Aliens Among Us: A Brief History of the Owl
A Poet Considers the Wisest of Birds
A Bird to be Taken Seriously
Pliny the Elder described the owl as “the very monster of the night” and argued that “when it appears, it foretells nothing but evil.” He also believed the viscera of owls held curative properties that, when applied properly, could restore health and relieve pain. A healthy elixir of owl brain and oil introduced directly into the ear canal, for example, was a handy cure for an earache. From Pliny’s time onward, owls have always been a symbol of shifting and seemingly antithetical qualities—hulking observer and swift hunter, totem of wisdom and escort of the occult. These dueling qualities and fluctuating characteristics compete across cultures and traditions to cast the owl as a creature of influence, both benevolent and evil, and therefore, a bird to be taken seriously.
A few weeks ago in a park near my apartment, I was startled by what I took to be an off-leash dog seated calmly in the sun. As I approached, I noticed the figure was feathered, pantalooned in white. It was a bird, and it was startling in its heft. The bird was neither wounded nor trapped. It was alert amid the barbecue and sunbathers. Several onlookers snapped photos, and we speculated about the bird’s origins and intentions. Had it come for the barbecue? How close could we get? How comfortable were we with this giant, grounded creature?
I have most often observed owls from safe distances. They have appeared perched on the fire escape of an adjacent building or airborne, gliding along at a speck of their actual mass. But up close, they are overwhelming and otherworldly. Up close, we see that they defy the everyday concept of bird—hollow-boned, palmable, skimming and delicate. Ordinary, everyday birds are weightless, like their nests, built of horsehair, dander and cigarette butts. These birds are easily shooed. Effortlessly managed. But the owl contradicts flight. It makes mass ambient.
The Owls Are Not What They Seem
In Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s 1990s cult television series, the characters in a small town navigate their lives in the wake of an unsolved murder. I have vague memories of the plot points, but the atmosphere of the show persists. Lynch constructs a porous reality where sinister, supernatural elements exist comfortably within a soap-opera narrative, and the result is at once ludicrous and thrilling. The characters’ odd behaviors (one woman carries a log around town like a baby) along with the darkness of the plot (murder, kidnapping, demonic possession) leave the viewer alert and on edge. At any moment the action could veer into horror or slapstick.
The refrain the owls are not what they seem echoes throughout the series and plays on the duality we assign to owls. If the owls are not what they seem, and we can’t quite pinpoint what they seem, then what, exactly, are they? Are they not nocturnal birds from the order Strigiformes? What other possibilities do their forms contain? Does the call of a screech owl portend death, as American Southern folklore suggests? Or are owls messengers from the underworld, as depicted in the Mayan mytho-historical narratives of the Popol Vuh?
To say that something is not any one thing is a smart way to allow for the possibility that it could be most anything else: a simple nocturnal bird or an usher into a red-roomed netherworld.
Note the Headswivel
Owls have the ability to swivel their heads up to 270 degrees. It is an unsettling act to witness, a defiance of tendons and blood vessels. A mockery of vertebrae. The owl holds every vantage point at once. How can it be challenged? The headswivel becomes a force of nature even in its sharp defiance of nature.
Humans have been fascinated with this trick since the Paleolithic. An etching, discovered in the Chauvet caves in southern France, depicts an owl, mid-headswivel. The hunched shape of the bird is unmistakably owl, as are the pricked ears and the sharp, straight beak. At first glance, it is as if we are seeing the creature head on. But a closer look reveals vertical lines on the owl’s body —wings folded in. It appears to be a view of the back of the owl. The etching is a rude sketch, but it is a confirmation in soft stone that the quirks of owls have always provoked documentation.
The headswivel brings to mind several notable cultural references, both benevolent and evil. Bubo, the quirky, gold mechanical owl from Clash of the Titans (1981) appears to Perseus and company as they are adrift in a desert wasteland. Bubo is able to communicate—in an extreme sequence of clicks and mechanized hoots—that he will lead the lost travelers in the right direction. In one scene, Perseus plucks the bird from the dirt and releases him into the air, where he alights on a tree branch and charms the hell out of everyone with a serious headswivel and a wink.
But there is that other, darker headswivel that comes to mind. The unforgettable moment in The Exorcist (1973), when a well-intentioned priest tries to cast a demon out of poor Linda Blair, who has become increasingly difficult to manage. As the priest makes the sign of the cross on her head, she sits up slowly in bed, in full-on demon form, looks calmly at the priest, and then and spins her head 360 degrees.
My ten-year-old self can never unsee this.
Alfred Jarry, a Frenchman and a grandfather of the Oulipo Movement, kept a first-floor apartment that faced an alleyway. The arrangement allowed little light into the apartment, but it undoubtedly delighted the neighborhood owls that he welcomed into his home. As noted in Alastair Brotchie’s biography of Jarry, A Pataphysical Life, this “permanent nocturnal apartment was the perfect habitat for Jarry’s new companions: owls, free to fly about, or sleep as they wished.” Brotchie includes Jarry’s analysis of owls: “The unthinking presume they are malefic, since they sleep during the day and awaken at night, and their crooked beaks are preposterously shaped and utterly inconvenient.”
This hospitality of darkness, this hastiness in typifying nocturnal beings, brings to mind an etching from Goya’s series, Los Caprichos. El Sueno de La Razon Produce Monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters) depicts a man (an artist?) asleep at his worktable. As he sleeps, his head cradled in his arms, he is unaware of the wingfest surrounding him. Owls and bats, creatures of the night, descend around him in a terrifying swarm. Or is it something other than terror? I like to think of this print as a celebration of imagination, the sense that when the intellect is powered off, the unconscious, the artistic elements thrive in the darkness.
Women and Birds
Common birds are flighty, skittish, mercurial, small-boned. They are fragile and easily startled. In the first half of the 20th century, bird was a slang term for a woman. In the second half, it became the more diminutive (and unfortunate) chick.
The sound of bird is sympathetic: Almost bride. Almost breed.
However, the link between women and birds has been alive much longer than this linguistic trail allows. An ancient example can be found in Lilith, Adam’s alleged first wife. She is often depicted as a serious contender, not a jumpy, flappable creature. Lilith is physical force. A Sumerian tablet, dated around 2300 BC, depicts her as “the goddess of death—a winged woman with feet like an owl’s talons, a crown resembling an owl’s ear tufts and two owls for companions. Her name is derived from an ancient word meaning night (Berger).”
Owls Always Have the Right-of-way!
Consider the sagacity of the cartoon owl. These owls are often transatlantic and bespectacled or ludicrously bug-eyed. They are unbearably condescending. In a Tootsie Roll Pop commercial from the late 1980s, a cartoon owl fitting this description is approached by a cartoon child, who wonders arbitrarily how many licks it takes to get to the center of the Tootsie Roll Pop. The owl, in the spirit of empirical data-gathering, unwraps the Tootsie Roll Pop and counts out three licks before inhaling the candy in one ecstatic gulp (it is worth noting, he doesn’t eat the stick).
Owl, a character in the Winnie the Pooh books, first published by English author A.A. Milne in the early 1920s, serves as a strong example of the wise-with-an-attitude cartoon owl. These stories, animated by Disney since the late 1960s, feature Owl as boorish and overbearing. In one episode entitled “Owl Feathers” the character in question flies inexplicably directly into another bird mid-flight. Feathers explode and Owl exclaims haughtily, “Excuse me, my friend, but I believe I have the right of way, and I quote, ‘Owls always have the right-of-way over the common, ordinary waterfowl.’” Maybe Owl has an above average intellect, but his survival instinct is limited. This is evident in the subsequent scene, where he is mobbed by a gang of angry, ordinary waterfowl.
The Owl Pages
The Owl Pages is an informational website about the habits, habitats, psychology and physiology of owls. It was here, in the Frequently Asked Questions of The Owl Pages, that I unexpectedly came across the titles of six poems that I would eventually write. Among the standard questions one might expect to ask about a bird of intrigue (What do they eat? Why do they hoot?) there are other ludicrously good inquiries: I’d like to get rid of the aforementioned Owl, what can I do to make it clear off without hurting it? Or I’d like to keep the aforementioned Owl around, what can I do to encourage it to stay? Can I feed it? or that other chestnut, The aforementioned Owl is [sick, dying, injured, abandoned, possessed], what can I do to help it?
I found the questions to be both absurd and haunting. I have had these same questions, mostly in regards to other humans: How to repel or attract another creature? How to properly aid an abandoned thing? Is it foolish to think the dying are different from the possessed? I like to imagine that the poems that resulted from these titles inhabit a space where the permeable world we live in with its wharves, stovepipes and wicker coexists with the bare face of that other world—the one that we know is there, that we ignore every day.
The word owl has a strange mouthfeel: open, windblown. The word swims on the tongue. The songs of various owl species seem equally uncertain: The barn owl’s rusty, hinged whine. The falling mew of the barred owl. The eerie, hollow knocking of the Eastern screech.
According to Peter Tate, author of Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend and Superstition, a belief originating in India proposes various fates according to the number of owl calls one hears:
If an owl screeched once, it foretold death; twice, the success of some project; three times, a marriage; four, trouble; five, a journey; six, the arrival of visitors; seven, anxiety; eight, sudden death; and nine, a favourable event.
But who’s counting?
Suddenly There Came a Tapping
The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore posts a snippet on its website from lore surrounding the origin of Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” In one clip, Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a contemporary of Poe’s, alleges that in initial drafts, the poem featured an owl, not a raven as the instigator. This makes sense, the note contends, since the bird in the poem alights on the bust of Pallas—or Pallas Athena—a deity well-linked with owls.
Whether or not the account is true, it is lovely to imagine Poe’s raven in its sleek creepiness replaced with a stalwart, hunched nugget: an owl roosting doggedly on the bust above the door, the weight of bird and bust cracking the plaster around the doorjamb, the whole scene ready to cave in on itself. The image might not hold, but the idea of the owl as a taciturn, eternal soul-tormenter and tenacious percher is spot on.
Long before Twin Peaks, owls were associated with death, dying, mystery, soothsaying and the passage to the afterworld. The Romans believed owls were messengers of death. “Three emperors, Augustus, Valentinian and Commodus Antonius, were thought to have died after an owl alighted on the roof of their villas (Tate).” In Ancient Egypt, if a lowly official received the glyph of an owl from the Pharoah, it was understood that the recipient should take his own life (Tate)
How to reconcile a bird like this? The owl lugs the baggage of the ancients. It sleeps the day. It remains creature and hidden. It carries whatever symbol we clip to it. Think of Athena, unwilling to embrace conflict without principle. Think of Lilith’s wings.
Carey McHugh’s latest book of poetry, American Gramophone, may or may not contain images of owls.