Monday, April 16, 2012

The Owl - Myths, Facts, and Symbolism

So ever since the start of the "New 52" the lead Batman book has been penned by Scott Snyder, penciled by Greg Capullo, inked by Jonathan Glapion,  and had a complete fascination with those lovely nocturnal birds: owls.

Starting in the "Court of Owls" arc that has run the first 7 months of the book, and continuing into the "Night of Owls" crossover that will infest the Bat-Family of books in April & May, the owl has been growing to become synonomous with Batman & Bruce Wayne as well as Gotham itself.  Owls seem to exist everywhere in Gotham City, even back in the days of Jonah Hex...

So the proliferation of owls in the land of Gotham has provoked something strange in my own life, something that seems to haunt me everywhere I go...

Owls!  Freaking owls at every turn!  In department stores, antique shops, architecture, paintings...I swear there are owls on everything I look at now!  I blame Scott Snyder...all these hidden Gotham owls have made me paranoid.  Or have they? 

Well it is with this thought in mind, and with "Night of the Owls" on the horizon, that I decided to engage in the most tangentially connected to comic books blog I have done to date, and likely will ever do.  From this point going forward I don't expect to be addressing comics in any fashion, instead I want to take a look at something comics have inspired me to investigate: owls. The facts surrounding them, their symbolism, their mythology, all the details about owls that offer some explain as to why they seem to pop up everywhere I look. 

If you have any interest than read on, if not and only want more comic book talk, then jump off now, and come back next time.  Either way, thanks for your time and I hope that comics inspire you to explore something outside the box as well...

Little Owl (Athene Noctua)

The basic facts are this; owls are generally nocturnal creatures of the order Strigiformes, an order that consists of over 200 nocturnal, solitary birds.  There are some exceptions to these rules of owl-dom just as there are with anything.  The Pygmy Owl is considered crepuscular (which means active during dusk & dawn rather than at night) while the Burrowing & Short Eared Owls are daylight creatures.  Oh yes, and in large groups they are called a Parliment, which surprised me as I kind of expected to discover they were referred to as a Court.

Owls have binocular vision, their eyes are fixed in their socket which is why they turn their entire heads (as much as 270 degrees) to follow things.  Owls are farsighted, meaning they have difficulty seeing objects closer to them, and use their feathers around their beak to feel prey (something like a cat's whiskers I reckon.) 

The smallest owl is the Elf weighing something like 1 oz and measuring around 5 inches while the biggest are the Eurasian Eagle-Owl & the Blakiston's Fish Owl which average about 2.53 cm (1.00 in) shorter in length than the Great Grey, can both attain a wingspan of 2 m (6.6 ft) and a weight of 4.5 kg (10 lb) in the largest females.

In terms of their physical makeup, owls tend to have distinctive facial and head markings, including face masks, ear tufts and brightly coloured irises. These markings are more common in species inhabiting open habitats, and are might be used in signaling with other owls in low light conditions. Thanks Wiki!!!  Given the very distinct nature of owl coloring, I find it very interesting that the comic book Court of Owls, except for the Talons, all have those very nondescript masks.

The owl hunts as stealthly as possible, something evolution has made easier with their coloration and the very interesting fact that the make-up of their remiges (flight feathers) allows for near silent flight. This little mutation is something that some fish-hunting owls don't come equipped with either, showing that evolution truly does exist.  In terms of the hunt, they apparently use their beak & talons to kill their prey before SWALLOWING THEM WHOLE, and as if that wasn't enough, THEY REGURGITATE THE INDIGESTIBLE!

Another interesting note about their habits is that owls don't build nests, instead they look for a sheltered site, or they co-opt an abandoned nest in trees or buildings.  Something that we saw put to use by The Court when Bruce first discovered them...

Page from Batman #3                       An owl stealing a crow's nest

If you would like to learn more about the biological details on owls, click here and check out the Wiki page.  Otherwise I'm turning my attention more towards the mythlogical, symbolic, and cultural power given to these nocturnal birds...

Every nation has its own ideas of what the owl represents, but many of those notions are shared across oceans by varying cultures.  Let's take a look at some of those region by region:


Owl, or Fukuro in Japanese, is written as フクロウ (梟) and can be written in different sets of characters. One with the meaning of Luck (福 fuku, luck; 来ku, to come ;郎 ro suffix used in boys' names) and the other as protection from hardship (不 fu, no, 苦労 kurou suffering/hardship). Source

What this means is that for the Japanese culture the owl is a symbol of luck and protection from suffering, and apparently has led to a great deal of merchandise depicting owls being made available in Japan.  For example:

Also there is some belief that the color & shape of the owls has some effect on the luck embued on the holder of the charm.  There is also the notions of wisdom attributed to the bird as well as an older idea that it could be used to predict the weather.

Greek & Roman

The owl in Greek & Roman mythology is frequently depicted at the side of Athena/Minerva.  In fact the owl even had a name, Glaucus, and was frequently depicted on on Athena's blindside.  The owl represented wisdowm as well in this culture but more than that was depicted as the guardian of the Acropolis, a protector who accompanied Greek armies to war. 

To the Greek, an owl flying overhead was a certain sign of victory and, under different circumstances, in Rome, an owl served as a way to avert evil when a dead owl was nailed to the door of a home (which makes me think of the dead bat nailed to a door in "Return of Bruce Wayne").
There was also a Roman belief that the owl's hoot predicted impending death, specifically that the deaths of Julius Ceaser, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were all predicted by the bird. 

The owl is so much a part of Greek/Roman culture that it even became a part of their ancient currency:

5th Century BC                                                                            2nd Century BC

And  a side note, something to touch upon a bit later, that image on the left is now the Smithsonian Secretary's badge of office as designed by Leslie Durbin in 1965.

Other Roman owl-based beliefs included that the Army was warned of impending disaster by an Owl before its defeat at Charrhea, on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers; that to dream of an Owl meant that a traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed; that witches transformed into Owls, and sucked the blood of babies.


It's likely that much of the English opinion on owls was based on Roman beliefs as well given that they were conquered at one point under the leadership of Emperor Claudius in the 1st Century.  As such the British believed the owl was essentially a bird of doom due to its nocturnal nature.  There was a certain belief that an owl getting inside your home was a bad omen and the bird needed to be killed before it escapes lest it take away all your luck and good fortune.  Here too they were considered capable of predicting weather, there was also a very creepy traditional idea was that if you walked by an Owl in a tree, it would turn and turn its head to watch you until it wrung its own neck! That's seriously twisted....

But it wasn't all bad because there were some positive folk medicinal uses for owl eggs. It was used to cure alcoholism, there was a belief that a child given this treatment was also thought to gain lifetime protection against drunkenness. The eggs, when cooked into ashes, were also used as a potion to improve eyesight AND a Broth made from owl eggs was given to children suffering from Whooping-cough.  A 12th century preacher named Odo of Cheritan even came up with a reason for why owls were nocturnal; essentially they stole the rose (a prize awarded for beauty) and were shunned by the other birds.


In this culture the Owl is sometimes a part of a Zodiac, occupying the Nov 23rd – Dec 21st timeframe and here's a quote from my source:

"Changeable and mutable as the wind, the Owl is a tough one to pin down. Warm, natural, with an easy-going nature, the Owl is friend to the world. The bearer of this Native American animal symbol is notorious for engaging in life at full speed, and whole-hearted loves adventure. This can be to his/her detriment as the Owl can be reckless, careless, and thoughtless. Owls make great artists, teachers, and conservationists. However, due to his/her adaptability and versatility – the Owl would likely excel in any occupation. In a supportive, nurturing environment the Owl is sensitive, enthusiastic, and an attentive listener. Left to his/her own devices, the Owl can be excessive, overindulgent, bitter, and belligerent"

The owl was looked upon as a keeper of sacred knowledge for its wisdom & foresight, the Lakota Tribe even had an "Owl Society" that fought at night and painted their eyes like an owl in order to gain their powerful vision.  But not all Native American cultures viewed the owl positively; Apaches viewed it as the most feared creature, representing the spirits of the Apache dead. Hopi Indians have taboos that surround owls because they are are associated with sorcery and other evils. The Aztecs and Mayans considered the owl a symbol of death & destruction so much so that the Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with owls. According to Wiki there is an old saying in Mexico that is still in use: Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere which translates as "When the owl cries, the Indian dies".


Another thing may point to origin of the negative associations with owls may come from the biblical corner of the world.  Apparently, based on the information from the Medieval Bestiary, owls were fowl birds and according to Leviticus 11:13-18,  "The law says that a variety of owls are included in 'the birds you are to detest and not eat because thy are detestible'" & in Leviticus 11:17-18 - 'Laws about Animals for Food', the following 'Avoid the Unclean' : and the little owl and the cormorant and the great owl, 18 and the white owl and the pelican and the carrion vulture."

There is some indication in the Bestiary that owls were representative of Jews, who showed that they preferred darkness to light when they rejected Christ and that the human face was purposely given a "hook nose" to portray it as Jewish.  According to Hrabanus Maurus the owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness.

In addition to those cultures listed above there are also the beliefs of Egyptian/Celtic/Hindu cultures in which the owl revolves around guardianship of the underworlds and protector of the dead. In Arab mythology they are bad omens,  in Armenian tales owls were associated with the devil,  in parts of Asia feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl were valued as precious amulets protecting children & livestock from evil spirits.  In certains parts of medieval Europe there was even belief that owls were actually witches & wizards in disguise and that the owl was as much considered their familiar as a black cat is today.

That picture on the left is terrifying btw....and the Halloween association likely comes from the idea that an owl's screech sounds like a witches cackle.
In opposition to those negative images though there are a great deal of positive owl images in popular culture including:

How about the "how many licks does it take" owl, Woodsy the Forest service mascot owl, and the ever wise Owl from Winnie The Pooh just to name a few?
The symbolism of owls is essentially broken down into 8 items: wisdom, mystery, transition, messages, intelligence, mysticism, protection, and secrets.  In some fashion, whether it be in a positive or negative manner, those traits are evident in some form in the myths & superstitions listed above.
So now that brings me to not only the excessive amount of owl-age I now see in my every day life, but also its impact (real or implied) in things like architecture, government, and secret socities.  Yeah, if you look closely, there's even owls wrapped up in all of that too!
Just take a look at these examples of architecture from around the world:


A gate at Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace (Note the bat)

Vienna - Secession buiding

There is even an entire Owl Tour in Leeds in the UK due to the sheer amount of owl related architecture in the city!

But all of this owl architecture pales in comparison when you get into some of the more conspiritorial beliefs entrenched within, such as the Freemason connections and a belief about the layout of our nation's capital:

or on the US Dollar Bill:

The owl has been used as a symbol for the Illuminati:

For the National Press Club:

In Disney films:

And most importantly as it's the key to most of these theories, The Freemasons as they built the capital city and a whole mess of other buildings around the world over the years.  Freemasons have been presidents; George Washington, James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Gerald Ford just to name a few confirmed ones, and a whole mess of other famous people throughout history.  Check out the Wiki list here, but take it with a grain of salt as with most things Wiki...
It's claimed that members of the NPC are Freemasons, that Walt Disney was associated with a Freemason group called the Order of DeMolay when he was a youth, so if you give any creedence to these notions than that explains the prevalane of owls here too.
Then there is Bohemian Grove which is just littered with owls:

The quick version is that the Bohemian Society is a group of famous & influential figures, all male & mostly white, who gather once a year for two weeks of the summer to do....well that's where enormous amounts of speculation begin and if you're interested you can read about it in further detail here or just Google search it for all kinds of theories about it's activities.  Suffice to say that its members include the likes of George H. Bush, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger,
Dick Cheney, Malcom Forbes, David Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst Jr., & Walter Cronkite just to throw some names out there.  The owl plays heavily into this...escape...beyond just the images shown above as there are to locations with owl-themed names, The Owls Nest which is for a camp for U.S. Presidents/Military/Defense Contractors & The Owl Shrine and the Lake which is the locale for the burning owl above & you can read more about in the Wiki.  Suffice it to say that there is more information on the web about Bohemian Grove than I can do justice here....

As for me, right here, in the Philadelphia suburbs, well I have began seeing owls all over the place.  Not so much the living creature but in pieces of home decoration like the one immediately above & the one at the start of this blog, as well as on buildings & homes. I have seen an owl statue randomly sitting on top of a gas station, the post office, and on churches. The aforementioned home decor images, as well as those below were all found in the same store on the same day which is quite freaky....

And while I didn't have a camera to take a picture, just this morning I saw a bunch of owl stickers in the school supplies aisle at a Wal-Mart.  Like I said...everywhere....and now I hope that you too will see owls everywhere you turn your head. Just don't keep turning it until you snap your own neck like those silly Englishmen believed once upon a time...

And I hope you got something out of all this owl talk, because while this is technically a blog for comic book subjects, for me THIS particular writing stands as the sort of inspiration you can get from comic books.  In the same way I mentioned how comics exposed me to Poe & Shakespeare in my "Mish Mosh" blog awhile back, I can saw that Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, and crew inspired me to this with their phenomenal build-up to the "Night of Owls" event that officially kicks off this week in Batman #8!  I just wanted to learn more about the nocturnal bird, about what makes them tick, and maybe a little about why I am now seeing them everywhere.  And if it enhances my readings of "Court & Night of Owls" than that is an added bonus.

Thanks for your time, and come on back next go-around as I get back to a little more of a comic book focus.  Got a couple of ideas I'm juggling in the meantime, maybe show some love by ordering from my Amazon Store, getting me something off my Amazon Wish List, or at the least by throwing some feedback my way.  Good or bad...just avoid the ignorant ;-)

Oh, and go check out the latest Extreme Odd Couple Podcast with Steve Corino & Rob Dimension as they show lil' old me some love this episode.  Go to ITunes & subscribe, rate, and comment as well.

Until next time, check out the "Night of the Owls" list below and see what's in store for Gotham City in the coming months...

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