A Parliment of Owls: Native American Myths of the Southwest

calling_the_allies SSB

I spent 19 years exploring Southwestern deserts and the stories of the native peoples who live there. It didn’t take long to learn that certain stories are only told in the winter, when the world is at rest. Stories about owls fall into this category. Seeing as it’s snowing in Colorado, it seems as though this is the time to share a few of my favorites gathered during my desert years, which seem so far away they might have happened to another person entirely.
“There came a gray owl at sunset,
There came a gray owl at sunset,
Hooting softly around me,
He brought terror to my heart.”

                                                     — Pima Song

The Direction West 1994Terror poised on a tree branch, He swoops silently out of the shadows upon a victim unaware of his presence until, with a thudding impact, powerful talons crush its flesh. A curved beak flashes. A quivering end to one life brings sustenance to another.

Owl’s extraordinary nocturnal hunting abilities have inspired more fear, reverence and story-telling among Native Americans than almost any other figurative animal but Coyote. Nearly universal among tribal lore, owl tales reveal a sharp eye for ecological detail and a complex worldview embedded in the intricate weave of Native American storytelling.

Owl Wind 1992With fringelike leading-edge wing feathers that muffle the turbulent sound of wind rushing over wings common to other birds, owls descend in eerie silence upon their prey. And eyes with a retina equipped with an abundance of rod cells capture light for nighttime hunting. These capabilities are often linked to haunting Native Americans tales of death and ghosts.

Yet, owl myths also reveal complicated tribal worldviews in which traditional Western-society concepts of good and evil give way to ambiguous, contradictory and unpredictable forces of nature. Feathered ghost, protector of abused children, transformed monster, part witch, part keeper of souls — Father Owl assumes a baffling array of fierce, yet wisely just guises in tribal mythology. He’s often used as a spiritual foil to illustrate the value of reverence, obedience and right behavior — making him a favorite in the instructive world of children’s bedtime stories.

Young Owl 1994Parents receive instruction right along with children. For instance, in a tale belonging to the Tewa people, a disobedient boy sneaks out at night to watch his elders in the kiva. His father catches him, beats him with a stick and sends him into the darkness, where the boy cries and moans. Father Owl glides out of the night and lands before him, telling the boy to get on his back. Father Owl carries the child back to his nest filled with his own fledglings. “This is your new home,” says Father Owl. “I took you away from your mother and father because they were always scolding you.”

Ancestor 1987When the boy’s parents discover their son is missing, they regret beating him and begin searching for their lost child. After a time, seeing the parents nearly dead from despair, Father Owl lets the child return to his home on the high pueblo.

At first, the boy’s parents don’t recognize him — he has started growing feathers and his eyes are turning yellow like his owl brothers and sisters. Father Owl tells the parents that the boy must stay in a locked room for four days. After sunset on the fourth day, they may look in, but if they open the door before then, the boy will belong to the owls forever.

I Hear the Owl call my Name SSBBut eager to see her son, the mother can’t wait, and on the morning of the fourth day, she peeks into the room. That night, when the parents open the door, they find not their son, but a large owl flying from one corner to the other.

Overcome with sadness, the father says, “My poor boy, your mother was bad for looking too soon and now you are an owl.”

The owl nods.

“But if the enemy approaches or sickness is coming, you may come and warn the people,” the father says. And the owl, who was once a boy, flies off into the night.

So rather than simply concluding that children should always obey their parents, this story also illustrates why parents should not whip their children and explains why an owl’s call is often taken as a warning.

Ancient Ones 1991All Southwestern Native American tribes have similarly complex — usually foreboding — stories about Owl, who often serves as a specter to keep willful children in line. In “The Mountaintop Way,” a Navajo ceremonial tale, Owl Boy’s human mother abandons him because of his fearsome nature. Spurned and rejected, Owl Boy kills a member of his tribe when he attempts to return to his Navajo family. The narrator intones, “He went to them, but they were afraid of him: his big eyes, his long sharp fingernails, his voice that sounded like the wind playing a flute in a hollow tree.”

Most Native American tales also use this fierce, night-haunting predator to illustrate death, witchcraft and prophecy. The owl’s ghostly approach, keen vision and eerie nighttime habits prey on humankind’s fear of the dark and the unseen. Moreover, the owl’s strident, discordant vocabulary chills the soul and enhances its nocturnal image as a caller of death and singer of bad omens. The Apaches and Navajos believe that a hooting owl portends death and destruction. Historical records contain accounts of war parties or detachments of Apache scouts who would not fight if they heard owls nearby. To this day, a traditional Navajo will delay a journey if he sees an owl near his Hogan, and both Navajos and Apaches believe that if an owl calls your name, death is near. Similarly, Mojave, Tohono O’odham and Pima mythologies suggest that owls can hold the souls of the dead.

Owl Spirit 1981

Many cultures tell grim stories to account for Owl’s origins. For instance, one Navajo tale says that Owl is the child of one of the many monsters that once roamed the earth. In the Navajo creation story, Monster Slayer kills two winged giants called Tse’na’hale, which lived on Shiprock. After killing the adults, Monster Slayer transforms one of their bloodthirsty offspring into an eagle and the other into an owl to keep them from harming the Navajo people. Monster Slayer predicts the owl’s nature and its place in the Navajo realm saying, “In days to come men will listen to your voice to know what will be their future. Sometimes you will tell the truth and sometimes you will lie.” That note of ambiguity captures the complex, flexible and realistic role of the owl that animates many such tales.

Pathways 1988The oldest owl fossils in North America date back some 60 million years on the Colorado Plateau. Of the 133 species of owls found worldwide today, only 19 species live in North America. Southern Arizona, being the northernmost migratory range for several owls, hosts 13 species — more than any region in the United States or Canada.

Unlike most birds, the owl sees exceptionally well in dim light. Moreover, the owl’s disc-shaped face acts like a radar dish, catching faint sounds in a wide range of frequencies. The owl’s hearing is so acute, it often locates its prey in the dark undergrowth by sound alone — perching and hooting to panic mice and rabbits into betraying their position. Another oddity is the owl’s ability to swivel its head 270 degrees, which gives it wider range of motion to detect prey without moving and giving away its position. Add to these, the owl’s ability for ghostly flight, and you get a most successful predator. The owl’s flight is almost soundless thanks to the serrated edges of its leading feathers and the muffling effect of its downy upper surface feathers.

1989-DreamingTheOwlDream_SusanSeddonBouletNative Americans made adroit use of many of these remarkable qualities and often embedded such keenly observed details in their tales. For instance, the Hopis use owl feathers on their arrows to make the shafts fly silently and strike without warning. And Tohono O’odham medicine men, called “owl-meeters,” would discover where the enemy could be ambushed — relying on the owl’s uncanny powers of observation of the unseen. “Hoot owl medicine man, cut the arrow feathers of this my enemy,” the warriors would implore. “Gray owl medicine man, come with me! Yonder find my enemy and make him helpless!”

The Hopis also venerate the great horned owl, who is the protector of peach orchards, reflecting the owl’s skill in keeping rodent populations in check. The great horned owl also plays a prominent role as a Hopi katsina pantheon, but since it is a symbol of the dark, its feathers are not used on prayer sticks, which are offerings to the sun.

Through the Night Sky 1975

In the end, the picture of Owl that emerges from the fascinating wealth of tales remains as complicated, imaginative and mixed as the world itself. One of the most interesting and delightfully ambiguous tales is the Zuni story that explains how the world was divided into light and dark. In the Zuni tale — echoed by many other cultures — the birds and the beasts played a game to set the pattern of day and night. The birds played for day — for like human beings most birds are creatures of the daylight. However, the beasts played for night — the time when the mountain lion and other predatory mammals rule. However, among the beasts Squirrel took the side of the daylight-loving birds while Owl played with the night-loving beasts.

Midnight Sun 1984The game went on all night with each side trying to guess where the other had hidden a set of sacred sticks. As the sun came up, the birds had the most sticks and so won the sun’s daylight. Bear ran off for the cover of darkness and in his hurry put his moccasins on the wrong feet, which is the way his feet still are today. Mountain Lion’s fur was tinted golden with the sun, leaving only his mouth black to show his connection to the night.

Meanwhile, the children of the sun, War Twins, chastised Owl for playing with the beasts and said, “you have not stayed among the winged creatures. You have made a mistake. Therefore, you have lost the sun’s daylight.”

To this day, the owl prowls his dark domain, the soul of the night and keeper of secrets. But sometimes, if you listen closely, you may hear a warning in his haunted lament.

Keeper of the Mysteries 1985I am the owl.
I sit on the spruce tree.
My coat is gray.
I have big eyes.
My head has two points.
The white smoke from my tobacco can be seen
As I sit on the spruce tree.
The little rabbit comes into sight,
Nearby where I sit on the spruce tree.
I think soon my claws will get into its back,
As I sit on the spruce tree.
Now it is dawn, now it is dawn.
The old man owl’s head has two points.
He has big, yellowish eyes.
We see white smoke from his tobacco.
Ho, ho! Ho, ho! Ho, ho!”

— A Navajo song

 

Storyteller 1989

All of the featured art in this post was created by Susan Seddon-Boulet (1941-1997). Images: Calling the Allies (1982); The Direction West (1994); Owl Wind (1992);  Young Owl (1994);  Ancestor (1987); I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1982); Ancient Ones (1991); Owl Spirit (1981); Pathways (1988); Dreaming the Owl Dream (1989), Through the Night Sky (1975); Midnight Sun (1984); Keeper of the Mysteries (1985); and Storyteller (1989). All rights reserved by the artist’s estate. Archival prints and original art can be purchased at Turning Point Gallery.

A Great Start to a New Year

6a00e54fcf7385883401a3fc18bb0e970b-800wiWinter is my favorite season of the year. There is something about dark days and long nights that nourishes my soul. The cold and quiet that comes with deep winter allows me the time to contemplate the direction of my creative work.

In An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams writes about these connections between place and creative healing. “Writing becomes an act of compassion toward life, the life we often refuse to see because if we look too closely or feel too deeply, there may be no end to our suffering. But words empower us, move us beyond our suffering, and set us free. This is the sorcery of literature. We are healed by our stories. By undressing, exposing, and embracing the bear, we undress, expose, and embrace our authentic selves. Stripped free from society’s oughts and shoulds, we emerge as emancipated beings. The bear is free to roam.”

6a00e54fcf73858834019b047d4108970d-800wi“We are creatures of paradox, women and bears, two animals that are enormously unpredictable, hence our mystery,” Williams continues. “Perhaps the fear of bears and the fear of women lies in our refusal to be tamed, the impulses we arouse and the forces we represent….As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems.”

indexThe duality represented by bears presents a balanced cycle that mirrors my own journey through each year. Summer and autumn months offer prime opportunities to explore my surroundings. I collect material, capture color, and walk through the world gathering material for my own personal hibernation. When winter comes, I travel inwards through collected dreams and senses. This is my chosen time for creative work.

6a00e54fcf7385883401a51093139b970c-320wi“If we choose to follow the bear,” Williams writes, “we will be saved from a distracted and domesticated life. The bear becomes our mentor. We must journey out, so that we might journey in. The bear mother enters the earth before snowfall and dreams herself through winter, emerging with young by her side. She not only survives the barren months, she gives birth. She is the caretaker of the unseen world. As a writer and a woman with obligations to both family and community, I have tried to adopt this ritual of balancing public and private life. We are at home in the deserts and mountains, as well as in our dens. Above ground in the abundance of spring and summer, I am available. Below ground in the deepening of autumn and winter, I am not. I need hibernation in order to create.”

6a00e54fcf7385883401a510c7aab2970c-800wiThere is a rich history of mythic traditions relating women to bears. According to J. C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, bears represent resurrection. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, psychologist and storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés links their transformative and regenerative power to many goddesses around the world.

6a00e54fcf73858834019b046fee95970d-320wi“The bear is associated with many huntress Goddesses: Artemis and Diana in Greece and Rome, and Muerte and Hecoteptl, mud women deities in the Latina cultures. These Goddesses bestowed upon women the power of tracking, knowing, ‘digging out’ the psychic aspects of all things. To the Japanese the bear is the symbol of loyalty, wisdom, and strength. In northern Japan where the Ainu tribe lives, the bear is one who can talk to God directly and bring messages back for humans. The crescent moon bear is considered a sacred being, one who was given the white mark on his throat by the Buddhist Goddess Kwan-Yin, whose emblem is the crescent moon. Kwan-Yin is the Goddess of Deep Compassion and the bear is her emissary.”

6a00e54fcf7385883401a510962d6f970c-800wi“In the psyche, the bear can be understood as the ability to regulate one’s life, especially one’s feeling life. Bearish power is the ability to move in cycles, be fully alert, or quiet down into a hibernative sleep that renews one’s energy for the next cycle,” she continues. “The bear image teaches that it is possible to maintain a kind of pressure gauge for one’s emotional life, and most especially that one can be fierce and generous at the same time. One can be reticent and valuable. One can protect one’s territory, make one’s boundaries clear, shake the sky if need be, yet be available, accessible, engendering all the same.”

It’s going to be a wonderful year, indeed.

6a00e54fcf7385883401b7c7354494970b-800wiImages: “Playing With the North Wind” by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), photography by Katerina Plotnikova, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957),  “Hibernation” by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), “The Snow Princess” by Ruth Sanderson, “Bear Woman” by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), “The White Bear King” by Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914), and “Pink Moon” by Jackie Morris.