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.

Duir (Oak)

“By the time a tree is full grown, the underground root system is enormous; a mature oak tree, for example, has literally hundreds of miles of roots to tap the soil’s resources in an endless quest for water. Each drop is collected by the root hairs and passed along, from one cell to the next, up the trunk and to the leaves, and in such a way that none of the precious moisture and minerals collected by the roots leaks back into the soil.” – Richard Ketchum (The Secret Life of the Forest)

The Roots:

Duir, the oak, is the tree of strength and of honour. It is also the tree of male virility.

It is the seventh tree of the Ogham and has universally agreed upon meanings without exception. Even those that do not hold trees sacred seem to have a reverence for the oak. It is present on many coats of arms, is the national tree of many countries, a totem tree of states, cities and counties and is the tree of the province of Prince Edward Island here in Canada. The oak also symbolically adorns many military uniforms from ancient to modern times.

The oak is often said to have been the most sacred of trees to the Celts, and to the druids in particular. The tree is revered by the Teutonic, the Romans, The Greeks, and Hebrews and in as far away lands as to even have been respected by the Chinese[i]. The oaks referred to in the bible are interpreted as “holy trees” – not oaks literally- and the Christians often preached beneath them in the early middle ages[ii].

Oak is the tree of many gods and goddesses, especially those of lightening and thunder. Duir makes an appearance in many tales and can be connected to Taranis (Celtic Zeus), Brigid (later St. Briget), Myrdin (Merlin), Arthur’s round table, Herne the Hunter, Robin Hood, Gwydion, Blodeuwedd, Lleu, and to the fairies alongside the Ash and the Hawthorn. The Oak also shares a special symbolic relationship with the mistletoe.

Duir promises us the strength to speak the truth, to hold our ground and to live a life braided with courage and honour. Oak is the tree of kings, queens and prophets.

The Trunk:

Lleu of the Skilful Hand was cursed by his mother.

Lleu was a child of immaculate conception as he had fallen out of his mother, Aranrhod -alongside his brother – while her purity was being tested. This was being done by the King, Math, to determine if she was pure enough to become his virgin foot stool…

In the time before time there lived such a ruler of the land as Math son of Mathonwy.

Math could only live if his feet were in the lap of a virgin – that is Goewin- except in times of war. So it was, that his two nephews Gwydyon and Givaethwy would make circuits of the land on his behalf.

All was well for a while, until Givaethwy fell sick with love for Goewin. Gwydyon perceived his state and he schemed a way to separate the king from the virgin on behalf of his cousin. And so by stealing the sacred pigs of a Southern lord a war was started and Math was forced to leave his chamber.

When Math returned to his chambers he was told by Goewin that she was no longer a virgin as his nephews had taken her by force in his very chambers. Math then took the beautiful Goewin as his wife and punished his nephews severely.

For a year and a day they were turned into a stag and a hind so that they would breed with one another and have a son.

For a second year and a day the cousins were turned into a boar and a sow so that they would breed with one another and have another son.

For a third year and a day Gwydyon and Givaethwy were turned into a wolf and a she-wolf so that they could breed and conceive a final son.

After this time of punishment Math forgave them and brought them back, turning them once more to men.

Math then asked of Gwydyon who he should take to be his virgin foot stool and Gwydyon stated that this should be none other than his sister Aranrhod.

Math summoned Aranrhod and made her step over his wand to test her virtue and two boys fell from her. One was noticed by everyone and one was not noticed, as Gwydyon kicked him under the bed and hid him from sight. The one boy, Dylan, was baptised and raised by the king while the second, later to be named Lleu, was raised in secret by Gwydyon for a while.

When he was four -but looked to be eight- Aranrhod found out about him and cursed him to have no name until she gave him one, no weapon unless she gave it to him and no wife of the human race.

Aranrhod was tricked and named the boy Lleu of the Skilled Hand because of his skill in hitting a wren in the leg perched on a ship while he was disguised as a shoe maker. Later disguised as bards in Caer Aranrhod, Gwydyon conjured up an illusionary invading force of ships and Aranrhod -with two young women- armed them both. Thus Lleu had both a name and was armed through the magical deception of his uncle Gwydyon.

Aranrhod was furious and proclaimed that Lleu would never, ever, have a wife. Gwydyon and Lleu then went to Math and complained about Aranrhod, described how they had overcome the curse of the name and of the weapons, and asked for his help.

Math and Gwydyon then summoned up the form of the most beautiful woman from the flowers of oak, broom and meadowsweet and thus created an immortal wife for the lad. She would be named Blodeuedd.

(Blodeuedd, Christopher Williams 1930[iii])

The couple were happy for some time, until Lleu left to visit his uncle Math.

Blodeuedd offered shelter to a passing hunter, named Goronwy, and the two fell in love and began to plot Lleu’s murder.

This would not be an easy task, for even after Blodeuedd coaxed from Lleu his only weakness, the conditions they had to set out for his death would not be easy to arrange and yet they had to be perfect.

Lleu could only be killed by a spear made for one year on Sundays while people were in mass[iv], while standing with one foot on a goat’s back and the other on the edge of a bath tub (not indoors or out, on horse or on foot) beneath a thatch roof on a river bank.

Under the assumptions of trust and love Lleu was tricked into meeting all of the conditions and struck by the poisoned spear that was thrown by the hidden huntsmen Goronwy. He immediately turned himself into an eagle and flew away critically injured.

Math and Gwydyon were distressed and saddened. So Gwydyon set out to find Lleu and did so only by following a pig to the base of a large oak tree with a rotting eagle in it. By chanting three times he called the eagle down to him in stages where he could strike him with his wand and turn him back into a man.

Lleu was now skin and bones and it took him one year to be cured before he could set out to avenge himself.

Goronwy was found and killed by Lleu’s hand as he threw a spear through a stone and broke his back. Blodeuedd was found and was transformed forever into the owl by Gwydyon.

“You will never show your face to the light of day, rather you shall fear other birds; they will be hostile to you, and it will be their nature to maul and molest you wherever they find you. You will not lose your name but will always be called Blodeuedd (flower face).[v]

Thus Lleu was avenged…

The Foliage:

The stories of the Celts were told by the bards, who were mystics, and held keys to enlightenment. Let us consider that numbers have meanings and perhaps referenced individual Ogham letters and likely had other mystical properties as well. There were three women who armed Lleu and Gwydyon (2 + 1 other – Aranrhod) three animals that the cousins became for a year and a day (two wild and one other, two herbivore and one other), three main women in this tale (2 + 1 other – Blodeuedd made from three flowers), and three birds (2 + 1 other -Wren), and the cousins had three sons. As the wand would possibly be of Hawthorn (or possibly Hazel) and the spear would most likely be of Ash, then we could also consider that the three fairy trees made an appearance as well.

There are other numbers to consider as well. The boy was four but looked eight. There were two sons born of the virgin, two cousins, and two in the pair of Gwydyon and Lleu. Numbers were sacred and held special meanings to the Celts and we can be sure that they held a special meaning within their tales[vi].

Let us consider then the Oak itself. The ground before us is fertile by the time that the flower of the Oak appears as Blodeuedd. Eventually the Eagle rests on the old tree at the end of the relationship, dies a type of death and is reborn. So we bear witness to the complete life of the tree from flower to old tree. Let us also not forget the two illusions of Gwydyon of the ships which would have been made of Oak. First there was one ship and then there were so many ships that they churned up the sea.

There are also many things that are “in between” in this tale as well. The river bank, the tree top, woman not a woman (made of flowers), man not a man (virgin birth), virgin not a virgin, and plenty of shapeshifting. The queen or bride of a king is usually considered to be the goddess or to be the land itself. If this is the case then what would be the purpose of the different types of women in the story? What could we learn from the defiled virgin who becomes a queen, the mother who is denied the right (?) to be a stool, and the adulterous wife who is the essence of nature herself?

Let us also be reminded of the impossible things in this story beyond magic and shapeshifting. Bards do not usually bear arms and for a king who cannot survive without the lap of a virgin, even for a night, Math does quite well for three years and three days before even seeking one out. Even then he does not seem to ever get a replacement “stool”. There are other details of the story I did not retell, such as Math’s ability to hear any whisper yet Gwydyon alone plots aloud plainly but remains unheard.

Duir is said to be the root word for door. To open the door to deeper and higher understanding, at least as the Celts would have done, we need to be able to see in symbols. We have already been told to do so from those such as Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and now perhaps by the tellers of the old tales as well.

In our dreams we know that symbols hold meanings. In our tales we learn that there are many more hidden messages yet. Perhaps someday we may step through that doorway that exists in the forest, and see the language that is used by the gods.

May Duir, the oak, let it be so.

“The oak is possibly the most widely revered of all trees. The earliest spirits of Greek mythology were oak-tree spirits called Dryads, and it was believed that oak was the first tree created by God from which sprang the entire human race.”  – Jacqueline Memory Paterson (Tree Wisdom: the Definitive Guidebook) 


[i] Cooper.

[ii] Hageneder.

[iii] This image is of a drawing, painting, print, or other two-dimensional work of art, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the artist who produced the image, the person who commissioned the work, or the heirs thereof. It is believed that the use of low-resolution images of works of art for critical commentary on: the work in question, the artistic genre or technique of the work of art or the school to which the artist belongs on this web site qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. Any other uses of this image might be copyright infringement. – Wikipedia Image.

[iv] This is the second Christian reference in the tale, as the boy Dylan was earlier baptised. This is a testament of the times that the tales were finally put into writing.

[v] The quote is from The Mabinogion. The above story is my own version taken from this same original source and also from The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology.

[vi] Three is the triad of birth, life, death or start, middle, end, etc. For an interesting summary of Celtic numbers see Celtic Symbols by Sabine Heinz.