The Owl Husband
In many tribes the owl has a sinister meaning. In the Northwest the owl calls out the names of men and women who will die soon. Among the Sioux, Hin-Han the owl guards the entrance to the Milky Way over which the souls of the dead must pass to reach the spirit land. Those who fail the owl’s inspection because they do not have the proper tattoo on their wrists or elsewhere are thrown into the bottomless abyss. Among some nations, on the other hand, the owl is a wise and friendly spirit, an advisor and warning giver. A Passamaquoddy tale depicts the owl as having love medicine and a magic love flute–powers that the Plains people attribute to the elk.
A man and his wife lived at the edge of their village near a stream. They had a beautiful daughter whom many young men wished to marry, but she was proud, no suitor pleased her. Her father, caught between his daughter’s haughtiness and the rejected suitor’s anger, hoped to appease both by promising to give his daughter to the man who could make the embers of his hearth blaze up by spitting on it. Naturally, since spitting tends to put a fire out rather than kindle it, none of the young men succeeded.
There lived in the village an old woman whom many suspected of possessing evil powers, and their suspicious were well grounded. In reality she was an owl in disguise, and her nephew the great horned owl, ruled the whole tribe of these bad and scheming birds. Because he wanted the haughty girl for his wife, he assumed the shape of a good-looking young hunter and went to his aunt for help. “Here,” she said, and gave him a magic potion to drink. “This will enable you to fulfill that old man’s condition.
The handsome young hunter went at once to the lodge where the girl lived. He found her father entertaining the tribal elders, among them the chief of the village.
“Old man,” said the owl in disguise, “is it true that you will give me your daughter if I can make our fire blaze up by spitting on these hot ashes?”
“Certainly, young man,” said the father, “if you can do that, I will indeed let you have her.” The suitor spit on the glowing embers, which immediately blazed into a mighty flame reaching to the ceiling of the lodge, shooting up through the smoke hole, thrusting far into the sky. Since the girl could not refuse after her father had made his promise in front of the elders and the chief, the hunter seized her by the hand and took her with him to his lodge.
There her owl husband spread out soft bear robes for her and did all a young bridegroom shoud do for a beloved wife. When the girl woke after her first night as a married woman, she gaze at her sleeping husband and discovered something awful. His ears stuck up from his long, thick black hair, and his yellowish eyes which he kept half open even in sleep, had pupils that contracted at intervals into narrow slits. The girl sat for a long time petrified with fear, because now she knew that the handsome young hunter was the terrible great horned owl himself.
The spell was broken when the husband’s aunt entered and nudged the girl. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Why are you sitting there staring at him like this?” Then the girl let out a piercing scream and fled.
The whole village tried to console the young woman for the shocking trick that had been played upon her. The great horned owl left the neighborhood, because everybody knew who he really was. However, he still hoped to regain his beautiful wife by tricking her a second time.
The owl chief waited a while for the villagers to forget their fear and suspicion. Then he changed himself once more into a young man, also good-looking, but very different in appearance from his former disguise. He killed a moose and an elk, dragged the meat to the village, and announced to the people: “I have come as a friend from another camp nearby. I belong to your people and speak the same language, and I want to live among you. I am a great hunter and a generous man. I am putting up a lodge, and I have much meat, so I invite everybody to a feast.”
At first the haughty young woman and her parents were suspicious and did not want to accept the invitation. But all the people said: “Why, he’s just a good-natured stranger. It would be impolite not to go.” So they went.
While the villagers were feasting, the newcomer said: “Let’s tell stories. Has anybody had something strange, remarkable, or funny happen to him?” When it was the proud girl’s turn, she looked straight at the host and said: “My story must be told in a whisper, so in order to hear it, you must all put your hair back and uncover your ears.” The guest smiled and did as she said, but the host did not. “My hearing is keen,” he told her. “I can understand a whisper at a great distance. I don’t need to uncover my ears.”
But everyone laughed and called: “Uncover them! Uncover them!”
“I’m your host,” he replied. “You’re being rude and impolite. Stop making all that noise!”
But they cried even louder: “Uncover them! Uncover them!”
At his the host grew very angry and shouted: “All right! Here, look!” Throwing back his hair, he uncovered ears that were standing up like horns. With cries of terror, the guests rushed out of the lodge.
The great horned owl’s aunt was as angry as he. “This young wife of yours is far too clever,” she told him. “We must make something to outwit her.” Having the power of a great sorceress, she created a magic flute that would lure any girl into the arms of the man who played it. “With this, nephew,” she said, “she won’t be able to stop herself from coming to you.”
The great horned owl, again disguised as a man, tried to carry out his aunt’s scheme. But the haughty young woman and her parents were now so wary that they had put their lodge right in the center of the village and never strayed far. The weeks went by as he waited for his opportunity, and still the horned owl could not manage to come near his wife.
At last one day this proud girl said to herself: “It’s been so long that the great horned owl has surely forgotten about me. He has given up, while my fear of him is still imprisoning me. It’s time for me to go out and walk in the woods, the way I used to do.”
In a bad mood, the great horned owl was sitting high in a crotch of a huge tree. “I’m wasting my time,” he thought. “My wife is so afraid of me that she stays in the middle of the village. It’s hopeless; I must stop thinking about her.” Brooding, he saw someone coming through the woods. With his sharp owl’s eyes he recognized her, though he could hardly believe it. his heart began to beat very fast.
The proud girl came right to the foot of the big tree. Unaware of her husband’s presence, she sat down and said to herself, “How good to be out in the forest again without feeling afraid. How I enjoy this!” Then she heard some sweet sounds that soon formed into a wonderful song–magical, alluring, bewitching. She abandoned herself to the sound of the flute. “I could never resist the player who makes this wonderful music,” she thought.
Then the Great Horned Owl swooped softly down upon her, seizing her gently in his huge talons, carrying her off to the village of owls. There lived as man and wife, and the haughty girl eventually became used to being married to the great horned owl.
–Based on a legend reported in 1883 by Charles G. Leland