Befriending barn owls - the spirits of the night

The Polish for “barn owl”, płomykówka, evokes the birds’ flame-like plumage - and their presence evokes old magic.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Not long ago, at the cool end of an autumn afternoon, I met a woman on the street in the Polish resort town of Sopot. She was young in the face, almost boyish, her dark-gold hair intricately plaited, the light in her eyes as brown as the wing of the barn owl perched on her arm. For a moment, I thought it wasn’t real, something virtual, perhaps some new and elaborate form of accessory. Then it moved and I felt the life of it, a vivid yet contained field of resonance.

I stopped walking and the woman stopped to let me see: the bird was young but it was not at all disturbed by the people going by, its head turning this way and that to take everything in. It was simply, starkly beautiful; but without the necessary words to ask a question, or address a compliment to either bird or woman, all I could do was smile and the woman smiled back, nodding slightly before she went on her way – a fleeting encounter, no doubt, but for the rest of the day I belonged to a different world, a place touched with an old magic, a world where a woman could befriend a spirit of the night time and carry it with her through the glare of day.

When I told a Polish friend about this encounter, she said that the word in her language for “barn owl”, płomykówka, was particularly beautiful: płomyk, she said, is a “little flame” (my dictionary also gave “glimmer”) and my first thought was that the name was derived from the white of the owl’s face, glimmering in the dark as it hunted, an eerie white that, once seen, is never forgotten. Yet my encounter with the woman in Sopot suggested another possibility: look closely at a barn owl as it flies and, even as it shifts and shimmers away, vanishing here and reappearing elsewhere, there is most definitely a hint of cold blue fire in the plumage, a chill cyan, like the blue at the centre of a candle flame. (This blue is clearly visible, though less spectral, when the bird is at rest.)

A few days later, I found myself in Gdansk, talking to one of those artists who sell their work in the city squares of tourist towns all across Europe. Most of the stalls here were dedicated to views of the city or architectural details of the great buildings, destroyed during the Second World War, then lovingly rebuilt with the care that only a ruinously damaged but undefeated people can muster. This man, however, was different: a practitioner of a certain variety of mid-European surrealism, he made prints of a highly symbolic and occasionally disturbing nature – and a central feature of this art was the płomykówka.

The owls were beautifully, intricately drawn and pictured in various situations, both in flight and at rest, but one image in particular caught my eye. The bird occupied the foreground, staring out at the viewer, as if offering a challenge; behind it, in an old, partially ruined castle, a dark entrance loomed, at once inviting and remote, like a doorway in a dream. I asked what the picture meant. The man replied that the door in the wall was wisdom but to reach it you had to befriend the owl – which is to say, you had to become equal to the night.

I nodded but I hadn’t really understood and he sensed that, as I stood gazing at the picture, trying to figure out what “equal” actually meant. He laid his hand on my arm. “You have to befriend the owl,” he said. “That’s all.” He took the print down and handed it to me. “You befriend the owl, then you enter the castle.”

I nodded and thought again of the woman I had met in Sopot and of the feeling I had come away with, a passing sense of the old pagan life that, long ago, before the fall, had brightened Europe from Delphi to Donegal – and it thrilled me, suddenly, to imagine that this flame still glimmers here and there, like the little fire in the wings of
a hunting owl.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article appears in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

Free trial CSS