Owl of Thebes

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Thebes is an ancient town upstream from Cairo and Memphis on the Mississippi River of Egypt. It is the gateway to two of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. (Stevie is not one of the Seven Wonders, or there would be eight of them.) The Owl of Thebes is a mythological bird similar to the Phoenix of Arizona, but smaller and less smoggy.

Osiris pictured with the Owl of Thebes on his knee.

The Owl of Thebes entered the mytho-scatology of the Mississippi Egyptians around 4000 BCE, when the Egyptians were conquering the Mohicans and inventing paper. From these earliest times the Egyptians associated the Owl with freedom -- in particular, the freedom of unobstructed bowel movements.

Living as they did on a diet of malted millet, caramel, and camembert, the ancient Egyptians desperately needed a little colonic liberation.

In early Egyptian paintings the Owl perches on the lap of Osiris. Ovoid glyphs on Osiris' thigh may represent offerings to the totemic bird or they may represent owl droppings; archeologists disagree. However, hieroglyphic writings from the reign of Buttkahamen (midway through the Turd Dynasty) invoke the Owl as "protector of latrines" and the "titular deity of the porcelain throne". Paintings discovered in the tomb of Little Sheba show the Owl carrying rolls of toilet papyrus and playing snooker with scarab dung beetles.

Question and Answer[edit]

Q: Is there any relief in sight from these cheap jokes about poo-poo?

A: No, we're afraid not.

The Owl in Classical Literature[edit]

The romantic poets of the 19th century celebrated all things Egyptian, so it is no surprise that the Owl of Thebes is referenced in many poems, plays, and manga cartoons of the period. Shelley referred to the Owl in his monumental poem The Constipation of Hepatica, the climactic 144th verse of which we quote here:

As brightened the rosy and amethyst sky
The day-star awoke and morning was nigh.
So Empress Hepatica rose with a cry
And gath'ring her strength she then clenched what she must,
And called to the Owl: "Now to shit...or to bust!"

Widely regarded as Shelley's most excremental poetry, this is nevertheless the first known use of the phrase "shit or bust" and so its place in literary scatology is assured. In 1814 the artist-poet William Blake drew the Owl as a companion of the archangel Humbert in his painting The Serpent Buys a Ticket to Leamington. He added a single couplet at the bottom of the canvas:

Doth the Owl of Thebes stoop and take
A poop upon the fat slithering Snake?

Alfred Lord Tennyson bought Blake's painting at a rummage sale, thinking it was Tintoretto's Pope Parmagiano ICVCI Blessing the Commode. After examining the work and discovering his error he pasted a Hello Kitty sticker over Blake's verse, and upon it he wrote:

I care not what the Owl of Thebes
does at home, but I wish he'd not
deposit his droppings in my soup pot.

Scholars regard Tennyson's act of vandalism as the death-knell of the romantic age.

And a good thing, too.

The Owl In Movies[edit]

"The Cassowary", a short film by Tulse Luper referenced by Greenaway's "The Falls".

The Owl of Thebes received thematic treatment in Peter Greenaway's mysterious film The Falls. The character Juliet Fallarón (played by Lara Romanov) obsessively attempts to make a nest inside a cracked bidet while speaking only in VUE language Strigolaux-G (which consists mostly of owl-like hoots and muffled straining grunts). The scene segues into a film which has become Juliet's guiding metaphor, the short feature The Cassowary (1972) by Tulse Luper. Luper summarized his work as follows:

A jet aircraft on a cloudless night began its landing flight-path twenty miles east of the airport where it was due to land. For the first five miles of its descent, the noise from the jet's engine and exhaust disturbed no-one. At the sixth mile, an ornithologist, birdwatching on a reservoir, was irritated by the jet-noise just enough to give the aircraft a quick glance. He turned into a swan.
At the seventh mile, a naturalist and his wife saw the aircraft through the bathroom curtains and were turned into crows. At the eighth mile, four children in a school lavatory saw the aircraft through a sky-light and turned into herons. At the ninth mile, seven night-nurses in an old peoples' home saw the plane and turned into swallows. Their supervisor became the Owl of Thebes. At the tenth mile, twenty-one members of eight families saw the plane and turned into gulls. By the nineteenth mile, twenty-four thousand, nine hundred and twenty-seven people in two towns, four villages and a camping-site had seen the plane. Most of them turned into penguins.
When the plane exploded on the air-strip, a cassowary with a purple beak stepped from the wreckage and checked himself into the VIP lounge.

In Francois Truffault's Gunfight at the O.K. Outhouse a lone white owl flies up from the symbolic latrine just as the first shot is fired, and critics see this as a veiled reference to the Owl of Thebes (and to Truffault's well-known problems with diarrhea).

However, the Owl is most explicitly referenced in Alfred Hitchcock's Porko when Marryin' Crane (played by Carol Cleveland) is flossing her toes before taking the ill-fated shower. Miss Crane laments,

Imagine not that these four walls contain the Mighty Owl of Thebes. For, gentles all, beauty sits most closely to them it can construe...

She is interrupted by the muffled voice of Norman Bates (Bill Murray):

No it doesn't.

Near the end of the film the forensic psychiatrist Oakland (Eric Idle) declaims:

What frees the prisoner in his lonely cell, chained within the bondage of rude walls, far from the Owl of Thebes?

Oakland then holds up a carton marked Ex-Lax to the camera and cries,

Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!

In Closing[edit]

The mighty Owl of Thebes remains viable in modern mythology as a symbol of all that things bowel-related. Sadly, many other ancient symbolic birds no longer mean anything except to historians. For example, who now celebrates the Chickadee of Manassas, the Phalarope of Brisbane, or the Goatsucker of Tenochtitlan? We certainly don't, and neither do you, smartypants.

But like the Dusky Tit of Hollywood -- which Janet Jackson so evocatively evoked in her famous interpretive dance at Superbowl XXXVIII -- the symbology of the Owl of Thebes flourishes in the global art scene.

Long may it poot! Er, hoot.