Owls repeatedly appear in literature and mythology as symbols of wisdom, but they also sometimes appear as symbols of bad luck. In both cases, owls are revered and feared.
Why did owls get both of these reputations?
Owls are considered wise because of their heightened senses and association with the night. Their night vision, in particular, impressed the Ancient Greeks, who believed that this vision was a result of a mystical inner light and associated the owl with the Goddess of Wisdom, Athena.
Why Owls Are Symbols of Wisdom
Owls are considered symbols of wisdom largely due to their success as hunters and their nocturnal schedules, but not to any superiority in intelligence.
This belief is pervasive across cultures, with the earliest origins of the symbol in Ancient Greece stemming from the views of the goddess Athena.
Are Owls Intelligent?
Owls are no less intelligent than most other wild birds. They are able to use tools but cannot pass complex cognitive tests.
For example, burrowing owls can use dung to lure dung beetles to them, but in a test, grey owls could not figure out how to pull a string to bring a treat towards them.
These raptor birds have acute senses, however, and their superior vision and hearing make them excellent hunters.
They’re also nocturnal, which adds to the view of the owl as an intriguing and revered being.
Wise Owls in Folklore and Mythology
Many cultures have had beliefs about owls being wise or symbols of spiritual authority in some way, including many Native American cultures and the Ancient Greek.
Let’s take a look at some of these myths.
Native American Folklore
Many Native American cultures considered owls to be symbols of wisdom and strength due to their mysterious night activity and power as birds of prey.
Many considered them to be protectors of warriors and carriers of ancestral souls.
Ancient Greek Mythology
In Ancient Greek mythology, the owl is considered the embodiment of Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
In classic paintings and statues, Athena is often pictured with an owl, and she is said to have chosen the bird as a favorite companion.
Although the origin of this association is unknown, there are hypotheses that these myths come from the owl’s ability to see through the dark with a piercing, superhuman gaze.
The scientific name of the Little Owl, Athena Noctua, comes from this mythology.
Ancient Roman Mythology
Although the owl was not as prominent in Ancient Rome as it was in Ancient Greece, Romans did associate owls with their goddess of wisdom and prophecy, Minerva.
They believed that owls were able to see the future and thus capable of bringing warnings and wisdom to people.
Wise Owls in Literature
Wise owls repeatedly appear in literature, from ancient texts to modern literature. References to wise owls appear in The Iliad, Aesop’s Fables, and Winnie the Pooh, among others.
In the Iliad, the owl is used as a successful disguise for Sleep when hiding from Zeus. In this scene, the owl symbolizes Sleep’s wisdom and intelligence.
The owl is also a symbol for Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, who is said to have elevated the owl to a high status within Greece due to her reverence for the creature.
In Aesop’s Fable The Owl and the Grasshopper, an owl becomes frustrated by the singing of a grasshopper during the day, so it invites the grasshopper to come to have a drink together.
The wise owl knows that the grasshopper will be lured in by the flattery and eats it once it comes close enough.
Winnie the Pooh
In Disney’s Winnie the Pooh, the character Owl is based on the stereotype of the wise owl.
He has a wealth of knowledge and frequently advises other characters, although, in a comedic twist, his advice is often unhelpful and ill-informed.
He also gets very frustrated when no one listens to him.
The Silver Chair
In C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, the owl Glimfeather is a wise companion owl who offers assistance to the protagonists, Eustace and Jill.
The owl even gathers together a Parliament of Owls that represent wisdom and knowledge. All of these owls appear intelligent and helpful.
Why Are Owls Considered Bad Luck?
Because owls are nocturnal, they’re commonly associated with the night, darkness, and the unknown. They’re also considered formidable because they’re birds of prey.
Together, these elements have made the owl a symbol of darkness and even death.
There are similar themes about what it means to see an owl across cultures, even cultures thousands of years and thousands of miles apart.
Prominent amongst these cultures are the Ancient Romans, the English, East Africans, Indians, and Native Americans.
Ancient Romans believed that owls foretold death and disaster and predicted the deaths of Agrippa, Commodus Aurelius, Augustus, and Julius Caesar.
In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, he makes a direct reference to this belief:
“…yesterday, the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday, upon the marketplace,
Hooting and shrieking”
Shakespeare’s use of the owl as a bad omen also reflects English beliefs about the owl at the time and the fact that it was associated with illness and death.
Owl Myths around the World
Owls are often associated with witches and witchcraft, both in Ancient Roman and Greek culture and in modern literature like the Harry Potter books and movies.
Romans and Greeks believed that witches could even transform themselves into owls. In Rome, owls were also believed to be capable of sucking the blood of babies.
For Romans, owls were such powerful negative symbols that some would nail dead owls to their front doors as a way of warding off evil.
In India, there is a common belief that owls are symbols of foolishness. The owl is related to the Goddess of Wealth Lakshmi, and it’s believed to symbolize wealth gotten by illegitimate means.
Images of Lakshmi traveling on an owl represent corruption and misfortune.
In the United States, there is a saying that anyone who hears an owl hoot three times is cursed, while others believe that owls live alongside ghosts.
In years past, there was a myth that an owl who landed on the roof of a house with a newborn baby doomed the newborn to become a witch.
In many parts of Africa, owls are associated with darkness, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft.
In East Africa, owls are said to be spiritual creatures that can bring sickness to small children and that celebrate death by dancing on graves in the night.
Several Native American nations had beliefs about owls as negative omens, usually associating the owl with sickness or punishment.
Some believed that owls had to do with the downfall of opposing forces on the battlefield, while others believed that owls were representations of the dead.
Most commonly appearing in Native American myths were the Great Horned Owl, the Barn Owl, the Burrowing Owl, and the Boreal Owl.
Wise owls appear in mythology and literature repeatedly, largely due to the intrigue brought on by their nocturnal habits and heightened senses of hearing and vision.
Owls are not particularly intelligent relative to other birds, but they can use tools, meaning that their status as intelligent creatures isn’t undeserved.