Creatures of the night, owls with their large eyes and mysterious ways have long been the subject of superstition.
Their eerie-sounding cries can send shivers up otherwise steadfast spines. The ancient Romans detested them because they were thought to be harbingers of death. The Greeks, on the other hand, considered them a good omen. An owl flying over a Greek army at the dawn of battle insured victory. In England, though, it was believed that if a person looked into an owl's nest, he would suffer depression for the rest of his life.
Like bats and superstitions, owls fly best by night. They feed on rodents and other small animals and are quite useful in pest control. But it is the owl's appearance that spooks people. The birds have large eyes that are unmovable, a round gargoyle-like face, and two tufts of head feathers that resemble horns. And because of this startling visage, our ancestors considered owls to be creatures of mystery. Superstition and folklore surround owls like cloaks.
The Celts told the story of a beautiful woman named Blodeuwedd who was fashioned out of flowers. She was created to marry a lonely man cursed to have no human wife. But Blodeuwedd fell in love with another man and she killed her husband. The victim was then brought back to life and, as vengeance, the faithless Blodeuwedd was turned into an owl.
Owls were magic. In "Macbeth", William Shakespeare's three witches use an owlet's wing as a charm. Witches in ancient Rome used a screech owl's feather as part of a potion. And in Greece it was believed that if a child was given an owl's egg, it would never become a drunkard.
Other than having magic properties, a owl was also thought to be the wisest of birds. The slave Aesop told the story of an owl who knew more than he was given credit for.
The wise old owl told the birds that when the acorn first began to sprout, to pull it all up out of the ground and not allow it to grow. He said acorns would produce mistletoe, from which bird-lime would be extracted, and they would be captured.
The owl next advised them pick up flax seed as it was a plant which would do them no good. Then the owl, seeing an archer approach, predicted that the man would invent darts armed with feathers which would fly faster than the birds. The birds gave no credit to these warnings. They thought the owl was crazy. But afterwards, finding his words were true, they were in awe of his knowledge and reckoned him to be the wisest of birds. So when the owl appeared the birds looked to him for advice, which he no longer gave. Instead he bemoaned their past folly.
The owl is the watchman of the night. By day it lives in the trees or in buildings. Sometimes the presence of an owl can make someone think a ghost is lurking nearby.
William F. Holt of San Angelo, Texas, told a WPA interviewer in the late 1930's, "At one time in my travels, I think it was in Mexico, I came to a village where the people were dying of a plague. The dead were left as they had died and others who were able were leaving their sick and dead and fleeing. I stayed in an old church at night, as the dark caught me there. As I lay on the floor I could hear a peculiar, ghostly noise somewhere in the building. The noise seemed to come from the belfry. I never believed in ghosts but with the thought of those dead and dying people all around, I began to wonder if I hadn't been mistaken about ghosts. Finally, I got up courage enough to climb up into the belfry and there sat a big owl. He looked at me with his big eyes as if to say 'Man, do you see what I see?' At the first peep of light, I was gone from that place."
There are a lot of superstitions associated with owls. Here are a few of them:
-- If an owl lands on the roof of your house, it is an omen of death. Constant hooting near your house also foretells death.
-- If an owl hoots at the moment of childbirth, the child will have an unhappy life.
-- The Irish believe that if an owl flies into a house it must be killed immediately. If it escapes, it will take the luck of the house with it.
-- If an owl nests in an abandoned house, then the dwelling must be haunted. An owl is the only creature who can abide a ghost.
-- By eating salted owl, a person can be cured of gout.
-- If an owl hoots during a burial service, the deceased is bound to rise from the grave and haunt the living.
-- An owl living in the attic of a house will cause a pregnant woman to miscarry.
-- If a pregnant woman hears the shriek of an owl, her child will be a girl.
Of course, owls are no longer considered harbingers of misfortune. Nor are they considered agents of witches or the devil. Still, even in these enlightened times, the eerie call of an owl in the stillness of the night can still make the skin crawl and bring back half-forgotten memories of the dark beliefs you heard in childhood. And who's to say these beliefs are not true -- at least, some of them?