Owl Superstitions

Owl superstitions offer a glimpse into the rich tapestry of human beliefs and cultural diversity. Almost all night-birds, and especially those with eerie-sounding cries, are objects of superstitious fear and none more so than the owl. While many admire their beauty and grace, owls have also sparked a range of superstitions and beliefs across cultures worldwide.

Symbol of Wisdom and Knowledge

In Western cultures, owls are often seen as symbols of wisdom and knowledge. In antiquity this bird was hated by the Romans, who associated it with death and disaster, but in Greece it was greatly respected because it was the bird of Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, was often depicted with an owl perched on her shoulder. If one flew before or over Greek soldiers in war, it was a sign of victory. In Japanese folklore, owls are seen as lucky charms and symbols of protection from hardship. In Indian mythology, the owl is associated with the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and is considered a harbinger of prosperity. Even today, the image of an owl is commonly used to represent intelligence and insight.

Ominous Omens: Signs of Doom?

Contrary to their positive symbolism in some cultures, owls have also been viewed as harbingers of bad luck or death in various owl superstitions. In some Native American tribes, owls are associated with death and are considered to be messengers of bad news or impending doom. Hearing an owl hoot at night was believed to foretell a death in the community.

 

In Britain, as in most parts of Europe, it has always been considered an unlucky fowl, and there are still many people who hate to hear it hooting at night. Country people say it lives in churches and drinks lamp oil, or that it nests in ruins, not because it likes the shelter of ivy, but because such places are haunted and ill-omened. To meet one in daylight is often thought to be unlucky, and in Cheshire, there is a belief that if a man looks into an owl’s nest, he will be melancholy all the rest of his life.

 

The appearance of two large white owls on the house roof was said to warn the Wardours of Arundel of a coming death in the family. In Sussex, if if one perches on the church roof, there will be a death in the parish shortly afterward. In some parts of Ireland, an entering owl is killed at once, for if it flies away, it will take the luck of the household with it. In European folklore, owls were feared as omens of death.

The Haunting Cry of the Owl

The distinctive call of an owl has contributed to its eerie reputation in superstitions. Depending on the context and culture, In many owl superstitions owl calls can be interpreted in various ways. In some cultures, hearing an owl hoot during the day was seen as a warning of impending danger or misfortune. The witches in Macbeth used an owlet’s wing ‘for a charm of powerful trouble’, and much farther back in time Horace mentions a screech-owl’s feather as part of a witch’s brew.

 

Owls may also be concerned with childbirth. If one shrieks at a birth, the child will have an unhappy life. In France, if a pregnant woman hears one, it is a sign that her baby will be a girl; in Wales, continued hooting round a village means that some girl will lose her virginity. If the bird cries by day, the omen is doubly evil, for then the terror of the unusual is added to a portent already sufficiently unlucky in itself. Conversely, in other beliefs, owl calls were seen as signals of impending changes in weather or seasons.

Protectors of the Night: Guardians or Harbingers?

Despite their ominous reputation in certain owl superstitions, owls are also seen as protectors in many cultures: In parts of Africa, owls are believed to guard the spirits of the departed, ensuring safe passage to the afterlife. In agricultural communities, owls were seen as beneficial creatures because they helped control rodent populations that could threaten crops.  In England, owl broth was given to children suffering from whooping cough, and the crushed and powdered eggs of the bird that can see in the dark were used to strengthen failing eyesight. Swan in his Speculum Mundi (1643) says that if a habitual drunkard was given owl’s eggs broken in a cup, he would henceforth detest strong drink as much as he had formerly loved it. A similar idea existed in ancient Greece, where it was thought that if a child was given such an egg, he would never be a drunkard. A remedy for gout, which is encouraged by too much drinking, was to eat salted owls, and both epilepsy and madness were treated with various forms of owl preparations.

 

In Germany, a charm against the terrible consequences of being bitten by a mad dog was to try the heart and right foot of the bird under the left armpit. Of these cures, the first two were purely magical, but the others sprang originally from the owl’s connotation with Athena who, as Goddess of Wisdom, was opposed to anything that caused frenzy and unreason.

 

In today’s world, many owl superstitions persist; there is also a growing appreciation for these magnificent birds. Conservation efforts are underway to protect owl habitats and raise awareness about their importance in ecosystems. Organizations and bird enthusiasts work tirelessly to dispel myths and promote a deeper understanding of owls based on scientific knowledge rather than superstition.

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