The Many Faces of Brother Owl
What He Can Tell Us About the Future of Mankind
Few animals cross cultural boundaries and are associated with such varied interpretation and symbolism as Brother Owl. From the Celts, to the Greeks and Romans, to the many indigenous peoples across many lands, owl makes an appearance within numerous mythologies.
While it isn’t without some element of truth, many thanks to Hollywood, you may often consider owl to be the penultimate harbinger of death and sad messages. It is not possible, however, to homogenize the belief systems of indigenous tribes any more than one could generalize my beliefs with Caucasians across the country. And as someone with a Judeo-Christian religious background, one certainly could not assume that a symbol or topic would mean the same to me, and my core people, as others from this broad background. Quite the contrary. But sometimes I think we forget that when we pick up bits of trivia, attempting to learn about other cultures.
And there is nothing wrong with that, in a sense. We can’t obtain all information on a subject at once. We pick it up piecemeal. So it is important to keep in mind the principle that beliefs and practices vary across peoples and cultures, and that just because the skin color of a group might be the same, it doesn’t mean they all share the same beliefs on a particular topic.
Enter Brother Owl. Let’s return to the messenger of death and bad news. That does indeed exist in some indigenous tribes, as well as some European peoples historically, notably during the Middle Ages.
Turn the prism a bit, and you learn of owl as wise, a fore-teller of good fortune, and as a messenger between worlds. This is illustrated well in Aesops Fable’s.
The Greek Goddess Athena favored owl among feathered creatures and it was protected throughout the Acropolis as having special powers — night vision, magic, and protection, often accompanying armies into battles, and being a sign of the good omen of victory if seen flying overhead.
Many generations ago, my bloodline from England and Wales came to North America and into Tennessee, a land largely populated by the Cherokee. And as was common, there was mixing and mingling that gave me the good fortune of Cherokee blood through my paternal grandmother. For the Cherokee, the owl has a very special place in creation mythology, having obtained a level of wisdom and spiritual purity matched only by cougar. They could also be seen as consultants in medicine and with regard to punitive issues.
In other tribes the owl was seen as harboring the soul of deceased relatives, and if you harmed or killed an owl, you were destroying the soul that dwelled therein.
And there are peoples who screamed into battle making hooting calls like an owl to strengthen for victory and to strike fear into the enemy.
My favorite legend, and my current viewpoint, is best illustrated by the Navajo. In the tale, Creator tells Brother Owl that “in days to come, men will listen to your voice, so that they will know their future…”
As a conservationist and wildlife enthusiast and photographer, I think we can take something from this lesson and this awe-inspiring animal. Mankind does a lot of things without considering the long-term consequences and the many interconnected complexities regarding the outcome of our actions. If we have a rat, for example, we may opt for a poison to kill it. But that poison, instead of a poison-free trap, can wind up in the blood of an owl and kill it. The other day I met the sweetest, most inquisitive barn owl, pictured to the left. Her name is Queenie, and although she was not injured by man, her species did suffer at the hands of poisons such as DDT. Queenie really moved me with her interaction, her curious stare and the cocking of her head to the side as she watched me watch her.
We deforest our lands for so many reasons, and we cut down older trees needed by owls for homes and for rearing of their young. We’ve got to stop and consider all of the habitat destruction our actions are causing around the globe.
Owls are actually victims of poaching, and though less often heard, it does happen with the intention of selling them as pets. And there are apparently markets for parts of their bodies, used medicinally, notably in Asia.
Owls tend to fly low and unfortunately are often victims of collisions with automobiles.
While there are many other threats from human behavior that could be noted, I’d rather close with a personal lesson we could take from Brother Owl. The following nursery rhyme was first published in an English magazine way back in 1875.
A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard. Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
I don’t think it is a stretch to take the children's rhyme literally, and to close our mouths and curb our greed and consumption, to open our eyes and ears, and to listen to what the animals and soil and the sky and the plants and the winds of Mother Earth tell us about their plight to survive in the world we are creating — the world in which we walk distinctively out of balance. We need them more than they need us, though at first glance it might be easy for a human to assume otherwise. The earth we rape and pillage for short term conveniences, taking out other species, will ultimately return to haunt us. Along the way we have many warnings…many messengers to try and steer us in a better direction.
I believe that all people across the centuries who have had the benefit to interact with owl, offer us glimpses into the truth and power of this animal, and I likewise believe there is validity in the notion expounded by many modern day shamans, that it is Brother Owl, among all creatures, who can lead a human most directly to the truth.
Take a look at this little video clip of Brother Owl in flight, and see if that just doesn’t take your breath away and touch something deep in your soul, something you can’t even articulate. And I hope you can walk away from this article with a greater appreciation of this magnificent bird and an enhanced enthusiasm for humans walking in balance and beauty with the rest of creation.
For more information on raptor conservation, please visit the following sites:
Conservation Audubon's strategic plan balances the needs of birds, people, and economies in waterways across the United…www.audubon.org