its OWLoween…… What role do owls play in Halloween Folklore and myths?

Last week I took part in a podcast with some of my fellow Anthrozoology friends all about animals and the role they play in Halloween and where the many belief’s and folklore arise’s from surrounding this group of birds. I have to admit this is one my favourite subject’s when it comes to birds of prey – humans and raptors and how they have co-existed and still do.

There have been several books written covering the topics of owls in art, literature, cultures, mythology and folklore and I’m sure some of you can think of one or two examples of where an owl has popped up in popular culture or a belief system. A great example is the Little owl whose scientific name is Athene noctua, the Athene part being taken from its close relationship with the Greek goddess Athena. Goddess Athena was among many things recognised for her wisdom, an attribute in some cultures afforded to owls. Owls and the Little owl in particular were held in such high regard that they made coins featuring an owl, the most common being the tetradrachm. One side of the coin was depicted as the goddess athena herself and the other a Little owl, this is also where the term ‘heads and tails’ comes from, there is no doubt though that the owl was sacred to the goddess and Athenian Greeks.

Greek coin featuring the owl

Owls have not however and still don’t enjoy the same love shown to them by the Athenian Greeks. Some of the earliest known human contact with owls is based on the engraving of an horned species of owl on the ceiling of a cave in Chauvet, France, the engraving has been dated over 30,000 years old. There are other images of owls including a family of it appears Snowy owls in a cave in Southern France called Trois-Freres, these images clearly show that humans have been in contact and aware of owls for thousands of years. As the first image probably demonstrates, owls will have habituated the same caves that humans used but it is their nocturnal activities that have meant in many cultures owls have been seen as ill omens and harbingers of doom.

Horned owl engraving, Chaveut Cave, France

I started doing a bit of research into owls and Halloween reading about the Samhain festival which is a Gaelic festival originating possibly from Celtic pagan beliefs. It is strongly linked with Halloween celebrated here in the UK on October 31st as the festival is usually celebrated on 1st November, the festival marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, it is believed to be when we are at our closest to the under world. I had originally started reading about the Samhain festival as someone had mentioned owls were often seen flying around the fires lit during the festival, I can’t find any written reference to owls and their role in Samhain festivals although there are several stories of owls playing a role in folklore as shown below….

The most famous myth dealing with the owl is in the story of Bloudeuwedd, contained in the Mabinogi. Lleu, one of the central characters of the story has a wife created for him by the magician Gwydion, because his mother forbade by her own word that he would never marry any ordinary woman. Bloudeuwedd is her name, and as the tale goes she tricks Lleu into divulging the secret to his own mortality, convincing him to even demonstrate how.

In the process, Bloudeuwedd then kills Lleu, who avenges his death by turning her in and owl, from which she receives her namesake in Gaelic.

When you research any information on owls in myth’s and folklore it is obvious that peoples views fall into two definitive categories, they are either deemed as a wise divine species who’s eyesight and human likeness in large forward facing eyes and face endear them to humans or that their nocturnal habits, silent stealth and in the case of some species eerie calls mean they are seen as harbingers of doom. The latter view has meant a host of superstitions relating to owls has been developed such as an owl perching on your roof and calling is a sign that someone inside is about to pass or that they are the avian passenger for witches. In some rural areas as recent as the mid 19th century people would nail dead owls to their doors to ward off evil spirits. Another feature of some houses was to have ornamental ridge tiles of an owl to scare away wild owls, I can categorically state it doesn’t work because I have a similar ornamental owl shaped ridge tile at either end of my farm house roof and the wild Tawny and Barn owls couldn’t give two hoots.

Owl shaped ridge tile

I can understand though how a species that is so perfectly adapted and suited to be active at a time which is so alien and unknown to humans might conjure up these thoughts of doom, fear and foreboding. You then just have to add in their calls, if anyone one has been out in the pitch black and come across a screeching hissing Barn owl which is the most widespread of owl species its understandable why you might retreat back inside and lock the door. I have also had the experience on several occasions when surveying owls a Barn owl flew right over the top of me, the first thing you know of it is this white large object float into view and I can assure you if you’re not expecting it you jump out of your skin!

Another aspect of this in a western world is that popular culture also has a lot to answer for in terms of how we have portrayed animals and owls are not immune to the lack of scientific understanding. If you look at literature our most famous play writer William Shakespeare shows owls in a less than favorable manner in A Midnight Summers Dream and Henry VI and how can we forget the three witches spell in Macbeth which includes an owlets wing. The owl fares less well in the bible, according to Desmond Morris Book “Owl” the owl is mentioned no less than 16 times mainly stating that it is an unclean bird that should be avoided.

There is no doubt now though that the fortunes of owls has changed dramatically in recent times with more focus being put on our fascination with their ecological and physiological adaptations featuring in many natural history productions. We also now understand owl populations a lot better in the UK with many species monitored and charities like ourselves dedicated to their survival, collectively people also understand the ecological value owls have as a predator controlling rodents. There is absolutely no doubt that when I see my local pair of Barn owls float past or the Tawny owls duet ting in the woods it brings a huge smile to my face.

How about a bit of Halloween fun to bring a smile to your face to finish…….. check out these owl based beliefs…..

In Transylvania some farmers in certain regions believe that walking round their field naked is enough to scare owls off

In Wales if an owl is heard calling among houses it means an unmarried girl somewhere has lost her virginity

In Poland if an unmarried woman dies she will turn into an owl

In France if a pregnant woman hears an owl she will give birth to a girl

Happy Halloween to you all! Stay safe!

References

Samhain – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samhain

Owl Mythology – http://www.thewhitegoddess.co.uk/articles/mythology_folklore/owls.asp

Owl by Desmond Morris – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Animal-Reaktion-Books-Desmond-Morris/dp/1861895259