Bourne remarks that "if an owl, which is reckoned a most abominable and unlucky bird, send forth its hoarse and dismal voice, it is an omen of the approach of some terrible thing; that some dire calamity and some great misfortune is near at hand." This omen occurs in Chaucer:
"The jelous Swan, ayenst hys deth that singeth,
The Oule eke, that of deth the bode bringeth."
Assembly of Foules.
It is thus mentioned by Spenser:
"This rueful Strich still wayting on the beere,
The whistler shril, that whoso heares doth die."
It would be too much to say that these sentiments are still alive to-day, but it is not too much to say that women and children listen to the weird cries with something approaching apprehension. Why? Simply because the note is dismal, and because it is heard in the night when other sounds are still. And if such is the effect now, we need not be surprised to learn it was the effect in more superstitious ages; ages when men, too, were under the spell. An owl once strayed into the Capitol at Rome, with the result that the city underwent a lustration. Butler speaks of this incident in his Hudibras:--
"The Roman Senate, when within
The city walls an Owl was seen,
Did cause their clergy with lustrations
(Our Synod calls humiliations)
The round-fac'd prodigy t'avert
From doing town and country hurt."
The Romans appear to have had most determined views on owls and their significance. "Julius Obsequens (in his Book of Prodigies, c. 85) shews that a little before the death of Commodus Antoninus, the Emperor, an Owl was observed to sit upon the top of his chamber, both at Rome and at Lanuvium. Xiphilinus, speaking of the prodigies that went before the death of Augustus, says that the Owl sang upon the top of the Curia. He shews, also, that the Actian War was presignified by the flying of Owls into the Temple of Concord. In the year 1542, at Herbipolis, or Wirtzburg, in Franconia, this unlucky bird, by his screeching songs, affrighted the citizens a long time together, and immediately followed a great plague, war, and other calamities. About twenty years ago, I did observe that in the house where I lodged, an Owl, groaning in the window, presaged the death of two eminent persons, who died there shortly after."
The death of such convictions could not fail to be slow, but widening knowledge has at last almost dispersed them, and nothing is left but the weird screech itself.