Warming his five wits…..

by Daniel Mackie February 20, 2014

Water colour paint of a long-eared owl

Long eared owl

I have been meaning to do this long eared owl for a long time. I have practically have a sketch book full of variations on this design.

In Roman and celtic mythology owls are associated with wisdom. But they are also associated with the darker aspects of our psyche. This is probably because the are nocturnal. The hoot of an owl late at night in a deep dark wood in 100 B.C would probably send a shiver down your spine. However, the owl was often seen a guide to and through the Underworld. Owls were also able to reveal to you those who would deceive. Handy!

Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Owl (1830) re-enforces the owls ancient association with wisdom and it’s sinister nocturnal activities.
Tennyson describes the owl as having,”five wits”
Not only having them but,”warming” them!

“Alone and warming his five wits The white owl in the belfry sits”

The poem is a description of an owl watching over events in a rural landscape. The suggestion is that from its vantage point in the bell tower (This is an interesting position! In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, lady Macbeth says, hark! Peace! It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman)
The owl is indifferent and superior to all the goings on in the countryside. The five wits suggest an extra sensory perception!

In the 1500’s there were commonly thought to be five senses and five wits. The inward and outward wits were the product of many centuries of philosophical and psychological thought.The concept of five outward wits(senses, taste smell, etc) and five inward wits(“common wit”, “imagination”, “fantasy”, “estimation”, and “memory”.) came to medieval thinking from Classical philosophy. but in Early Modern English, “wit” and “sense” overlapped in meaning. Both could mean a faculty of perception.
So for the owl in Tennyson’s poem to have five wits; it would suggest it was in position of considerable mental agility!

long-eared-owl-painting-in-progress
(above) in progress.

Take a look at all the owls in The DM Collection the card range




Daniel Mackie
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