Wednesday, February 1, 2012

February Totems: Owl

In our tradition we divide the year not only by eight solar and agricultural holidays, but also by the Kalends. We celebrate twelve months of the year by the common calendar, plus a special thirteenth month for Samhain.  These month cycles are associated with different totemic spirits. Each month is assigned an animal, a bird (or other flying creature), and a tree. February's totems are Cat, Willow, and Owl.

The totemic associations are as follows:

Cat – (Cath) mystery, magic, secrecy, independence, sensuality
Willow – (Saille) divination, lunar magic, healing, night
Owl – (Comhachag) wisdom, magic, night, inner visions, change


In the western tradition owl is inextricably associated with the quality of wisdom.  This is due in part to its ancient associations with the Goddess Athena, and also with its large forward-facing eyes.  In Welsh tradition, the owl is among the most ancient of animals, second only to the eagle and the salmon of knowledge.  It was the third animal that Culhwch asks regarding the whereabouts of Mabon.  Also in Scotland we find this rhyme:
I am coeval with the ancient oak
Whose roots spread wide in yonder moss,
 Many a race has passed before me,
And still I am the lonely owl of Srona.
Whereas the salmon of knowledge offers a general kind of wisdom, the owl is symbolic of a more circumspect wisdom.  It is objective and detached from the mundane.  Owl watches and waits, in ruined castles, church towers, barns, and hollow trees.  The owl is symbolic of esoteric wisdom and secrecy.

In folklore the owl is associated with death, night, and silence.  The owl is much noted for its unique feather and wing structure which allows it to fly silently.  The old magazine Puck records a folk rhyme that links the owl with slience:
A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?
Owls have acute hearing, and use a kind of echo-location to hunt their prey.  The owl can be a symbol of both silence and the ability to hear those things that others might miss.  An owl totem can be a sign that one would benefit from listening more.

One of the Celtic names for owl is "Cailleach-oidchce" (crone of the night), linking the owl with the Black Goddess as the Cailleach.  The Black Goddess is the Lady of life-in-death and the call of the owl is seen as an omen of both the birth of a girl or the death of a man.  This ability to foretell the future links the owl with clairvoyance and astral travel.

The owl is a bird set apart.  She hunts at night, and is mobbed by other birds -- notably crows -- during the day.  The Welsh point to the story of Math, Son of Mathonwy for the reason behind this.  Blodeuwedd, the flower-bride of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, was transformed into an owl as punishment for betraying her husband.
"And because of the dishonor thou hast done to Lleu Llaw Gyffes thou art never to dare show thy face in the light of day, and that through fear of all birds; and that there be enmity between thee and all birds, and that it be their nature to mob and molest thee wherever they may find thee; and that thou shalt not lose thy name but that thou be forever called Blodeuwedd."
Another Goddess figure who was also transformed into an owl as punishment for betraying her husband is the Sumerian-Jewish Lilith.  Lilith is also associated with wisdom, as folklore tradition makes her the serpent in the Garden of Eden who offered forth the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge to Eve.

To the Ojibwa tribe of North America the owl is a symbol of evil and death.  To the Pueblo, it represented Skeleton Man, Lord of death and fertility. To the Pawnee the owl was a powerful symbol of protection.  Owls are sometimes nailed, wings spread, over the doors of barns to protect livestock from evil spirits, both in North American and in European tradition.

In ancient Rome it was believed that placing an owl feather on the body of a sleeping person would allow you to discover all of their secrets.

1 comment:

  1. The owl is my favourite bird, and the animal I feel closest to in my Craft. Thank you for this interesting and informative article.


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