Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Animal Allies: Owls and the Afterlife

“Humans are part of the animal kingdom, which is part of the vast living world around us. In earth-centered circles, we often adopt animal totems as a means of aligning our energies with specifics elements. The animal world is vast and varied and full of natural magic. Animals are helpful guides in ancestor and spirit work. Where we have lost our connection to the natural world, they have not.
Our animal allies are a key to help cross the threshold, something known and familiar, and cultures throughout history have often associated specific animals with this task. We take their lessons based on indigenous mythology and animal behavior. They represent some part of me and the way that part of me relates to the world around me. The energy of those animals walk with me in my life and when I need guidance I turn to the spirit of my personal allies for strength.”
[Abridged from Animal Allies: Hummingbird Messengers, March 28, 2012]

Interactions with Owls
In the late 1990s I worked two years doing summer stock theatre in Highlands, North Carolina. It was my first time in the south, fitting as in my spiritual life I was on the edge of opening up to something bigger than me. At the time I was lost in the internal philosophy of questing to find it. Highlands sits on the top of a mountain peak where the blue and smoky mountains meet. At dusk and dawn every day, the clouds would roll through town. No one drove during these intervals, but many locals laughed at the glee with which the girl from New York greeted the “fog.”
My true spiritual awakening happened on top of that mountain. It came in the form of an owl visitation. I was sitting by the creek near our house as the clouds were weeping through the woods. I could feel the drops of water walking across my skin. It never ceased to fascinate me.
Something large blurred past me, silent. An invisible curtain dropped over the natural cacophony of insect life at twilight time. Right before me, on a low tree branch sat the largest bird I have ever seen that had not been there moments before. It was the first owl I saw in person and I held my breath the whole time. Not because I thought I would spook it, but because it’s presence held me spellbound. In the gloaming it was mostly white with some grey and large dandelion-colored eyes which stared into me, without blinking.
We sat that way for a few minutes. Then the owl spun its head around, cried into the night, a call that shook me to the bone, and then it lifted, silent as an assassin, flying so swiftly over me that I fell onto my back beneath its shadow. Its wingspan was as wide as I was tall. It was a reminder of how small I am to this world, of how I was just one more animal trying to live among others. It was a gift of Other World touching me on a night when I felt most alone and unseen, when I needed it most. And something within me broke open in that meeting place of water, earth, air and owl.
I have walked with Owl watching over me ever since. Just last year I spent a delicious evening meditating in the woods when a barred owl starting calling out. I called back and, in the moment, found I was a fair mimic. Fair enough that the owl hooted back. We called back and forth at each other for twenty minutes. After the first few exchanges, it stopped feeling like mimicry. Even though I didn’t know what I was saying, it was clear that this animal creature and I were interacting. It was wonderful to lose myself in its world. In my life, owl delivers messages to and from Other World, and aids my work.

Meditations on Owl
Owl medicine is helpful with personal growth, something at the core of the Work that I do. The Owl is a silent and swift predator, taking in the woods around him, deciding on the path before him before taking flight and catching his prey. His hearing is remarkable and he knows the difference between a falling leaf and mouse rustling beneath it. Once an owl has digested its meal, it purges up what it does not need and cannot digest in the form of a small pellet. Owl knows when it’s time to remove what is unwanted and needed in order to make way for new growth. When they cough up the parts of their prey that they don’t digest, they reveal the bones and flesh of the animal in its simplest form. Where others may be deceived, those with owl medicine know the truth of what is hidden.
Owl sees that which others cannot, which often lends to its solitary nature, which also lends to its ability to see deeper within. This animal is a strong ally for soul retrieval, for seeing the healing within that needs to be attended to and know what medicine is right to heal it. When you feel lost, owl essence will help you find your way back to your path, to your wisdom. Owl’s senses see beyond shadows. They pierce through fear and darkness, through what stands in the way so that you might see the other side, where light, happiness and knowledge exist. The only way out is through and Owl knows this to be true.

Owls in Legend:
  • Owl fossils have been discovered that date back 60 million years.
  • They are one of the few birds found in early cave paintings.
  • They are associated with prophecy, and their cries hold meaning: 1 for impending death, 2 for success in an imminent venture, 3 for a woman will marry into the family, 4 for disturbance, 5 for imminent travel, 6 for guests arriving, 7 for mental distress, 8 for sudden death, and 9 for good fortune.
  • Mountain legends say the hoot of an owl at midnight means death is coming. An owl circling the sky during the day means bad news.
  • Owl allies bring messages through dreams and meditation.
  • Owls are associated with witchcraft, magic, wisdom, the unknown, medicine, weather, death, perception, deception, and dreams.
Greek & Roman Legend:
  • The Little Owl, Athene noctua, became the companion of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom after she banished the mischievous prankster, crow.
  • The owl was the favored of Athene’s feathered creatures, a symbol of her “light,” allowing her to see beyond half-truths. This owl was protected in Greek culture and lived in the Acropolis in large numbers.
  • Owls accompanied Greek armies to war. Sighting them on the battlefield was a sign of impending victory.
  • Owls watched over commerce and trade. Minted on one side of the Greek coin, they represented good fortune.
  • Roman Mythology tells us that Ascalpus spied Proserpine eating a pomegranate in the garden and told on her. She was only allowed to leave if she didn’t eat anything. For his tattling, he was transformed into “a sluggish Screech Owl, a loathsome bird.”
  • Romans believed that a dead owl nailed to the door averted all the misfortune its presence had caused to the household. Romans also believed that witches transformed into owls to suck the blood of babies.
  • To the Romans, the hoot of an owl foretold death. The defeat of the Roman army at Charrhea, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, was supposedly foretold by the hooting of an owl. It is said that the deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Agrippa, and Commodus Aurelius were all preceded by the cry of an owl.
  • A 2nd century soothsayer, Artemidorus, claimed that dreaming of an owl meant the traveler would be shipwrecked or robbed.
Celtic Legend:
  • Merlin, of Arthurian legend, had an owl as a companion.
  • In Celtic mythology, the owl is a guide to the underworld, known as “corpse bird” and “night hag,” associated with wisdom and keen sight.
  • Images of owls found in the Celtic Isles pre-date the Greek cults of Athene.
  • The Scottish-Gaelic word for old woman is Cailleach and the word for owl is coileach-oidhche which means “night-cockerel.”
  • Owls were associated with the Crone aspect of the goddess.
  • The owls were guides to the Underworld.
  • The myth of Bloudeuwedd, written in the Mabinogi, speaks of a woman magically created as a wife to Lleu. She tricked him into revealing the secret of his mortality and used that to take his life. He avenged his death by transforming her into an owl. The word Bloudeuwedd is still used in Wales to mean owl.
  • The Welsh saw the owl as a predator whose time of power was dusk, when it was capable of defeating the falcon.
  • The Welsh Goddess Arianrhod was a shapeshifter who transformed into a large owl, looking through owl eyes to see the darkness within humans, as well as the soul.
  • The Welsh believed that if an owl was heard hooting among the houses, a young girl had just lost her virginity.
  • A cauldron was found sunken in a bog in Bra, Jutland which dates back to the 3rd century B.C. It was broken into pieces before being deposited, most probably as an offering. The handle fittings of the cauldron were owls.
European Legend:
  • In the British Isles, owls were associated with death and negative energy. Owl feathers were thought to repel those unwanted energies.
  • In the Middle Ages, the owl was associated with witchcraft.
  • In early English folk remedies, raw owl eggs were used to treat alcoholism. It was believed that children fed raw owl eggs would be gifted a lifetime’s protection against drunkenness.
  • Owl eggs, cooked to ash, were imbibed to improve eyesight.
  • Owl broth was a common remedy for children suffering from whooping cough, specifically in Yorkshire.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth were fond of using the Barn Owl as their “bird of doom.” In other literature of this time period, barn owls were often associated with death. If an owl screeched outside the window of a sick person, it was believed they would die.
  • In English folklore, a barn owl screech meant cold weather or a storm was coming. If the screech was heard during bad weather, it meant a change in storm was imminent.
  • Into the 19th century, it was customary to nail a dead owl to a barn door in order to ward off evil and lightning, and protect the livestock within.
  • Owls were treated with reverence in France, with several species named for dukes. The Long-Eared Owl was called Hibou Moyen-Duc and the European Eagle Owl was called Hibou Grand-Duc. In the Middle Ages, only nobles above the ranking of duke were allowed the honor of wearing a plume of feathers in their cap and it is suspected owls with ears seemed to them to be of nobler rank.
  • Lore in the Lorraine region of France, tells that owls would help spinsters find husbands.
  • In Romania, souls of sinners who repent, fly to heaven in the form of snowy owls.
  • Poland folklore said that unmarried women became doves when they died, and married women transformed into owls.
Native Legend:
  • In Native America, the owl is prevalently associated with death and spirits, though each tribe had a different relationship with the animal. Many saw owls as spirits of the recent dead. Other tribes saw them as underworld messengers who shepherded spirits to the world that comes after death. They are spirit protectors.
  • Many tribes referred to owls as Night Eagles.
  • Some tribes saw owls as healers and would hang feathers in the doorway of a home to keep illness out.
  • The Lenni Lenape (New Jersey) said that an owl shown in a dream would become the guardian of the dreamer.
  • The Hopi (Arizona) believed the Burrowing Owl was the manifestation of their god of the dead, who was guardian of fire and caretaker for all things underground, including seed germination. Their name for the owl is Ko’ko, meaning “Watcher of the Dark.”
  • The Hopi believed that Great Horned Owls helped their peaches to grow.
  • The Mojave (Arizona) believed that in death, everyone became an owl for a short time, then reincarnating as a beetle, until finally becoming pure air.
  • The Navajo (Arizona/New Mexico/Utah) believe that the owl is the messenger guide of the other world and other earth-bound spirits.
  • The Zuni (New Mexico) placed owl feathers in babies’ cribs to keep evil spirits away from the infant.
  • The Newuks (California) believed that brave and virtuous men and women became Great Horned Owls after their death. Those who were wicked of heart became Barn Owls.
  • Tribes living in the Sierras (California/Nevada) believed Great Horned Owls would snatch the souls of the dead and transport them to their underworld.
  • The Cree (Northwest US/Canada) thought that the whistle of the Boreal Owl was a doorway to spirit world. If the person whistled back, and did not hear a response from the owl, it meant they would soon die.
  • The Spedis Owl is a petroglyph found on a rock face at The Dalles, the end of the Oregon Trail along the Columbus River between Washington and Oregon. Figures of this same owl have been found in a wide area in that region, but are focally located on there. Legend says the petroglyph was placed on the rock to protect people from the “water devils” that could pull them under.
  • The Dalles was the rough edge of the Northwest Coast area of native people. The Kwagiulth/ Kwakiutl (Vancouver Island, BC) believed that owls were manifestations of people’s souls. They would not harm owls, for if the owl died, so would the person who the soul belonged to.
  • The Tlingit (Pacific Northwest) thought warriors that heard an owl were receiving a message of coming victory in battle.
  • The Inuit (Alaska) have a story that tells of Snowy Owl and Raven making new clothes for each other. Raven made a dress of black and white feather for Owl. Owl made Raven a white dress. But Raven grew so excited when Owl was fitting the dress that she couldn’t sit still. Owl was angry and threw oil lamp at Raven, which soaked through the white dress, turning it black.
Other Legend:
  • In many countries in Africa, owls are associated with sorcery and dark magic. A large owl spotted outside a house indicates a powerful shaman lives there. Many people believe owls carry messages between the shaman and the spirit world.
  • The Zulu, and other West African nations, believe the bird has strong influence in spellcasting. They think using owl parts imbues the magical user with great strength.
  • The Swahili believe owls bring sickness to children.
  • Algerians believed that placing the right eye of an Eagle Owl in the hand of a sleeping woman was a truth spell that would make her tell you what you wanted to know.
  • Owl amulets were used as protection for pregnant women in Babylon.
  • Food was made from owls in India for medicinal use. Owl eye broth aided seizures in children and owl meat helped with rheumatism. Ingesting owl eyes enabled good night vision.
  • In Russia, hunters carried owl claws, a tool for their souls to climb to heaven should they die.
  • The Kalmuks believed an owl saved Genghis Kahn and held the animal as sacred.
  • Malaysians believed that owls ate infants.
  • The Ainu people of Hokkaidu, Japan trust owls to warn them of approaching evil. They believe it mediates between gods and men. They see Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Ketupa blakistoni, as their god kotan kor kamuv, which mean “god of the village.”


  1. In 2011 my husband committed suicide at the age of 34. The next day an owl perched on an eave on the front of the funeral home for most of the day. The ladies that were working in the town office across the street were able to catch an amazing photo which was featured on the front page of our local paper. At the time our middle daughter had been studying owls on school so we thought it was a strange coincidence. Maybe, we thought, Matt was saying goodbye. One year and 3 days later my maternal aunt passed away rather unexpectedly. The small town that we live in only publishes a newspaper once per week on weds. The weds after my aunt passed, I walked into a store and glanced over atthe paper to see that another stubbing owl graced the front page. To say I was shocked would be putting it mildly. (Oh and I forgot to mention that owls were her favorite animals and she figurines of them all over her house). Some may think I'm crazy but I now believe with all my heart that owls are somehow connected with the afterlife. I just wish I knew more. All the sight say what the legends are; but none of them seem to explain why or how they came to be. Are their others out there that have had experiences like this? I'd love to hear your comments. Oh and I loved your story too....about seeing the owl on the mountain. That must have been breathtaking. ๐Ÿ˜€

    1. I live in the mountains of Colorado. This summer we had the great pleasure of seeing two fledgling Great Horned Owls perched outside of our bedroom window. Two weeks later my Mom died due to complications of a back surgery. I have been heartbroken since that day. The fledglings and the mother owl are still live and hunt near our house: I hear them almost nightly and sometimes I wake to them hooting in the morning. I see them often, during the day and close to sunset. I feel such a jolt and pure joy when I see one flying silently through the pines. They have brought me such peace, and I think about my Mom every time I hear them and every time I see them. I look for them on my walks. I am curious if there is a connection between the owl and death, as well as the afterlife.

    2. M. Reed, thank you so much for sharing your story! I have no concrete proof to offer outside of mythology that owls are connected to the afterlife, but I feel a lot of predator animals are. I experience them as messengers from spirit world. Like your story, they always seem to show up at important moments.

  2. My husband, who was sick for many years died on May 31, 2016,and we shared our dog Bullet together. I was walking him and looked down to find a beautiful feather, and I heard Dale say thank you for taking care of Bullet. Several weeks later I was walking with this feather in my hand, and a girl told me it was an owl feather which I did not know. I saw my therapist today and he told me about owl spirits and an afterlife message, so after reading all this I started to cry and realized it was Dale who wanted to give me a message. Thank you sweet heart I know how much you loved me and Bullet. Denise

    1. Thank you for sharing, Denise. Owl is definitely a sign for me that spirit is reaching out for me. I hope it can bring you comfort during your grief. It is never easy to lose those we love.


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