I’m wandering through a bleak windswept landscape in Annwn and screaming down from the skies come two haggard-looking owl-women who almost look like harpies with shabby feathers, bare breasts, and long claws. At first I’m afraid of them, but less so as I examine their faces, old, wise, grey.
They tell me they are ‘the Owl Kind’ – those who have gone into owls. They watch over families and communities until they stop watching for them. They watch over lands until they become unrecognisable. They watch over the dead and those who go between worlds – their owl eyes are always on them.
They can often be found in graveyards. They show me how they watch over the spirit of a child who is afraid to leave her grave where she thinks she is safe and wants to sleep forever because she died believing there is no life after death and the owlets who sit in a row on the fence who sing her songs.
They tell me the owl kind are becoming less and less as they are leaving the places families and communities have left, where they are forgotten, and fewer know how to or want to go into owls anymore.
They tell me owls watch over my land and to listen for them.
Only once have I met Blodeuwedd, the woman conjured from flowers by Math and Gwydion, then transformed into an owl as a punishment for her part in the plot to murder her husband, Lleu. It was during a journey when I was tricked into Caer Gwydion and she helped me escape, picking me up in her claws and taking me to the Forest at the Back of the World where the Owl Kind dwell. At this point I knew they were connected, that Blodeuwedd was one of the Owl Kind, perhaps the most significant.
This has led me to suspect that when Gwydion and Math conjured Blodeuedd from the blossoms of oak, meadowsweet and broom, when they imbued the blossoms with spirit, that the spirit they unwittingly summoned to animate them was hers – flowers on the surface, owlish huntress and killer beneath. (Thus it’s no wonder she was attracted to the Hunter when he rode into her kingdom).
Perhaps in an older variant of the tale Gwydion did not turn Blodeuwedd into an owl as a punishment but recognised her true nature, that he, the trickster, had been tricked. She couldn’t be confined by his spell.
In modern Britain owls are, rightly, revered as symbolic of wisdom. Yet, appearing wide-eyed and innocent and slightly goofy-looking on bags, pencil cases, cushions, earrings etc. the darker side of their nature (which was emphasised for many centuries in British folklore) has been forgotten.
In a chapter titled ‘Night’s Black Agents’ in The Folklore of Birds Edward A. Armstrong notes that ‘Over Europe and Asia, indeed, most of the world, the owl is, and has long been, a bird of witchcraft, death and doom’. He notes examples of sightings of owls – ‘the trees were covered with owls’ ‘there were a scret (screech) owl on his roof, scretting something horrible’ as precedents of death.
Spenser refers to the owl as ‘death’s dreadful messenger’. Webster writes ‘The Scritch Owle and the whistler shrill / Call upon our dame aloud / And bid her quickly don her shroud.’ Armstrong notes connections between ‘ratchet owls’ and the corpse-eating Gabriel Ratchets and Hounds of Annwn.
In ‘The Owl’ Dafydd ap Gwilym speaks of the ‘Crazy Owl’ of Gwyn ap Nudd who ‘incites the hounds of night’ and no doubt flies at the head of his hunt heralding the chase of the souls of the dead.
In The Witch Ronald Hutton suggests our associations between owls and witchcraft derive from the Classical figure of the strix. These large-eyed, hungry-beaked, grey-white feathered birds of ill-omen dwelled on the outskirts of Tartarus, feasted on flesh and blood and snatched away the bodies of the dead. The term striges was also applied to ‘women who practice witchcraft’ and ‘flying women’.
The striges seem closely linked to harpies ‘snatchers’. They are described both as ‘lovely’ and ‘repulsive’. By Virgil as ‘Bird-bodied, girl-faced things… abominable their droppings, their hands are talons, their faces haggard with hunger insatiable’. Their names are evocative – Aello ‘storm swift’, Ocypete ‘swift wing’, Celaeno ‘the dark’, Podarge ‘fleet-foot’. Seen as the embodiments of the destructive winds they served as ‘the Hounds of Zeus’ snatching away evil-doers to the Erinyes.
In Dante’s Inferno harpies are depicted in the seventh circle of Hell in the ‘Wood of Suicides’:
No green here, but discoloured leaves and dark,
No tender shoots, but writhen and gnarled and tough,
No fruit, but poison galls on the withered bark…
Wide-winged like birds and lady-faced are these,
With feathered belly broad and claws of steel;
And there they sit and shriek on strange trees.
Dante is horrified when he realises that the trees are the souls of suicides. Their transformation and their fate of being tortured by the harpies, who feast on the boughs, is described by Augustus:
When the wild soul leaps from the body, which
Its own mad violence forces it to quit,
Minos dispatches it down to the seventh ditch.
It falls in the wood; no place is picked for it,
But as chance carries it, there it falls to be,
And where it falls, it sprouts like a corn of wheat,
And grows to a sapling, and thence to a wild tree;
Then the Harpies feed on its leaves, and the sharp bite
Gives agony, and a vent to agony.
In ‘The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides’ William Blake provides a vivid depiction of the scene. This partly resonates with my personal vision of the Owl Kind in the Forest at the Back of the World, where the souls of the dead shift into trees, plants, and animals.
Only I do not see the role of the Owl Kind, although they are hunters and devourers of the dead, as punitive. Like the Hounds of Annwn they are simply serving their role hunting down the dead and devouring their dead flesh before bearing their souls back to the otherworldy forest where they can heal.
Perhaps they have always been connected with suicides – teaching them to be tree, plant, flower, blossoming until their bloomy faces are the faces of owls and, like Blodeuwedd, they fly free.
Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover Publications, 1958)
Dorothy I. Sayers, Dante, Hell, (Penguin Classics, 2001)
Rachel Bromwich (transl), Dafydd ap Gwilym, Poems, (Gomer Press, 1982)
Ronald Hutton, The Witch, (Yale University Press, 2018)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
William Blake, William Blake’s Divine Comedy Illustrations, (Dover Publications, 2008)