Owl Woman

Owl Woman is a recent work by Stephanie Thomas Berry
Owl Woman
pastel
12 x 16″

A barn owl is perched in a blooming hawthorn, a tree of great enchantment and powerful heart medicine.

A new moon rises in the thinnest light of dawn.

In the crook of seven branches, a wounded heart is surrounded by a wreath of hawthorn flowers. The arteries branch from the heart then vine around the hawthorn tree; the capillaries spread along the bark like roots or lichen.

The owl holds the heart with one foot, but her talons are carefully curled up, so as not to injure it. In the other foot a red thread is curled around her toes and talons. She is sewing up the wound, the hole that is in the heart. To do this she has made a hole in her own body, and she pulls the healing red thread from herself.

Deep in the work of creating a piece, I was overcome with a feeling of fullness, of something pouring through me, something alive and potent. As if the image had chosen me to bring it forth, that it had its own work and meaning in the world, and I was merely the channel through which it moved.

As the owl took shape in front of me, she became Owl Woman. She stared back at me, with her own consciousness, her own meaning. My participation in her image became one of a devotee.

She is a Goddess, a Being of the Otherworld. My work can’t touch her power, her grace, her ferocity, but it can tell a little bit of her story.

There are many stories from diverse cultures of Owl Woman. She embodies the mystery of silence and darkness and deep perception. One of my favorites is the story of Blodeuwedd (which means “flower-faced”), from Wales.

The story goes something like this:

This really charming guy, who also happens to be a powerful magician, decides he should make a woman for his cursed nephew. I mean, isn’t that what uncles do for their nephews?

“Buddy, are you lonely? Let me get you a woman. Oh wait, no woman will have you because your own mother cursed you? OK, I’ll just make you one! From flowers!”

Then the uncle gets pissed when things don’t go as planned (surprise) and he curses Bloudeuwedd to be an owl after she almost succeeds in killing said nephew.

I love this story (my version is heavily abridged) not because it’s enchanting. Quite the opposite––I give this story some serious side-eye every time I encounter it. I love it because I am certain there is a much older story underneath it, where men don’t get to make women. Magician or no, it definitely works the other way round. And in the older story, now lost to us, but maybe not, a woman might become an owl, or vice versa, because she is a goddess in her own right.

Maybe the story isn’t lost to us because Owl Woman can’t be lost. She’s not trapped in a story or an image, but lives in the Otherworld, accessible by our spiritual imaginations. We only need curiosity and reverence to call upon her.

While I was working on the hawthorn flowers in this piece (so many hawthorn flowers!), I listened to people retell their near death experiences on YouTube. I don’t know how I got on that topic, because I started out listening Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche talk about meditation, but you know, considering algorithms I’m lucky I didn’t end in a rabbit hole of alien mind control.

But the near death experiences were fascinating. Each was so unique, even with some identifiable themes, there was a good sampling of experiences that did not fit into any near death experience theme. I found myself really curious about what a near death experience would have been like in the pre-Christian world. Or current Indigenous near death experiences.

It occurred to me that the spiritual beliefs you have (or don’t have) but also the spiritual culture you experienced throughout your life, creates a sort of filter through which you (might) experience massively powerful spiritual beings, landscapes, and rituals in a near death experience.

Nobody knows what is on the other side. Even if we have a belief to guide us, it breaks apart with the spiritual potency of the experience, like the way a really powerful dream won’t fit into the words you might use to tell it. It just doesn’t work. But I would like for Owl Woman to be there.

She’s not just a story. In the shadows of the in-between, she hovers over our shoulders. She calls to us in the dusk, waiting. When we are broken and lost, she drops hints like feathers; when we are invisibly wounded, she alone can see to the work of our healing. And when we cross over, into sleep, or death, or trance, she can come to us, and carry us deep into the mystery.

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