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From harbingers of doom to bringers of fortune and wisdom, Owls have a rich history of symbolism in cultures all over the world. Despite a general movement away from superstition, these mysterious birds continue to captivate us in the modern era.
Interestingly, Owls share many symbolic similarities between cultures across the globe, although their role in the supernatural also takes many contrasting and sometimes contradictory paths. Sadly, the mythical power of Owls in many cultures and traditions has led to their continued persecution, not necessarily out of malice, but often to secure their feathers and body parts for rituals and medicine.
Would you like to learn more about Owl symbolism? Read along as we uncover the symbolic meaning of these beautiful birds both in history and the modern world.
Pictured: A snowy Owl. Owls share many symbolic similarities between cultures across the globe
Owls feature prominently in the mythology of cultures in all corners of the world. Let’s take a look at a few notable examples.
In Greek mythology, a Little Owl is associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The bird may represent or accompany her and is seen as a symbol of her wisdom and knowledge. Today, the Little Owl and other members of its genus are known by the generic name Athene.
Minerva, the Roman goddess of war, law, arts, and professions, was similarly associated with the Owl and often depicted holding this bird. In both Roman and Greek cultures, the Owl was seen as a symbol of wisdom, while across the Atlantic in North America, these birds have held quite a different meaning.
Owls are associated with death by many Native American Peoples, although this diverse group of peoples holds varying historical and contemporary beliefs regarding these birds. Many tribes saw Owls as shape-shifters that were not really birds at all, while others revered them as guardians and protectors or messengers.
Pictured: A Little Owl. Owls feature prominently in the mythology of cultures in all corners of the world
The Owl body form has been significant to people for a very long time. These unique birds have been recorded in art for at least 30,000 years, with a beautifully preserved cave engraving of what is clearly an Owl discovered in Chauvet Cave, Southeastern France.
These birds are also seen portrayed in the magnificent Nazca Lines of Peru, as well as smaller rock engravings at archeological sites in North America. In more modern times, the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso created a painting entitled ‘The Owl of Death’ in 1952. This after the painter adopted an injured Owl and nursed it back to health.
It’s difficult to know just what these symbols meant to all the original creators, artists, or shamans who produced them, which only adds to the mystery surrounding these birds of prey.
Owls are not only powerful in visual imagery but also have a long history in literature dating back hundreds of years. William Shakespeare, one of the most celebrated English poets and playwrights, used these birds as a symbol of doom. In the well-known play Henry VI, he wrote, “Thou ominous and fearful Owl of death” and “The Owl shriek’d at thy birth, an evil sign”, clearly painting these nocturnal birds in a rather negative light.
Owls have also had central roles in many children’s books. Their character ranges from distinguished and friendly in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh to somewhat menacing in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.
Pictured: An Eurasian Eagle Owl. Owls have also had central roles in many children’s books
Wisdom is one of the most enduring associations with Owls across many cultures, from ancient history until the present. This belief could, perhaps, be explained by the Owl’s physical appearance. These birds look very human-like, probably more so than any other type of bird.
Their large heads, forward-facing eyes, and nose-like bill create the impression of a solemn face, and their habit of engaging people with a fixed stare only enforces it. Owls are generally silent and observant creatures, qualities that are naturally associated with wisdom and intelligence.
Another possible source of this wide-held belief is the Owls’ ability to navigate the world after dark. It’s natural to suspect that their powerful vision and ability to go undetected allow them to learn many secrets.
Seeing an Owl can be a startling experience that leaves a lasting impact. Their flat face and stare may give Owls human-like qualities, but their silent flight and large hooked talons have a menacing connotation.
The night has always held a sense of danger and mystery for naturally diurnal humans. As birds of the night, Owls are deeply cloaked in mystery and have come to represent darkness.
Owls are still used in rituals across the world. In India, for example, Owls are often ritually sacrificed, especially around the time of Diwali or the ‘Festival of Lights’. In Africa, Owls are used in dark magic and witchcraft, and live Owls and their body parts are still traded for traditional medicines, even in bustling modern city streets.
Pictured: A Barred Owl. As birds of the night, Owls are deeply cloaked in mystery and have come to represent darkness
Many of the prevalent beliefs around Owls deal with the future, either as an omen or a real source of influence. For example, hearing an Owl at night or having one call from your rooftop could be a foreboding symbol of coming death in an African Village, but it can also be a sign of good luck and fortune for a hunter or fisherman in the Americas.
Dreaming of Owls could have very different meanings depending on the dreamer's cultural beliefs and attitude toward these birds. In the positive sense, the representation of wisdom and good fortune could indicate a positive change, a good insight, or a period of happiness.
The opposite could be true for people who associate Owls with death, darkness, and misfortune. A lot depends on the context of the dream and even the nature of the Owl itself. For example, it is typical for many to interpret a black Owl (like a black cat) as a bad omen, while a white Owl, like a Snowy Owl or Barn Owl, could indicate a spiritual experience.
A spirit animal is a being that protects and guides a person on their journey through life. The Owl is seen as a powerful spirit animal for its wisdom and ability to navigate in darkness, see through deception, or even foresee the future.
A totem is a physical representation of the spirit animal that can strengthen the bond between an individual and their spirit animal. The remarkable ten-foot-tall totem pole discovered at Hontoon Island, Florida, in the 1950s is arguably the most impressive physical representation of Owl symbolism known to man.
Pictured: A Barn Owl perched on an old tree stump
In the modern world, more and more people are moving away from suspicious beliefs about Owls and starting to see them for the fascinating and beneficial birds that they are. However, these charismatic birds are still portrayed in fantasy films such as the Harry Potter series and the Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. Ancient myths also live on in the current Greek one-euro coin, depicting Athena’s Little Owl companion.
In the Western world, Owls are generally seen in a positive light. For example, people who are most alert and active at night are light-heartedly described as ‘night owls.’ However, the image of the Owl remains a striking one, and various contemporary products and organizations still use these birds as their mascot or logo.
Examples of modern Owl symbolism:
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