The Bird of Doom

by M-Berens
Owl on tombstone in cemetery

If you heard an owl hoot during a burial service, English folklore says that the dead would rise from their graves.

The ancient Greeks revered owls and believed that the birds were sacred to Athena the goddess of wisdom but to many ancient cultures owls were associated with magic and darkness. The penetrating and unmoving eyes, the tufts of hair on their ears with resembled devil’s horns, their eerie screech and their ability to twist their heads almost full circle have made owls a feared staple in stories and movies even today. Since most owls are nocturnal creatures they have also long been associated with death by cultures in many parts of the world even today.

The ancient Romans believed that hearing the hoot of an owl meant imminent death. They believed that Julius Caesar’s death was preceded by the hoot of an owl which was recounted by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, “…yesterday, the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market place, Hooting and shrieking”.

The Native American Hopi tribe believed that the burrowing owl which they called Ko’ko or ‘Watcher of the Dark’ was associated with their god of the dead. Since the owls built their nests underground it was believed that they could talk to the dead.

In Russia hunters always had the claws of an owl with them so that if they died while hunting, their souls could use the claws to climb to heaven.

In Africa, owls were believed to be the messengers of witches and danced with the them on the graves of the dead.

In many cultures, the owl was thought to bring death to babies – the Swahili believed that seeing an owl would bring sickness to a child and people in Arabia believed that owls stole children undercover of the darkness at night.

In English folklore an owl that flew past the window of a sick person meant imminent death. It was also believed that owls were the only thing that can live in peace with ghosts. If an owl was seen at an abandoned home it would mean the place was haunted. It was also believed that if an owl hooted during a burial service, the dead would rise and haunt the living.

Birds of omen dark and foul,
Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his dream –
All night long he heard your scream.
Sir Walter Scott
Photo by J. Jacobsen
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