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The Owl

The owl, portenter of evil

Today when we think of owls we usually think of them as a beautiful and valuable asset to the natural ecology feeding on undesirable rodents, insects, frogs, lizards, and birds. We marvel at their silent flight, incredible eyesight and hearing, and their ability to almost completely turn their heads around. However, this wasn't always the case.

Folklore about the owl goes far back into history. To the Greeks the owl was the favorite creature of Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom. The Greeks revered the owl and protected them. Owls were encouraged to live in their temples and it inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers. They believed that the gods gave the owl a magical inner light which gave them the ability to see in the dark. To have an owl fly over an army before battle was sign of impending victory.

The Greek view of owls were in complete contrast to the later Roman views. To the Romans, the owl was a creature from the underworld and a portend of impending doom or death. To hear the hoot of an owl meant that there would soon be a death. Romans also believed that witches transformed into owls and sucked the blood of babies. Romans attempted to ward off the evil associated with owls by nailing a dead one to their front door as a warning to evil forces.

As Roman armies marched North they brought their beliefs with them. The English adopted much of their owl folklore from their Roman conquerors. For them, the owl was a sinister creature. It hunted in the night, a time closely associated with death and evil. Many early cultures were scared of the night as humans have relatively poor night eyesight. Any creature that was nocturnal was automatically a creature associated with evil. They too would hang a dead owl from their barn doors to ward off evil spirits and believed that if an owl "hooted" while flying past the window of a sick person it meant imminent death. In Ireland owls were considered unlucky. If an owl flew into your home lore dictated that you must kill it immediately. If it was allowed to leave it would take all of the home's luck with it. It's interesting to note that in the Northernmost parts of England and Scotland where the Roman armies did not conquer the local inhabitants it was considered good luck to see an owl. 

The owl entered into our Halloween traditions much like the bat. As a hunter of bats, owls would often be seen near the Halloween bonfires searching for food as were the bats. Owls frequently scared nighttime travelers as they flew silently and often lived in the hollows of trees where they could not be easily seen. When they screeched it reminded people of the cackling of a witch. An evil creature that moved silently, hunted at night, and sounded like a witch it was natural that they associate the owl with Halloween.


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