A couple of my readers asked me about an entry in my first “Sunday Stumble”… “Why would anyone stone owls?” Good question.
I will attempt to explain – although if anyone has more information or insights to contribute, please feel free. I am no expert, but I do believe the stoning of owls in Jamaica is based on superstition. They are a symbol of death – or they bring death. An omen, rather than a symbol, actually.
The name “Patoo” originates from the Twi word “patu.” Twi being Ghana‘s principal native language. There is a bit of confusion with another Jamaican bird, the Potoo, which is by no means an owl, but a “goatsucker” (a nightjar), an extraordinary bird I will have to tell you more about another time.
And for my competitors on “Words With Friends,” Patoo is not accepted as a word…
There are two types of owls in Jamaica: the Barn Owl (also often called the Screech Owl or Scritch Owl), and the Jamaican Owl – somewhat smaller and very brown, with charming ear tufts. I understand that the Barn Owl is more feared, and more often stoned. Of course, we have similar Barn Owls across several continents – but our Jamaican one seems especially pallid, ghostly white (and, to me anyway, quite beautiful, with his huge face and black eyes and silent white wings). In many parts of the Eastern Caribbean he is called a Jumbie Bird – or Spirit Bird. So he is very much associated with ghosts (duppies in Jamaican parlance).
The fear of owls seems to have been brought to Jamaica by African slaves, and generally all over Africa owls are regarded as harbingers of bad luck, disease, death. In Zimbabwe, I understand, many believe that if one lands on your roof, there will be a death in the family. Just as in Jamaica today, they are also stoned and chased away in some communities. No one wants them near their house.
In several other cultures, owls are revered and respected, rather than feared. Most Native American tribes find them powerful creatures and the Tlingit tribe used to go into battle hooting like owls. In European traditions, owls are often considered wise. One of my childhood books (whose main character was a motherly grey rabbit dressed in women’s clothes, an apron and such) included Wise Owl – who was only marginally scary because he was pretty much a recluse, and rather mysterious. In the end, though, he turned out to be a very useful member of the quaint little woodland society in the book, and of course quite fearless. I always associated owls with wisdom (often holding a book in their claw). I believe this all derives from the Greek myth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who actually shape-shifted back and forth from human to owl.
And yet Will Shakespeare himself regarded and described the owl as a bringer of doom, just as Jamaicans do. Many Arab traditions also fear the owl, for the same reasons. In Mayan mythology, the messengers of the Death Gods are owls.
Nevertheless, when I hear the Barn Owl’s wings creaking steadily over our house in the evenings, and his hissing screech, I feel in a way reassured. To me it is far from fearful, it is comforting.
And I wish him happy hunting.
PS Did you know the word for the fear of owls is oclophobia? Well, among several other phobias which I do not wish to discuss here, it seems there are Jamaican oclophobes. Like the fear of lizards (herpetaphobia) it is one that we should really try our best to overcome. After all, owls are very useful creatures; they eat the rats that are threatening to overwhelm us here in the city – oh, and they eat the much-feared lizards, too. What’s not to love.
- The Sunday Stumble – premiere edition (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Screams in the night (eyeonnature.wordpress.com)