April 2, 2015

After Kayla Mueller died in Syria while in the hands of ISIS, one of the tragedy vultures who pass themselves off as news journalists unearthed the fact that upon her graduation from college she had gotten a tattoo of an owl feather.  I read this public probe into the private life of a modern martyr/heroine with great interest because I am an owlaholic, and because I had parsed the myth and mystery of owls in my 2004 book, North American Owls:  Journey through a Shadowed World.

Owls have fascinated our species since before our knuckles came off the ground, and that myth and mystery has resulted in the dichotomy of our response to them.  In some ancient cultures owls were seen as icons of wisdom, in others as harbingers of death.  Both these branches of owl-think link to the nightbirds’ most remarkable characteristic—the ability to see in the dark, and this trait is at once enlightening and terrifying for our species which can’t.

It is often implied that those who contemplate owls live a deeper, more spiritual existence than those obsessed by sports and beer or couture and cooking.  The article I read referencing Mueller’s owl tattoo was informed, well written, and alluded to her ability to see what others were unwilling to see, hence the connection between her tattoo and her aid work.  And it set me to wondering about the mindset of her captors when they discovered that tattoo.

I know little to nothing about the Koran and its teachings, but I know that westerners, including mainstream Muslims, who dismiss ISIS as a loose coalition of disaffected psychopaths and modern secular terrorists are overlooking a key element in the current Middle East strife.  The roots of ISIS lie in an interpretation of the Koran based on its medieval origins and a desire to return the world to the age of feudalism in which it was written.

I do not know if owls are mentioned in the Koran, but they are depicted on walls of a cave in France dating to 30,000 BC.  They are engraved in Sumerian tablets from 2300 BC. They are mentioned in the Old Testament.  They are a staple in Shakespeare.  Arizona’s Piman people knew the owl to be a dying person’s guide into the darkness beyond life.  I know, personally, that an Eastern Screech-Owl landed on my mother’s windowsill, calling, the night before she received her cancer diagnosis.

Perhaps the ISIS version of Mueller’s death as collateral damage in a bombing raid is true.  Perhaps Mueller’s tattoo spared her from being summarily beheaded by feudal warriors seeking signs on their violent road to Koranic apocalypse.  I know my birding friend, Marcus Watson, who recently chanced upon his life Northern Pygmy-Owl thought it a sign of great good fortune.  However you view owls, whether you seek them or not, know they are inextricably entwined with the long history of human culture.


North American Owls:  Journey through a Shadowed World is, unfortunately, out of print.  My very favorite owl book, The Nightwatchers, by Angus Cameron and Peter Parnall, may also be, but you might try looking for it.  For an in-depth understanding of ISIS, read “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic.