The Goddess of Wisdom
'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, April 2016
Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado
English Translation: Asia Club, WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko & KASE Tomoko)
Brown Hawk Owl (Ninox scutulata) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
Spring is a season of fresh start in Japan. I cannot but naturally smile when I see a first-grade schoolchild carrying a brand-new, shiny randoseru, a satchel, too big for his body, on his back, or a young freshman proudly entering the gate of the university of his first choice.
Athena of the ancient Greece is known as a goddess of wisdom and knowledge, who is always accompanied by a Little Owl (hereafter only described as an owl). This bird is supposed to have become her companion, for Athena was originally the goddess of mother earth to preside over fertility, while the owl was known to prey on rats and pest insects for good harvests. Later as the city of Athens expanded, Athena changed herself into the goddess of war to protect the ancient capital from the foreign invaders. In the 5th century BC, Athens became such a strong city state and a center of art and learning that the character of hers as the guardian goddess of arts, crafts and skill was given more weight to emphasize those values.
During Roman times when Athena was called Minerva, she was continuously accompanied by the owl; accordingly, the nocturnal habit of the bird came to symbolize not only wisdom and knowledge but also darkness. Furthermore, as the owl could use its wisdom to bring to light the secrets hidden in the dark, it came to be disliked as a harbinger bird, and later as an evil bird to toll the knell. In quite a few cultures worldwide, we can find examples of the owl to be considered as an evil bird. In some regions in Japan, too, terrifying folk tales associated with the bird have been handed down for generations.
Little Owl (Athena nocutua) Photo: HIH Princess Takamado
Some owls are diurnal, but most are nocturnal, hunting after dark. They have evolved in a very interesting way. For example, thanks to the specific structure of the feathers, the owl can fly soundlessly and make a sudden pounce on its prey. It has stereoscopic vision like humans’, for its eyes are placed in the front of the face. Still more, the bird collects the faintest rustling sounds of small animals in the dark by the facial disc and sends them to the ears which are located asymmetrically at the height slightly different from each other. By making use of the time difference of the sound reaching each of the ears, it can trace the exact spot of the sound made by preys.
In recent years, probably influenced by movies and other media, owls have become popular pets. I do understand people say the bird is cute, but we should never forget that it is a bird of prey with such a body and instinct as a hunter. Unlike a cat or a dog an owl is not an improve breed to be kept by a human. It must be very stressful for the bird to live by squashing the instinct of a bird of prey. Now that many pet animals abandoned by their keepers get lost and killed in the end, we should rather shift our focus to such pet animals.
At the same time, it would be more appreciated if we could protect woods and forests, rivers and countryside views even to the smallest extent so that the owls could live there peacefully. Fukuroh, owl in Japanese, when it is spelled in Chinese characters in various ways, implies “man of luck”, “no suffering”, etc. So, let me wish a lot of Fukuroh may visit you all!