Outside my office there is a beautiful, distracting swathe of native bushland. I’ve had many visitors in my office, most of them human, but occasionally some creature wanders in. A glorious green tree snake spent a few days curled up between the window and the screens, rock wallabies and koalas peer in, and every now and then I see a pair of tawny frogmouths trying to pretend they’re parts of the trees they are roosting on.
Symbolically, they often appear as wise but ominous figures – guardians in the darkness, protectors. The ancient Greeks associated them with the Goddess Athena – owls were her favourite birds – and consequently with wisdom. The Athene Noctua (Little Owl) were a protected and revered species of the ancient world, and reputedly roosted in large numbers in the Acropolis. Throughout antiquity, Athena and her companion owl were a symbol of the city. Athenian silver coins usually showed a head of the goddess facing right on the obverse and an owl on the reverse, under a sprig of olive and a crescent moon (the crescent moon only appears on Athenian coins after the Battle of Salamis in September, 480 BC). The slang word for the tetradrachm was owl. a tetradrachm is a fairly large sum of money, so ‘owls’ were mostly used in trade or large-scale transactions, whereas obols were more common in daily shopping at the agora. The letters going down the right-hand side of the coin are alpha, theta, and epsilon. The phrase indicated, in genitive case, is ‘Of the Athenians’.
In English literature, the owl is often associated with death, by virtue of its nocturnal nature, perhaps, or its reputation as a hunter. There are some wonderful poems that feature owls, including Ted Hughes’ ‘The Owl’, Wordsworth’s , Tennyson’s ‘The Owl’. And novels and short stories innumerable in which owls feature. I still remember the vividness of the owls and owl imagery in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service: the dinner plates and the painting, of course, but also the paper owls in the dust of the attic, the stuffed owl murdered by Bertram, the sounds of their cries in the darkness.
She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. You must not complain, then, if she goes hunting.
I loved this novel as a little girl, perhaps particularly because it’s related to the Welsh tale of Blodeuwedd: an old story, and one of those my father told me many times when I was very small. Blodeuwedd is a woman made of flowers – broom, meadowsweet and oak – created to be the bride of Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Llew is under a curse set on him by his mother, Arianrhod: he can never marry a human bride. It’s a longish, complex but gorgeous story – the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi (Math ab Mathonwy), at the end of which Bloduewedd is cursed by Llew’s uncle, Gwydion, one of her creators. He says:
I will release you in the shape of a bird. Because of the shame that you have wrought upon Lleu Llaw Gyffes, you will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that [will be] because of enmity between you and all[other] birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not loose your name – that will always be “Bloddeuwedd”.
Blodeuwedd means owl in the language of today. And it is because of that there is hostility between birds and owls, and the owl is still known as Blodeuwedd.
[This quote is from the translation by Medieval Scholar Will Parker, from Ifor Williams’ Pedeir Keinc Y Mabinogi. The name Blodeuwedd (blodeu ‘flower’ + (g)wedd ‘face, apsect’) differs slightly from her baptismal name Blodeuedd, which is simply the plural of blodeu/flowers).]
There’s also a whole series of books – Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky, about the adventures of the Barn Owl, Soren*. And who could forget the narrative charm of ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, or the delightfully ironic mispellings of Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend and neighbour, Owl (or should that be Wol)?
One of my favourite short poems featuring an owl is Alice Oswald’s:
by Alice Oswald
last night at the joint of dawn,
an owl’s call opened the darkness
miles away, more than a world beyond this room
and immediately I was in the woods again,
poised, seeing my eyes seen,
hearing my listening heard
under a huge tree improvised by fear
dead brush falling then a star
straight through to God
founded and fixed the wood
then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
an owl elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you light lean and strike
two matches in the wind.
I’d like to write a story about owls. Every now and then they crop up in my morning writing, in various guises. Today, they showed up in the work in progress/novel Dying in the First Person. This is Samuel:
I heard the train come up the valley. The soft, ghostly mourning cry and then the reply of an owl, close by. I slipped out of bed and went to the window, conscious that I was naked, touching the floorboards with my newborn’s milk-white feet. I parted the curtains just a little as the owl sounded again. Nearer still. And then it dropped and scudded across the clearing. It’s body heavy and slow, its wings dropping and rising like oars that must work to push aside the air. God is a bird, I thought, plowing the air of the forest. God is an owl: dark-eyed and violent, with pale feathers riffling on his breast as he hunts.
*25/9/10 Update: I read in the paper this weekend that a film based on the first three books of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series by Lasky is about to be released. You can view the preview on youtube here.