Imagine an owl. Did you feel a sense of apprehension or foreboding? No surprise. Owls have long been associated with death.
Maybe you conjured a Halloween scene with an owl and a full moon. Or, did you picture Harry Potter’s snowy white owl, Hedwig? Associations and beliefs about owls are contradictory. That’s because the owl is the symbol for death, age, wisdom, and magic.
The magic and mythology of owls can be used to create rituals. I have a few ideas to share with you.
Like the eagle, the owl is a bird of prey. It feeds on the flesh of other animals. Unlike the eagle, a bird associated with the Sun, the owl is nocturnal and associated with the Moon.
The owl hunts at night and during the liminal times of dusk and dawn. Its feathers are unique, enabling it to fly silently to within inches of its prey. The image of a stealthy, deadly predator that moves in the dark encouraged cultures all over the world to associate the owl with death. For example:
- In old England, if an owl flew by the window of a sick person, it was an omen of imminent death.
- In ancient Babylon, the hoot of an owl was thought to be the cries of a woman who had died in childbirth and was now searching for her baby.
- Before becoming Queen of the Hawthorn tree, the Goddess Blodeuwedd (“blud-EYE-weth”) was once a woman created from 9 plants by two magicians who favored a young man under a curse that said he’d never marry a mortal woman. Blodeuwedd became his bride. But when she fell in love on her own — and not with her husband — the magicians hunted her down with the intent to kill, or so the story goes. The magician who caught her didn’t kill her. He turned her into an owl.
As a Goddess, she has come to symbolize the month of May, and the Hawthorn, the tree known as the home of the fairies. To my way of thinking, Blodeuwedd symbolizes autonomy. (For more of her story, listed to Ritual Recipes, episode 18.)
Fortunately, not everyone, past or present, thinks of an owl as the bird of doom.
In ancient Greece, the Little Owl (Latin name: Athene Noctua) was believed to have a magical inner light that enabled it to see in the dark. That lent to the belief that the owl could see the future.
Because of that inner light, the ability to see the future, and the owl’s stately manner and mesmerizing eyes, the Goddess Athena, patron of the city of Athens, made the owl her favorite bird.
So important was the Little Owl, it was placed on the back of Athenian coins with the idea it would watch over the city’s commerce.
The owl was also known to be extremely territorial, and would put up a fierce fight to defend its territory. Knowing how relentlessly determined the owl was, if it flew over soldiers before a battle, it was a sign they would be victorious. That was another reason Athena favored the owl.
The owl was valued in other cultures, too:
Mummified owls have been found in tombs in ancient Egypt where the owl was associated with mourning because of its ability to communicate with the Underworld.
The Egyptian Goddess Neith shared many of the attributes of the Greek Goddess Athena. Egyptian woman who wanted to pay homage to Neith would chant with a sound that imitated an owl.
To some Australian Aborigines, the spirits of women live in owls and, because of that, owls are sacred.
In similar fashion, the Kwakiutil [“kwe-KOO-tl”], a Native American tribe in the coastal area of British Columbia, believe that the spirits of humans and animals can move back and forth into each other. They believe that owls carry people’s souls. If an owl is killed, the person whose soul the owl carried would die, too.
Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada believe that the Great Horned Owl captures the souls of the dead and carries them to the Underworld.
In Peru and Ecuador, archeologists have found spindle whorls decorated with the image of an owl. The whorl is a piece of stone, wood, or ceramic that looks similar to a flat donut. The hole in the center is tapered, similar to a funnel, so a snug fit is achieved when the whorl is placed on the bottom of the spindle.
The whorls vary in size. The size controls the speed of the spin. You have to have had a lot of experience to control a fast spin. The whorls were also decorated with the image of a goddess giving birth.
Imagine a young mother in labor for the first time. Picture her surrounded by women who have given birth many times. Each holds a wooden spindle, ten to twelve inches long, threaded with raw wool the women will spin into yarn. A whirl weighted for speed hangs from the end of each spindle.
In prayer to the birth-giving goddess depicted on the whorl, the older mothers spin the wool with lightning speed. That’s their visible act. Their invisible intent is to speed the labor of the young mother. The women are performing a ritual — a visible act performed with invisible intent.
It’s true that archeologists have found whorls decorated with owls and goddesses giving birth. The scene with the older women spinning, well, I made that up — but it could be true.
While I’m fabricating the story, I’d have the older women give all the yarn they spun to the young mother so she could knit a blanket for her baby. Imagine how confident that young mother would feel wrapping her baby in a blanket woven with the energy of a goddess.
Move now to the Zuni, a Native American tribe in the Southwest. They believe deeply in the power of their ancestors, “the ancient ones.” When a Zuni baby has trouble sleeping, the mother places the feather of an owl next to the baby.
I picture the mother tapping into the energy of her own mother, or grandmother, or great-grandmother and asking them to soothe her baby.
The late Ted Andrews, author of the book Animal-Speak, says that in ancient Rome if you placed an owl feather on a person who was sleeping, you could learn his secrets. Andrews suggests that the belief arose because secrets lie in a person’s inner darkness, and owls are masters of hunting in the dark.
Of course, when it comes to positive images of owls, we can’t forget Hedwig, Harry Potter’s Snowy Owl that sends and receives messages.
In her book, The Healing Magic of Birds, author Lesley Morrison talks about owls in general and adds a specific section about the Snowy Owl. She writes about how it carries messages from the elders. She says, “…people with this bird as a totem will channel this wisdom in some way for the benefit of the world, usually in the form of the written word.” Think about that. If J.K. Rowling has a spirit animal, I’ll bet it’s an owl.
Some people say the Snowy Owl is lazy since it appears to hunt by sitting and waiting. Others, who study its habits, know that the Snowy Owl waits for the precise moment to attack. It’s sense of timing is a quality worth emulating.
Ted Andrews says that the Snowy Owl also has an instinct for detecting coming famines. Because of that, it will relocate as needed, and return when food is plentiful again. Recognizing reality and responding in a practical way are qualities worth developing even when — especially when — you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation.
When a Snowy Owl enters new territory, it does so quietly, without a big show of force, without intimidation. The Snowy Owl can even play dead when needed. Andrews says, “True strength is gentle and this is what the Snowy teaches.” No wonder Harry Potter and Hedwig are a perfect pair.
There are many species of owl: Snowy, Barred, Barn, Elf, Gray, Great Horned, Screech, to name a few. They range in size from that of a sparrow to a goose. No doubt, the variations in size contribute to the many ways cultures think about owls.
One of the Native American tribes in California believed that when a noble and courageous member of the tribe died, that person became a Great Horned Owl. When the less virtuous die, they become Barn Owls. I don’t know why one owl is thought to be more desirable than the other but I do know that Barn Owls live, on average, three to four years, while the Great Horned Owl can live anywhere from thirteen to twenty or more years.
The eyes of an owl are like binoculars, with enhanced depth perception. In old England, some people believed that you could improve your own eyesight by cooking owl eggs until they were reduced to ash. Then you’d mix the ash in a potion. I assume a person would drink the potion but I don’t know for sure. The better approach is to prevent a problem with your eyes. Have regular check-ups.
Early folk medicine in England prescribed raw owl eggs as a cure for a hangover. Parents would feed their children raw owl eggs in the belief that they would always be protected against drunkenness. I don’t know if that means the child would naturally dislike alcohol or that the child could drink to excess and never experience the maladies that come with the territory.
Parents in old England also fed their children a broth made from owls as a remedy for whooping cough.
In addition to being known for their eyesight, owls are even more famed for their exceptional hearing. Lesley Morrison in her book, The Healing Wisdom of Birds, writes that the owl’s ability to hear is so highly developed it can hear the precise location of its prey, even in the dark.
She suggests that people who work with owl medicine often share that ability to detect subtle noises because they’re highly sensitive to sound frequencies. “This clairaudience manifests in some way within the owl totem person, for example as continuous buzzing sounds in the ears.” I believe that buzzing is called tinnitus. I also believe Lesley Morrison’s explanation.
If your hearing is challenged, ask the owl: What do I need to hear? Am I supposed to listen to someone in particular? If so, Whoooo? Be aware. The message you receive might be to have a conversation you’ve been avoiding. No one ever said working with owl medicine was easy.
Ted Andews said psychics and mediums often find owl medicine helpful in making contact with the spirit world. That gives new meaning to hearing in the dark.
Perspective and the Owl’s Flexible Neck
Remember the scene in the movie, The Exorcist, when the character played by Linda Blair turns her head around, all the way around? Owls come pretty close. An owl can turn its neck 270 degrees. That’s three-quarters of the way around.
If you suffer from a stiff neck, ask the owl: Where am I not seeing the full picture? Then, go get a massage.
Owls, Spirits, Witches and Dreams
Artists often depict owls against a full moon. The spooky visual has become a Halloween cliche.
Look again. The real message is one of exposure. Owls have the power to extract a person’s secrets. The full moon is a time when what was hidden is revealed.
When artists depict the Great Horned Owl silhouetted against a full moon, the image usually evokes a feeling that’s powerful and primal.
To convey an ancestral or ghostly energy, artists turn to the Barn Owl. With its white, heart-shaped face, eyes that appear vacant, the Barn Owl is also known as the Ghost Owl. It’s found on every continent, except Antarctica.
In Latin, the word for owl is strix, with the plural being strig. The words come from the biological classification of all owls: Strigiformes. Over time, strig became strega, the Italian word for witch. Strega is also the name of an herbal liqueur from the town of Benevento, Italy, where the delicious, bright yellow medicinal is known as the “witch’s liqueur.”
Magic takes many forms. In The Druid Animal Oracle Deck, authors Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm write, “The owl teaches us the wisdom of turning a disadvantage into an advantage.” They suggest that encountering an owl can signal a time of change, that there can be the death of one thing and the birth of another.
The owl is my totem. It came to me in the form of a gold necklace. It was the first “serious” gift my husband gave me. He said it was because I’m such a night owl. Until that time, I never felt drawn to owls. That changed in an instant. That was over 40 years ago. I wore that necklace every day. Never took it off. And then one day the chain broke and I lost that owl. I’m looking for another one. I’m sure I’ll find it. I can feel it calling to me.
Ted Andrews said that a person who works with owl medicine “will be able to hear and see what others try to hide.” He was referring to secrets, motives, lies. He adds the obvious, that having such ability can make other people uncomfortable.
Owl Medicine in Ritual
How can you use this information about owls to create a ritual? Here are a few examples.
“The Nesting Pair” is a ritual I created for a wedding ceremony. It requires a nest, some moss, and two stones painted to resemble owls. During the ceremony, I invite the parents to join me. They share a few words of wedding wisdom with the couple and place a bit of moss into the nest. When the couple makes their vows, each holds one of the stone owls, then places it in the nest.
I encourage my couples to use the owls in a personal vow-renewal on each anniversary. I talk about this ritual on the Ritual Recipes podcast, episode 4, (Oathing stones for wedding vows and personal goals).
When babies come along, my couples can add an owlet to the nest. I talk about that ritual on the podcast, too. Listen to episode 3 (Baby Blessings – An Intergenerational Ceremony).
You can create your own nest and owls, or you can purchase them on my shop, MoonRiverRituals, on Etsy.
As part of a baby blessing, make paper feathers the grandparents and guideparents can use to write their wishes for the baby’s future.
You can create your own paper feather. You can find clipart. Or you can download the template I use. Just go to MoonRiverRituals.com, sign up for my mailing list, and get the template.
That same paper feather can be used in funeral services. If the deceased is your loved one, arrange with the funeral director to have a basket of the paper feathers next to the guest book with a sign instructing people to take a feather and write a message to the deceased.
I believe we can communicate with the spirit of loved ones who have died. And I know I’m not the only one. The obituary section in my local newspaper often shows the photo of someone who died years ago along with a current message from the family to the deceased saying how much they still miss the person who died.
Depending on how accommodating the funeral home is, the feathers can be placed in a container that is buried with the deceased or dropped into the grave at the burial service.
If you are holding a home funeral, let people burn the feathers in a fireplace, or firepit. Or, dig an area where the feathers can be buried. I talk about traditional funerals and home funerals in episode 40 of Ritual Recipes.
Find Answers in Dreams
Use that same paper feather to find answers to your questions in a dream. Simply write a question on the feather and place it under your pillow when you go to sleep.
The idea of placing something under your pillow goes back centuries:
- A sprig of lavender for calm sleep
- A bay leaf for prophetic dreams
- A coin for prosperity
- A blade of grass for health
- A piece of quartz for energy when you wake up
- A piece of wedding cake you received as a guest. It’s supposed to bring true love to your life
- A tooth for money from the tooth fairy
Take a few moments and read The Legend of Worry Dolls, article by Lissa Coffey.
In the article, Coffey talks about how worrying can contribute to insomnia or trouble falling asleep. The article includes a folktale from Guatemala. The story is about a poor family fallen on hard times. It’s about the magic of giving your worries to a little doll you tuck under your pillow at night. There’s a happy ending with real life lessons.
Sure, the story is written for children. All you need do is tap into your inner child. Adapt the story from a cloth doll to a paper feather.
Share Your Wisdom
I’m a fan of the PBS show, Finding Your Roots, seeing the people, learning the stories buried in the generations that came before. Imagine the world 100 years from now. You’re someone’s ancestor. Reflect on the wisdom you’ve gained. This is no time for false humility. The world of the future needs your wisdom. For more about that, listen to episode 33 on Ritual Recipes. It’s called A Gathering of Ancestors.
If you’re looking for help in connecting with your ancestors — even if you know nothing about them — take a look at the work being done by Jill Purce. She’s a British voice teacher, Family Constellations therapist, and author. Dr. Depack Chopra endorses her work.
She emailed me a few days ago to let me know about an online workshop she’s leading in February. It’s about healing family and ancestors. In her words, “When ancestors or family members have died or left the family at a young age or under unusual or difficult circumstances — such as accidents, suicides, wars, addictions, emigrations, incarcerations, adoptions — these or other traumas of separation cause painful patterns of exclusion to be frozen in time, trapped in the unconscious field of the family, and can become like magnets, which later generations may be drawn unconsciously to repeat.”
That unconscious field Jill talks about, that’s the darkness represented by the Owl. If you want to know more about Jill Purce’s work, visit her website: HealingVoice.com
In The Shaman’s Guide to Power Animals, author Lori Morrison talks about the owl and how it teaches us the power of our instinct. As a shaman, she delivers the owls message that “…if you heed your instincts, you will always be safe. Do not fear times of darkness.” That’s good advice at any time. It’s vital now.
Finally, if you know a woman, like the Goddess Blodeuwedd who defied expectations to love the person she wanted…
If you know a pregnant woman would find comfort in the support of generations of other women who have given birth ….
If you know someone who would be open to a message from the ancestors…or someone who is burdened by a secret…
If you know someone who is afraid of the dark, tell that person about the medicine of the owl.
Mentioned in episode 44:
- The Shaman’s Guide to Power Animals, author Lori Morrison
- Jill Purce / HealingVoice.com
- The Druid Animal Oracle Deck, authors Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm
- The Healing Wisdom of Birds by Lesley Morrison
- Animal-Speak by Ted Andrews
Ritual Recipes episodes also mentioned:
03 / Baby Blessings
04 / Oathing Stones
18 / Bloddeuwedd
33 / A Gathering of Ancestors
40 / Traditional and Home Funerals
43 / Eagle Medicine