Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Owl Lore

"In many tribes, owls were seen as most closely allied with medicine men, rather than warriors or hunters. Lakota medicine men or peju'ta wica'sa respect the owl because it moves at night when people sleep, and the medicine men get their power from dreams at night, clear dreams like the owl's sight, so many Lakota medicine men wear owl feathers and promise never to harm the owl, or else it is believed their powers will leave them. Creek medicine men often carried an owl skin or feather as a symbol of their calling. Ponca medicine men also used owl feathers in their healing ceremonies and Ojibway medicine men placed a stuffed owl near them while they were making medicine, so that it could "see if they do it right." The Pawnee used an Owl Medicine, and among the Pawnee it is said that "the owl is the leading medicine-man among the birds." Finally, owls were said by the Alabama, the Caddo, the Cherokee, and the Lakota, to bring prophetic news, either of the future or of events happening at a great distance, to the few medicine men who could understand them.

The owl's association with medicine men can also be bad news for ordinary folks. If a medicine man used owl power on your behalf, great, but if the medicine man of another tribe used his powers against you, then he could be an evil witch or bad medicine man trying to steal your soul. Because witches or bad medicine men were believed to be able to transform into owls, or to use owls to send death or disease, you could never quite be sure if an owl you saw was a real owl, a transformed witch, or an owl sent on a mission by a witch. The owls most often believed to be shapeshifted witch's were, the Great Horned or Screech Owls. So among the Cherokee, the same word, skili, was used to refer to both witches and Great Horned Owls. The Alabama, Caddo, Catawba, Choctaw and Menomini also associated Great Horned Owls or Screech Owls or both with witches, and the Wisconsin Ojibway also link witches and owls. Small wonder, then, that among many tribes, seeing or hearing an owl is believed to be a bad omen, often signaling serious illness or death to come, especially when a night owl is seen during the day, or an owl is found hanging about the home or village instead of the woods.

It is their connections with death, the afterlife, and rebirth that truly mark owls as a force to be reckoned with for most tribes. First, owls are either considered to be embodied spirits of the dead, or associated with such spirits, by a very wide range of tribes, including the Lakota, Omaha, Cheyenne, Fox, Ojibway, Menomini, Cherokee and Creek. Several of these tribes also have stories of an owl being that stands at a fork in the road in the sky, or the Milky Way, that leads to the land of the dead, letting some souls pass, but condemning others to roam the earth as ghosts forever. Among the Lakota, the Old Owl Woman or hiha'n winu'cala who guards the road to the afterlife at the end of the Milky Way assesses the merits of the souls of the dead with their deeds on earth, letting the good through and sending the bad over the edge and out of the afterlife to wander earth as a ghost or wana'gi for all eternity. A similar belief among the Cheyenne, is that the Old Owl Woman, who is the gatekeeper to the land of the dead, it sits atop the junction at the fork in the Milky Way and decides which souls are shunted onto the dead-end branch.

Among the Ojibway, one word for the bridge over which the dead had to pass to the afterlife is the Owl Bridge. The Lake Superior Ojibway also mention a spirit being with horns called Pacugu which might refer to the tufted "horns" of a Great Horned or Screech Owl, that stands at a fork in the road to the afterlife, blocking the way for evil souls, but helping good ones along on their journey. Another Lake Superior Ojibway story mentions that the last obstacle the soul must pass on its way to the land of the dead is an old woman, perhaps an Owl Woman, who questioned the soul about its life and decided which souls to turn back, punish, or let pass. The Wisconsin Ojibway have a story that relates how the culture hero Nanabozho's brother placed an owl being as the second test for souls as they pass along the road to the afterlife.

The Fox tribe also speak of a soul-bridge that leads to the land of the dead. They say that there are two paths at the soul-bridge, one is red and one is gray. The red path is followed by men, the gray by women. It has been suggested that this is in reference to the two color phases of the Screech Owl, which are also red and gray."

-From Red Nation

2 comments:

Lynette said...

I just have a question, To Wisconsin Ojibway culture does seeing an owl during the daytime a bad omen for this tribe?

Terrence Maddox said...

My father walked many years with death and he died a long death.

I had dreams of owls after his death; I cared for them and spoke with them.
My final owl dream was of a gathering of owls behind a vail of snow; they preened themselves and shook off the cold from their travel.
My father was one of them.
Some weeks later, while visiting his back yard (sanctuary)I received an owl feather resting on the grass.
I have received many others over the years, but fewer as time goes by.
I have taken to giving these messages to loved ones who are missing their own.

Thank you for writing.

Amalek