The Cherokee tribe, which chiefly inhabited the American southeast, considered Earth a flat disc suspended between the planes of a higher world and an underworld. On the higher plane, both animal and human spirits watched over those on Earth. This illustrates the significance Cherokee spirituality places on animals, including owls. According to Cherokee beliefs, owls and other animals posses intelligent spirits and must exist alongside people in a harmonious and balanced fashion.
The owl holds a special place in the Cherokee creation myth. According to legend, Earth -- thought of as a floating island -- began as nothing but water, with all the animals living in an upper world known as Galunlati. When Galunlati became crowded, the water beetle ventured below and made islands from the mud under the water. The Great Buzzard, father of all buzzards on Earth, then came and formed valleys and mountains with the flapping of his wings. Although the Cherokee do not claim to know who made the plants and animals that came to inhabit the Earth, it is thought the animals from the upper world were told to keep watch over these newly created creatures for seven nights. Only the owl and the cougar endured this seven-day stretch, which is why they have the power to see in the dark.
As owls were animal spirits of the upper world, some Cherokee shamans believed these birds -- particularly Eastern screech owls, a common species in Cherokee territory -- served as spiritual consultants on sickness and punishment. Similarly, some Cherokee peoples associate the owl with medicine, viewing the owl's link to the spirit world as potentially medicinal, or helpful to those who are ill.
The owl's nocturnal nature and ghostly appearance sometimes earn it an association not only with sickness, but with death. In some cases, the appearance of an owl -- especially during the daytime near a village or lodge -- was thought to signify impending death. As owls were also associated with healing, a select group of healers who possessed “Owl Medicine,” a strong spiritual link with owls, were believed to be able to help those on their deathbeds by exploring visions of the future.
More to Consider
The Cherokee honor both the owl and the cougar for watching over Earth for seven days during creation; the creatures are often associated even in appearance, as the wide eyes of the owl resemble those of the cat. As a culture that views animals as intelligent beings with spirits, the Cherokee sometimes endow the owl with a personality akin to that of a wise old man.
- The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill: Learn NC: Maintaining Balance: The Religious World of the Cherokees
- HistoryTools.org: Cherokee Creation Story
- Cherokee Nation: The Traditional Belief System
- Valparaiso University: Midwestern Literature: Symbolism of the Owl
- United Cherokee Ani-Yun Wiya Nation: Birds and the Native American Beliefs
- University of Minnesota: So You Gave Yourself a Cherokee Name
- Southeastern Cherokee Council, Inc.: Cherokee Legends
- Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images