Owls – Part I

For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth.
My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread.
By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert.
– Psalm 102, The King James Bible

Few animals hold as ambivalent a place in human culture as the owl. Almost universally a symbol of night and its mysteries, they’re often portrayed as portents of sorrow and death. During the Middle Ages in Europe owls were linked with sloth, sexual vice, and any “who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness” (Bubo, Aberdeen Beastiary), but also with Christ, who “loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners – who are represented by darkness – to die but to be converted and live” (Night-owl, Aberdeen Beastiary). Owls’ nocturnal lives also associate them with magical sight, dreams, and wisdom, and in many cultures they are powerful spirits, affording protection in this world and a tangible, living connection with the world to come.

Onyx gemstone with owl, bowl, and poppy

Onyx gemstone engraved with owl, bowl, and poppy. Imperial Rome, 1st-3rd century CE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

In this Roman onyx gemstone the owl references sleep and death – it sits on a bowl, probably for a sleeping draught, containing a poppy, the opium-producing flower that was also symbolic of death.

Kwakiutl cedarwood owl mask

Kwakiutl cedarwood owl mask. Tom Patterson, British Columbia, 1983. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Many indigenous communities in North and Central America have revered owls. “One of the Pawnee four sacred birds, the owl’s powers were linked with darkness and night. The Kiowa believed that the shaman became an owl after death. The Ojibwa called the bridge over which the dead pass the “Owl Bridge” and buried owl feathers with the dead to facilitate their journey… in Mesoamerica owls were closely associated with liminal passages into the underworld abode of the dead. Owl images appear on cave walls, and owls appear on mirrors, which, like caves, act as thresholds between the natural and supernatural worlds” (Werness, The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art, p. 306).

Masks are particularly important to First Nation communities of British Columbia, where they are connected with beliefs about the transformational nature of humans and animals. The example above was carved by Tom Patterson, a member of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe of Vancouver Island.

Indian vessel in the shape of an owl

Metal vessel in the shape of an owl with other human and animal figures. Bengal, India, 20th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Owls are often associated with feminine powers, from the wisdom of Athena to the witchcraft of early modern Europe. In Hindu mythology an owl serves as the Vāhana, or mount, of Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune and prosperity.

Paradise wooden caving by Edgar Tolson

“Paradise” by Edgar Tolson. White elm wood carving depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with an owl sitting in the Tree of Knowledge. Kentucky, 1968. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The American folk artist Edgar Tolson was a former preacher, and made many carvings depicting the Garden of Eden. In this example an owl, representing wisdom, rests in the Tree of Knowledge.

Owl Harness Pendant

Owl harness pendant. Copper alloy and enamel, Staffordshire, 1250-1400 CE. Portable Antiquities Scheme.

This owl graces a medieval harness pendant. Horse harnesses “appear to have been decorated with copper alloy pendants from the 12th century onwards, becoming more numerous in the 13th century. From perhaps the second half of the 13th century heraldric designs appear on pendants, with coats of arms depicted with coloured enamels, silvering, and gilding, and increasingly in the form of small shields. By the end of the 14th century, pendants were in decline with fashions changing to decorative leather or fabric trappings” (Portable Antiquities Scheme).

Zuni pottery owl

Zuni pottery owl. New Mexico, late 19th century. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

This charming owl was made as a tourist souvenir by the Zuni of New Mexico. The Zuni and other Pueblo peoples of the southwestern United States have a long tradition of working with pottery, producing beautifully decorated vessels to store food and water. During the late 19th century increasing numbers of travelers and tourists in the region created a market for figures such as this one, and similar objects remain a major source of income for the tribes. I suspect that this and similar pieces are based on the Burrowing Owl, common to the region.

Zuni pottery owl

Zuni pottery owl. New Mexico, late 19th century. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Anthropology Department.

Lacquered wooden inro with eagle owl

Lacquered wooden inro with eagle owl. Shiomi Masazane, Japan, 18th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Inro (‘seal-basket’) are small decorative containers that hang from the waist. They originated at the end of the sixteenth century and were worn by men to hold seals and herbal and other medicines. They were considered a particularly good way of keeping the contents sealed and fresh. By the eighteenth century they had become decorative accessories and were commissioned by the merchant class, provincial rulers and their samurai, and those that could afford them.

Inro are made from very thin leather, wood or paper covered in decorated lacquer. They consist of separate sections stacked on top of each other, and are kept together by a cord loop that passes through a channel on each side and underneath the bottom section. The sections are held together when the cord is tightened by pulling it through a bead (ojime), rather like the toggles used in outdoor clothing. The cord is then passed behind the waist sash (obi) so that the inro hangs freely from the waist. To prevent the inro from slipping through the obi, a small and often decorative toggle (netsuke) is attached to the end of the cord. (The Victoria & Albert Museum).

Carnelian Scarab with Owl on Sphere

Carnelian scarab engraved with an owl on a sphere. Italy, 3rd century BCE. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bronze owl wine vessel

Bronze owl wine vessel. Shang Dynasty, China, 13th-11th century BCE. Yale University Art Gallery.

This zun or wine vessel is cast in the shape of an owl whose head forms a removable lid. A scaled snake with a tiger’s head forms the pinion of each wing. The snake’s body outlines the curve of the wings, which terminate in a clawed and plumed bird. On the breast is another composite creature made up of a cicada’s body with a bovine head capped with horns in the shape of two small dragons. The owl as both a night bird and a bird of prey was a symbol of death and ill omen in later Chinese folk tradition. Although unlucky to the living because it foretells death, the owl may have been considered suitable as a motif for vessels intended to feast the dead. Combining it with the cicada, a natural symbol of death and transformation, may have increased it potency. (Yale University Art Gallery).

Staffordshire owl jug

Salt-glazed stoneware owl jug. Staffordshire, England, 1730-1750. The Fitzwilliam Museum.

This 18th-century owl, from Staffordshire in England, is similar to the Chinese wine vessel above in that the body is a jug and the head a detachable lid that also serves as a cup.

Metal button depicting owl

Metal button depicting an owl. Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

For more images see the second post in this two-part series on owls.

*Special thanks to BibliOdyssey for assistance with this post.

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