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Masters of the Night: Cherokee Owl and Witch Lore
The ancient Cherokees were astute observers of the natural world. The mountain landscape and all of its plants and animals were a part of their spiritual cosmos, especially the birds.
Their spiritual system divided the world into three levels. The Upper World, represented by the birds, was the realm of light, goodness and eternal life. The Under World, represented by the serpents, was the realm of darkness, evil and eternal death. By balancing these opposing realms, the Cherokees sought to bring peace, harmony and stability into the Middle World, the mundane everyday realm within which humans reside.
There is a great deal of serpent imagery in Cherokee lore, especially that having to do with the Uktena, a giant, mythic snake that haunted the Under World. But the main portion of their animal imagery is devoted to birds. For Cherokees, the birds were magical entities that could do something humans could only dream about: fly.
Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with the species they saw on an everyday basis: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice and so on. The myths and stories concerning birds are usually rather lighthearted, but not all of them. 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 the 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 knowas 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 the 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 hypersuperstitious 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 in his Myths of the Cherokee (1900) that "Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be 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 designation tsgili was expanded in meaning so as to signify "witch." Both the great-horned owls and the witches (in which the Cherokees firmly believed) indulged their mysterious powers only in darkness. They were the masters of the night.
The great-horned owl was held in such regard for good reason. Aptly known as "the Tiger of the Night," this predator, which can stand more than two feet tall, with a wingspan of four and a half feet, has ice-tong-like talons that can rip through a fencing mask. It will hunt by day but is supremely equipped for night stalking. Its eyes are thirty-five 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, fringed with down like a butterfly's, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of the devastating strike that's about to be delivered.
The Cherokee witches admired and were associated with these qualities in numerous ways. I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants, incantations or poems) 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 such category of these formulas has been labeled "To Lower One's Soul" by Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. In The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee (1997), Kilpatrick stated that the Cherokee sacred formulas that 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's a sacred formula from Kilpatrick's "To Lower One's Soul" category that I've rendered from one of his literal translations. 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.