Published on March 18, 2014 by Amy
Throughout Native American culture, the owl is an otherworldly and dangerous entity. In some legends, the owl is a protector of men and hunters but others describe the owl as a malevolent creature at work, one to be both feared and respected. A harbinger of doom, a trickster and a witch, the owl is symbolic of a dark and frightening side of the natural world.
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In the mythology of the Passamaquoddy people, the owl is a fearsome and magical being that is capable of sorcery, transformation and deceit. Owls were believed to disguise themselves as humans. One story told of how the Great Horned Owl tricked a human girl into becoming his wife. With the help of his sorceress aunt, the old owl lived among humans; he used transformation, magical potions and an enchanted flute to capture his wife and carry her away to the village of owls.
In one Pawnee story, a young orphan boy who becomes suicidal hears a strange voice in the trees and is instructed by the voice to visit a large oak tree near his home. When he reaches the oak, the young man is greeted by two owls sitting on the branches, claiming to be the leaders of all the other owls in the forest. Out of pity, the owls bestow upon him two feathers that allow the young man to become invisible when he wears them. With the help and continued guidance of the owls, the young man becomes a great hunter and a powerful man in his tribe.
According to the legends of the Iroquois, the owl is a vain creature who was punished by the creator, Raweno, for disobedience. Raweno was bestowing attributes and gifts to one animal at a time, giving each animal a private audience; but the owl wouldn’t wait his turn and kept insisting to Raweno how he wanted a beautiful neck like a swan and a cardinal’s colorful feathers. As punishment for refusing to turn away, Raweno gave the owl a short neck and shook him from side to side, making his eyes large and wide. From that day forth, the owl also was cursed to live in the dark, never again able to see the creator at work in the daylight.
The Ho-Chunk tribe, also known as the Winnebago tribe, is a rich source of mythology surrounding the owl, as they believed it to be a spirit of evil, magic and prophecy. Some evil spirits are transformed into owls, and witches and magicians were believed to shapeshift into owls as well. Originally, the owl was a powerful human warrior with a sword, a war club and a hook, but after roasting the head of a great spirit, he was transformed into an owl.
The Hopi Native Americans called the burrowing owl Ko’ko, translated as “Watcher of the Dark.” Because this species of owl lives underground in the disused holes of ground squirrels and prairie dogs, Native Americans believed it was a spirit of death and fire as well as a protector of the underground related to their god of the dead, Masauu. By contrast, the Dakota Hidatsa Indians believed the burrowing owl was a protector of brave warriors and wore the owl’s feathers for protection and good luck.