Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Why be fearful of owls?

There is a lot of superstition surrounding owls, much of which extends back through history to lands beyond our shores. With its large eyes and rounded facial disc, the face of an owl has an almost human quality. Maybe this is why so many people find them such appealing creatures. The largely positive view of owls held by most people in our modern western society is, however, balanced by a fair degree of superstition, and perhaps a little fear; after all, these are creatures of the night, associated with wild woods and lonely ruins.

At various times the owl has been the witches familiar, the messenger of death and the companion on our journey to the spirit world. Many of these superstitions have their origins in the Classical world of the ancient Mediterranean. The Romans, for example, feared the screech owl and thought that hearing one foretold a coming death (that of Julius Caesar being one of the most quoted examples). The owl was viewed as an ill omen by the Romans because it was thought that witches were able to transform themselves into the shape of an owl and then go abroad and do harm.

These ancient superstitions found their way into our literary heritage through the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Spenser. Shakespeare lyrically described the owl as the ‘fatal bellman’, using it in several of his works to portray a coming death, while Spenser equally thought it a ‘hateful messenger of heavy tidings’. This perception of owls as birds of ill omen was intertwined with folk tradition. In Shetland, for example, it was said that a cow frightened by seeing an owl would give bloody milk, while in Sussex it brought misfortune to a household. Through association, the body of a dead owl was thought to ward off evil if it was nailed to the door of a building, a practice that continued in some rural parts of Europe until surprisingly recently. A related belief has it that the body of a dead owl, hung in this way, would keep hail and lightening away!

There is a certain ambivalence about owl folklore. The owl was sometimes seen as a force for good, an ingredient in a cure for whooping cough, for example. In Wales, the call of an owl was said to foretell that a girl would lose her virginity, while in Spain it revealed the sex of an unborn child. While our modern perceptions are mostly positive, owls are still feared in parts of Africa and the Far East, something that has disrupted attempts to conserve rare species. Superstition adds a cultural dimension to our association with owls, something that can be a force for good.

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