Owls have always had a fixed and rather ambiguous position in the human imagination. A perfect symbol for unknown and the afterlife. Find out why.

They only come at night

It’s a matter of fact: owls come out at night and this alone is enough to consider them the living symbol of all that is magic, mystery and ancient knowledge. Linked with the night and the moon, sometimes they have also been represented as symbols of fertility, but the most popular iconography is certainly linked to magic and mystery. By observing the senses of these animals, slowly people started to believe owls had super-natural powers, that were given to them by dark entities or divinities. Their super eye vision is still today a reason of surprise also among scientists. Just consider that according to the species the eyes of an owl can represent between 1 to 5% of their entire body weight.

The origin of “Athena Noctua”

In ancient times the owl was also called “cat with wings” because they had similar personality traits. For the Babylonians, he was the sacred guardian of the afterlife, king of the night, prophet of the souls passing from state of existence to another. Its mysterious nature and incredible night hunting abilities, stimulated the creativity of the ancient Greeks, who believed the owl was the sacred animal of goddess Athena (the scientific name is still Athene Noctua) and symbol of wisdom and farsightedness. Furthermore, the owl was considered the guardian of Athens and the city was surrounded by a series of statues of various sizes representing a series of owls and owlets.

Mumia, Zoi Tattoo, Copenaghen, Denmark
Mumia, Zoi Tattoo, Copenaghen, Denmark

Don’t listen to the “cry of birds”!

Their strongest iconography was the link with the world of the dead, a myth that cost the poor animal a series of persecutions during the period of the witch hunt (end of 400’s – mid 600’s), because they were considered one of the possible incarnations of the a witch that had gained incredible diabolic powers. In the Scandinavian, for example, countries the presence of these animals meant a death or terrible disgrace, whereas the Maya called the owl of Yucatan the “cry of birds” and believed this sound was a call of death.

The feathers power

The cultural traditions that have more references to owls are those of Native American Indians, where these animals represent real totem-like icons, sacred figures to worship or fear. As in the rest of the world, also Native Americans have always attributed to owls super-natural qualities. They were considered bearers of wisdom and sacred knowledge. Owl feathers were used as a protection against evil spirits and shamans used “the medicine of the owl” to communicate with the world of spirits and understand their intentions.

Arlo DiCristina, The Raw Canvas Tattoo, Grand Junction, USA
Arlo DiCristina, The Raw Canvas Tattoo, Grand Junction, USA

Once upon a time in San Francisco…

One of the most bizarre chapters of this symbolism can be found at the so-called Bohemian Club, an esoteric organization that was formed in San Francisco in 1872 whose members are important US political and economic figures (also former presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush Sr. were part of this). Half-way between student frat clubs and true pagan rituals, the club organizes every year a two-week campus during which a 15-meter stature of an owl is built and around which the most bizarre rituals are held but everything is kept very confidential. Yeah, if owls could talk, it would have a lot of hidden secrets to tell…