In many cultures, they are revered as the most sacred of sages. In others, they are signs of a healthy harvest to come. And in some, if you aren’t careful, they might just steal your soul. Wherever you look, you are bound to find the wide eyes of an owl staring out at you from myths, legends and superstitions throughout history.
The Chesapeake Bay watershed is home to its own fair share of owls, including the barred owl, the farm-friendly barn owl and even the migratory snowy owl. Owls play a valuable role in the Bay’s food chain, using their keen sense of sight to prey on small animals, including mice, squirrels and smaller birds. Today in the United States, owls are considered a valuable form of pest control and are generally attributed with wisdom and intelligence.
However, owls have not always been received so kindly.
Myths across time
In ancient Rome, an owl’s hoot was taken to be an omen of imminent death. Reportedly, the death of several Roman emperors was foretold by an owl, including those of Augustus and Julius Caesar. However, another Roman superstition held that death could be prevented by nailing a dead owl to the door of your home, which would ward off evil.
Owls are also feared in some parts of Appalachia, where they are undesirable at one time of year in particular. On October 31, during a festival known as “Samhain night,” the barrier between the physical and spiritual world is believed to become thin enough to allow the souls of the dead to travel back to their homes in search of hospitality. However, one folktale speaks of owls using this night as an opportunity to prey upon these wandering souls, snatching them out from the air and feasting on them in their nests.
Children tend to fare especially poorly when owls are on the prowl. The Malayans, an ethnic group found in the South Pacific, believed that owls would steal their newborn babies out from their bedroom windows at night, while a German superstition holds that if an owl is heard hooting as a baby was being born, it is doomed to live an unhappy life. The Greeks were particularly wary of owls, believing them to be shapeshifting witches capable of sucking out a child’s blood.
But perhaps nowhere has the owl been feared more than in Cameroon, where it is thought to be such a strong source of evil that it is not even granted a name. Instead, the owl is referred to only as “the bird that makes you afraid.”
Owls also play a role in many Native American stories. In some cultures, owls are often associated closely with tribe’s medicine men, who are said to be able to communicate with—and transform into—owls. However, evil medicine men can also shapeshift into owls, and may be used to deliver curses, diseases and death to rival tribes. Therefore, many tribes traditionally do not trust owls. In fact, the Cherokee even use the same word (skili) for both witches and great horned owls.
With their nocturnal habits, swiveling heads and large, looming eyes, it’s no wonder that these mysterious creatures of the night have been flying through our stories for centuries.
Do you have a favorite owl legend? Let us know in the comments!