Why the Japanese like owls

Martin, L. C. 1996. Folklore of birds. Globe Pequot Printers.
Owls in Lord and Culture Paper by B. G. MarcotD. H. Johnson, & M. Cocker 2000-06-15, last updated 2010-01-28
8

MARKERS OF GODS, KNOWLEDGE, WISDOM, AND FERTILITY

In Central Asia [ In Russian literature, Central Asia is the region to the east of the Caspian Sea including Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan], feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), particularly from its breast and belly, were valued as precious amulets protecting children and livestock from evil spirits. Talons of the Northern Eagle Owl were said to ward off diseases and cure infertility in women. Japan seems to share this Central Asian veneration of owls, as in Japan owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics (Martin 1996).
The Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) was called “Kotan Kor Kamuv” (God of the Village) by the Ainu, the native peoples of Hokkaido, Japan. The traditional Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and believed that all animals were divine; most admired were bear and the fish owl. The owls were held in particular esteem and, like the people, were associated with fish (salmonids) and lived in many of the same riverside locations. The Fish Owl Ceremony, which returned the spirit of fish owls to the god’s world, was conducted until the 1930’s (T. Tekenaka, pers. comm.).
Owls have played various roles in Russian traditions (M. Sova, pers. comm.; Dementev et al. 1951). For example, in Slavonic cultures, owls were believed to announce deaths and disasters. Russians and Ukrainians sometimes call an unfriendly person a “sych,” which is also the Russian common name of the Little Owl (Domovoy Sych; Athene noctua). Traditionally, little owls have been disliked and feared by people believing that these birds announce deaths. However, Russian common names of other owls, such as the Scops Owl (Otus scops) — Splyushka, resembling its call, or Zorka, meaning dawn –do not carry this negative connotation. In old Armenian tales, owls were associated with the devil.
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Paper by B. G. MarcotD. H. Johnson, & M. Cocker 2000-06-15, last updated 2010-01-28

THE SPIRIT CHASERS

The owl, night’s herald.
William Shakespeare 1564-1616  Venus and Adonis [1593], l. 531

In many cultures, owls signal an underworld or serve to represent human spirits after death; in other cultures, owls represent supportive spirit helpers and allow humans (often shamans) to connect with or utilize their supernatural powers. Among some native groups in the Pacific Northwest of USA, owls served to bring shamans in contact with the dead, provided power for seeing at night, or gave power that enabled a shaman to find lost objects (Ray 1939 and Cline 1938, as cited in Keyser et al. 1998).

As with the owls of the ancient Roman statesman Pliny the Elder, many forest owls have played key roles as signalers of death. The mountain tribes of Myanmar (Burma) know the plaintive song of the Mountain Scops Owl (Otus spilocephalus) in such legends (Smythies 1953, Voous 1988). In one Navajo myth, after death the soul assumes the form of an owl (Saunders 1995).

In India, the Brown Wood Owl (Strix leptogrammica), Forest Eagle-owl (Bubo nipalensis), and Brown Fish Owl (B. zeylonensis) are found in dense riparian forests of Ficus near streams and ponds, sites often considered as sacred groves, or in cemeteries that bear the last of the largest trees with cavities and hollows in an area (Marcot 1995; B. Marcot, pers. obs.). Old-forest owls, particularly the Forest Eagle-owl, play major roles in many Nepali and Hindu legends. As heard calling at night from cemeteries and sacred groves, such owls are thought to have captured the spirit of a person departed from this world.

Members of the animistic Garo Hills Tribe of Meghalaya, northeast India, call owls dopo or petcha. Along with nightjars, they also refer to owls as doang, which means birds that are believed to call out at night when a person is going to die; its cry denotes the death of a person (Nengminza 1996; B. Marcot, pers. obs.).

The aboriginal peoples of North Queensland, Australia, view owls in a similar way. In January 2000, a female aboriginal elderrelayed that owls are special to her people. A little apologetically, she added that owls are also considered an ill omen, signifying a death in the family – but only if the owl hung around the home site for several days (R. Loyn, pers. comm.).

Throughout India, owls are construed as bad omens, messengers of ill luck, or servants of the dead.

In ancient Egypt, India, China, Japan, and Central and North America, owls were the bird of death. In other cultures and religions, however, such as ancient Greece, they bore the role of supernatural protector. Some Native Americans, for instance, wore owl feathers as magic talismans (Saunders 1995).

On Java and Borneo, the Collared Scops Owl (Otus bakkamoena) has survived thanks in part to the fact that it is viewed in legends there with reverence or as an ill omen (Voous 1988). These owls are taken in China and Korea for medicinal use and many have been lost annually for such purposes (Austin 1948, Gore and Won 1971, Voous 1988)

For example, Batchelor’s (1901) book, “The Ainu and Their Folklore,” analyzes this northern Japanese community’s beliefs about animals, especially owls, at the end of the 19th century.

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In Central Asia feathers of the Northern Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo), particularly from its breast and belly, were valued as precious amulets protecting children and livestock from evil spirits. Talons of the Northern Eagle Owl were said to ward off diseases and cure infertility in women. Japan seems to share this Central Asian veneration of owls, as in Japan owl pictures and figurines have been placed in homes to ward off famine or epidemics (Martin 1996). Also hinting of the antiquity of these beliefs – are the Ainu’s owl beliefs: the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (Ketupa blakistoni) was called “Kotan Kor Kamuv” (God of the Village) by the Ainu, the native peoples of Hokkaido, Japan. The traditional Ainu people were hunter-gatherers and believed that all animals were divine; most admired were bear and the fish owl. The owls were held in particular esteem and, like the people, were associated with fish (salmonids) and lived in many of the same riverside locations. The Fish Owl Ceremony, which returned the spirit of fish owls to the god’s world, was conducted until the 1930’s.

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