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This recent project is a vintage watercolor depiction of the owl, of one of the most majestic birds in the avian world. The subject of many tales, prophecies, the owl means many things to many people.

The modern West generally associates owls with wisdom. This link goes back at least as far as Ancient Greece, where Athens, noted for art and scholarship, and Athena, Athens’ patron goddess and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as a symbol.  Marija Gimbutas traces veneration of the owl as a goddess, among other birds, to the culture of Old Europe, long pre-dating Indo-European cultures.

T. F. Thiselton-Dyer in his Folk-lore of Shakespeare says that “from the earliest period it has been considered a bird of ill-omen,” and Pliny tells us how, on one occasion, even Rome itself underwent a lustration, because one of them strayed into the Capitol. He represents it also as a funereal bird, a monster of the night, the very abomination of human kind. Virgil describes its death-howl from the top of the temple by night, a circumstance introduced as a precursor of Dido‘s death. Ovid, too, constantly speaks of this bird’s presence as an evil omen; and indeed the same notions respecting it may be found among the writings of most of the ancient poets.”  A list of “omens drear” in John KeatsHyperion includes the “gloom-bird’s hated screech.”

Native American cultures

People often allude to the reputation of owls as bearers of supernatural danger when they tell misbehaving children, “the owls will get you”,  and in most Native American folklore, owls are a symbol of death. For example:

  • According to Apache and Seminole tribes, hearing owls hooting is considered the subject of numerous “bogeyman” stories told to warn children to remain indoors at night or not cry too much, otherwise the owl may carry them away.  In some tribal legends, owls are associated with spirits of the dead, and the bony circles around an owl’s eyes are said to comprise the fingernails of apparitional humans. Sometimes owls are said to carry messages from beyond the grave or deliver supernatural warnings to people who have broken tribal taboos.
  • The Aztecs and Maya, along with other natives of Mesoamerica, considered the owl a symbol of death and destruction. In fact, the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with owls. There is an old saying in Mexico that is still in use: Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere (“When the owl cries/sings, the Indian dies”). The Popol Vuh, a Mayan religious text, describes owls as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan “Place of Fright”).
  • The belief that owls are messengers and harbingers of the dark powers is also found among the Hočągara (Winnebago) of Wisconsin. When in earlier days the Hočągara committed the sin of killing enemies while they were within the sanctuary of the chief’s lodge, an owl appeared and spoke to them in the voice of a human, saying, “From now on the Hočągara will have no luck.” This marked the beginning of the decline of their tribe.  An owl appeared to Glory of the Morning, the only female chief of the Hočąk nation, and uttered her name. Soon afterwards she died.
  • According to the culture of the Hopi, a Uto-Aztec tribe, taboos surround owls, which are associated with sorcery and other evils.
  • Ojibwe tribes, as well as their Aboriginal Canadian counterparts, used an owl as a symbol for both evil and death. In addition, they used owls as a symbol of very high status of spiritual leaders of their spirituality.
  • Pawnee tribes viewed owls as the symbol of protection from any danger within their realms.
  • Pueblo people associated owls with Skeleton Man, the god of death and spirit of fertility.
  • Yakama tribes use an owl as a powerful totem. Such taboos or totems often guide where and how forests and natural resources are useful with management, even to this day and even with the proliferation of “scientific” forestry on reservations.

 

 

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