Something that struck me while reading “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” was the owl symbolism that forecasts the impending doom of Tereus and Procne’s son. In a Westonian fashion, the traditional marriage rituals fail to occur in their natural sequence which, in turn, interrupts the couple’s ability to raise a child to adulthood. The following line occurs early in the text and employs rich symbolism to warn of tragic circumstances: “An unclean screech-owl like a nightmare sat above their chamber on the palace roof. The bird haunted the couple’s union, That bird haunted their parenthood.” The repeated phrase “bird haunted” emphasizes the owl’s synonymy with death and destruction. Wanting to know more about the significance of this symbol, I briefly Googled owl symbolism and discovered that many ancient civilizations perceived the owl as almost a demonic figure that foreshadowed omens and the Phoenicians, more specifically, did not eat them, yet they buried them with their dead. Since the owl foreshadows the destruction of Tereus and Procne’s family in Ovid, I questioned whether or not The Waste Land had a comparable symbol, since thematically both texts share similarities, and noticed that while owls are absent, bats are indeed extant in a similar, ominous circumstance.
The obvious parallel that exists between these symbols rests on the notion that both animals are nocturnal and share similarities in their cultural association with death. With that being said, there are deeper connections to be made between the two symbols and their respective texts. In book five, Elliot crafts an image of “bats with baby faces.” Even after several reads this imagery proves challenging and almost undecipherable; however, in an article I found titled “The Owl in Phoenician Mortuary Practice, the author mentions that “The owl’s unusual face, having a semi-human appearance, and its large eyes and keen eyesight lend further mystery to the bird” (59). This suggests that Elliot might be making a connection between the human looking owls and his fictional bats with human faces. Also significant is the connection between the mythical belief that owls steal children and the bat, a creature representing death and sleep, being depicted as a child. I speculate that this bat imagery in context of the stanza, which describes the physical decay and destruction present in the city, foreshadows the death and destruction that the war will create for future generations of children. In conclusion, Elliot seems to combine characteristics of owl and bat symbolism to create a more haunting image that presages imminent disaster.
On a side note, the bat also has connections to Dante’s Inferno; “In Dante, Satan has bat’s wings in ‘deepest freezing Hell’. Supposedly when they fly upwards and then come down again swiftly, the witches’ hour is upon” (Protas).