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
Terror 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.
With 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.
Parents 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.”
When 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.
But 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.
All 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.
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.
The 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.
Native 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.
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.
The 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.
I 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
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.