Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Owl symbolism

Had another intense dream. Most of the dream wasn't that impactful, but the part with the owl was so intense it woke me up. I take both emotional intensity and whether a dream wakes you up as signs that you need to pay some serious attention. So I started researching owls, and their general meaning has to do with the scary/mysterious night-time knowledge, regardless of culture (with the exception of the Japanese, but that has to do with the fact that the Japanese word for owl is close to their word for good fortune, and therefore owls are associated with fortune in the Japanese culture, but that's really a one off.)

Following are the various meanings of owls from around the world.

Owl symbolism from around the world
The owl is sacred to the Greek goddess of learning, Athena and is even depicted on some Greco-Roman currency as a symbol of status, intelligence and of course, wealth. In ancient Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures the symbolic meaning of owl revolved around guardianship of the underworlds, and a protection of the dead. In this light the owl was ruler of the night and seer of souls. A misunderstanding of this necessary relationship gave the owl some negative associations with death. It should be clear that the owl was honored as the keeper of spirits who had passed from one plane to another. Often myth indicates the owl accompanying a spirit to the underworld - winging it's newly freed soul from the physical world into the realm of spirit.

A quick-list of owl symbolic meanings:

Native Americans associated the meaning of owl with wisdom, foresight, and keeper of sacred knowledge. This may largely be due to the fact that the owl is a great foreteller of weather conditions. Also its ability to see at night is legend among the Native Americans, and this attribute would be invoked during ceremonies when an oracle of secret knowledge was required. Similarly, West African and Aboriginal Australian cultures viewed the owl as a messenger of secrets, kin to sorcerers, as well as companions to seers, mystics and medicine people.

During medieval times in western and central Europe it was fabled that owls were actually priestesses (witches) and wizards in disguise. To this day the owl is considered a witch's familiar (an animal soul-spirit linked to a spiritual person via a unique, communicative bond).
What's Your Sign
Africa: Among the Kikuyu of Kenya it was believed that owls were harbingers of death. If one saw an owl or heard its hoot, someone was going to die. In general, owls are viewed as harbingers of bad luck, ill health, or death. The belief is widespread even today

The Americas: In the culture of the Uto-Aztec tribe, the Hopi, taboos surround owls, which are associated with sorcery and other evils. 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. People often allude to the reputation of owls as bearers of supernatural danger when they tell misbehaving children, "the owls will get you."  Also, in the native Cherokee culture, as well as many other Native American cultures, owls are a very bad omen. It is said that if you are outside in the broad day light and an owl flies over your head a family member or loved one would die within the coming week.

Middle East: In Arab mythology, owls are seen as bad omens

Western culture: 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 Keats' Hyperion includes the "gloom-bird's hated screech."

In France, where owls are divided into eared owls (hiboux) and earless owls (chouettes), the former are seen as symbols of wisdom while the latter are assigned the grimmer meaning.

As is pretty clear, owls are overwhelmingly associated with death and misfortune. This is probably because they're associated with the night-time "otherworld." Jung, in his autobiography, describes a trip to Africa where he spent some time with a people he felt were some of the most natural he'd ever seen. During the day, everything was good, everyone was happy. Even when pressed "What about when something bad happens," they always responded that everything was good. This changed dramatically when the sun went down which, being close to the equator, was an almost instantaneous event. Then, the world was filled with evil.

People with less less differentiated and developed ego's (like the people Jung met in Africa) and even those with highly differentiated ego's but a resistance to the unconscious (like extroverted sensation types) have problems with the things the owl, a predatory creature of the night, represents. Distinguished by it's enormous eyes and near invisibility and soundlessness, it can see and hear you but you can't see or hear it... until it's too late! This gives it the uncanniness that's often associated with highly efficient night time predators.

Owls, crones and goddesses

Something that stood out to me is how I often I was reminded of the Praying Mantis. Both are pure predators that rely on patience and an ego-less invisibility rather than flash and speed. And both have a strong association female power.
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.

The word "cailleach" in the Scottish-Gaelic means old woman! "Coileach-oidhche" is the word for owl, believe it or not it means "night-cockerel"! These birds were most often associated with the Crone aspect of the Goddess. The owl is often a guide to and through the Underworld, a creature of keen sight in darkness, and a silent and swift hunter. It can help unmask those who would deceive you or take advantage of you.
The White Goddess

And in Hinduism, with it's symbolically rich mythology, owls are associated with the goddess Lakshmi, one of the forms of the eternal female goddess Shakti.

Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity (both material and spiritual), fortune, and the embodiment of beauty

Lakshmi in Sanskrit is derived from its elemental form lakS, meaning "to perceive or observe". This is synonymous with lakṣya, meaning "aim" or "objective".

In India, the male principle is spiritual and static, while the earthy feminine principle is active and passionate.
Shakti from Sanskrit shak – "to be able", meaning sacred force or empowerment – is the primordial cosmic energy and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the entire universe in Hinduism. Shakti is the concept, or personification, of divine feminine creative power
Wikipedia entries on Lakshmi and Shakti

What this all seems to boil down to is that the dream about the owl is a kind of continuation of the praying mantis: both are feminine symbols of power, both have to do with the spirit realm, and both are distinguished by their ability to see. Both are also being mutilated in some way by another archetype. In the case of the Praying Mantis, it was the feminine, passionate part of the self, the cat (which, after reading the above, reminds me somewhat of Shakti.) In this most recent dream, this principle is being mutilated by the child.

The child is often one of the symbols of the Self, but a specific aspect of it: the frustrating but renewing part that comes through our weakness. It's the part of us that doesn't do what we want it to do, and doesn't do anything particularly well, but is the refreshing source of life. This another connection between the dreams, because in me this Child self would come through the feelings, or the Cat self.

This is all pure conjecture - I don't feel I've explored this enough and am sure more will be coming. But these two dreams seem to be saying that this spiritual part of me, which is an aspect of the Self, is being wounded by my feeling self. What does it mean? I thought I was supposed to protect it, but now I wonder if this is saying that this needs to die. The old Self needs to die and be reborn in a larger form? I don't know, but I'll be keeping my eyes open.

I also need to write up something about snake/child symbolism. I spent so much time on it I ran out of steam and never got around to writing about it, but this is something that continues to come up, and it's an incredibly rich, valuable set of symbols that I really have to write up something about it.

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