Strigiphobia

As promised (see Owl Chess), here is the story of how the choir came by its anti-mascot, The Owl. The year was 2008; the month was August; and for some reason the good people of Truro Cathedral had allowed a choir of nine people to sing their evensong services for a week. The scene is set, gentle reader. Naturally, you suspect nothing. Neither did we.

Our rehearsal space for the week was the song school in the space beneath the cathedral. I hesitate to say ‘crypt’, but it was certainly subterranean and dark, as that word appears to imply.[1] The room contained a grand piano, some rehearsal desks, and approximately two hundred owls. For reasons that we did not dare to enquire into, the vergers had accumulated and maintained a parliament of owls that filled a shelf running the whole length of the room. Apart from a live owl in a cage, there was every kind of owl an owl-fancier could possibly desire: plastic owls, fluffy owls, stuffed owls, china owls, glass owls, wooden owls. There were owls that doubled as nocturnal pencil sharpeners; owls small enough to be slipped into a handbag and others emphatically not; owls with friendly, querulous expressions, and others that could peck the face off a child. The old adage about the eyes of a portrait appearing to follow you around the room had nothing on this shelf of accusing faces.

At the time of our trip, my mother had a shop in a nearby coastal village, from whence she sold souvenirs and other non-essential items. Cathedrals usually take pity on visiting choirs and allow them one day in the week on which they are not required to do six or more hours of singing. Accordingly, on our day off, a select band of adventurers drove over to Mother’s shop for fish-and-chips and a walk on the cliffs, and we mentioned the shelf of owls to her over a cup of tea. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I might have something’ and proceeded to rummage around in a glass-fronted cabinet that to the casual observer was already filled to bursting with china puffins. From some inner recess, she produced two fluffy toy owls. They were about the size of tennis balls, mostly white and with sticky-up ‘ears’, from whence projected another inch or so of diabolical whisker. Both wall-eyed abominations appeared to be scowling. We bought these horrors (i.e. regardless of how vile they were, she still wanted actual money in exchange for exorcism), and, when we finished our week in Truro, we left them back-to-back on the piano in the song school as a present to the vergers. This should have been the end of the matter.

On returning home, I started to unpack my case (I’m one of those annoying people who like to unpack as soon as possible) and there, in my suitcase, was an owl. Not one of the evil twins we had purchased from my capitalist parent; and not one of the smaller specimens from the cathedral that I might have stolen in a moment of mental blankness. This was a third owl, exactly like its demonic cathedral-bound siblings, except for two important facts. One, the other two owls were in Truro Cathedral rather than in my house; and two, this owl was, in some mysterious way, able to insert itself into a pair of tight like an evil sausage and a suitcase without human help. I looked at it. It looked at me. I blinked first.

Over the next twelve months, he bided his time. Every member of the choir denied strenuously that they had placed him in my suitcase (as did my mother) and I gradually came to the conclusion that, odd and unexplained as it was, it probably didn’t matter very much. Accordingly, when cathedral tour rolled around (this time our destination was Peterborough, the armpit of England), I felt that the trip would not be complete without him, so I packed him in my suitcase, prodding my memory all the while for spasms of déjà vu (there weren’t any). I was very careful to put him right at the bottom wrapped in a sock so that he didn’t peck holes in my underwear during the trip. When we arrived and I opened the suitcase, there he was. Houdini-like, he had worked his way through eight inches of clothing to the very top of the case, entirely devoid of sock and fixing me with what I think Edgar Allen Poe would call a basilisk eye. He then spent the rest of the day showing me what he could do. Our second tenor’s car, with half the choir in it, exploded on the Bristol ring-road; another tenor arrived in Peterborough six hours late and raving about trains; and the strap of my favourite bag snapped and wrapped itself around my leg as I scurried across a busy road. Upon opening the bag, there was the owl, which I distinctly remembered locking in a cupboard. The inevitable game of Owl Chess took on a disturbing flavour. He was drawing-pinned to a notice-board by his wings; he was taped to the ceiling; he was present at a twenty-first birthday party; he took a turn in the microwave, where he revolved much as the bodies of the hanged might swing gently in the wind. He was even strapped to a tiny remote-controlled car (purchased specially) and driven around my bedroom at night, an event which I recorded in my diary as follows:

[There was] a knock on my door about twenty minutes after saying goodnight. Had just removed bra so was a while getting to the door. Opened it to find the wretched OWL strapped to a remote-controlled car with plasters (T having used all the tape in sticking IT to the ceiling). T, B and M all wetting themselves with laughter in the corridor (apparently unaware that I had already seen Unnecessary Winklepickers sprinting down the corridor earlier when I launched myself in the direction of the bathroom somewhat unexpectedly). I think M had intended the Owl Express to lurch menacingly into my darkened room and then round and round in a series of sinister ellipses, but in fact it stuck in the carpet, making urgent and constipated chewing noises. M said, “that’s a dead waste of £25”, but I couldn’t disagree more.

These days, safely returned to the vestry, he stubbornly refuses to behave like a normal stuffed toy. Having got the merest smear of chocolate icing on his wing at a fund-raising cake sale, he remained unclean until I had put him through the washing machine (twice); at the subsequent concert, it was with real fear in my heart that I sandwiched him between two Bibles and locked him in the music cupboard. It is unquestionably The Owl who puts the creepy cardboard hands in the hymnbooks; The Owl who breaks the heating over and over again; The Owl who creates holes in the church roof and floods the church floor; The Owl who causes the notices to last fifteen minutes every week, the organ to go slowly but persistently sharp, the crumhorn to deploy without warning, the church bluebottle to buzz around our heads, the basses to sing alto and tuning forks to roam around the church of their own accord. My friends, Satan walks among us, and his name is Owl.

I have used the word ‘strigiphobia’ on the grounds that owls are strigiformes (an order that also includes birds of prey), but in fact there is no consensus on the correct word for a fear and hatred of owls. The two main candidates seem to be oclophobia and variations on noctoornithophobia. Oclophobia is not satisfying because it is very close in both spelling and pronounciation to ochlophobia (fear and hatred of crowds), and also because phobos is a Greek word, while oclos is Latin. Noctoornithophobia (fear and hatred of nocturnal birds) annoys me simply because it is an unnecessary work-around, implying (again) that there is no suitable Greek word for owl. In fact, Greek has several words for owl, and the list that follows here is by no means exhaustive. Firstly, there is glaux, meaning specifically a small owl, as in Glaucidium sanchezi, the Tamaulipas pigmy owl. Named after the region of Mexico in which it lives, this is one of the smallest owls in the world, measuring less than six inches in length and weighing less than two ounces. You can also find part of this wonderful word in the Latin name of the delightfully Ken Dodd-ish long-whiskered owlet, Xenoglaux loweryi (literally, ‘strange owl’. It lives in Peru and is also smaller than my fist). Glaucophobia seems a reasonable term, but might confuse the unwary in that it could be taken to mean fear and hatred of things that are blueish. Then there is tuto, as in Tytonidae (barn owls). However, tutophobia shares its pronunciation with the real and actual word Teutophobia (fear and hatred of Germans). Another possibility is athene, found in the name of the elf owl Micrathene whitneyi (the third candidate for World’s Smallest Owl. Again, pleasingly, the clue is in the name). Like the Tamaulipas pygmy owl, the elf owl also lives in Mexico, and makes its nests in cacti. However, athenephobia is also a problematic term.[2] The most apt word I could find is the Latin word aegolius, meaning a bird of prey, and very similar to the Greek word aigolios, meaning an evil omen in bird form, but again this is not owl-specific enough for me – an evil omen in bird form could be anything from an ostentiferous roc to a menacing swan. Finally, we have strix (the same word in both Latin and Greek). The plural form is strig, as in Strigidae (‘true’ owls), and hence strigiphobia[3], fear and hatred of owls.

companions
Magritte’s Les Compagnons de la Peur (the companions of fear) 

There is a specific word for the fear and hatred of chickens (alektorophobia), so why am I having to go to all this trouble to coin a new word for the fear and hatred of owls? There are two obvious possibilities. Firstly, there has been no need for a word for the fear and hatred of owls because owls are not frightening (or at least not as frightening as chickens with their mad eyes and alien, throaty calls. Melodia Rascal was in the right here, I think). We can discount this theory immediately: owls are scary. With the possible exceptions of the teeny-tiny owls mentioned above, the vast majority of owl species have no natural predators once the owls have reached adulthood (“Wild boar? Yeah, up here they mainly subsist on owls”. No, they don’t. NOTHING DOES). From the Romans and the Aztecs right up to Gormenghast, Futurama and Twin Peaks[4], humanity is united in its view of owls as harbingers of doom. Secondly and more plausibly, perhaps there is no need for a word for a phobia of owls, because phobias denote fears that are to some degree irrational. They arise from a traumatic incident in childhood or similar that then leads to a lifelong fear of something that may not have actually wished, done or been capable of doing the sufferer any harm. This is unquestionably the case when it comes to owls. Therefore, it could be argued, since a fear of owls is totally justifiable[5], it cannot be described accurately as a phobia.


[1] Of course the word ‘crypt’ is derived from the Latin crypta, meaning private or concealed (as in cryptography, I assume), and therefore any associations of darkness etc. are modern ideas laid over the top of the original meaning. Where does the word ‘owl’ come from, you ask? My understanding is that the original word was ‘uwwa’ in some kind of proto-German, which was supposed to be an onomatopoeic word imitating the hoot. Eventually, by way of Old English and a bunch of mispronunciation, we ended up with ‘owl’, Fact Fans.

[2] One, it is very close to asthenophobia (fear of fainting or weakness); and two, I feel that Athenaphobia ought to refer to the fear of being engulfed by an oversized poster falling off the wall onto one’s university bed.

[3] Disturbingly similar to stygiophobia, fear and hatred of Hell. I rest my case.

[4] Take a look at this one. He looks to me like a highly developed killing machine with a hatred for all mankind and a desire to kill and eat tiny furry things. ‘The owls are not what they seem’, indeed. I disagree. I think they’re exactly what they seem.

[5] The same could be said of my own so-called phobias, the fear and hatred of coffins (taphophobia) and the fear and hatred of sharks (galeophobia). Irrational? Surely not.

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