Owl of the Celts: Ancient Bride of the Dead

Owl of the Celts
Barn Owl. John Audubon. 1833

The Owl in Celtic lore is a creature of shadows and the Otherworld. It’s rarely mentioned in myth, legend, or folklore, but when it is it’s usually spoken of in hushed whispers – accompanied by a warning.

In Lady Charlotte Guest’s 1877 translation of the 12th Century Mabinogion, the Owl’s origins are described in detail. Within the story of Math Son of Mathonwy, the god-like figure Gwydion decides that he must find a bride for his nephew Lleu. The curse upon Lleu, however, is that he cannot ever take on a human wife. To help Lleu out, Math and Gwydion create a woman for him out of flowers. They name her Blodeuedd which is said to mean “Flower Face.” Unfortunately, the new bride betrays Lleu and attempts to have him killed by her new love interest. The assassination attempt fails, however, and the lover is eventually killed. Gwydion then places a curse upon Blodeuedd:

“And they were all drowned except Blodeuwedd herself, and her Gwydion overtook. And he said unto her, ‘I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all the other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee, and to chase thee from wheresoever they may find thee. And thou shalt not lose thy name, but shalt be always called Blodeuwedd.’ Now Blodeuwedd is an owl in the language of this present time, and for this reason is the owl hateful unto all birds. And even now the owl is called Blodeuwedd.”

Owl of the Celts
E. Wallcousins. Illustration from Charles Squire’s Celtic Myth and Legend. 1905

In another tale[i], the poet Taliesin asks an Owl about her origins. “She swears by St. David” that she’s the daughter of the Lord of Mona, and that Gwydion son of Don transformed her into an Owl.

There’s a final Owl tale in the Mabinogion–in the story of How Culhwch Won Olwen. While searching for the missing Mabon[ii], some of Arthur’s men are forced to seek out the five oldest living animals and inquire as to his whereabouts. When they eventually do meet the Owl, they discover the bird does not know of the Mabon’s location either. The Owl knows of an animal even older than itself, however, and propels the seekers further along their journey.

In Celtic Symbols, by Saibne Heinz, we’re told of the Sheela na gig, which are “figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva[iii].” The Sheela na gig are most often 12th-century gargoyle-like sculptures found upon churches. Saibne Heinz claims that[iv], “Some people suspect a resemblance to Owls.”

Owl of the Celts
12th century Sheela na gig. Photo by Pryderi

The Owl is also sometimes believed to represent the Cailleach, the primordial Celtic hag goddess. Philip Carr Gomm, in the Druid Animal Oracle, makes the following statement:

“Because the Owl is sacred to the Goddess in her crone-aspect, one of its many Gaelic names is Cauilleach-oidhche (Crone of the Night). The barn Owl is Cauilleach-oidhche gheal, “white old woman of the night.” The Cailleach is the goddess of death, and the owl’s call was often sensed as an omen that someone would die.”

The Celtic Owl is almost always female. In one Welsh tale, for example (also found in Celtic Symbols), an Eagle searches for a wife.  After finally determining that the 700-year-old[v] Owl came from a good family, he hastily marries her.

In Padraic Colum’s King of Ireland’s Son, published in 1916, the Owl is in servitude of evil. The King of Ireland’s Son is led to a cabin by an unusual white Owl. The bird communicates with him by flapping her wings three times. The King of Ireland’s Son soon discovers the Owl is in service of the Enchanter of the Black Back-Lands’ daughter, who just happens to be a shapeshifting swan.

In the notes section of the Mabinogion we’re told the Owl is sometimes seen as the bird of Gwyn ab Nudd, the King of the Faerie. In the 1917 Wonder Tales of Scottish Myth by Donald MacKenzie, we learn of another fairy, a “fairy exile,” called “The Little Old Man” or “The Little Old Man of the Barn.” This wizened looking spirit-being is described as wearing a single white Owl feather in his cap.

In the 1913 Book of Folk-Lore, by Saibne Baring-Gould, we stumble upon a Celtic ghost story, which speaks of the Owl:

“My great-great-grandmother after departing this life was rather a trouble in the place. She appeared principally to drive back depredators on the orchard or the corn-ricks. So seven parsons were summoned to lay her ghost. They met under an oak-tree that still thrives. But one of them was drunk and forgot the proper words, and all they could do was to ban her into the form of a white owl. The owl used to sway like a pendulum in front of Lew House every night till, in an evil hour, my brother shot her. Since then she had not been seen.”

In the 1914 True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan, we find another reference to an Owl spirit:

“A death-warning in the shape of a white Owl follows the Westropp family. The last appeared, it is said, before a death in 1909, but as Mr. T.J. Westropp remarks, it would be more convincing if it appeared at places where the white Owl does not nest and fly out every night.”

The belief that the Owl’s an evil omen is not necessarily tied to just one family, however. In the 1825 Fairy Legends and Traditions of South Ireland, by Thomas Croker, we’re told that seeing “the corpse-bird,” or screech Owl, always foretold of a death. The author compares these sightings to those of the “corpse-lights” which were also said to be seen around the time of death. In the 1881 British Goblins by Wirt Sikes, we’re also told that a Screech Owl’s cry near a sickbed foreshadowed a death:

“This corpse-bird may properly be associated with the superstition regarding the screech-owl, whose cry near a sick bed inevitably portends death.”

Sometimes, the Owl warns of misfortune short of death. In the 1900 Carmina Gadelica by Alexander Carmicheal, for example, it’s said that hearing the “screech” of the Owl meant that the whole year “would not go well.”

Up until the 1950s, Owls were nailed to barn doors as a ward against evil. Strangely enough, it was a common belief that to fight evil one had to sometimes use evil against itself. In this case, the Owl was believed to be a ward against storms, thunder, and lightning[vii].

So it can be summarized that the Owl of the Celts – being a bird associated with twilight – appears white in many of the old texts. It’s is almost always female, as well. The beautiful and Otherworldly Blodeuwedd, for example, was turned into an Owl as punishment for the attempted murder of her husband. Other stories speak of the great age of the Owl, or fear her as a messenger of death. Philip Carr Gomm points out that there’s a direct link between the Cailleach, the Celtic hag goddess, and the Owl, as well.

Could it be a coincidence then, that the only story of the Owl being young and beautiful is the oldest story of them all? Perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps it is not.

The Owl is often associated with Halloween. This modern holiday is commonly believed to be a direct descendent of Samhain, a Celtic fire festival (image: allfreelogo.com)

[i] As told in the notes section of the Mabinogion.

[ii] The Mabon is described as the divine Celtic youth. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Caitlin and John Mathews.

[iv] Heinz does not reference this claim.

[v] The story actually says she was already old at 700.

Author: Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.

21 thoughts on “Owl of the Celts: Ancient Bride of the Dead”

  1. Pingback: Why Do We Think of Owls as Wise? – MindBounce
  2. Oh my. Such Roman and anti-colonial propaganda from prior reply. No wonder Caesar died a horrible death for the lies he told about the Celts. Unless you’re a Druid, you don’t know the truth.

    1. Thanks for your comment Susan. I tend to agree with you, though I was thinking more Christian/anti Irish? I’m not familiar with Patricia Monaghan so don’t know if she was an actual source or just a name dropped. It is tough though, because a lot of the information being promoted as fact about the Celts is just as incorrect. That’s why I started this blog–originally–because I wanted to research what people actually believed. So many talk about this or that folklore, but a lot of it was created in the last forty years.

      1. I commend your research. It’s the only way we know the falsehoods being spread. A lot of people were jealous of the Celts. Even today. They discredit us because they sense the power. Like the power of the owl. So much of Celtic and Druid lore is intuitive. When you start to believe, you receive. Druids want to teach their own. They will find you and reveal the truth. Druids and Christianity. That’s another myth.

        1. It’s my pleasure. I’m glad there are people finding value in these posts. I’m always happy to learn and receive as well, so thank you Susan for your comment 🙂

          1. Discernment. Medicine card #21 Owl. The power to perceive truth from lies, good from evil, friends from foes. Wolves are spirit animals for teachers. Druids are teachers. But before we teach, we must learn. Reading the haunting. Many questions and insights. Why IS Neil haunting VIU? The power of the Island is palpable from a distance. Where have the rabbits gone? Or why? Often associated with fear. Also fox as in fox hunt- rabbit is decoy for fox. Fox = cunning, patience. But, VI hunt is for wolves. Keep going and connect the dots. Pareidolia? I don’t think so. Someone needs to write about the mystical Vancouver Island. Cheers, Susan

          2. Thanks for your comment Susan. You’re always leaving me with something to think about. Reflect. Meditate. If you haven’t read ‘Daughters of Copper Woman’ I highly recommend it. It might also answer some of your questions about Vancouver Island.

  3. this mixes up cultures – according to Patricia Monaghan the word Cailleach is pre Gaelic. The word Gael is Old Welsh, and means ‘pirate’ or ‘raider’. Gaels came originally from iraq,and were known as the ‘land grabbers’. They are found in The Land of Dan, and as mercenaries for the Egyptians, They invaded northern Spain (indigenous people were the Iberians) and Southern Gaul with their Drui (=’sorcerers). It is interesting that no Gauls came to their aid when the Romans attacked them – and before whom they fled to Ireland via Anglesey – which was land belonging to the Britons/Cymri. The Roman Cicero describes the Gaels & their Drui as extremely cruel people. In the 5th century bce they had invaded Ulster and created a rule of fear. Today there are two forms of DNA in Ireland and some Brittonic place names. It is likely that the Gaels appropriated much of early Irish and Brittonic culture – especially the Brittonic Wheel of The Year. The Gaels had a linear system. In the 5th century ce they invaded northern Britannia and Pictland and committed genocide on the Britons, reducing them to refugees in their own land. The also erased the Picts by the 9th century ce. The Gaelic Chieftans were responsible for the Highland clearances – which they wanted for sheep, and the Gaelic Scoti who illegally populated Argyll re-populated Ireland – creating the Plantations. The Irish Gaels then committed genocide on the Lakota Sioux. This is not to say that the Angles had no hand in Ireland – although invaders, they were the strongest people to stop the anihilation committed by the Gaels. Originally the boundary between the Picts and Britons was the Antonine Wall, They both spoke related Brittonic languages. The Angles stopped the Gaels at Hadrian’s Wall.
    The remnants of the Northern Britons fled to the western mountains and were granted Gwynedd – on the condition that they rid that land of the Angles – which they did.

    1. The word Cailleach is still used by Gaelic speakers today so there was no confusion, but you’ve shared some interesting history so thank you for that.
      The root word is first mentioned in Herodotus’ Histories (431-425 BCE). He was writing about the Kallaikoi Celts who were on the Iberian Peninsula (now Spain). Strabo in Geography (7 BCE -23 CE) wrote about the (by then renamed) women warriors of Callaeci who the Romans had defeated. Pliny also mentioned them (77 CE). There was a lot of folklore around the Callaeci, whose name has been said to mean “worshippers of the Cailleach” by most, including in Lujan’s Ptolemy’s ‘Caillaecia’ and the language(s) of the ‘Callaeci’ and Paredes’ Galican singularities for the Irish, etc. Language is rarely pure, especially in areas that have been invaded repeatedly like you’ve alluded to. The Cailleach herself may have actually been a sensational Roman construct that later gained traction. Like the word and meaning of Celt itself, which has Greek roots, it was then adopted and spread. Looking at the two linguist groups (P-Celts and Q-Celts), the linguistic evidence suggests Celts from Spain did resettle in Ireland. So they could have brought an actual belief in the Cailleach with them as well. The word Cailleach or similar is used by all the branches of Gaelic speakers, which is the term now used to describe the related languages of the Celts.

    2. Good lord, what a load of nosense! The Irish are not related to any Middle Eastern population in any immediate sense, that’s inane. The Gaelic substrate you’re talking about is most likely Bell Beaker-related, who integrated into the Neolithic population of the Anglo-Celtic Isles (an Early European Farmer and Western Hunter-Gatherer derived population). Later, during the Iron Age, Celtic culture arrived in the Anglo-Celtic Isles, principally within Southern Britain, accompanied by an infux of Continental Celtic admixture. This culture, and to a certain extent admixture, then spread across the Anglo-Celtic Isles before being adopted by the largely pre-Celtic Beaker, Early European Farmer, and Western Hunter-Gatherer derived Proto-Gaels, leading to them becoming Celtified.

      Admixture modelling of modern Anglo-Celtic populations using ancient sources:

      1. Thank you for your comment and for setting the record straight! It’s much appreciated. This sounded pretty far out there to me too, but I’m certainly not as knowledgeable as you are. Just fascinated with pre-copyright folklore 🙂

  4. The ‘Owl’ is certainly a female entity; beautiful, wise and a creature of the dark. Be careful before you criticise her. She certainly has power over mere human mortals: even if t is only psychological.

  5. did you ever think that the reason why the owl was not represented much in celtic lore was for reasons of the owl being so clever and wise that it didnt matter what people spoke of him they knew what he represented he was a kaiser soze of sorts and you dare not speak of the devil or he would come as deaths compass as the owl does not seek fame or fortune merely a unspoken respect which is much fiercer that any loud mouthed self serving idiot im really drunk by the way

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