Grief is a sacred journey

An Owl, a Dream, and a Mystery

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Great Horned Owl (wikipedia)

A few nights after arriving in Arizona to visit Dotty and her family, I had a dream: I walk up a steep hill with Dotty. I’m looking for a safe place to release a large owl. Dotty opens battered wooden barn doors and enters the dark. “What’s it like in there,” I call through the opening. “Dangerous,” she says with a grin. “Dangerous for humans,” I think. “A good place for an owl.”

Four days later, we walked along the San Pedro River on Nature Conservancy land. The San Pedro is a fertile green ribbon of cottonwood trees and native plants in a dry desert valley. It’s the last above ground river between West Texas and California.

Descending into the river basin from the dusty desert, we entered a shaded wet world. Although the river rages in monsoon season, it was placid that day. We walked along a newly cleared trail while our guide pointed out native plants and animal signs.

Suddenly, he stopped with his right hand held out with a flat downward palm, the signal I use to tell my dog, “Wait!” Then he pointed into the trees.

Great Horned Owl near San Pedro River

“There’s a Great Horned Owl in the branches,” he whispered. The owl’s large motionless body first looked like part of the tree. When my eyes found her, I was jolted by her queenly majesty. Her watching yellow eyes pierced my bones.

The naturalist motioned us into a clearing for a better view. The owl gazed at us for five minutes before she unfolded her five-foot wings and flew north. Silently.

Two owl sightings in less than a week–one inner and one outer. A synchronicity? “So two things happen and they feel connected,” I imagined my husband Vic saying. “But what does it mean? Without meaning, it’s a coincidence, not synchronicity.” Vic’s first book was about synchronicity.

Picnic by San Pedro River with Fred, Dotty, our guide, and Josh

Unlike the small Athene noctua or Little Owl associated with the Goddess Athena, the river owl was massive. Large feathered ear tufts were a giveaway. A Great Horned Owl.

Twenty years ago, my son found a dead Great Horned Owl on our land in the Finger Lakes. It didn’t look sick or injured. Just dead. A friend and I inspected the fierce talons and beak before harvesting feathers and burying the owl. I never forgot our burial ritual.

Great Horned Owl rotating its head (wikipedia)

In 2014, I drove home late at night through a flash flood. There was a blackout. I couldn’t see any markings on unfamiliar dirt country roads. The main roads were flooded and blocked, so there was nothing to do but keep going. I inched forward, trembling. It took me two and a half hours to make what’s usually a half hour drive.

When I reached familiar roads near home, the rain slowed. A Great Horned Owl with drenched feathers stood in the middle of the road. It rotated its head 90 degrees and peered through my windshield. I lowered my lights and we watched each other for ten minutes before it opened its huge wings and flew. I felt the owl protecting me, checking to make sure I made it home.

Burney Relief of Inanna (Ishtar)

I remembered the Sumerian Goddess Inanna was called “Divine Lady Owl.” I’ve studied Inanna’s stories and written about her for years.

In the Burney Relief (~1800 BCE, Southern Mesopotamia), Inanna’s owls are large, like my dream owl and the Great Horned Owl. I see them as protectors with night vision, guiding the Goddess’s descent to the Underworld to be initiated into the wisdom of death and the unconscious. In this image, Inanna has owl’s wings. Her lethal talons clutch the backs of lions. Inanna is an Owl Goddess of the Dark Mysteries.

In southwestern Native American tribes, owls and their haunting night hoots foretell a death. Is something dying in me? Death could be actual or symbolic—the death of an old way of being, a harbinger of change, a coming transformation, as well as physical death.

“What’s the meaning?” I ask myself as I read about Great Horned Owls and search for images. I note their acute night vision and hunting skills. I’m especially interested in their keen listening in contrast to my damaged hearing.

Arizona sunset after our walk

Maybe I’m developing a new kind of hearing, an inner listening for the Great Unknown. My dream and a daylight (conscious) sighting of an owl comfort me. Even though I often feel lost, I must be moving in the right direction.

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Elaine and Dotty

Have you felt deep inner connections between inner and outer events? Maybe you were thinking about a friend you’d lost track of and then saw them the next day? Or maybe your synchronicity experience came through a dream as mine did. For an article about Inanna’s descent, see Listening to the Dark: The Descent of Inanna. For another post about synchronicity, see A Message from the Moon: Synchronicity as Inner Guide.

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22 Comments
  1. Dear Elaine, What JOY it was to read your deeply symbolic, owl-themed article today! I love owls, even though I rarely seen them in my waking life, more often in dreams. In folklore and mythology they denote the feminine powerfully, alongside the moon and the night. A bird of magic and darkness, of prophesy and wisdom. We know owls work best at night, perhaps like (some of) us, hence the nickname “night owl.” I’ve always sensed that owls know secrets, because through necessity, they learnt how to listen to hidden voices within.

    I have read somewhere that “Owl” people can detect subtleties of voice that others cannot. They can see deep into the darkness of others souls, and that most are either clairvoyant or clairaudient. So there is much truth and wisdom when you write about developing a new kind of hearing. Hmm, although scary at times we must learn to trust our own instincts.

    A little synchronicity, two years ago (April 2016) I had a dream and conversation with a large great horned owl. He told me, “I will give you the eyes to look into others souls, I will carry their voices to you.” Then I asked by what name he was known, he replied, “We look like one thing but we are not that. We are the watchers, we are not what we seem. We used to watch you, then our forms were different, you saw us as humans, now we’re owls. You have forgotten us, if I told you we are ‘souls’ would you remember us? We were your family once, we helped you settle into your life. We chose this night to check in with you.”

    A bit goggleddegook! But the messages still came though I felt. Perhaps your owl was a messenger too, from another realm, another shape-shifter? As always, thank you for sharing your wisdom and insights and your wonderful Arizona photos. I always enjoy your unique marriage of word and image! How amazing it must have been to witness your large, silent, queenly owl! How majestic! Warm and wild blessings, Deborah.

    • Thank you for adding more about the owl, Deborah. There is so much to say and so many associations to make, so I kept the mythological focus on Inanna and the stories. Owl symbolism can be found in most every culture. I was surprised to see an owl in bright daylight, even if it was partly hidden by tree branches. When I had ears to hear, I heard owls here at night. I’m trying to trust that there is something to be gained if I lose my outer hearing completely. I seem to be heading in that direction.

      What a powerful dream conversation between you and the owl. Yes, we have forgotten them and so many other creatures. I love imagining owls as departed souls and many traditions think of them this way. So what is the lesson brought by this departed soul? Like the Green Man who appeared in a dream after Vic’s death almost 10 years ago, it may be an unfolding relationship and support rather than a conceptual understanding. I’ll keep watching. I first wanted to honor the owls by writing about them. The Arizona one was queenly and majestic and appeared in daylight. The most startling was the owl that appeared in the middle of the road on that frightening flooded night. I was awake, but if felt like a dream.

  2. Earth Day is Sunday, April 22 this year. What a timely post.

    Unschooled in mythology as you are, I associate owls with wisdom and benign interpretations. Living in a nature preserve now, I often hear mysterious hoots at night. They never seem threatening though.

    Your inner hearing is improving immensely, this dream seems to be saying. And you must be moving in the right direction too. Dotty looks like such a kind soul. How wonderful to have her as a companion on your earth-walk in Arizona.

    I love the contrast of “fertile green ribbon” and “dry desert,” perhaps nature telling you symbolically that when one sense is diminished another sense is heightened.

    Thank you for the reminder to look for synchronicity. I will pay attention today. Thank you, Elaine!

    • Yes, it’s almost Earth Day, Marian. My son and the man who helps me on the land discussed garden fencing today and my helper planted a blight-resistant chestnut acorn in a place where one planted last year didn’t survive the winter. Of the 12 he planted, 11 survived. Last week, he protected them from dear by putting tall wire columns. The deer make us work for our trees.

      Yes, Dotty is a kind soul and a lover of flowers and wild life. She feeds ravens, quail, and hummingbirds. I’ve known and loved her more than forty years. The San Pedro River is spectacular, but threatened. It’s fed by the aquifer and humans drain more and more water. It was wonderful to drive along the dusty gravel road in and out of Dotty’s place and keep an eye on the greening cottonwoods at the bottom of the valley. The color felt so unlikely in the desert.

      Synchronicity is elusive by nature. So are dreams. I dream often but have to write them down in the night or I’ll lose the dream story. Then, in the morning, I don’t remember it–but it’s written down. It’s good when I review the dreams and see how they relate to the next day.

  3. Hooooooooooooooo! Happy to read your owl tale. I don’t always reach for meaning but can rest in the reassurance that synchronicity brings the inner and outer together without need for explanation.
    Today as I’m writing morning pages an unfamiliar tiger cat traverses my yard and looks up at me as I lock a window. I go downstairs to open a an email from my sister showing an orange cat massaging a woman’s back.
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    Cat visitations-purr.

    • How sweet it is, Janet. I can almost feel those paws kneading your/my back. As I wrote about inner and outer owl sightings, I didn’t know the meaning in any clear way I could articulate. I knew I needed to dig into owl symbolism and imagery which I’m still doing. It felt like enough to hold the images and watch to see if more information arises. It may not or it may–in the elusive ways of the unconscious.

  4. Your words always resonate with me. In this case, owls are deeply meaningful to my spouse, and I have come into closer contact with owls before major changes in my life. They’re my own omens.

    Thank you for sharing such a lovely and layered post, Elaine!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Caroline. I imagine these owls are omens of change or transformation, but I don’t know what that might be. Not yet. I’ll keep watching.

  5. Powerful piece, or such beauty and power in encountering such a wild creature in both day and dream light. Filling in my own feelings into your dream, the owl feels like something important in me wanting to be released and acknowledged. Being outside so much, you can see yourself in nature and vice versa, see a bigger and more translucent self maybe.

    • I love reading your reflections, Ira. I don’t know about a bigger or more translucent self (may it be so!), but perhaps these experiences are a counterweight to anxiety about politics and my responses to the world’s growing craziness and need. I feel a sense of transformation whenever synchronicity arises. The unconscious is emphasizing some meaning, but I’m not sure I get it yet. I’ll keep watching and try to hold on to faith in the world and in myself.

  6. a wonderful story and musings on synchronicity. owls are great seers of the night and i think of them as seers into our souls. they have been in close proximity to me in recent months. i hear their calls on my walks and have visited with them a lucky couple times. once one swooped past my shoulder, skimming the air around my head. i love those moments that remind me how connected to wildness i am. my mother became deaf in her 70’s and i have watched her navigate her quiet world. i always have wished an owl to protect her, guide her as she has become more and more separated from the outer world. maybe the owl is guardian for us not only as we age, but as we age with loss. there are many dark caves to navigate. it is good to have an experienced guide.

    • I used to hear owls, Lisa, but I don’t hear anything soft and subtle now. I watch for owl signs in the forest, but haven’t seen them in their usual places. Yes, we are deeply connected to wildness and it’s so easy to neglect that connection. I long for leisurely exploratory walks in nature, but this weather keeps me moving fast.

      I began losing my hearing in my 50s. Now, in my early 70s, not much hearing remains. I’m a good lip reader, but listening is often uncomfortable and tense even with my fancy hearing aids. Deafness from Meniere’s Disease also causes disequilibrium, a sense of not knowing where my body is in the world. Poor proprioception is the fancy name. This challenges a woman who has felt grounded most of her life, but there are lessons to learn in every experience. There is so much to say about owls, including their relationship to crone wisdom. Most every civilization has owl stories and we all have to learn to see in the dark.

  7. Wow, those are certainly a lot of owl sightings Elaine. The strangest was your dream then seeing one by the river.
    There are different interpretations for owls. I too have heard they can portend death. But like you say, death of what kind? And wow, I had no idea their wing span was 5 feet!

    • That’s living in the country, Debby, although I recently saw a photo of baby owls being raised on the outside windowsill of a skyscraper. They are survivors. Yes, they can portend death, but also a big change, a big transition, wisdom needed for a decision, the appearance of a guide, and more. I’m watching my world and my dreams to see what happens next. I saw a red fox for the second time in my yard, so the animal messengers are active.

      • That’s amazing you have such a connection Elaine! 🙂

        • Yes, it was amazing. I just bought some owl cards. Exploring owl images to see if there’s more information to gather there. But maybe just experiencing that inner and outer connection is enough.

  8. O my, Elaine, this is such a rich post. A dream and two outer sightings the one from a long time ago when you were driving through a dark and stormy night. The other on the day you saw that beautiful sunset. Thank you. I always take a sighting of an owl as a positive one. The indigenous people of my country see them as foretellers of doom. Lilith is referred to in Isaiah as a ‘screech owl’. In our old house I would occasionally see an owl perched on the tennis court railings in the moonlight, so still – and in the trees at the end of the garden we suspected that owls were breeding so didn’t want to get too close and disturb them. They are wise souls indeed.

    I loved Deborah’s expansion of the owl … and your comments back to all …

    • I know about the screech owl connection with Lilith. Screech owls are little ones–about 7 – 10″ tall. The unconscious doesn’t have to follow my rules, but I’m looking at larger owls
      similar to the ones I’ve seen in life and in the dream. I’m also interested in the mythological connections with owls in Native American people in the area where I saw and dreamed of the owl in March. Apparently they’re often seen as souls of departed warriors. I need to know much more. The experience I had after the flooding rain here made me feel the Great Horned Owl as a protector. Thank you for sending the information about Owl Spirit Animal. I’m soaking everything in. As always, we’ll see if the unconscious has more to say at this time or if it’s time to wait.

  9. I began working with owl energy about 20 years ago. I think it finally culminated in the death of my healing partner last October, now that I am thinking of it. And hadn’t thought of it before.

    My favorite sighting was related to my roommate who I inherited. She was quite a lot younger than me and got pregnant and didn’t want to move with her boyfriend. I was praying about it, and riding with my family to the coast. Suddenly I knew we had entered owl territory and that I would see a dead owl. I turned to my husband to tell him to stop, we came over the rise, and there was the owl on the road. Dead. Just dead. I got my husband to stop and decided to take the owl home and clean it. I had never done that before. I finished it up and knew that my roommate was indeed leaving. And she did. I still have the beautiful owl wings and have always felt like something put us together. and I felt like my “inheritied” issues resolved quite nicely.

    • Thanks for telling your powerful story, Stephanie. It sounds as though you’re a powerful intuitive. Keep paying attention to those inner messages because it sounds as though the owl is your wisdom ally.

  10. I always thinking about owl as providing crossing between two worlds. When I was young I had a spirit teacher who embodied owl. At my friends death, I passed over before him and helped him step across a threshold. I was always told that owl is women’s medicine. that most men can’t carry it in a balanced way. I know that my friend and partner had worked with it.
    I didn’t really put this together until right now.

    • Owl is often associated with the feminine in western cultures, but I’m just learning that owl is often a strong male warrior energy in Native American indigenous cultures. So much to learn and I’m sure the relationship depends on the individual and their inner nature. I love the way your insights keep coming.

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