Owls are the oldest living birds, and their origin has been traced back to 60 million years ago. They have been featured in almost all ancient mythologies. The oldest specimens found show that the bird has not changed much, and this is perhaps due to the fitness of its features as a successful bird of prey. Its capability of night vision, silent flight, strong claws, and excellent plumage contributes to its survival skills. Only a few cave drawings have been found relating to birds, and the owl is one of them. An owl is also an international, cultural icon. There seems to be an agreement on the intellect of the bird, but there is a lot of controversy about its sight or sound being a good or bad omen. In many societies, an owl is taken as an ill omen and harbinger of death, while in others it is considered wise and reputed like a philosopher. Thick layers of mystery has always enshrouded the owls. The most prominent feature of owls is their big, round, glistening eyes suggestive of thinking twice. In many Western cultures, the owl is iconic to wisdom as portrayed in a nursery rhyme:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
1. Athene Noctua; Athen’s Owl
The owl is the favorite bird of Athena, the goddess of wisdom in Greek mythology. The city of Athens is named after her. Athena’s owl ‘Bubo’ is shown perched on her shoulder. Zeus asked Athena to hand over her beloved bird to Perseus, but she did not want to part with her owl. She was also bound to comply with the instructions of Zeus. So, with the help of Hephaestus, she made an exact replica of the owl in iron and brass to serve the purpose. The coins of Athens had the figure of an owl embossed upon them. Athena was the patron deity of Athens and known for her bright eyes and farsightedness. Owls are also known for their big, shining eyes and their wisdom.
2. Barn Owl; The Bird of Doom and the Rose Thief
The Barn Owl is one of the two owl families. It has been a part of English folklore since long ago. Poets like Robert Blair and Wordsworth considered it a bird of doom. Being a nocturnal bird, an owl is associated with darkness which in turn is associated with death. An owl flying by the window of a sick person is considered the sign of oncoming death. An owl’s hoot or sight is also considered the forerunner of severe cold weather or a storm. It is said in the West that if one goes around the tree wherein an owl is sitting, the owl would see the person turning its head in a full circle till it strangles itself. People in Northern England consider the sight of an owl as a good omen. According to a 12th century preacher, Odo of Cheriton, the owl stole the rose meant to be awarded for beauty. Other birds sentenced him to day imprisonment allowing him to fly exclusively at night.
Lechuza is a Mexican myth which narrates that Lechuza is a black witch who whistles in the night to call the people, and whoever responds to her call is found sleeping till the next day arising with multiple bruises on the body. In Mexico and its bordering states, it is believed that Lechuza was turned into an owl owing to her evil witchcraft. Some old Mexicans claim to have seen Lechuza in the night in the form an old and ugly black woman.
Persephone, while living in the underworld, was allowed by Pluto to leave and go to the outer world provided that she did not eat the prohibited fruit. Askalaphos, son of Styx informed the gods that she had eaten the pomegranate. For this disclosure, he was punished by Demeter who turned him into a spotted lizard and buried him under a stone. Herakles released him, but Persephone, to avenge the disclosure by Askalaphos, transformed him into an owl, and since then he remains unchanged and living in dark like the underworld.
5. Owl of Minerva
Minerva, also known as Pallas, was the Greek deity born out of the head of Jupiter in fully grown form. Cecrops announced that whoever of the two deities, Minerva and Neptune, produced the best gift for creation would be honored with a city to be named after the winner. Neptune produced a horse, and Minerva grew an olive tree from the ground and won the prize. She is considered the deity of wisdom, art, and the patroness of all the sciences beneficial for mankind. She is portrayed as armed, in standing form, with a smiling face with a spear in her right hand and with her feet like the claws of an owl. Her feet symbolize her cunning for the hunt and wisdom like an owl.
Gwydion was a magician whose mother forbade him to marry any normal woman. Lleu then created for him a wife made of flowers bearing the name Bloddeuwedd. She persuaded Lleu to tell her what would cause his death which under her trance he did reveal to her. Using that knowledge, Bloddeuwedd killed him. Just before he died Lleu transformed her into an owl saying, ‘You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name which will always be ‘Bloddeuwedd’ meaning ‘flower faced.’
7. Arianrhod; The Silver Wheel
According to the Welsh, Arianrhod is the moon and star goddess and a deity of embodiment. She can transform herself into an owl and can revert into the other form as a goddess at her will. She is capable of powerful flight in the night and gifted with night vision. By virtue of her amazing owl eyes, she can even peep through the souls of the dead. She can console and comfort those who seek her. The dead are carried by her to the moon, the land of the dead. She is as swift as a falcon, farsighted as the wise owl, and as comforting as the lady with the lamp.
8. Chikap Kamui
Chikap Kamui is the god of the land of Ainu or Ezo. Chikap Kamui is their protector god in the form of an Eagle Owl, different from other owls which are considered evil. The Ainu live in the extreme north of Japan, and they believe in three gods; the Earth god, the Sea god, and the Mountain god. Ainu believe that every living being has ‘Kamui’ the spirit or god in it. Owls play an important role in their mythology. Wep’Keer Villagers raise a figure of an owl as the clan emblem. Tuskie and the Oina chiefs wear masks of two owls on both of their shoulders. It is believed that silver and golden tears fall from the eyes of Chikap Kamui.
9. The Owl of Lakshmi
Lakshmi is an Indian goddess of wealth. In the Hindu community of Bangladesh and the Indian state of Orissa, the goddess is associated with the white owl which is taken as an omen of good luck and prosperity. It is said that the owl accompanies Lakshmi Devi while she rides an elephant. The owl is represented as the partner of Vishnu, the major god in Hindu mythology.
10. Kotan Kor Kamuy
Kotan Kor Kamuy was born with a piece of caul over his face indicative of his being someone special. His grandmother named him Emon after the river flowing through her village and handed him over to the shaman called Lord Altain. He imparted to him all sorts of secret knowledge. He learned all what was beneficial for mankind. He flew to chase a red and rusty unknown object but could not catch it because, had he done so, it would have been the end of the world. A vision taught him to perceive things fully, and he shrieked happily over his victory.
What a cat is to the mouse in cities, an owl is to them in the fields and ruins. Owls keep the population of mice, rats, and rabbits under control. Owls are the most-sought-after birds by sorcerers, tribal medicine men, bird watchers, artists, environmentalists, and those who write mythologies. All of the people know about owls, but no one wishes to keep them as pets. Owls are found all over the world, but they like to keep themselves aloof and out of the sight of human beings on account of their being nocturnal birds and their inherent liking for deserted places.