The Owl: A Nuanced Symbol in Native American Cultures
Of the various usages of owl symbolism, Native American religions and their shaman priests have placed upon the bird numerous spiritual associations.
To this day, practitioners of Native American spiritual traditions hold that the owl represents vision and insight.
The Cree believe that the whistle-sounds of the Boreal Owl are a summoning call to the spirit world. If an Apache dreams of an owl, it is held that death is on its way. Cherokee shamans viewed Eastern Screech Owls as consultants on punishment and sickness. To this day, practitioners of Native American spiritual traditions hold that the owl represents vision and insight.
The Pawnee view the owl as a symbol of protection; the Ojibwa, a symbol of evil and death, as well as a symbol of very high status of spiritual leaders of their religion. The Pueblo associate the owl with Skeleton Man, the god of death and spirit of fertility.
In some Native American cultures, owls are associated with magic, clairvoyance and astral travel. Owls are birds of the night-they have the power to see the unseen in the blackest of darkness, to hunt for food and fly silently through the night.
Owls have often been associated with magic, witches and sorcerers, and in some cultures, the owl is a symbol of wisdom and all-seeing knowledge. The Greek goddess Athena was often pictured with an owl on her shoulder which had the power to reveal hidden secrets.
Owl energy helps you to connect with your inner wisdom and intuition. It can aid with clairvoyance and the ability to see through deception to the truth of a situation. To have an owl symbol can aid in the intention to increase your wisdom or intuitive skills. Some activities that can help support this connection include dreams and meditation.
The owl represents wisdom and gives the ability to see things that are normally hidden from view, such as the motives of others, and aids in thwarting deception.
Their spiritual system divided the world into three levels. The Upper World— the realm of light, goodness, and the everlasting hereafter — was represented by the birds. The Under World — the realm of darkness, evil, and eternal death — was represented by the serpents. By balancing these realms the Cherokees sought to bring peace and harmony into the Middle World, the mundane everyday realm within which humans reside.
The main portion of Cherokee animal imagery is devoted to birds. For them birds were magical. Birds are beautiful and lively … they sing … and they can do something that humans can only dream about … they can fly.
Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with the ones they saw on an everyday basis: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, etc. And most of their bird stories are rather lighthearted. Not all of their bird lore, however, has this aspect. At times they associated birds with the negative aspects of the Under World. The most logical candidates for this distinction were the owls, those woeful denizens of darkness.
There are five owl species that appear with regularity here in the southern mountains: great-horned owls, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, and saw-whet owls. The Cherokees no doubt observed all of these, but their recorded lore gives names to but three.
“Tsgili” is the great-horned owl, which many also know as the “hoot” owl because of its “hooting” calls. The barred owl is “uguku,” an onomatopoetic word that mimics the bird’s “who cooks for you” call. “Wahuhi” for screech owl is also onomatopoetic in that it mimics the bird’s whinnying call.
Owls appear in differing contexts within Cherokee lore. The screech owl was often a messenger of future events. Owls in general were associated with warfare. When on the war trail the ancient Cherokees, a hyper-superstitious people, divined the future outcome of a conflict according to screech owl calls. If heard on the right or left, the call signified that the Cherokees would be victorious. If heard ahead or behind, the call signified defeat, in which instance they would cancel the expedition. Owl calls were also used as a means of communication by scouts at night.
Anthropologist James Mooney, who lived with the Cherokees on the Qualla Boundary (present-day Cherokee) during the late 1880s, observed that “Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be the embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen.” Of the three owls named in Cherokee lore, the great-horned owl was by far the most dreaded; indeed, the term “tsgili” was expanded in meaning so as to signify “witch.” Both the great-horned owls and the Cherokee witches indulged their mysterious powers only in darkness. They were the masters of the night.
Little wonder that the great-horned owl was held in such intrepid regard.
The great horned will hunt by day, but it is supremely equipped for night stalking. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The ear slits hidden among the feathers can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being, so powerful that they can capture prey in light so dim it is the equivalent of a candle burning in the dark nearly half a mile away. Specialized wing feathers, downy-fringed like a butterfly’s, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of a devastating strike.
The Cherokee witches admired and were associated with these qualities in numerous ways. I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart. The evil medicine men or “witches” used the sacred formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends.
One of the most drastic of these has been labeled “To Lower One’s Soul” by Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma. In The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997), Kilpatrick states that the Cherokee sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells … were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”
Here is one of the “lowering” sacred formulas that I have rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrase. No reader will be surprised at this point to see which bird is invoked:
To My Enemy
Your name is night.
I am the black owl
that hunts the darkness
for your heart and soul.
Your name is the night.
I am the black owl
hunting your soul.
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Native American Owl Mythology
Indigenous languagesNative American culturesEarly Native American art
In most Native American tribes, owls are a symbol of death. Hearing owls hooting is considered an unlucky omen, and they are the subject of numerous 'bogeyman' stories told to warn children to stay inside at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away. In some tribes, owls are associated with ghosts, and the bony circles around an owl's eyes are said to be made up of the fingernails of ghosts. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos. And in the Aztec and Mayan religions of Mexico, owls served as the messengers and companions of the gods of death.
Owls are not always viewed as eerie harbingers of death, however. In the Hopi tribe, the great horned owl, Mongwu, is a humorless lawman who plays the role of 'straight man' against the antics of the Koshari clowns. And in the owl myths of some tribes, the birds are portrayed as bumbling good-for-nothings who are banished to the night-time hours as punishment for their lazy or annoying behavior.
Owls are also used as clan animals in some Native American cultures. Tribes with Owl Clans include the Hopi tribe (whose Burrowing Owl Clan is called Kokongyam or Kokop-wungwa), the Tlingit, and the Mohave. On the Northwest Coast, the owl is often used as a totem pole crest. The Creeks also have a Screech Owl Dance and a Horned Owl Dance among their tribal dance traditions.
Native American Owl Gods and SpiritsBig Owl (Apache)
Night Owl (Maliseet-Passamaquoddy)
Uhuapeu, the Owl Master (Innu)
Native American Legends About OwlsThe Owl Husband:
Legend of a Passamaquoddy girl who married the great horned owl.
The Story of Redfeather:
Chippewa Indian legend about a disrespectful boy punished by Owl.
The Origin of Night and Day:The Legend of Rabbit and Owl:
Menominee legend in which Owl unsuccessfully tries to make night last forever.
The Hunter and the Owl Story:
Lenape legend about a man who forgot his promise to an owl.
The Good Looking WomanThe Pretty Maiden:
Lenape legends about a girl punished for being rude to Owl.
Frog and Rabbit:
Cree folktale in which Owl frightens Rabbit into providing meat to his wife as he should.
Story of White Owl and Raven:
Eskimo myth about the origin of the snowy owl and raven's feathers.
Owl Describes Himself:
Description of Owl from Apache mythology.
Recommended Books of Owl Stories from Native American Myth and Legend Owl's Eyes & Seeking a Spirit:
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Two Indian Owl legends presented by the Kootenai tribe.
Owl Lore and Legend:
Children's book illustrating three illustrated Native American owl tales.
Picture book for kids based on a light-hearted Mohawk legend about why owls are nocturnal.
Birds of Algonquin Legend:
Interesting collection of legends about Indian owls and other birds in Algonquian tribes.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of Indian animal spirits, including a chapter on Native American owls.
Owls in Folklore and Natural HistoryA Wisdom of Owls:
Two good books on the meaning of owls in world mythology, including information about Native American owl folklore.
Native American Animal Stories:
Great collection of American Indian animal tales, told by Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.
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