Gliding through the night on silent wings, the owl is a deeply meaningful bird of prey whose mysterious allure has attracted the attention and inspired the imaginations of human cultures around the world since ancient times.
Associated with a broad range of ideas including dark ones such as death and misfortune, and virtues such as wisdom and benevolence, the owl is a common mythological figure and fairytale character.
Equipped with unique adaptations which allow these birds to effectively hunt under cover of darkness, owls represent the stillness of night and the hidden worlds that are contained within the realm of night. Found on almost every corner of this planet, owls are renowned worldwide for their beauty, stealth, and seemingly stoic personalities.
Table of contents
- Owl Symbolism and Meaning
- Owl Native American Symbolism
- Owl Christianity Symbolism
- Owl Celtic Symbolism
- Owls in Dreams
- Owl Encounters and Omens
- Owl Mythology and Folklore
- Owl Spirit Animal
- Owl Totem Animal
- Owl Power Animal
- Owl Tattoo Meaning
Owl Symbolism and Meaning
Owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence. This is likely due, in part, to the fact that owls are skillful and stealthy hunters. In addition, the owl is known for its “hooting” call which is often interpreted as a question. The owl’s “who?” call is seen as a sign of curiosity and intellectual thinking.
Owls are also associated with vision. Large eyes occupy much of the space in an owl’s skull and it is thanks to these powerful eyes that owls are such effective hunters. An owl’s eyes are set facing forwards, and cannot move or roll like a human’s eyes can. This is why owls have the ability to swivel their heads around with such flexibility; because they are otherwise stuck looking straight forwards. So, owls can represent vision, the future, and looking forwards into the unknown! (1)
While the association between owls and wisdom is fairly common, many cultures attach gloomier meanings to these nocturnal birds of prey. As creatures of the night, owls are commonly connected with fear, death, and misfortune. This is likely because nighttime is perilous for animals like humans which cannot see in the dark. So, the moonlit hours in which owls hunt inspire fear and discomfort.
Owls are also frequently associated with magic. From old fairytales to modern series like Harry Potter, owls are often depicted as familiars of witches and warlocks and denizens of the realm of the supernatural. (2)
Owl Native American Symbolism
In much of Native American myths and stories, owls are characterized by an association with bad luck, death, and malevolence. Some traditions treat owls as monsters which carry away naughty children who don’t listen to their parents. In some traditions, owls are thought to be connected with ghosts and to act as signs that ghosts are near or messengers from the other side. (3)
In some tribes, the hooting of an owl was considered a sign that death was near. Hearing an owl’s hoot could mean that one would soon face their own demise. Some traditions state that when an owl hoots it actually calls out the names of people who are soon to die. In some cultures, the owl guards the passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead. (4)
According to a Passamaquoddy legend, the Great Horned Owl was a clever and mighty trickster. He lived in a large village with his aunt, who was an owl and a sorceress as well. In their village, there was a family with a haughty daughter who refused to marry. She was very pretty, but the girl refused to consider marriage with any of her suitors. The girl’s father loved her and wanted her to find a good husband, but he didn’t want her to be unhappy. So, he devised a trick to keep the men of the village from insisting. He declared that the only man who could marry his daughter would be a man who could make a fire grow hotter by spitting onto it. Because spit puts out fires, the daughter agreed. She believed no man would accomplish this. (5)
One day, the Great Horned Owl asked his aunt to help him marry the haughty girl. The sorceress gave him a potion that made him look like a handsome human man and made it so that when he spit into the fire it roared and grew bigger and hotter. Because she had promised, the girl married the Great Horned Owl that day. After the wedding, the girl and the owl slept, but in the middle of the night, the girl noticed that her husband’s ears sprouted up like horns and that his eyes had become yellow. She screamed and fled and told the whole village of the monstrous owl’s trick. Determined to win her again, the Great Horned Owl returned to the village in a new handsome for and offered to hold a feast for everyone. At the feast, he asked everyone to tell him their best stories. (6)
The girl insisted that her story must only be whispered and so everyone had to tuck their hair behind their ears to hear it. The Great Horned Owl protested, but she insisted. When he pulled his hair back, his ears gave him away and eh was forced to flee the village. Finally, the Great Horned Owl asked his aunt for a new trick. She made a magical flute for him which would entrance any woman who heard him play it. For weeks, he waited for the frightened girl to come out of her father’s house. Finally, she emerged and walked into the woods for a stroll. The Great Horned Owl played his flute and she was entranced by it. In her bewitched state, the owl snatched her up in his talons and flew her away to the land of the owls where she became his wife once more. (7)
Owl Christianity Symbolism
Owls in the Bible are typically associated with wildness. In several instances, destroyed or desolate cities are said to be populated by owls as the wilderness reclaims them.
Biblical References to Owls
- Leviticus 11:13-18, more specifically 11:16-18 or 11:17-18, states that Jews should not eat certain breeds of the owl, as part of their kosher dietary rule, along with pelicans and carrion vultures.
- Deuteronomy 14:15-17 confirms the kosher rule statement.
- In Psalm 102:6, the psalmist talks about the difficult times of his life by comparing himself to an owl in the desert. He used the reference to the owl as an example of himself as an inferior creature stuck in a desolate place.
- Isaiah 13:21 talks about a prophecy on God’s judgment on Babylon to destroy it. Here the owl is again used as an example to demonstrate the devastation humans of Babylon will face. They will be killed or driven out of their homes, and wild animals will live in the city.
- In Isaiah 34:11, much similar to the Babylon prophecy, God’s judgment of Edom refers to owls in the destruction of the city. The owl is used as an example of wild animals inhabiting the city along with ravens, pelicans, and porcupines. (8)
Owl Celtic Symbolism
According to Celtic mythology, the owl is a symbol of beauty, fertility, betrayal, and deception. This is due to an episode from the Welsh text, the Mabinogi. In the Mabinogi tale Math son of Mathonwy, the sorcerer Gwydion must care for his nephew who has been rejected and forsaken by his mother. The child is refused a name, weapons, and a wife because his mother has cursed him. So, Gwydion must trick the boy’s mother into allowing him to have all three. For the first trick, the boy is disguised and brought before her where he demonstrates his aim by throwing a needle through a bird’s leg. She declares that he is skillful and so he is named “Lleu Llaw Gyffes” which means “fair one skillful hand.” Then, Gwydion casts an illusion that makes her think she is under attack. While in disguise, she hands weapons to the boy so that he can protect her.
The issue of the wife, though, is not so easy. So, Gwydion decides that instead of tricking her into allowing a human wife for Lleu, he’ll just make a wife for him out of flowers and bring her to life with magic. He does this, and names the bride Blodeuedd, which means “flower face.” Blodeuedd is very beautiful,, but before long she falls in love with another man. She and her lover conspire to slay Lleu so that they can be together. Pretending to worry for his safety, Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into explaining how he can be killed. She carries out his murder, but Gwydion is able to save him from the land of the dead. In punishment, Blodeuedd is transformed into an owl. (9)
Owls in Dreams
When birds visit us in our dreams, the experience can feel very meaningful and poignant. Owl dreams, in particular, tend to leave an especially lasting impression. Dreaming of owls can represent anything from curiosity to superstition to the future.
Owl dreams often represent the unknown. If there is something in your life that you are consistently questioning, owl dreams guide you in the direction of the answer. The following list is just a few examples of owl dreams and the meanings that they can have. None of these examples are definitive or absolute.
- Single Owl – Seeing an owl in your dream means you should be aware of what’s happening in your surroundings. Borrow the owl spirit animal’s power to see things on a higher level.
- Many Owls – You can expect a piece of useful advice from other people and that you should accept it.
- Flying Owl – Seeing a flying owl is not a good sign. It means problems in your family in the coming period. The problems could be a conflict between family members.
- Black Owl – Seeing a black owl in your dreams is usually a sign of spiritual awakening and awareness.
- Dead Owl – To have a dead owl dream is the worst omen of transition among them all. It symbolizes the death of either the dreamer or someone very close to them. It represents the transition from one life to the next.
- Barn Owl – It symbolizes a good financial situation in the near future
- Common Owl – It is a sign that you should focus more on yourself and your needs for a change.
- True Owl – A true owl reflects your struggle with insomnia
- Snowy Owl – Seeing a snowy owl is perhaps the most serene encounter. It represents happiness and peace shortly.
Owl Encounters and Omens
Owl encounters happen most often at dusk and may represent issues that weigh heavily on one’s mind. Owls tend to represent fear, especially with regards to life’s unknowns. Encountering an owl may indicate anxiety or uncertainty about the future.
Encountering owls more frequently than usual may indicate a desire to understand one’s future. A transition of some kind is likely to lie ahead, so owls may appear as a sign to embrace change.
Hearing owls hooting may indicate loneliness or a desire to connect with others.
If owls have become a problem in your yard then read this guide for a bit of advice.
Owl Mythology and Folklore
We’ve already examined some owl mythology in the previous sections, but here’s a few more examples of this bird’s impact on human cultures.
In Greek mythology, the owl is one of the main symbols of the goddess Athena. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, craftsmanship, and strategy. Fierce, intelligent, and beautiful, Athena’s symbolic owl represents her many virtues. (10)
The Egyptian owl god is a fierce guardian of the scared occult knowledge. Egyptian owl hieroglyphs associate these birds with both the profane and the divine. They are considered emblems of royalty as well as death and desolation. (11)
Hindu mythology casts the owl as the holy vehicle of the goddess Lakshmi. Lakshmi is a goddess of prosperity and wealth. As her holy vehicle, the owl is associated with these things, however it is more often connected with her opposite version. Thus the owl is considered an omen of misfortune. (12)
In Nordic mythology, the owl is connected with the goddess of wisdom. (13)
Owl Spirit Animal
The owl spirit animal is connected with wisdom, introversion, secrecy, and curiosity. PEople with the owl as their spirit animal tend to be very comfortable by themselves and don’t enjoy forced social interactions. They can form deep relationships with others, but will typically need plenty of time alone to recharge.
The owl spirit animal is often found in academic types who enjoy thinking about the world’s hidden mysteries. The owl is full of curiosity and always happy to change its perspective in order to learn something new.
Learn how to attract owls here.
Owl Totem Animal
If the owl is your totem animal, then that means that you are likely uniquely gifted when it comes to receiving messages from the universe. The owl totem animal is in tune with the tiniest movements and vibrations in the air and can act on things that others don’t even notice.
Because of this, it may sometimes feel as though you have an intuition for the future! People with the owl totem animal should remember to trust their instincts, listen to their senses, and be grateful for their unique gifts,
Owl Power Animal
The owl is a beautiful and deadly bird of prey which silently stalks the nighttime landscape. If the owl is your power animal then you can count on this bird to bring acuity and vision to your life. When the path seems muddled and you can’t tell up from down, call upon the owl to bring clarity and guidance. People who are guided by the owl never need to fear the darkness.
Owl Tattoo Meaning
An owl tattoo might be chosen to represent wisdom, curiosity, magic, mystery, or serenity.
For Native American people, an owl tattoo may invoke a cultural tradition in which the owl is an emblem of death. Similarly, a Celtic owl tattoo may represent femininity or betrayal.
A tattoo of a barn owl represents home.
There is much much more to say about the magnificence of owls than we have had time to cover in this article. Suffice it to say that the owl is one of the most impactful and inspirational birds around. This is proven over and over again by the rich cultural traditions which center on this majestic bird.