Owls

by Richard L. Dieterle


 

Owl, the chief of Owl Spirits, is usually reckoned among the bad spirits. He once lived with Grandmother (Earth). He went to one of his uncle's places to get arrows, but dipped them in a forbidden medicine. When he pulled the arrow from the elk he had killed, it fired off a bolt of light that made him blind during the day. Ever after owls have had to hunt at night.1 When the good spirits challenged the Spirit of Gambling over the winnings that he had squeezed from the human race, Owl attempted to defeat them by engaging Trickster in a staring contest. The only way that Trickster could win was to squirt a jet of water in his eye to make him blink.2

On occasions an owl proves to be a good spirit. An Owl Spirit allowed Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle to kill him and use his body as a talisman. As long as the owl talisman hung from his neck, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle was victorious over the champions of the Bad Buffalo Spirits. However, once he forgot to put it on, he was shattered to pieces by a white buffalo. Nevertheless, the Owl Spirit was able to tell his wife, one of the Good Buffalo Spirits, how to bring him back to life. Once revived, the human was able to drive the Bad Buffalo Spirits into the underground, where they have lived ever since.3

A Hįča Owl (probably the Great Horned Owl [see inset]4) was the grandfather of the Forked Man, a good Bird Spirit. This owl possessed a sword that would cleave anyone who walked in front of it; a warclub with teeth that would eat up an enemy leaving only his bones behind; and a hook that could swim and haul back a boat. His brother was a mysterious kind of spirit (a vulture?) known as a ča-ručge, "deer/head eater."5 The grandfather of the Forked Man was turned into an owl after it was learned that he had roasted the head of a great spirit in his fireplace for a score of years. Before his metamorphosis, his body had been inlaid with flint, a visual impression conveyed by the plumage of most owls (see inset).6

Owls are brothers to the cranes, and the hįča who is the grandfather of the Forked Man, is also the grandfather of the chief of the white cranes.7 However, the greed of owls in eating Crane's food caused the two tribes of birds to go their separate ways.8

Magicians with the powers of witchcraft are known to assume the form of an owl. An Ioway, a member of the Medicine Rite, once bestowed blessings of power upon Keramaniš’aka. He demanded that Keramaniš’aka stay awake all night to show his worthiness. During the night he visited him in the form of an owl to verify that he had succeeded. He then appeared in human form and granted Keramaniš’aka all that he had promised him.9

It is occasionally the fate of an evil spirit to be turned into owl.10 People often allude to their reputation when they tell misbehaving children, "the owls will get you."11 Consequently the owl can be an evil omen. When in earlier days the Hočągara committed the sin of killing enemies while they were within the sanctity of the chief's lodge, an owl appeared and spoke to them in the voice of a human, saying, "From now on the Hočągara will have no luck." This marked the beginning of their decline.12 An owl appeared to Glory of the Morning, the only female chief of the Hočąk nation, and uttered her name. Soon afterwards she died.13


Links: Crane, Bird Spirits, Wears Sparrows for a Coat, Redhorn, Trickster, Redman, The Forked Man, Buffalo Spirits, Witches, Bluehorn, Flint.


Stories: featuring Owl as a character: Owl Goes Hunting, The Spirit of Gambling; in which owls are mentioned: Owl Goes Hunting, Crane and His Brothers, The Spirit of Gambling, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Glory of the Morning, The Chief of the Heroka, Partridge's Older Brother, Waruǧápara, Wears White Feather on His Head, Keramaniš’aka's Blessing, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, The Green Man; about Bird Spirits: Crane and His Brothers, The King Bird, Bird Origin Myth, Bird Clan Origin Myth, Wears White Feather on His Head, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Thunderbird, Owl Goes Hunting, The Boy Who Became a Robin, Partridge's Older Brother, The Woman who Loved Her Half-Brother, The Foolish Hunter, Ocean Duck, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, The Quail Hunter, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, The Hočąk Arrival Myth, Trickster Gets Pregnant, Trickster and the Geese, Holy One and His Brother (kaǧi, woodpeckers, hawks), Porcupine and His Brothers (Ocean Sucker), Turtle's Warparty (Thunderbirds, eagles, kaǧi, pelicans, sparrows), Kaǧiga and Lone Man (kaǧi), The Old Man and the Giants (kaǧi, bluebirds), The Bungling Host (snipe, woodpecker), The Red Feather, Trickster, the Wolf, the Turtle, and the Meadow Lark, Waruǧápara, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Black and White Moons, The Markings on the Moon, The Creation Council, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, Earthmaker Blesses Wagíšega (Wešgíšega), The Man Who Would Dream of Mą’ųna (chicken hawk), Hare Acquires His Arrows, Worúxega (eagle), Hočąk Clans Origin Myth, Hawk Clan Origin Myth, The Hočąk Migration Myth, Blue Jay, The Baldness of the Buzzard, The Abduction and Rescue of Trickster (buzzards), The Shaggy Man (kaǧi), The Healing Blessing (kaǧi), The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth (kaǧi), Spear Shaft and Lacrosse, Įčorúšika and His Brothers (Loon), Great Walker's Medicine (loon), Roaster (woodsplitter), The Spirit of Gambling, The Big Stone (a partridge), Trickster's Anus Guards the Ducks, The Fleetfooted Man, The Journey to Spiritland (v. 4) — see also Thunderbirds, and the sources cited there; about buffaloes and Buffalo Spirits: Buffalo Clan Origin Myth, Eats the Stinking Part of the Deer Ankle, The Blessings of the Buffalo Spirits, White Fisher, Brass and Red Bear Boy, Bluehorn Rescues His Sister, Bluehorn's Nephews, Redhorn's Father, The Woman who became an Ant, Buffalo Dance Origin Myth, The Buffalo's Walk, Trickster's Buffalo Hunt, The Blessing of Šokeboka, The Creation of the World (v. 3), The Annihilation of the Hočągara I, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Red Feather, Wazųka, Holy One and His Brother, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse.


Genealogy: Hįča Owl Spirit (+ The Forked Man, Chief of the White Cranes, the Čaručge)


Notes

1 Jennifer A. Smith, "Why the Owl Hunts at Night," in David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 94.

2 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 75-86.

3 Paul Radin, "Dear Ankle Smelling Feet," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadephia: American Philosophical Society Library) #20, 1-146.

4 This identification is only tentative and uncertain. Süle Sigley, Personal Communication (1998).

5 Radin, "Wears White Feather on His Head," Notebook #4.

6 Paul Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadephia: American Philosophical Society Library) Notebook #33, p. 63.

7 Paul Radin, "Wears White Feather on His Head," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadephia: American Philosophical Society Library) #4: 1-50.

8 Paul Radin, "The Crane," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadephia: American Philosophical Society Library) #48.

9 Paul Radin, The Road of Life and Death: A Ritual Drama of the American Indians. Bollingen Series V (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973 [1945]) 92-93.

10 Radin, "The Chief of the Heroka," 63; E. W. Lenders, "The Myth of the 'Wah-ru-hap-ah-rah,' or the Sacred Warclub Bundle," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 46 (1914): 404-420, p. 409. Informant: Joseph A. LaMère of the Bear Clan.

11 Lenders, loc. cit., 409 (gloss). See also the conclusion of Paul Radin, "Old Man and His Grandfather," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadephia: American Philosophical Society Library) #53, 1-107.

12 Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 7-9.

13 David Lee Smith, Folklore of the Winnebago Tribe (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997) 160.