Birds of Omen

‘Birds of omen dark and foul,

Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,

Leave the sick man to his dream –

All night long he heard your scream’

from an Ancient Gaelic Melody by Sir Walter Scott

As early man was fearful of the night it is not surprising that ancient stories depict the owl as a harbinger of death, and a bird of ill omen.

There are so many stories and superstitions about the owl from different cultures around the world, too many to write here, but here’s a few I found interesting during my research.

In Greek mythology  the underworld spirit Ascalaphus, reports Persephone for eating pomegranate seeds. Dementer punishes him for telling tales and buries him under a rock. However Persephone takes pity on Ascalaphus by releasing him and transforming him into a screech owl (barn owl).

According to the Roman poet Ovid, Ascalaphus became ‘a loathsome bird, ill omen for mankind, a skulking screech-owl, sorrow’s harbinger.’

In ancient Rome and later throughout the Medieval age it was believed that witches would turn themselves into owls and suck the blood of babies and malevolent  spells were made with owl feathers and eggs.

The Romans gave ‘auguries’ by listening to birds and ‘auspices’ by watching the direction of their flight, as a form of fortune telling.  The owl was always an ill omen. If they heard one or saw one close to their home they would nail a dead owl to the door. By accepting the evil in this way they hoped it would  stop any more bad luck that might befall them.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses he tells us about a girl called Nyctymene who was seduced by her father. Out of shame she fled to the forest refusing to show her face in daylight. Taking pity on her the goddess Minerva transformed her into an owl which, as we will see, in later Greek mythology, becomes the symbol of the goddess.

In the Celtic story of Mabinogian, the tribal chief Lleu Llaw Gyffes ‘ mother places a curse on him where he will never have a wife. So the magicians Math and Gwydion make a spell to counter the curse. With flowers from the oak, broom and meadowsweet they make a beautiful wife for him and name her Blodeuwedd (Flowerface) . However she has an affair with Gronw Pebr , lord of Penlynn and together they conspire to murder Lleu. Lleu escapes by becoming an eagle and chases Blodeuwedd and her lover into a lake where they are drowned. There Gwydion turns her into an owl, the most hated of birds, so that forever she will be attacked by the other birds.

In other cultures they are seen as a spirit guide to fly the dead to the after-life. Native American tribes would place an owl feather in the hand of the dying person to help them to make a safe journey to the other side. In China during the Shang dynasty (1500 – 1045 BC) owl figures were placed in graves for the same reason.

Ollie the barn owl

(stained glass, marble, ceramic tile, copper wire on cement structure)

Athene Noctua

In contrast to the Roman hatred of owls, the Greeks came to revere them. Athene Noctua, the little owl, was associated with the Greek goddess Athene (Roman Minerva). She had an owl as a companion and guardian, which we see in depicted in ancient Greek art works and coins . Due to this the owl became a symbol of protection and wisdom and even today in Athens there are little owl trinkets and model sculptures you can buy for good luck, prosperity and to remind you of beautiful Athens!

little bronze guardian owl from Athens

Due to the Roman beliefs and superstitions the owl had a bad image in England. Later this was further exasperated  by Shakespeare’s writings such as…

‘It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night.’ (Lady Macbeth in Macbeth)

The owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign’ (King Henry in King Henry 1V)

In the Victorian era they were killed in their hundreds, shot for their feathers for fashionable hats or by farmers who believed they were eating their chicks . This led to a sharp decline in numbers which still hasn’t fully recovered, and today pesticides and loss of habitat due to farming and housing hasn’t helped either.

Right now I think we should be inspired by Athen’s many years of owl veneration!

Hail the owl!

Athene Noctua (Little Owl)

(ceramic and glass tile, marble, pearl shell rounds, milliefiori, copper wire on cement structure)

Available to purchase at The Erwood Station Gallery, Builth Wells, Wales.

I love this poem by Aaryan Deshpande who describes the Little Owl in a much more positive light …

‘Oh nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.
At sunset your eyes’ iridescency,
And as you’re lunar wings expand,
In the dark you shimmer brightly;
As there is no sound by the wings you fan.
Large eyes, body brown,
Dressed in a spotted gown;
Your tufts like the moon crescent,
Your holy appearance as wisdom is my present;
Warrior of light, advisor of the moon,
Annihilating demonic snakes,
As I see you will leave soon.
Whatever the world says about you is fake;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The prettiest of all the fowls.

Messenger of Athena, Vaahan of Laxmi,
Your beauty is felt close by me;
Because you are a nocturnal owl,
The wisest of all the fowls.’

Aaryann Deshpande 2013

 

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The Silence of Owls

On my monthly trips to Somerset Crafts gallery, I drive the quiet way through the lanes through the Somerset levels. One fresh December morning last year I had to stop as I spotted something quite beautiful through my rear view mirror.

A trail of mist was weaving a path across the distant woods.

It was very quiet, the mist absorbed the sound just like the silent flight of an owl.

The first time I became aware of this silent flight was when I was living in South Wales after leaving art college. I sat in the half light of dusk on my doorstep drinking beer and an owl flew out of the trees. It glided majestically with great wings that seemed to sweep up all the usual sounds around me.

It’s interesting to read about the science behind the owls flight, and about how the structure of their downy feathers soak up sound. Have a look at this article if you are interested. https://asknature.org/strategy/wing-feathers-enable-near-silent-flight/

And have a look at this video to see and hear the proof of the silence! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_FEaFgJyfA

And I thought it was my imagination!

The Owl Who Brings The Silence

(iridescent glass, ceramic tile, vitreous glass, metallic backed glass, marble) (SOLD)

 

The Owl Who Weaves Silence

((iridescent glass, ceramic tile, vitreous glass, metal backed glass, hand gilded metal leaf glass, marble)

‘The Owl Who Weaves Silence’ is framed and for sale at The Erwood Station Gallery, Builth Wells, Wales.

I couldn’t find a myth about an owl weaving mist (although now we have one 😉 ) , please let me know if you find one and come back soon to see some more owls and read a bit about Roman and Greek owl mythology.

🙂

The Propagation of Birds

As I was returning from one of my daily walks around the lanes and fields in December last year, full of wonder and awe at the grey skies and  the skeletons of trees, I found myself being fascinated by the hedge tops holding on steadfastly to the few remaining leaves from the summer. The light was fading and the leaves looked like little birds.

In January this year I enjoyed the deep sunsets and the rising moon beyond the silhouettes of the hedge saplings.

I remembered I had made a sketch several years ago of a bird blooming from a plant stem, I searched for it for several days but was unable to locate it so I drew a new design.

Then made the cartoon…

I made two mosaics, one at sunset and one at moon rise. I imagined the birds were growing from the sapling hedge sticks and would fly away at moon rise.

The Propagation of Birds (part 1)

Made with smalti, gold leaf glass, metal leaf hand gilded glass, vintage glass tile, ceramic tile

 

The Propagation of Birds (part 2)

Made with iridescent glass tile, copper streaked glass tile, stained glass and ceramic tile.

These mosaics are framed and for sale in the Erwood Station Gallery, Builth Wells, Wales.

All That We Did To Them Until There Were None

All That We Did To Them Until There Were None
(gilded and painted plastic animals, smalti, gold leaf glass, hand gilded glass, glass marbles and nuggets, lead smelts, fossils, agate, glass tile, fools gold, Boris Anrep’s gold lipped oyster shell)

An apocalyptic vision in response to the environmental problems that are tipping our fragile eco-system.

Three Golden birds, Two Nordic Snow Birds and a Brave Robin Redbreast

I’ve made some new birds inspired by winter just for you!

 

 

Nordic Snow Birds

 

The Brave Robin

There are several different stories about how the robin got his redbreast. I particularly like an Irish folk tale I found which I’ll attempt to retell…
It was a harsh and very cold winter and a boy and his father were out in the forest collecting wood for their home fire. It was getting dark and they still had many miles to go before they were home so the father made a fire to keep them warm for the night and warn away any hungry wolves.  As they sat warming their hands and trying to get comfortable, father found he was finding it hard to stay awake so he told his son to keep the fire going while he had a nap. His son agreed and kept a nice fire going until he too found himself beginning to nod off. Before he could wake his father to take his turn and  look after the fire, he had fallen fast asleep. It wasn’t long before the fire began to dwindle, getting lower and lower. Meanwhile a wolf was waiting for the right moment…
Whilst this was happening a robin watched from a nearby tree and flew over to the fire. To stop the fire from going out and keep the wolf at bay, he fanned the embers with his wings, keeping the flames high. As the hot flames licked his chest he didn’t fly off but bravely continued fanning the flames until it was safe and the wolf had gone away.

Brave Robin

As with my other birds (Starlings, Kingfishers and Doves) these birds have a three dimensional front wing and body…

The front wing shown here is made with my special hand gilded metal leaf glass, as too are the golden birds and the Snow Birds also have a good sprinkling of the irresistible golden glass mixed in with those pretty iridescent tiles.

So what are you waiting for…they are the perfect gift for you or your friend!

You can see more pictures and buy these new pieces by flying over to OddLittleFlock .

Whilst you are there you will see I am offering 20% off angels and fairies and free shipping on selected collections.

Fly quickly now….

🙂

 

 

Odd Little Flock

Woopee doo! I thought you might like to see my new little fairies and angels. These little oddities came out of the work I made for Glastonbury Abbey. I love how one thing leads to another when you are making things. Working with plastic bones led me to the barbie doll fairies. I also find it quite strange how the times have changed from when I was going to festivals in the 1980’s. I used to wear quite hippyish sort of clothes that consisted of faded old ripped jeans (not the silly sort you get today that are already faded and ripped when you buy them, but ones I had lived in for the past few years every day) , a flowery top, an Indian shawl (usually nicked from a friend) that I wore like a scarf, a black waistcoat, and either a donkey jacket , leather biker jacket or a much loved hand-me -down patchwork velvet jacket.  Not much make-up, maybe a bit of black kohl eye liner. And I would take a tent (that I also took home with me) a sleeping bag, some cider, and a toothbrush. Maybe a bit of money to cover the “small” entrance fee and buy a pasty. (Many of the festivals in those days were free… imagine that!) I would smell quite bad after a few days and relish the warm bath I would get into on my return home.

Compare with the girls going to festivals today. … expensive fashionable flowery “festival” clothes, pristine make-up and long sparkly hair, flowery “festival” wellie boots. I imagine they use  showers that are  provided these days, and take their hair-dryers.  How can you plug a hair-dryer into a field? Don’t tell me they have electricity too!!!

Here are the girls…

click the pics to buy…

Rainbow Cloud goes to Glastonbury

 

Saffron Sky goes to Glastonbury

 

Sugar Rose goes to Glastonbury

The Spirit Angels

I also made some angels. I wanted them to wear boots too, but hob-nail boots, not Glasto festival wellies.  I made the heads using self hardening clay. I really tried to make them pretty but they didn’t want to come out like that. They reminded me of medieval faces. So I used medieval names for them, added a little grandeur pop culture (the Marvellous, the Glorious, the Incredible and the Golden)  and looked up the meaning of the names.

Here are the angels, click the pics to see what they represent and to buy…

Angel Millicent the Marvellous wears hob nail boots

 

Geraldine the Glorious wears hob-nail boots

 

Ulric the Incredible wears hob-nail boots

 

Godfrey the Golden hides his boots

Odd Little Flock is the name of my re-branded Etsy shop where you will see mosaic and mixed media creations of birds, angels and mythical creatures to enthral and inspire you!

😉

Like my work? You can become a patron to help me to make art and write about it. Click the donate button at the top of my blog. Any amount gratefully accepted. Thank you!

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The Robert Plant Guardian Bird of Relics

And so to the final one of the six birds! It’s Robert Plant, our wonderful living rock legend!

I thought it would be nice to have someone who is still alive as inspiration for a guardian bird. I chose Mr. Plant because of his connections with Glastonbury and the Abbey itself. In 2014 for the first time after many years of worshipping him as front man of Led Zeppelin I got to see him play live at Glastonbury Abbey with his new band the ‘Sensational Space Shifters’. I went with my partner and our two youngest (teenagers) . It was a fantastic concert, I love the mix of old and new songs, blending world music musicians and sounds  into the old Led Zepp rock songs such as ‘Whole Lotta Love’

But his most iconic song that seemed to fit the ‘religious theme’ was of course the much played and over played Stairway to Heaven. Coming from a family of rock music lovers, I found my younger teenage years progressed into punk (or was that regressed?) and then back to rock. (I won’t tell you about my crush on David Essex when I was 10, luckily Sting came along at just the right time to save me from embarrassment with my friends! Shh! Did I really just tell you that?)

The Four Symbols or Led Zeppelin 1V as it’s more commonly known (the album with the song Stairway to Heaven) was played frequently in my house and various tracks were played in the pub where I would spend my evenings after college. But the first time I really sat down and listened to the whole album was when I was 18.  It was a night after the pub with a friend of a friend who offered to put me up on his sofa to save me from a very long walk home in the dark. I had a tendency to listen to music but not the words in those days, so as we listened he handed me a bit of paper which had the words to the song written down. That piece of paper was a magical script , it was as if each word was made of gold and silver, I had treasure in my pocket and  I could also sing along!

The Robert Plant Guardian bird (cement structure, stained glass, hand gilded metal leaf glass, shell rounds, glass beads, hand painted eyes, wire)

The feather on the heart of the bird is Robert Plant’s symbol on the Four Symbols album. Each member of the band had a symbol, the feather was designed by Mr. Plant being based on the feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness that came from the mythical lost Continent of Mu.

 

Stairway to Heaven song relic snow globe

I made the stairway with marble cubes and gilded them in gold and metal leaf.

Here’s the bird in the exhibition…

I think I just made you a Saint, oh Mr. Robert Plant!

😉

 Traces Revealed continues until January 28th 2018.

UPDATE: Now available to buy on my shop: rattraymosaics.co.uk/shop/birds/double-headed-eagles/

 

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