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.

Ghost Hunters and the Bloodletting Ritual:

Ghost Hunters and the Bloodletting Ritual
New year ritual with acantun, Dresden Codex

“Why do you feel the need to bother Pedro? What has he done to you? Does he bother you?” – Scott Tepperman (GHI) addressing a spirit.

Ghost Hunters International aired its tenth episode of season 3 this week. The location being investigated was the Cahal Pech Mayan[i] ruins which are located in Belize. For good or for bad, however, this investigation would prove to be different from any other that had come before it.

What made this episode particularly interesting was the “bloodletting” ritual which some of the investigators participated in during the actual investigation. This, of course, rose more than a few eyebrows and got people talking.

The synopsis:

A tour guide named Pedro tells the investigators that the spirits are haunting him and not leaving him alone. For some reason, whenever he conducts rituals in the Mayan ruins the spirits suddenly become even more active (?).

Pedro then leads some of the members of the team in a bloodletting ritual which he states he has done before. The idea is basically to burn some blood in order to summon the spirits (initially he says that the ritual was used to contact the gods). Investigator Susan Slaughter volunteers to give some of her own blood. The only ghost hunter present that seems to think that this might be a bad idea is Kris Williams.

During the ritual the spirits become very active.  Pedro decides that they aren’t being active enough and says, “We need to do some other form of stuff to recreate and bring them back [sic].”

This next ritual turns out to be far more practical. Pedro basically claps three times for each of the four directions. He then claps one time “for the center of the Earth which represents the heavens[i].” This, Pedro Claims, is done in order to “revive the spirits that may be in the area.”

The episode then follows its usual course with the investigation followed by an analysis of the findings.

“Whatever we discover tomorrow, through analysis, will answer whether these spirits are really attached to Pedro or if these are just protective spirits of the Mayan culture.” – Susan Slaughter (GHI)

While going over evidence the team finds a very clear EVP (unexplained recorded voice) which states, “Pedro’s not here.” The recording sounds clear and was captured in an area that Pedro was not present in at the time. The investigators agree that this is one of the best EVPs that they’ve ever captured.

During the investigation a light had also turned itself on and off and this was caught on video as well. This had occurred when two of the investigators mocked the spirits. Some of the investigators also claimed to have had personal experiences such as being touched or seeing an apparition.

Susan Slaughter then “debunks” the sound of footsteps that they’d heard during the night. She realizes that they had captured an owl flying back and forth over them during the ritual. This was caught on video. The owl’s strange behaviour is never questioned.

When all of the evidence is presented to Pedro he becomes momentarily upset that the investigators called the spirits “stupid” in order to get a response. He also seems disappointed when he states, “when you guys are gone I will continue to come here and I wonder if they will continue to bother me in the future?”


Kris Williams initially criticized the ritual through Twitter. She said that even though the episode had been recorded at an earlier date, she had not been allowed to express her disapproval of the ritual before the episode had aired. Her points were clearly valid. What if a child or young adult was watching? What if they would then later try to do a similar ritual on their own?

Kris Williams was right. Anyone who had watched the episode could easily have replicated it. There was a time – as a teenage headbanger – that I would have. Someone probably already has.

From the outside looking in, the whole thing might look to be nothing more than a brilliant marketing strategy. Even if this wasn’t anyone’s original intention the episode did get more than a few people talking.

GH and GHI are big names in paranormal television. The slower pace and sporadic amount of evidence found during each episode makes both shows seem a lot more legitimate somehow.  The investigators truly seem to be trying to be subjective as well.

In this way the show is raw and gritty. As a result, the bloodletting ritual does seem to have an effect. In fact, it becomes something that this new Twilight generation might find particularly compelling.

WTF? From a pagan perspective:

Let’s assume that you and I share similar beliefs. You work with – or have experienced – spirits and you have no reason to doubt their existence. Sometimes your house keys disappear and reappear. The TV and lights turn off or on. Your dog, cat, or toddler likes to interact with an invisible friend.

You’re okay with that.

If you’ve been on the path for a while, you’ve likely seen or heard something that you can’t explain. You talk to these spirits and you burn incense for them. You’re okay with that too. These are personal experiences, after all, and nothing to be afraid of. These may even be what originally drew you towards a pagan perspective in the first place, or gave you an interest in ghosts.

You believe and I believe, but it may not the believing that either of us might have a hard time with.

First of all, it seems extremely confused and amateur that a practicing pagan like Pedro doesn’t seem to understand why the spirits are bothering him in the first place. He states he’s calling them and even says he needs to do “other stuff” in order to bring them back. He seems genuinely frustrated when paranormal things are happening to him, however. Watching the episode awakens in me a memory from a time in which we used to “play” with Ouija boards as teens. It was like watching someone accidentally pretend to read a book upside down. Either something crucial was missing from the episode or Pedro simply did not make any sense whatsoever. You don’t go to a reputed haunted sites and raise spirits only to complain when they arrive. Like I said, the whole situation reminds me of being a teenager with a Ouija board. The frustrating thing was that he was the pagan “expert.” It was very confusing. It seemed like he believed in some ways, but he didn’t in others.

Second of all, flesh is outdated. We like to believe our ancestors lived in a utopian society in perfect harmony with nature but this is simply not the case. Almost every culture on the planet practiced some form of human or animal sacrifice and it’s even found in the bible. The Mayans were no different but are remembered for being especially bloodthirsty. They used human sacrifice while some of the other cultures used animals. Both systems are completely antiquated in this day and age.

Remnants of these beliefs do continue to exist, though. These are contributing towards wholesale poaching of animals for traditional “medicine.” Well documented examples are bears, tigers, and sharks.  There’s no reason that blood or flesh of any kind needs to be offered in sacrifice anymore or even used in magical remedies. You see, this is a very slippery slope. We start with a little blood, perhaps, and the next thing you know we’re out hunting virgins on a full moon. Sounds unlikely, but we can assume that this is exactly the road in which the Mayan ancestors travelled upon. Using blood in a ritual becomes powerful only when our other symbols of life are not powerful enough in our own minds. We are more evolved than this; at least we should be.

Lastly, whenever a ritual is being conducted it’s important to remember that the natural and spiritual world will communicate with us in any way that it can. For veteran pagans this is a no-brainer. An owl flying over your ritual is never just an owl flying over your ritual. It has become a vessel, an ally, or at the very least an opportunity to connect with nature. It is even a blessing. It’s never just an owl.

Being a pagan and watching this episode was kind of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. True, I enjoyed the show, but I was left feeling very uneasy and on edge. The reasons, however, were probably not the same ones as those bothering Kris Williams.

The questions that won’t leave me:

For whatever reason, this bloodletting ritual entered into the mind of the collective. For the half of the population that already believe in ghosts, or spirits, this may be especially significant. At the very least, we should be asking some very important questions.

I am a believer. I even write about the Spiritworld in my novel Way of the Wraith. I’m not an expert, however. In fact, none of us are. No one will ever fully know what they cannot see despite what anyone else might tell them. We hear varied theories for some of the exact same tales. Understanding appears before us in the form of fairies, ghosts, other-dimensional beings, angels, demons, gods, and even aliens. A lot of times, different witnesses seem to be pointing at the exact same piece of evidence in support of very different theories or beliefs. In the end, either side is just an opinion. It’s an easy thing to forget.

Even in the world of the “mundane” we often have different theories and belief’s about the exact same thing. We’ve all heard how four people will see the same car accident differently from each street corner. Our truth is never necessarily the truth.

When it comes to the Spiritworld our opinions become even foggier. Unless we’re as gifted as Ivo Dominguez,[ii] we might not be able to see into the Spiritworld at all. Many of us seem to share a basic idea of what spirits are, though.

If we do believe in those spirits, and if we do create relationships with them, then how should we conduct ourselves when we do encounter them? Should there be some sort of ethical guideline?

We can assume that if a spirit is being appeased by a gift of blood, tobacco, whisky, rum, incense, fire, money, food, milk, honey or music that this somehow feeds them and they might even need this food. Maybe they do? Feeding the spirits might even be an almost innate reaction to their presence in the first place, motherly even. After all, spirit gift-giving practices do exist within the beliefs of every culture.

“Negative” spirits can often be tamed through communication, gifts, and acknowledgement. Would it be so unreasonable to assume, then, that this negative spirit can also be made less tame? People feed fighting dogs raw meat to keep them aggressive so why wouldn’t blood have the same effect on a spirit? Especially if the person conducting the ritual had a limited view of what blood really was.

I am left wondering, then, what if a spirit really was Earth bound? What if it really was enviable of life? What if it really was lacking in judgement and lucidity and what if it really wasn’t wise enough to make its own decision? Would we have an ethical responsibility then? Should a spirit have any considerations or rights?

I asked Chad Morin (owner/promoter and host of Ghost Hunt Weekends) if he had any thoughts on whether or not spirits should have rights. He was kind enough to answer:

“They are now a part of the universe and their rights apply to the laws of the energy of the universe as well.”

It might seem a little vague, but in 140 characters or less I don’t think anyone could have said it better. I’m still left wondering, though, whether or not spirits should have some basic rights? If they did have rights then what exactly would those rights be? Would spirits be our equals, or would they be lesser than us because they are seen as having lived already?

The Ghost Hunters and the Bloodletting Ritual episode may have made different people uneasy for different reasons. We may all agree, however, that it’s an episode for the books.

[i] Susan Slaughter explains this.

[ii] Ivo Domnguiz is interviewed on T. Thorn Coyle’s podcast Elemental Castings #34 and is well worth the listen. His book Spirit Speak is one of the best pagan books available on the subject of spirits.

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