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Wednesday, 13 January 2010 16:12

Masters of the night sky

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The New Year has arrived and the great horned owls have commenced their annual “singing” along the dark ridges. These birds don’t sing, of course, in the manner of true songbirds like warblers and orioles — but the quick cadence of four or five hoots (“hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo”) given by the male, or the lower-pitched six to eight hoots (“hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo”) of the female serve the same purpose.

For most living things, winter in these mountains is a time of simple survival. But if you walk the ridges just after dusk, there’s a chance you’ll hear the territorial and mating calls of the so-called “hoot owl,” which, as part of its survival strategy, breeds and lays eggs in the depth of winter.

Aptly known as “The Tiger of the Night,” a great horned owl can stand more than two feet tall with a wingspan of four and a half feet. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The real ears are slits hidden among the feathers on the side of the owl’s head. Placed asymmetrically, these admit slightly different frequencies to each of the eardrums so that the bird can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Specialized wing feathers, downy-fringed like a butterfly’s, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of the devastating strike that will be delivered by talons so powerful they can rip through a fencing mask.

The ancient Cherokees were astute observers of the natural world within which they existed. The mountain landscape and all of its plants and animals were a part of their spiritual cosmos. Their system divided the world into three levels: the Upper World of light, goodness, and the everlasting hereafter; the Under World of darkness, evil, and eternal death; and the mundane Middle World within which humans reside. By balancing these realms the Cherokees sought to bring peace and harmony into their daily lives.

There is a great deal of serpent imagery in Cherokee lore, especially that having to do with the Uktena, a giant, mythic snake that haunted their imaginations. But the main portion of their animal imagery was devoted to birds. They were our first ornithologists. For them, as for us, birds were magical. They are beautiful. They often sing. And they can do something that humans can only dream about ... they can fly.

Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with species they saw all the time: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, etc. Their bird stories are usually rather lighthearted; at times, however, they associated birds with the negative aspects of the Under World. The most logical candidates for this distinction were the owls, those woeful denizens of darkness, especially the great horned owl, which they knew as “tsgili.”

Anthropologist James Mooney, who lived with the Cherokees on the Qualla Boundary (present day Cherokee) during the late 1880s, observed that, “Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be the embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen.” Of the three owls named in Cherokee lore, the great-horned was by far the most dreaded; so much so, that the designation “tsgili” was expanded in meaning so as to also signify “witch.” The great-horned owls and the Cherokee witches were the masters of the night.

I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart. The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells . . . were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”

Here is a formula of this type that I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. No reader will be surprised to see which bird is invoked:

 

To My Enemy

Your name is night.

I am the black owl

that hunts the darkness

for your heart and soul.

Your name is the night.

I am the black owl

hunting your soul.

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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