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Cherokee had high regard for owls

Barred owl. Peter K. Burian photo Barred owl. Peter K. Burian photo

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in September 2002 in The Smoky Mountain News

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 spiritual system divided the world into three levels. The Upper World— the realm of light, goodness, and the everlasting hereafter — was represented by the birds. The Under World — the realm of darkness, evil, and eternal death — was represented by the serpents. By balancing these realms the Cherokees sought to bring peace and harmony into the Middle World, the mundane everyday realm within which humans reside. 

The main portion of Cherokee animal imagery is devoted to birds. For them birds were magical. Birds are beautiful and lively … they sing … and they can do something that humans can only dream about … they can fly. 

Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with the ones they saw on an everyday basis: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, etc. And most of their bird stories are rather lighthearted. Not all of their bird lore, however, has this aspect. At times 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. 

There are five owl species that appear with regularity here in the southern mountains: great-horned owls, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, and saw-whet owls. The Cherokees no doubt observed all of these, but their recorded lore gives names to but three. 

“Tsgili” is the great-horned owl, which many also know as the “hoot” owl because of its “hooting” calls. The barred owl is “uguku,” an onomatopoetic word that mimics the bird’s “who cooks for you” call. “Wahuhi” for screech owl is also onomatopoetic in that it mimics the bird’s whinnying call. 

Owls appear in differing contexts within Cherokee lore. The screech owl was often a messenger of future events. Owls in general were associated with warfare. When on the war trail the ancient Cherokees, a hyper-superstitious people, divined the future outcome of a conflict according to screech owl calls. If heard on the right or left, the call signified that the Cherokees would be victorious. If heard ahead or behind, the call signified defeat, in which instance they would cancel the expedition. Owl calls were also used as a means of communication by scouts at night. 

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 owl was by far the most dreaded; indeed, the term “tsgili” was expanded in meaning so as to signify “witch.” Both the great-horned owls and the Cherokee witches indulged their mysterious powers only in darkness. They were the masters of the night. 

Little wonder that the great-horned owl was held in such intrepid regard. 

The great horned will hunt by day, but it is supremely equipped for night stalking. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The ear slits hidden among the feathers can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being, so powerful that they can capture prey in light so dim it is the equivalent of a candle burning in the dark nearly half a mile away. 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 a devastating strike. 

The Cherokee witches admired and were associated with these qualities in numerous ways. 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” used the sacred formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. 

One of the most drastic of these has been labeled “To Lower One’s Soul” by Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation is Oklahoma. In The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997), Kilpatrick states that the Cherokee 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 one of the “lowering” sacred formulas that I have rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrase. No reader will be surprised at this point 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 is a writer and naturalist who lives in Bryson City. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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