Stupid Question ™
Jan. 2, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Why did the owl become a symbol of wisdom?
A: In Western culture, the owl actually has two major symbolic meanings. One is an incarnation of wisdom. The other is a harbinger of death or evil, as memorably depicted in Goya’s famous 1797 etching “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” in which owls lurk over a crumpled sleeper.
These meanings are probably linked. I could write a 100-page essay on the Jungian implications alone, but when all is said and one, the symbolism probably comes down to the obvious.
With their huge eyes, piercing gaze and imposing visage, owls appear to be extremely intelligent and able to look into one’s soul. Surely, ancient people were also impressed by their ability to see in the dark (or at least in very low light) and to fly soundlessly. All of these attributes make the owl a good candidate for wisdom symbolism.
Of course, these aspects are also spooky. The owl is also typically nocturnal, is a powerful hunter that can easily hurt a human, makes haunting noises and tends to live in woods, towers, caves, ruins and other places with an inherent freak-out factor. Hence, it’s also a good candidate for death symbolism.
Wisdom and death symbols are typically linked, from the Biblical Tree of Knowledge to the medieval witch.
The owl was codified as a wisdom symbol by its use in ancient Greece as a sort of familiar surrogate for Athena. Originally a goddess of war and craft, Athena was in later times also considered a wisdom goddess. This attribute was even stronger in the Roman goddess Minerva, who borrowed much from Athena, including the owl.
However, it seems likely that the owl attached wisdom to Athena rather than the other way around, and that it may have involved geography as much as symbology.
Greek myth included owls as wisdom/death symbols apparently before the Athena connection. A major example is Ascalaphus, punished for learning a secret first by being trapped under a stone (and freed by Heracles), then by being turned into an owl.
Athena, of course, was the patron goddess of the great Greek city Athens. And Athens happens to be swarming with owls, both then and now.
A small brown owl known as the “little owl” occupies the region and is the subject of much modern folklore. While active mostly as dusk and at night, it can often be seen perching during the day.
The Acropolis, the famous Athens hill topped by major temples, including one to Athena, was and is a favorite owl roost.
Athena and the little owl became the twin symbols of Athens, typically appearing on opposite sides of ancient Athenian coinage. It seems that their proximity as symbols, and the owls roosting near Athena’s temple, led to the mythical connection.
Soon owl nests on the Acropolis were protected and the owls considered messengers of Athena. Modern scientific classification (coined by Linneaus, founder of modern binomial classification, himself) has cemented the relationship, calling the little owl Athene noctua—the Athenian (or Athena’s) owl.