I spent Saturday participating in a workshop on the cultural history of birds, held at Castle Museum as part of a wider exhibition based around the subject. My own contribution centred on our relationships with owls, a topic that has been at the centre of a book project that I completed last year. Owls illustrate the many different ways in which we interact with birds through our culture and beliefs. They are also familiar and easily recognised, making them an engaging topic for the would-be researcher.
The cultural roles of owls may vary between societies, both across continents and over time, and it has been interesting to chart our changing relationships with them over the course of human history. Some of the earliest evidence of a cultural relationship with owls can be found in the bone fragments of snowy owls recovered from archaeological digs at cave sites dating back many thousands of years. These western European cave sites, which were inhabited by Late Magdalénian hunter-gatherers, contain the bone remains of many different bird species. Many of the bones show butchering marks, underlining the use of birds like bustards, ducks and geese for food. The presence of owl bones is surprising, however, because they carry little meat and are unlikely to have been used for food. Instead, the pattern of the butchering marks indicates a different use. The owls were being butchered for their feathers which, not being waterproof, are likely to have been harvested for a symbolic rather than practical use. We know from more recent cultures that bird skins and plumage may be used for ceremonial dress.
Owls have continued to have a symbolic role down through the centuries. To the Romans a calling owl foretold an approaching death but the Athenians saw the owl as a good omen, indicating the presence of the goddess after which the city-state of Athens was named. English literature makes frequent reference to owls, the birds often introduced to add dramatic effect. It is the owl’s association with the dark of night and with remote places than bring with it the hint of fear. Today, however, as our understanding of their lives has increased, so we are rightly less fearful of these beautiful birds.