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Night of the Falling Stars
Bird of Dreadful Night

The Cult of Monadnock

Bird of the Dreadful Night
"Out on ye, Owls!  Nothing but songs of death.."
Richard III

One rainy night in Rome in l910, the famous Swedish physcian and author, Axel Munthe, was involved in a somewhat nefarious transfer of bodies from a grave in the Protestant cemetery at Porta San Paolo.  He and the grave digger were hard at work when, out of the gloom, from behind the Cestius Pyramid, a big owl began to call. Munthe was a great lover of owls and birds in general. He traveled in the highest social circles, was classically educated and a skilled physcian, but a chill shot through him nonetheless. He knew owls were the traditional harbingers of death.

Just before the Roman emperor Antonius died, an owl had alighted on his residence. Same thing happened to Valentinian, according to Roman histories. And, before the death of the great Cesar Augustus, an owl called out. Later in history, the Italians had their revenge by consuming owls or using them in net lures, but even in Munthe's time, and well into the twentieth century, Italian peasants traveling at night would cross themselves or touch a crucifix if they heard an owl call.

Owls fare no better in English and northern European folklore. You couldn't even mention owls in Munthe's native Sweden without putting yourself at risk of a sorcerer's charm, and killing one was sure to bring on ill luck. Throughout northern Europe and even into the Near East, owls were considered the associates of witches, or dark deeds, harbingers of a death to come, and were even used as ingredients in witches' brews. Shakespeare's weird sisters used an owlet's wing to strengthen their foul concoction in Macbeth, and later in the play, an owl --- "the fatal bellman"--- shreiks as Macbeth commits yet another murder in scene two of the second act. No doubt the scream of that notorious Irish herald of death, the banshee, had its origin in the wail of the Irish barn owl.

Curiously there are only two exceptions to the owls' bad reputation.

In ancient Greece the owl was considered a sacred bird, associated with wisdom and the goddess Athena. In fact, in some of the statues of Athena, the godess appears with an owl's head. This association with intelligence was even used in a wordplay by one of the greatest of the Greek heroes.

When he reached the island of the one-eyed cyclops after the fall of Troy, Odysseus and his men unwisely took shelter in a cave belonging to the shepherd Polyphemus. When the giant came home from tending his sheep that night, he rolled a rock in front of the cave mouth and proceeded to eat a few sailors. After dinner, he asked for the name of their leader. The wily Odysseus announced that his name was Otus.

In ancient  Greek, the word otus means owl, the symbol of wisdom and Athena. But it also means "nobody." "My name is Nobody," he said, in effect. Those who remember the story will recall that after the crew managed to blind poor Polyphemus, all the other cyclopses, hearing his bellows, came to the mouth of the cave and asked what was wrong. "I am blinded,"  Polyphemus called out. "Who blinded you?" they asked.  "Nobody," he answered. 

His fellow giants departed the scene, and Oddyseus --- Nobody, or Wise Owl --- and his men escaped.  

The other cultures that appear to have a reverence for owls are certain tribes of American Indians. Archeologists, excavating a 5,000-year-old rock shelter not far from Marlboro, Massachusetts, found, among the bones of more edible species, the tiny hollow bones of a screech-owl. The owl could have been used for ceremonial purposes, or perhaps was even kept as a pet. In historic times, there are records of pet owls kept by the Mandans in the Missouri River Valley; and the Zuni, who had a special appreciation for owls, used to keep them in their  houses. Small children were warned that owls were all-knowing creatures. On a darker side, shamans in certain Midwestern tribes used to transform themselves into owls in order to attack their enemies.

None of these mystic emanations should be surprising to anyone who has ever been awakened by the shivering descent of a screech-owl call at midnight just beyond the bedroom window, let alone the bizarre, strangled caterwauling of a barred owl from a nearby wooded swamp.

Sanctuary: The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society
March/April 1997
Volume 36 Number 4

© 2011 John Hanson Mitchell
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