Owl Goddesses Across Cultures
Owls and the Divine
Birds are special creatures and have been regarded as such for thousands of years. Our ancient ancestors believed birds were messengers from the gods. They had the innate ability of bridging the gap between land, sea, and sky. Because of this, they were also thought to be psychopomps (they would safely guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife). Throughout the ancient world, we see nearly every culture and civilization taking a special fascination with birds. In Rome and Greece, augury was popular. Augury is the reading of birds and their flight patterns in order to divine the past, present, and future. Fast forward to present day, and birds are thought to have different meanings by different people. Some say birds are dangerous or dirty and bring bad omens of impending illness or death, while the wise ones see birds as messengers of the other side.
Owls are no exception to the rule of opposition. Many people love owls, think of them as cute and majestic, while others believe owls are evil and are in cahoots with witches and devils. These superstitions of owls most likely can be attributed to the Church's influence in Medieval times on the country "pagan" folk. In order to convert the country folk from their old ways, the Church either had to adapt some of their traditions or turn the people against them through fear. Owls were once sacred, wise creatures and even kept in temples in Greece, but eventually would be feared as a bad omen to many. In this article, we will identify some of the more popular gods and goddesses directly associated with the wise, strong owl.
Athena: The Wise Owl Goddess
If you've studied Greek mythology or even paid attention to modern day movies and books, you might already know the name of one of the more popular Greek goddesses—Athena. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts. She was the protector of the city of Athens, her namesake, and was said to have been born in armor from Zeus' forehead. Often Athena is related to horses and snakes; however, it is also true that one of Athena's most sacred animals was the owl.
Before Athena was depicted in human-goddess form, she was depicted as an owl. An owl of Athena adorns the back side of an ancient Athenian silver dollar. In other ancient images, Athena is seen with an owl perched on her hand or flying over her shoulder. The owl's representation as a wise animal is attributed to its association with Athena and her wisdom in ancient Greece. One source states owls were kept in Athena's sacred temple in Athens in honor of the wise goddess herself.
Blodeuwedd: The Flower Owl Goddess
Blodeuwedd is a lesser known goddess of Welsh Celtic mythology. The hero Llew Llaw Gyffes was forbidden by his mother Arianrhod to never have a human wife, so two magicians created a wife for him out of wildflowers. The wildflowers they used were meadowsweet, oak, and broom. Llew was more than pleased with his beautiful, flower-faced goddess of a wife. Unfortunately, Blodeuwedd felt tied down, enslaved, and ultimately unable to make her own choice of who to love. She fell in love with Gronw Pebr and together they hatched a plan to kill Llew so that they could be together.
When their plan doesn't work, and Llew escapes his attempted murder by transforming into an eagle, Blodeuwedd is cursed to never see the light of day again. The curse also entailed birds hating her and attacking her, and so Blodeuwedd was transformed into a nocturnal bird—the owl. Which is why, they say, owls and other birds don't get along. Blodeuwedd, while portrayed throughout modern mythology as a traitor and adulterer, now represents feminine strength and liberation to those women who have been oppressed by men.
Lakshmi: The Fortuitous Owl Goddess
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and good fortune in Hinduism and is also recognized in Jainism and Buddhism. She is the wife of the high god Vishnu, and his incarnated consort when he comes to earth as Krishna and Rama. Her symbol is the lotus flower. Lakshmi is believed to have six sacred abilities, and she is said to be present in every living woman on earth.
Lakshmi is often depicted riding an elephant, but she can also be seen riding an owl or having an owl as a friend/guide. In Hinduism, the owl symbolizes the pursuit of knowledge in the darkness. Wisdom. Insight. It is also a reminder to remain humble and seek wisdom, even after abundance has been granted by the universe (or by Lakshmi herself). This fortuitous owl goddess will bless you, but will also make sure you do not turn greedy or immoral.
Lilith: The Dark Owl Goddess
Perhaps one of the most ancient goddesses we know of is Lilith, also called Lilitu. The more popular theory of Lilith's origins state that she was Adam's first wife, before Eve, and was created as Adam was—in God's image. However, when she disobeyed Adam by asking for dominance in their intimacy, God threw her out of the Garden of Eden. It was said that she then mated with the fallen angels and spawned a generation of demons. Later, legend would claim her to be the Mother of Vampires. Neo-pagans dismiss these accounts of her "wicked" nature and state she was a powerful goddess who has since been demonized by the Church.
Lilith is thought to be the goddess carved in the famous Burney Relief from 1800 BC which shows her having "owl" feet, wings, and flanked by owls. In many classic paintings and illustrations, Lilith is accompanied by owls. Theory is the association between Lilith being a "demon" or "hag" of the night who flies around and causes nightmares to the unsuspecting. Because owls are nocturnal creatures and have haunting stares, this could be why Lilith came to be associated with owls. Or perhaps when the owl was regarded as sacred, and Lilith was still a goddess, this is where the owl-Lilith connection began.
Ragana: The Owl Sorceress
Ragana was once a widely-venerated Baltic goddess, until the people were converted to Christianity in the thirteen-hundreds upon which she became an "evil" witch in mythology. The name Ragana became synonymous with the words witch and hag. Sources say worship of Ragana dates back to Neolithic times, as she is a pre-Indo-European goddess who could foresee the future. Ragana was the goddess of women, which included ruling over childbirth, menstruation, menopause, and fertility. She was a guide to the otherworlds and a powerful healer. Because of her strength and association with empowering women, she was demonized by the church and came to be known as an evil sorceress who flies around with owls at night.
Owls are often depicted and associated with witches, theories on why vary from scholar to scholar. Some say it dates back to the owl's sacredness to the old goddesses, some say it has to do with the nocturnal meetings of witches and the nocturnal nature of the owl. Ragana is said to shift into the form of a bird, namely the owl, and flies around at night in Lithuania and Latvia. Ragana is the word used to describe all witches, though she was once a powerful goddess of the Baltic people.
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