside as a beauty prize, while in a Polish tale the owl must hide from other birds bewitched by her beauty. In an Aesop story the owl’s intellect provokes the jealousy of mobbing birds. Another Polish tale claims the owl is mobbed because she once got too drunk and obnoxious at a wedding. The following story comes from Brittany.

Who should be designated king of the birds is not easily detected at first. Would that be the biggest bird, the prettiest, the bird with the sweetest voice? If the king of birds is the wisest, perhaps that would be the owl, but she suggested the honor go to the bird which could fly the highest. The other birds flocked to this suggestion and agreed the one who could fly the highest should be crowned king.

The owl and the eagle, as giant birds of prey, were the main contestants for this prize, but the wren, unbeknownst to anyone, decided to enter the contest secretly. She hid in the feathers of the eagle and rode far up in the sky. When the eagle, having passed the owl, tired and could fly no higher, the wren sped out of her hiding place and climbed as high as she could go. “I’m it!” she cried excitedly. “I’m king—queen—leader—whatever you call the best of all birds.”

The other birds puzzled over this development, but there were many witnesses to the feat, and the wren was duly crowned.

In most tales, the story ends here. But there is a sequel, because birds are not fools. The owl had not seen the wren pass her, and the eagle had felt the wren’s wings beat against him. Through much discussion, the bird kingdom spotted the ruse and confronted the wren, who was immediately imprisoned. The owl was given the job of guarding the wren in her hole while the other birds determined punishment.

It took them a very long time. Everyone had something to say about the trick—a suggestion to make or a desire to spout off about the indecency of the stunt. As the hours dragged by, the owl began to get sleepy. Her eyelids became heavy and she lapsed into a doze. The doze became a snooze and the snooze became a slumber. The wren jumped out of her hole and flew away.

Oh, the other birds were mad! All of the fury they had saved for the wren became directed at the owl. They flocked around her and pecked and menaced and screamed, and the owl had to fly very high and very far to get away.

They are still angry about it. To this day the owl hides by daylight and does not leave her roost until all the other birds are asleep.