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What Are the Roles of Owls in Mythology?

Statue of the Greek goddess Athena with an owl at her side.
The owl's nocturnal habits may account for its association with the underworld in world mythologies.
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  • Written By: J.E. Holloway
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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Owls play an important role in the mythology of many cultures around the world. In mythology, they can be companions to the gods, evil spirits, wise observers or the embodiment of natural forces. In many cultures, owls are messengers of death or otherwise associated with the powers of the underworld. This negative connotation my arise from the fact that owls are nocturnal; animals that are active at night often have negative roles in myth and folklore.

The most famous owls in mythology are probably those associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, patron deity of the city of Athens. Artists depicted Athena with an owl on one shoulder. Owls may have been connected to the goddess because of their ability to see well at night and their large eyes, which evoked her epithet, "bright-eyed Athena." As a result of this association, owls continue to be symbols of wisdom in the Western world. One genus of owls retains the name "Athene."

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Mythology from other parts of the world often give owls a more sinister role. Although the Romans adopted many elements of Greek religion, Roman folklore also featured dangerous owl-like creatures that could suck out the life force of an infant. Similarly, in Arabian mythology, owls were birds of ill omen. Legend had it that owls would hoot over the graves of murdered men, and their eggs were thought to have supernatural properties. Similar beliefs are known to exist or have existed in sub-Saharan Africa, where owls play the role of harbingers of death or bringers of ill luck.

In South and Central America, owls are again connected with death and the underworld. In Mayan mythology, Xibalba, "the place of fear," is ruled by two death gods, Hun-Came ("One Death") and Vucub-Came ("Seven Death"). Their messengers are four spirits who take the shape of owls. Similarly, the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead, appears as a skeleton wearing a headdress of owl feathers.

The Native American nations of North America had a wide variety of different roles for owls in their mythology. In some cultures, the owl played the role of a messenger from the underworld, while in others, such as the Sioux, it was a guardian which protected the entrance to the afterlife. The Passamaquoddy nation told a story in which the bird was a helpful spirit that provided humans with magical gifts.

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anon278337
Post 13

In 2001, the night before my father passed away, my family and I came home and there was an owl perched on our deck railing. This had never happened before or after that evening. As a matter of fact, I have not seen or heard one around.

Just a few nights ago, my husband was on his way to work and an owl dive bombed his car; it was 11:30 at night. We got a call the very next day at 7:15 a.m. that his dad passed. Call it coincidence, superstition, a myth or anything else. I call it a message!

tolleranza
Post 12

Until reading this article, I did not know that in some cultures owls are seen as evil or associated with death. I am glad I did not grow up fearing owls, because I probably wouldn't have ever liked camping or any night-time wood excursions.

Being in fear of anything can really be quite hindering to personal growth and overall well-being.

I know we shouldn’t go through life totally carefree, as this will just set us up for something to happen. In the same respect, we should not live life completely careful, as this will limit our life and growth greatly.

I think we should face the things we fear, so for the people who fear owls, I would recommend getting your family and friends together and camp out in the wilderness. Once you stay the night in the wilderness, and survive, you will realize how strong and courageous you are, and you may even conquer your fear of owls. You may even grow to like and appreciate owls.

Speechie
Post 11

I don’t believe any of these stories about owls, especially the ones about them being evil. I can see why people, especially people in the earlier generations, would think that owls may be evil or associated with death though.

This is probably mostly because these animals are usually only seen and/or heard at night-time. Some of the owls also have some scary vocals, especially if you are not used to the sound.

I think that owl’s making noise does not mean anything besides that they are being vocal and communicating with one another and maybe the other animals, letting them know their territory.

As a child, I associated owls with being really intelligent and wise. I used to watch Winnie the Pooh and the owl was the one with the most sense out of all the other animals/characters. When the other animals were stumped on how to solve a problem, they could usually count on the wise owl to figure out a genius solution.

John57
Post 10

It seems as if owls are either seen as positive or negative depending on where you come from or what your culture is.

I always associated owls with being wise and remember a nursery rhyme about a wise old owl. This rhyme talked about the more the owl saw the less he spoke, and the less he spoke the more he heard. Why couldn't we all be like this wise old bird?

On the other hand, I have heard that they have a small brain for their size, but their eyesight at night is very keen. There are many times I wish I had this kind of eyesight at night!

honeybees
Post 9

Maybe it's because I have always liked owls, but I much prefer to read about them as guardians and helpers than I do being sinister.

I live in an area that is surrounded by woods, and hear a hoot owl almost every night in the summer. They have a soft call that I find very soothing and comforting.

These hoot owls are much different than the screech owls that I hear though. They have a loud, obnoxious sound that can drive you crazy.

This has really been my only experience with them other than spotting them a few times in the woods. They can be quite intimidating when they fly, but I have never been afraid of them or associated them with evil in any way.

discographer
Post 8

@seag47-- Actually, not all owls are awake only at nighttime. There is a type of owl called the burrowing owl that lives just as any other bird. It's up during the day and sleeps at night.

I do agree that the sight of an owl can be frightening or alarming at first. But we don't have to interpret them as a bad omen. Look at the Sioux Indians who think of owls as the guardian of afterlife. This doesn't give owls a bad image.

I personally think that the fear of owls and superstitions about them in various beliefs and mythologies have to do with people's fear of death. If people didn't consider death to be bad and scary, owls wouldn't be seen that way either.

burcinc
Post 7

@simrin-- Yea, lots of people believe that here in the US as well. It's said that if you hear an owl hoot thrice, you will die soon.

I don't believe it because we used rent a house near a forest and saw owls all the time. We heard them hoot all the time too, there were probably dozens of them in that forest. Nothing ever happened to my family!

cloudel
Post 6

I am friends with an author who wrote a book in which the owl was a messenger of death. Instead of this being a bad thing, the owl provided comfort to those who were suffering physically and wanted to die.

The book follows several different characters who are ailing and only have a few months to live. For each one, the appearance of the owl gave them hope that their suffering would soon end.

To their loved ones, the owl was a symbol of doom. Overall, the owl was merely an announcer of a fact that could not be changed. The role of the owl was in they eye of the beholder.

wavy58
Post 4

I understand why many cultures give owls a dark role in mythology. These creatures of the night are creepy, in my opinion. You never really see an owl in daylight, and if you want to know what one looks like up close, you have to watch a documentary or look in a book.

I live out in the country, and I can hear owls at night in the woods surrounding my home. Their hoot is almost mournful to me. It sounds as if they are either grieving the loss of a loved one or warning of imminent death.

I have gone on camping trips before, and to me, the scariest sound of all is the hoot of an owl while you are walking through the forest at night. They just possess a certain tone that sends chills down my spine and stirs up fear in my mind.

SteamLouis
Post 3

My family is from the Middle East and they strongly believe that owls are messengers of death. They say that when an owl comes to a house and keeps calling out in the same spot for a long time, someone in that house will die.

My grandmother told me that it happened to her friend. Her friend was sick and an owl came to their house calling. They say that within ten minutes, she passed away. When mom hears an owl calling near our house at night, she will pray until the owl goes away.

I think that this is a superstition. I don't think that any animal could be bad. But at the same time, I do believe that animals can sense things we can't. Animals always sense natural disasters before they happen for example. So maybe owls are seeing something we can't.

Even though I don't believe the whole messenger of death story, I still can't get myself to wear any owl jewelry which is the new fashion trend. I feel like something bad might happen if I wore one. Why take a chance, right?

StarJo
Post 2

@shell4life – I have friends with Native American blood in their lineage, and though they didn't raise their children in the ways of the tribe, the kids picked up on some things inherently. The ten-year-old girl suddenly found herself obsessed with owls after her father died.

She was too young to understand why, but after his death, she became drawn to everything relating to owls. He had given her an owl figurine years earlier, and that came to mean a lot to her.

She draws and paints often, and owls are always the focus of her artwork. I think that maybe her dad's spirit is reaching out to her from heaven through the body of owls. She has seen three in a tree outside her window since his death, and this is rare.

shell4life
Post 1

It's interesting to me how the owl is viewed in a more positive light by Native Americans than by other cultures. It seems that everyone else finds a reason to fear the owl.

I think that Native Americans probably had a better understanding of the owl because of their closeness to nature. They were always outside, and most of them believed that spirits inhabited everything. They probably paid close attention to the owl, saw it was not harmful, and decided that it had a helpful spirit.

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