Thou ominous and fearful owl of death… –Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1
This post had an unusually long gestation period. It all started with a Haaretz article way back in August, 2011, and finally takes wing as something of an owl extravaganza — go as far with it as you care to! The original story is interesting in itself, but also resonates strongly with notions which come down to us through ancient sources (including, tangentially, the Bible). First, the modern story:
* * *
A Jew, an Arab and an owl walk into a barn…
Jewish and Arab farmers in northern Israel have recruited avian assistance and adopted a green method of pest control
By Zafrir Rinat
A popular superstition holding that owls are bad luck caused Arab farmers to refuse for quite some time to put up nesting boxes for the birds, even though they are widely used by Jewish farmers as a form of biological pest control.
But this attitude has begun to change of late, thanks to the efforts of an ornithologist from the Lower Galilee village of Iksal.
Samah Darawshe, of the Israel Ornithology Center, has managed to persuade Arab farmers in the Lower Galilee to put up dozens of nesting boxes over the last year, and dozens more are slated to go up soon. The results of the effort will be presented in two weeks at a Tel Aviv conference on regional economic cooperation sponsored by the Regional Development Ministry, which put up the money for the nesting boxes.
To date, Jewish farmers have put up some 2,700 nesting boxes, as owls eat a large number of agricultural pests. As such, they constitute an alternative to pesticides. The ornithology center, run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, also managed to persuade Jordanian farmers to put up nesting boxes.
To convince Israeli Arab farmers to overcome their fears, Darawshe launched a major informational campaign. “We held special seminars for people in the villages,” he related.
“I spoke with students at the schools, and also with imams. I even did a search of religious sources and found that the Prophet Mohammed rejected superstitions against animals, including owls. And there were imams who agreed to speak about the importance of using owls in their Friday sermons.”
One of the first farmers to agree to try out the owls was Salah Omari of Sandala. Two years ago, he put up two nest boxes, one of which produced “the first owl nest in an Arab community,” Darawshe said.
Later, Darawshe persuaded the Mekorot Water Company to put up 52 nesting boxes along the route of the National Water Carrier in the Beit Netofa Valley, five of which attracted nesters (“that’s considered a success,” he explained ). This gradually reconciled local Arab farmers to the idea.
His next success was getting 30 boxes put up in Kafr Kana, west of Beit Netofa. No nests had been built yet, but owls had begun to check out the boxes, Darawshe said.
Residents of Bueina-Nujeidat also recently agreed to accept nesting boxes, and Darawshe now plans to work on other villages in the area. [end]
* * *
Now, I find it particularly interesting that this present-day, local superstition — the owl as an omen — has roots traceable to ancient literature, including Josephus, and that from his writings emerges a connection to a passage in the Book of Acts!
The references to owls in antiquity, and to the owl as an omen, are quite numerous. Perhaps it will suffice to consult Pliny the Elder, who compiled his encyclopedic Natural History in the 1st century AD. Here is some of what he said about owls:
The horned owl is especially funereal, and is greatly abhorred in all auspices [i.e., divinations] of a public nature: it inhabits deserted places, and not only desolate spots, but those of a frightful and inaccessible nature: the monster of the night, its voice is heard, not with any tuneful note, but emitting a sort of shriek. Hence it is that it is looked upon as a direful omen to see it in a city, or even so much as in the day-time. I know, however, for a fact, that it is not portentous of evil when it settles on the top of a private house… (Book 10, Chapter 16)
(At our family place in the North Carolina mountains, we used to attach a plastic owl decoy, obtained from the local garden center, to the top of our “private house”. It was supposed to keep our eaves from being shredded by pileated woodpeckers who were after the burrowing carpenter bees, already engaged in their own destructive work!)
Anyway, in antiquity, owl-as-omen was more than just a popular superstition. Owls possessed a rather official, recognized status as portending something, which could actually be either good or evil. There were in fact many birds held to be important by ancient diviners, and consulted by them, as it were. In the case of the owl (likewise the crow), even the relative position of its appearing was sometimes imbued with special meaning: an owl on the left was a favorable omen, it was said.
And, owls are in the Bible, it should not surprise us. As in Pliny, they are depicted as inhabiting the desolate, waste places (Ps 102:6; Is 34:11). And, if you were wondering, they are decidedly not kosher (Lev 11:16-17; Deut 14:16)!
But, back to the owl as an omen. Given the currency of this notion in the ancient world, it shouldn’t surprise us that it would crop up in the writings of Flavius Josephus. In fact, owls (or the same owl?) appear twice in Josephus’ narrative of the career of Herod Agrippa I, a personality we know also from the New Testament.
The first incident is found in Josephus’ Antiquities, 18:195-201. The date is ca. 36 AD, and Agrippa, before being named king, was engaged in certain intrigues within Rome’s imperial family, with whom he had many past connections. I will allow Paul Maier to unfold the scenario for you in his condensed translation (Josephus: The Essential Writings, pp. 267-8):
…[Agrippa] borrowed great sums and returned to Rome and the good graces of Tiberius, who had moved to the island of Capri. Agrippa became a close friend of his young grand-nephew Gaius (Caligula). One day, while they were out riding on Capri, Agrippa expressed the hope that Gaius would soon succeed Tiberius as emperor, since he was much worthier.
This was overheard by the chariot driver and eventually reported to Tiberius, who angrily had Agrippa arrested. While he waited in chains in front of the palace, a horned owl alighted on the tree on which he was leaning. Another prisoner, a German, predicted that Agrippa would soon be released and attain the highest point of honor and power. “But remember,” he continued, “when you see this bird again, your death will follow within five days.”
The story goes on to tell of Agrippa’s deliverance from his bondage, the death of Tiberius in 37 AD, Agrippa’s elevation by Gaius (now the Emperor Caligula), who grants him the tetrarchy of Philip, and his return home to Palestine in triumph. Antiquities 19 begins by following Agrippa’s career as king under the next emperor, Claudius, who grants him all of the expansive former realm of his grandfather, Herod the Great.
So, the owl Agrippa encountered in his former bondage surely portended good — but with that ominous warning attached. Such dramatic tension requires, obviously, an equally dramatic denouement, which Josephus delivers in Antiquities 19:343-50. Again, Maier, in his streamlined version, sets the stage:
After his seventh year of rule, Agrippa came to Caesarea to celebrate games in honor of Caesar. At daybreak, he entered the theater, dressed in a garment of woven silver which gleamed in the rays of the rising sun. His flatterers started addressing him as a god…
Here, it is useful to switch to the full text of Josephus (Whiston, 1737):
Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery. But as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, “I, whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life; while Providence thus reproves the lying words you just now said to me; and I, who was by you called immortal, am immediately to be hurried away by death. […]
And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life, being in the fifty-fourth year of his age, and in the seventh year of his reign..
We have the same story, of course, in a somewhat different version, in Acts 12. Leading up to it, Acts presents Agrippa as a persecutor of the early church, both putting to the sword James the brother of John and imprisoning the Apostle Peter — until his miraculous release. In Acts, Agrippa’s death is recounted thus (NASB):
20 Now [Herod Agrippa] was very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and with one accord they came to him, and having won over Blastus the king’s chamberlain, they were asking for peace, because their country was fed by the king’s country. 21 On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22 The people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23 And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.
Clearly, there is no owl here. If we ask which text came into existence first, the Book of Acts or Josephus, it is almost certainly the former. We might even ask whether Josephus, sitting in Rome ca. 94 AD, might have had a copy of Acts on his bookshelf! Be that as it may, both texts employ the same key word in Greek. The word is angelon, which is rendered in English as “angel” in Acts 12 (and many other places) but as “messenger” — the word’s essential meaning — in Antiquities 19, where Josephus already took the trouble to tell us that it’s an owl.
One last bit: Enter the bishop and scholar Eusebius of Caesarea, writing his immensely important Church History in the early 4th century. In his own telling of Agrippa’s death in 44 AD (History, 2.10), Eusebius attempted to tie the two first century accounts together, and to impress upon his readers their commonalities and essential agreement. For his trouble, however, he earned the criticism of a host of latter-day commentators.
Eusebius first recounts, in a straightforward manner but in his own words, the account from Acts. Then he pulls in the Josephan version. In fact, Eusebius purports very specifically to be quoting Josephus, and herein lies the problem:
We must admire the account of Josephus for its agreement with the divine Scriptures in regard to this wonderful event; for he clearly bears witness to the truth in the nineteenth book of his Antiquities, where he relates the wonder in the following words:
“… on the second day of the games he proceeded to the theater at break of day, wearing a garment entirely of silver and of wonderful texture. And there the silver, illuminated by the reflection of the sun’s earliest rays, shone marvelously, gleaming so brightly as to produce a sort of fear and terror in those who gazed upon him.
“And immediately his flatterers, some from one place, others from another, raised up their voices in a way that was not for his good, calling him a god, and saying, ‘Be thou merciful; if up to this time we have feared thee as a man, henceforth we confess that thou art superior to the nature of mortals.’
“The king did not rebuke them, nor did he reject their impious flattery. But after a little, looking up, he saw [a/an (Gk.) angelon] sitting above his head. And this he quickly perceived would be the cause of evil as it had once been the cause of good fortune, and he was smitten with a heart-piercing pain.”
Remember that everyone involved here — Luke (in Acts), Josephus, and Eusebius — are all writing in Greek, and that the key word angelon was used to convey both the general meaning of “messenger” and the more specifically religious “angel”.
The point is: here in Eusebius, supposedly quoting Josephus directly, the phrase an owl sitting on a certain rope is missing. There is no owl, but an angelon “sitting above his head” — and on this has long hinged a minor textual controversy, cited (and dismissed) already in the 18th century by the translator and commentator William Whiston: In essence, did Eusebius take liberties with Josephus in order to make it comport more closely to the version in Acts?
The controversy can never be resolved, really, but reason dictates that we give Eusebius the benefit of the doubt. For one thing, we must ask whether the texts of both Josephus and Eusebius that have come down to us today represent exactly what came from the hands of the original authors. The answer, almost certainly, is “no”. Just as with biblical texts, there were various versions of these works which circulated in antiquity. Is it possible, for example, that Eusebius possessed a now-lost text of Josephus which had already been “cleaned up” by some Christian copyist — without an owl? Or, is it possible that our text of Eusebius passed through the hands of, again, a Christian redactor who attempted, rather clumsily, to harmonize Acts and Antiquities? We are forced to say: yes, both are possible.
Moreover, Eusebius in almost all other instances earns high marks for his handling of sources which are known to us. Here, it is interesting to note — in Eusebius’ quoting of Josephus — the context of Agrippa’s fatal theater appearance, the “games in honor of Cæsar”, is retained, even though it’s at odds with Acts, which tells of a peace delegation from Tyre and Sidon. Moreover, with the phrase “as it had once been the cause [not “messenger”] of good fortune”, the Church History at least alludes to the previous owl incident in Josephus. Again, if it’s an attempted harmonization, it is a clumsy one indeed.
* * *
One final thought question, mostly for fun: When Josephus’ German prognosticator on Capri announced that Agrippa would see “this bird again” (Ant. 18:200), how should we understand that? Does it simply mean this kind of bird — another owl, OR is he indicating that specific owl? (Any Greek scholar, if it’s not too silly, feel free to chime in!) And, if the latter, is that even possible — for the same owl to appear first off the Italian coast in 36 AD and then show up eight years later (44 AD) in Judea?
Well, here’s what I found… Some owls have a life span of 15 to 20 years in the wild, and much longer in captivity. As for geographical distribution, I looked at the Eurasian Eagle-Owl (bubo bubo), probably the best match for the “horned owl” specified by Josephus, and found its range includes both Italy and the Levantine coast. Regarding migration, some owls clearly do migrate but, alas, our bubo bubo seems to mostly stay put… Still, who knows what an owl might get into his head, especially if he had such a dramatic story to play out? I’m inclined to issue a qualified “yes” — it was possible.
It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman, Which gives the stern’st good-night. –Shakespeare, Macbeth