From ancient times and throughout the world, owls have featured significantly in folklore. Owls are one of the few birds to have been found in prehistoric cave paintings and today there are still many cultures that surround owls with myths.
The Romans, on the other hand, believed owls were omens of impending doom and the hoot of an owl foretold an imminent death. Many famous Romans including Julius Caesar, Augustus and Agrippa supposedly had their deaths predicted by an owl also to ward off the evil caused by an owl, the offending owl would be killed and its body nailed to the door of the affected house.
The ancient Greeks believed that the sight of an owl would bring victory for their armies, the Romans feared them as a warning signs of defeat. Romans also believed that dreaming about an owl could bring about shipwreck. In ancient Greece owls were seen as a symbols of good fortune and the idea of the owl as a wise bird may have come from the little owl’s association with Athene, the goddess of wisdom.
Native American Mythology
Native American tribes beliefs about the owl varied. Some tribes believed owls brought sickness and death while others saw them as protective spirits or souls of living or recently departed people. Some tribes believed that owls were earthly incarnations of their gods and should therefore be treated with respect. For example, the Hopis who lived in northeastern Arizona, believed that the burrowing owl was the god of the dead whole other tribes referred to death as ‘crossing the owls’ bridge’.
There is an Inuit myth that explains why owls have flat faces and short beaks. They the tell the story of a beautiful young girl who was transformed into an owl with a long beak. However, as an owl she became frightened and flew into the wall of her house which flattened her face and beak.
In Wales there is a belief that if an owl hoot is heard among houses then an unmarried girl has lost her virginity. Another says that if a pregnant woman hears an owl her child will be blessed, while in Yorkshire owl broth was used to cure whooping cough.
Many cultures believed that owls brought bad luck to children. In Malaya they believed that owls ate new-born babies, in Arabia owls were evil spirits that carried children away in the night and the Swahili believed owls brought sickness to children.
In Arabia owls were also associated with magic powers and people believed that each female owl laid two eggs, one with the power to make hair fall out and the other with the power to restore it. In Algeria if the right eye of an eagle owl was placed in the hand of a sleeping woman it was believed she would tell you everything you wanted to know.
In India too, owl meat was believed to have medicinal properties including curing seizures and rheumatism and eating owl eyes was believed to help people see in the dark. Indians also believed that the number of owl hoots could signify different events, in much the same was as counting magpies in the UK.
1 – impending death
2 – success in imminent venture
3 – woman will be married into the family
4 – disturbance
5 – imminent travel
6 – guests arriving
7 – mental distress
8 – sudden death
9 – good fortune
It is thought that during Diwali over 1000 owls, including the endangered brown fish owl, are killed each year by magicians in the hope of warding off bad luck and gaining magical powers.
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