Corpse bird, night hag, harbinger of doom.
They can predict the weather, predict death, prevent alcoholism and cure whooping cough. they can guard against evil or be the shapeshifting form of witches. They can spell victory on the battle field or bring you a letter for wizard school (don't we wish).
We're talking folklore about owls in this edition of Gather 'Round the Fable, with today's post focusing on European, Ancient Greek and Roman stories (Native American tales are rich with stories, as are other cultures; all deserving their own post).
Owls have been on the scene for sixty million years.
They appear in some of the oldest civilizations, featured in tales and appearing in art and even currency. The Greek goddess, Athena, favored the owl and ancient Greeks felt the sighting of an owl brought them victory against their foes.
Ancient Rome wasn't as convinced. True, they associated the owl with Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athena, who also ruled wisdom and knowledge), but owls had a more worrisome rep. Romans thought the birds were harbingers of death if found hooting on your roof. They also thought an owl's feathers could cause a sleeper to spill their secrets if placed near them while they dreamed. Roman lore also prescribed nailing a dead owl to your door if you wanted to avert evil. Plus, witches could transform into owls, so you never knew who was hooting from you from that rooftop after all.
We'll see these two legends follow poor old Hooty into the middle ages and beyond.
The Celts found owls mysterious as well; they associated the bird with the King of the Fairies (not a bad gig). All over southern England, legends popped up about owls and the magic and mayhem they brought.
Owl based remedies included cooking their eggs to ash to help your eyesight, feeding owl broth to children with whooping cough, and treating alcoholism by eating raw owl eggs. Farmers in England, into the twentieth century, were still nailing dead owls to their doors for protection and seeing owls as warnings for storms.
So why all the doom and gloom around owls?
Perhaps it is their nocturnal nature, their frightening shrieks in the darkness that rattled ancient people. Perhaps those large eyes and swiveling heads made them seem supernatural, with their silent flight and habit of leaving mousy pellets as proof of ravenous appetite.
Not all cultures find them scary certainly, and modern times find the owl rehabilitated, if still mysterious and magical. The wise old owl from Tootsie Pop ads; Hedwig with Harry Potter's letter; Archimedes from Disney's The Sword in the Stone. Owls are all over the place; we find them in our art, our stories and our commercial products - just as ancient Athenians did thousands of years ago. Owls have been fascinating humans for millennia and that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon.
More owl goodness: