OWLS : Are they Good or Bad Omens?

lakshmimod
Lakshmi and her Vahana Uluka/owl

Written by London Swaminathan
Post No. 1062; Dated 24th May 2014.

Owls are nocturnal birds. They are known as very intelligent and good birds in the Western World. As a symbol of knowledge and of erudition that can see through obscurity, the owl appears in the emblems of educational institutions, book stores and publishing houses. In Greece owls are associated with Goddess Pallas Athena/Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom.

In India and China owls are not liked by the people because of its demonic gaze. They consider them as the harbinger of misfortune. Owls have earned a bird name in Indian mythology and folk lore. People associate their calls with the God of death.

Goddess Lakshmi and Chamunda have owls as their Vahanas. In Judaism, the female night demon Lilith is described in the company of the owl; Mayan death God Hunahau is often depicted with a head like an owl’s.
In the pre –Aztec civilization of ancient Mexico (Teotihuacan), the owl was the sacred animal of the rain god. But Aztecs considered it an evil omen.

birbeck college,London
Emblem of Birbeck college,London

Owls have negative associations in popular thinking: with their nocturnal habits, solitude, silent flight and plaintive cry they came to symbolize evil and death. Hooting of the owls was regarded an ill omen.

In India the famous fable book Panchatantra has a long story of a fight between the crows and owls. At the end, the owls are burnt with their nests by the clever crows. Indians who practise black magic kill owls during Deepavali to ward off evil or to gain magical powers. Villagers kill owls for their meat thinking that it would cure many diseases.

In the Vedas
“Uluka is the ordinary word for owl from the Rig Veda (10-165-4) onwards. The bird was noted for its cry and was deemed the harbinger of (nairrta) ill fortune (AV 6-19-2;Taittiriya samhita 5-5-18-1;Vajasaneyi samhita 24-38). Owls were offered at the horse sacrifice to the forest trees (Vajasaneyi Samhita 24-23; Maitrayani Samhita 3-14-4)”.
(page 102, Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, A A Macdonell & AB Keith)

athena-owl-spear-face-tl-3196
Greek Goddess Athena with owl

Narada and owl
Scriptures refer to calls of owls as having the character of songs i.e. one note or or a simple combination of notes repeated at various intervals. Thus the call of the Brown Wood Owl is said to consist of four deep musical syllables, who—hoo—hoo–hoo. There is a story that narrates how sage Narada was advised to learn music from an owl residing near the Manasarovar lake on the Himalayas (Lingapuranam). This shows that the ancient Indians also appreciated the musical calls of the hated bird. (Tamils also had the same belief; see below for more details).

The long eared owl is distinguished by long tufts, usually borne erected and is most probably the ‘sasoluka’ which has served as a model for the face of a particular attendant of Lord Skanda (M.Bh. 9-45-79). One of the Matris of the same deity is said to have a face like that of the sasoluka (ch 30)
(Mayans also had the same description; see above)

rice seal
University seal with owl.

Crow killing owls
A particular species of owl has the habit of killing crows. ‘Kakolukiya’ section of the Panchatantra describes it in detail. They live in the Himalayan region. They are the species of Dusky Horned Owls. Mahabharata describes them as Pravarakarna and long lived (3-199-4). There is also a reference in the Ramayana. When after a break with Ravana, Vibhishana goes to Rama, the latter’s ally Sugriva warns him against the owl like tactic of the enemy (96-17-19).

Again after seeing this owl work havoc among the crows at night, Aswaththamam decided to kill Pandavas while asleep during the night time ( M.Bh 1-2-296) and the epic gives an interesting description of the bird:
Ulukam ghora darsanam
Mahasvanam mahakayam haryaksham bhabrupidangalam
Sudhirgagonanakaram suparnamiva veginam
Suptanjagana subahun vayasan dayasantaka: (M.Bh.10-1-36)

The Skandapurana also relates the above incident and calls the owl the powerful bearded vulture a (31-44/45)
Page 179 of Birds in Sanskrit Literature by K.N Dave.

My Comments:

1.It is interesting to note that the Jews and Hindus believed that owls are messengers of death. Sanskrit literature and Sangam Tamil literature associate owls with death (See Tamil Purananuru verses 240, 261,364)

2.It is equally interesting that owl like face of Lord Skanda’s attendant and one of the Matri’s is like Mayan Death God Hunahau, who has owl like face.

3.It is also interesting God Indra is called Uluka and several Rishis have the name Uluka and Kausika ,another name of owl. It is same in Tamil literature, as many of the Sangam age poets have Andhai (owl) attached to their names. Previously it was thought they were from the towns with the name of owl (Andhai). So we can conclude that both the positive and negative notions existed side by side. Otherwise we cannot have many Rishis with the name Uluka, Kausika and many Tamil names like Kukai Koziyaar, Pisiranthaiyaar, Othal andhaiyaar etc.

4. It is amazing to read that Tamils and their counterparts in the North has the same belief the owls have musical skills.
OWL

All these debunk the racist Aryan – Dravidian divisive theories created by foreigners with a motive to stabilise their rule and spread their religion.
We also have various types of demons named after large birds like Uluka (owl), Suparna (Eagle) and Grudhya (RV: 7-104-17)

We can also conclude that Hindus are very good observers of nature. There are lot of references to owls in the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Tamil References:
The shriek of the owl in the Nemai tree in the desert tract is like the sound of the smithy (Natrinai 394)
A stanza in Natrinai (verse 83) is an apostrophe to the owl that has its abode in the deep recess of a tree on the bank of the village tank. Its shriek at night is said to be alarming and the lady-companion promises it a fine pleasant dish of meat boiled in ghee and fried flesh of rats if only it kept silent at nights when the hero comes on visit.

One description is of a night bright with the moon light and full of disturbances with the barking of dogs and the hooting of owls (Aka.122)

owl (1)coin
Greek Coin with owl

Owl’s Music
The owl’s harsh hooting is heard like the tune of the instrument called Makuli and seems to have some signification (Aka.351)
(Compare it with Narada learning music from owl :Linga Purana)
Jeevaka Chintamani, one of the Five Tamil Epics, says that the owl emitted sweet music like a lyre. It is in Nachinarkiniyar commentary on the epic.

In a rare reference in the epic, owl is praised as giving a positive message about the hero. But in other places the negative image is projected like other epic Manimegalai where the owl is described as the messenger of death. The oldest section of Sangam Tamil literature associated the bird with death and crematorium (See Purananuru verses 240, 261,364).

Kukai koziyar says that the shrill cry of the owl breaks the eerie silence of the graveyard (Pura.364)
The owl with nocturnal habits living in the burning grounds and other wastelands is said to make the sound ‘’cuttukkuvi ‘’and is imagined to call the dead (Pura. 240)

Owls hoot and keep time to peacock’s dance, says a poet (Aink.291)
Bilo Irudayanath, who has done research with the tribal peoples, says that if an owl sits on top of the hut, they will dismantle the old thatched roof and do a new roof.

barn owl
Barn Owl.

Owl has several names in Tamil such as Aandhai,Aandalai, Kuukai, Kuraal, Kutinjai. But some names in Tamil Nigandu/Dictionary have the Sanskrit names Kinnara, Kinnari, Kausika, irudi (Rishi),Uluka and Pingalai. The words Kinnara, Kinnari are linked with musical skills.

Owl who saved Genghis Khan
The arms of the Tartar rulers contain a black night owl in a golden shield, because the first of them, Genghis Khan was saved his life with the help of such a bird. They believed that the barn owl saved his life. When his horse was shot in one of the battles he ran for his life and hid under a bush. His enemies were looking for him. At that time a white owl came and sat on the tree under which he was hiding. They did not even come near that tree thinking that he would definitely not be there. His enemies thought the owl would not have sat there if any man had been hiding under the tree. So owl earned a permanent place in their emblems!
owl-uluka and Lakshmi
Goddess Lakshmi with Uluka

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1 Comment

  1. ஐயா
    இந்த கட்டுரையைப் பற்றி தங்கள் கருத்தினைக் கூறவும்.
    வணக்கம்
    கோவிந்தஸ்வாமி

    S.Govindaswamy.B.E (Hons),
    Apt 2A, ABHAYAPRADHA
    18/1, Vallabai Road
    MADURAI-552002
    0452-2520172/ 9600531976
    Email : govindaswamy.s77@gmail.com
    மருத்துமலை (ஸஞ்ஜீவிபர்வதம்) எங்கேஇருந்தது?
    (ஸு. கோவிந்தஸ்வாமி)

    இராமாயணத்தில் கூறப்பட்டுள்ள இடங்கள் எவை என்று எல்லா அறிஞர்களிடையும் ஒருமித்த கருத்து இல்லை. கீழே குறிப்பிடப் பட்டுள்ள ஒன்றாம் நூலில் மருத்துமலைப் படலத்தில் மூன்று பாடல்கள்களைப் (8889 – 8891) படித்த பொழுது எனக்கு ஒரு புதிய கருத்து தோன்றியது. ஆதி காவியமாகிய வால்மீகி ராமாயணத்தில் (2ம் நூல்) இப் பகுதிக்குக் கூறப்பட்டுள்ள உரையையும் ஒப்பு நோக்கிப்பார்த்ததில் பெரும் வேறுபாடுகள் காணப் பட்டன. வால்மீகியிலிருந்து கம்பர் பல இடங்களில் வேறுபடுகிறார் என்பது தெரிந்த விஷயம். மேலே குறிப்பிடப்பட்ட பாடல்களுக்குக் கூறப்பட்ட பொருள் எனக்கு மன நிறைவைத் தராததால் இப்பகுதிக்கு மற்ற உரையாசிரியர்கள் கூறியுள்ள பொருள்களைக் காண்பதற்காக மற்ற நான்கு நூல்களில் இப்பகுதிக்குக் கூறப் பட்டுள்ள பொருள்களையும் ஒப்பு நோக்கினேன்.

    அவைகளைப் படித்த பின்பும் பாடல் 8891க்கு முழு விளக்கம் அளிக்கப் படவில்லை என்று எனக்குத் தோன்றியது. அதன் அடிப்படையில் இந்த கட்டுரை எழுதப்பட்டுள்ளது.

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