Owls come in many shapes and sizes. They are ambivalent birds in folklore, associated with positive as well as negative aspects. They are birds of the night, the moon, darkness, wisdom and witchcraft. In modern folklore the owl is considered a wise bird. This goes hand in hand with classical mythology, where the owl is the bird connected to the goddess Athena. But the Romans considered the owl an omen of death, putting the creature in a different ‘light’. In many medieval and Renaissance depictions of the owl, the meaning is almost the exact opposite – a foolish bird depicting the sins of the people.
There are many folktales about how the owl came to be – many of them have to do with unlikable to downright sinful women being transformed as a punishment. The Mabinogion’s Blodeuwedd is probably best known. She was created out of flowers for a man to become his wife. However, she fell in love with someone else and murdered her husband. As a punishment she was transformed into an owl to forever fly through the night and be shunned by other birds (incidentally, her husband could transform into an eagle).
Also well known is the Thüringer (central Germany) story about the nun Ursula or Ursel. She often disturbed the choir with her horrible singing. Even after death, she did not stop her wailing. The nuns were so afraid that they called a priest, who banished the ghostly nun in the shape of a long-eared owl. It is said that she flew to the Harz area and became a part of the Wild Hunt.
Another story concerns that of the Huwel Heueule in Beieren (Southern Germany). She was a stepmother who murdered her stepchild and as a punishment was transformed into an owl to fly restless at night forever.
Then there’s the well known fairy tale about the wife who is never satisfied, and her foolish husband who does what she wants. The tale has come to us in many variations. In one variation the husband and his wife are punished by god himself and changed into owls, to fly at night and sleep during the day. Here again we see the (undoubtedly christian) connection between owls and sinfulness.
In folklore it’s only a step from wicked women to witches. Witches have owls as familiars, they fly on owls to their gatherings and even use the birds in their potions. Being in such frightening company, it’s no wonder that owls are much feared by many people. The owl’s call is even associated with death, as one Dutch fairytale makes clear. (Note, I’m quite sure that the origin of this story lies somewhere else, since the story tells about a vulture which as far as I know has never lived in the Netherlands.) Here’s my retelling of it:
From the beginning of our World, it have been the owls who foresaw everything. Animals often know more than humans, who have forgotten a lot through the ages. Once, an eagle and a vulture got into a huge row. They decided to fight to death. The vulture went to the owl. “How will the fight end?” “The fight will end in your death,”, the owl answered. “Why didn’t you warn me?”, the vulture said. “Now it’s too late. I have to fight.” And things went as the owl had said. But the owl remembered the vulture’s words. And ever since it has warned us whenever it has seen death coming. Listen…”dood dood dood!” (Dood is Dutch for ‘death’. It’s pronounced as ‘dote’, a morbidly delightful coincidence.)
The owl being a messenger of death is a widespread belief. It comes to the house of a sick person who will die within three days. And if no one is sick, then surely someone will have an accident. When a church owl flies around a house, someone in that house will die – since its call surely sounds a lot like Komm mitt! (German for “come along”.) In French its call sounds like Mours! Mours! (Which means “Death! Death!”)
As a witch’s familiar, a lot of magic is connected to the owl. Conspiciously, a lot of it seems to concern love magic and rejuvenation. Thus the eggs and body parts were prescribed by magicians for these purposes. In medieval times it was believed that when an owl’s heart was laid on the left breast of a sleeping young woman, she would tell all her screts. Otherwise, a warrior carrying an owl’s heart with him would strenghten him in battle. The owl’s connection to the moon is found in a way to cure epilepsy: to cure this disease, eat an owl’s egg together with some soup during the waning moon. As the moon wanes, so does the epilepsy. An English belief tells how burned and powdered owl’s eggs increase one’s eyesight.
Our witch’s familiar also has a lighter aspect: it’s a common thought that an owl’s call in the evening predicts fair weather during the following day. And if owls called out during bad weather, the weather would change soon. The owl is also connected to children. The bird will fly by to announce a pregnancy, or when a woman is pregnant, its call announces whether the child will be a boy or a girl. But let’s not cosy up too much to this bird, because in England when during a childbirth an owl appears, the child will be unlucky. Shakepeare himself said: “The owl shrieked at birth, an evil sign.”
Boussauw, Johan. Vogels in Volksgeloof, Magie en Mythologie. Baarn: Tirion uitgevers. 2005