What is the main feature of every myth, legend, movie, fictional story, or stories about wizards and magic? Yes, you probably guessed it right – owls! These incredible creatures are present in anything magic- and mystery-related for a reason. They are the creatures of the night, believed to have supernatural abilities, and also believed to be the symbols of wisdom, knowledge, and spiritual beliefs.
Now, these are some of the general symbolism of owls across many cultures of the world. But, when we look closely, owls carry several different meanings and symbolism, which you may or may not be familiar with. Therefore, we’ve decided to explore these meanings, take a closer look and hopefully bring them a bit closer to you. If you’re interested in owls and what their appearance or presence means, you’re at the right place. So, without further ado, let’s get started!
What Does A White Owl Symbolize? Meaning & Spiritual Significance Explained
Wisdom and Knowledge
Remember Hedwig – the owl from Harry Potter? This white owl is one of many owls of the wonderful world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and movies. This owl, also known as the snowy owl, is Harry Potter’s pet who would deliver mail for Harry and often hang out around the library. There is a reason Harry had an owl of this kind.
For hundreds, even thousands of years, our ancestors have seen owls as the undeniable symbols of wisdom and knowledge. Even nowadays, this folklore idea and belief live on, especially in books, movies, fantasy shows, and similar content. For example, owls are often depicted as being in libraries, guarding the books, and by that guarding the knowledge. People have, and still believe owls are capable of understanding knowledge and their own intelligence, as we often deduce from their incredible predatorial skills.
Purity, Virtue, and Protection
Alongside wisdom and intelligence, white owls symbolize purity and virtue. Not only because of their incredibly beautiful white feathers but white owls are also considered symbols of purity mostly because of the belief that they feast off pure human souls during the full moon.
Owls were also considered to be the protectors of human ‘inner light’, especially during the times of ancient Greece. In the Native American culture, owls were seen as the virtuous protectors against the so-called water devils as well as the protective spirit of brave warriors of the Dakota Hidatsa Indian tribe.
Inevitability of Death
People have always dealt with death in different ways; some saw death as a transition to a new world, while others dreaded it and feared any potential signs of death coming closer.
Owls were, and still are seen as the messengers of death; a bad omen that shows death is approaching in near future. In other cultures, owls were seen as the bearers of the ghosts and souls of the ancestors. Many also believe that owls can invite or bring death wherever they go, even if they fly right by you.
In Japan, for example, people believe that if an owl flies over your house, you’re approaching the last days of your life as a person who has lived without morals. The Romans considered white owls, or any owls for that matter, as an omen of death. Just before Ceasar was assassinated, an owl appeared and people have know right away that something bad was going to happen. In Shakespeare’s masterpieces, owls were called out prior to some of the most important murders.
Now, why is it that white owls are often associated with death? Well, behavioral observations of white owls have shown something very interesting. Now, white owls do not hoot like other owls. These owls snore and hiss, and create extremely menacing sounds which are surely a source of intimidation to predators, as well as us, humans.
When they’re flying, owls release sounds of scream and screech, which are often described as coming straight from a horror movie (scenes where people are just about to die). This might be the reason why our ancestors associated owls with menace and death, as well as why they became so important to our connection of owls to darkness, mystery, and ruin.
Bad or Good Luck
In England, people are known to fear owls. This is because they’re believed to be messengers of bad luck, and anything ‘doomsday’-worthy in one’s life. In some parts of northern England, however, seeing an owl is a sign of good luck. In Scotland, on the other hand, it is believed to be a stroke of bad luck to see an owl in the daylight. Here’s an excerpt from a poem written by the Scottish historical novelist and poet;
„Birds of omen dark and foul,
Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,
Leave the sick man to his
All night long he heard your scream.
‘The glow-worm o’er grave and
Shall light thee steady.
The owl from the steeple sing,
“Welcome, proud lady.“
It is clear that the owl from the poem is an omen of death, and the owl as a bad omen is a vastly known, completely common belief. Therefore, this symbolism of an owl being an omen of good or bad luck is truly based on one’s current life situation, personal belief system as well as the culture of origin.
According to some religious scripts, like Talmud for example, it is considered bad luck to dream of an owl. In many cultures around the world, owls are nailed to trees or barn doors to avert the bad luck they are believed to bring. On the other hand, some cultures cherish owls and are believed to bring good luck; for example, it is believed that if an owl flies into a dovecot, it brings good luck.
Owl Symbolism Across Mythologies and Cultures
Owls in Roman and Greek Mythology
It is well known how Greek goddesses were rather fond of owls. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, was especially impressed by owls, and their forward-facing, large eyes. Athena was also impressed by the Owl being able to get rid of a mischievous crow, which resulted in her proclaiming the owl to be her favorite among the birds.
The Owl (known to have been called a Little Owl), was believed to have magical abilities and well the ‘inner light’ that would give it the perfect night vision. The Owl became such an essential aspect of ancient Greece’s everyday life, that it soon started bearing certain symbolism and meanings. For example, if it happened that the Owl flies over the Greek soldiers before a battle, they would take it as a sign of potential victory.
There was also a popular belief, or rather a superstition, that dreaming of an owl meant that one will be robbed or shipwrecked in Roman times. In early Rome, people also believed that witches transform into owls to suck the blood of babies, which surely made everyone a bit more fearful in regards to owls.
Owls in English Folklore
As we mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the owl had a rather bad reputation in England. From the 12th century, onwards, owls were regarded as a bad omen, a sign of imminent death, a sign that something disastrous and evil might take place. For example, a white, screeching owl was believed to symbolize an imminent storm or bad weather. In English literature, owls were introduced as a sinister sign of darkness and death, often referred to as the ‘bird of doom’.
If not predicting someone’s demise or death, owls were believed to be able to predict the weather according to the English folklore sources. As we mentioned, a screeching owl would mean that the weather is about to take a turn for the worse. To ward off evil, bad luck, or bad omen, English people would nail an owl to a barn door, which, as a practice, persisted well into the 19th century.
Owls in Native American Culture
There were different beliefs regarding owls in the Native American culture. Each tribe would have different sets of beliefs, meanings, and symbols in regard to owls. For example
- The Apache tribe believed owls to be omens of imminent death.
- The Cherokee shamans would consult owls believing they could bring on punishment and sickness.
- The Dakota Hidatsa tribe valued owls as protective spirits of the brave tribe warriors.
- The Kwakiutl tribe believed owls represented souls of the deceased, and as such should never be harmed or killed. They also believed that if someone would kill their own, they would also die soon.
- The Mojave Indian tribe believed that once you die you’ll become an owl in your life after death.
So, depending on the tribe, the owl’s symbolism changes. Some tribes see owls as signs of good fortune or good luck, or as omens of imminent death and misfortune. Generally speaking, owls for the Indian tribes represent a spiritual insight into the underworld and the life after death. However, this interpretation changes and applies to each tribes’ beliefs and traditional practices.
Owl Symbolism Around the World
Here are some other interesting superstitions, beliefs, and symbolisms of owls around the world;
- In Dalmatia (Croatia), owls are believed to be able to forecast the sex of an unborn child.
- In many cultures around the world, people believed that if an owl is laid on a sleeping person, they will confess all their deeds, good and bad.
- Bantu people believe that owls are in direct contact with the sorcerers; that is why they do not touch or kill owls.
- In Wales, an owl’s hoot symbolizes the loss of virginity somewhere right at that moment.
- In Samoa, it is believed that God incarnates in the owl.
- The Navajo Indians use the Screech Owl to scare children.
- The Kalmuks believe an owl saved Ghengis Khan, probably the greatest emperor ever.
- In India, it is believed that if one feeds an owl while naked, one can acquire magical powers.
- In the Arab cultures, it is believed that a murdered man appears in the form of an owl, crying out for expiation.
Owls are omnipresent in so many superstitions and beliefs. We as humans have been mesmerized by these creatures of the night and darkness for thousands of years. It seems that owls are always associated with religions, rituals, cults, and superstitions. Since the beginning of time, owls personified life, death, luck, victory, misfortune, bad weather, fertility, and so much more. Hopefully, we’ve managed to bring the meaning and symbolism of owls a bit closer.