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.”