top left top right
The Owl Pages
Google+
Follow Me on Pinterest

Owls in Mythology & Culture

Compiled by Updated 2005-05-13 Created 1999-03-20
Page 1 of 2

Throughout history and across many cultures, people have regarded Owls with fascination and awe. Few other creatures have so many different and contradictory beliefs about them. Owls have been both feared and venerated, despised and admired, considered wise and foolish, and associated with witchcraft and medicine, the weather, birth and death. Speculation about Owls began in earliest folklore, too long ago to date, but passed down by word of mouth over generations.

In early Indian folklore, Owls represent wisdom and helpfulness, and have powers of prophecy. This theme recurs in Aesop's fables and in Greek myths and beliefs. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the Owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark, lonely and profane places, a foolish but feared spectre. An Owl's appearance at night, when people are helpless and blind, linked them with the unknown, its eerie call filled people with foreboding and apprehension: a death was imminent or some evil was at hand. During the eighteenth century the zoological aspects of Owls were detailed through close observation, reducing the mystery surrounding these birds. With superstitions dying out in the twentieth century - in the West at least - the Owl has returned to its position as a symbol of wisdom.

Owls in Greek & Roman Mythology

In the mythology of ancient Greece, Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the Owl that, having banished the mischievous crow, she honoured the night bird by making him her favourite among feathered creatures. Athene's bird was a Little Owl, (Athene noctua). This Owl was protected and inhabited the Acropolis in great numbers. It was believed that a magical "inner light" gave Owls night vision. As the symbol of Athene, the Owl was a protector, accompanying Greek armies to war, and providing ornamental inspiration for their daily lives. If an Owl flew over Greek Soldiers before a battle, they took it as a sign of victory. The Little Owl also kept a watchful eye on Athenian trade and commerce from the reverse side of their coins.

tetradrachm.JPG (2416 bytes)
Athenian silver tetradrachm
Classical style,  5th century BC.
tetradrachm2.JPG (3227 bytes)
Athenian silver tetradrachm
Hellenistic style, 2nd century BC.

In early Rome a dead Owl nailed to the door of a house averted all evil that it supposedly had earlier caused. To hear the hoot of an Owl presaged imminent death. The deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were apparently all predicted by an Owl.

"...yesterday, the bird of night did sit Even at noonday, upon the market place, Hooting and shrieking" (from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar")

The Roman Army was warned of impending disaster by an Owl before its defeat at Charrhea, on the plains between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

According to Artemidorus, a second Century soothsayer, to dream of an Owl meant that a traveller would be shipwrecked or robbed.

Another Roman superstition was that witches transformed into Owls, and sucked the blood of babies.

In Roman Mythology, Proserpine (Persephone) was transported to the underworld against her will by Pluto (Hades), god of the underworld, and was to be allowed to return to her mother Ceres (Demeter), goddess of agriculture, providing she ate nothing while in the underworld. Ascalpus, however, saw her picking a pomegranate, and told what he had seen. He was turned into an Owl for his trouble - "a sluggish Screech Owl, a loathsome bird." (Names in brackets indicate the Greek names for the same Gods)

Owls in English Folklore

Folklore surrounding the Barn Owl is better recorded than for most other Owls. In English literature the Barn Owl had a sinister reputation probably because it was a bird of darkness, and darkness was always associated with death. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the poets Robert Blair and William Wordsworth used the Barn Owl as their favourite "bird of doom." During that same period many people believed that the screech or call of an Owl flying past the window of a sick person meant imminent death.

The Barn Owl has also been used to predict the weather by people in England. A screeching Owl meant cold weather or a storm was coming. If heard during foul weather a change in the weather was at hand.

The Custom of nailing an Owl to a barn door to ward off evil and lightning persisted into the 19th century.

Another traditional English belief was that if you walked around an Owl in a tree, it would turn and turn its head to watch you until it wrung its own neck.

Among early English folk cures, alcoholism was treated with Owl egg. The imbiber was prescribed raw eggs and a child given this treatment was thought to gain lifetime protection against drunkenness.
Owls' eggs, cooked until they turned into ashes, were also used as a potion to improve eyesight.
Owl Broth was given to children suffering from Whooping-cough.

Odo of Cheriton, a Kentish preacher the 12th Century has this explanation of why the Owl is nocturnal: The Owl had stolen the rose, which was a prize awarded for beauty, and the other birds punished it by allowing it to come out only at night.

In parts of northern England it is good luck to see an Owl.

Previous Article | Next Page

 
bottom left bottom right
top left top right
bottom left bottom right