Weirdly enough, David Lynch got it right when he wrote the line, “The owls are not what they seem,” during a particularly odd moment in Twin Peaks. For much of history, and across the world, various people have seen owls as wholly contradictory creatures. In fact, as the zoologist Desmond Morris has argued, very few animals can boast the number of different and often conflicting sets of beliefs and associations that accompany these nocturnal hunters.
Throughout the centuries, they have been the subject of both fear and awe, respected as embodying wisdom and denigrated as fools, associated with harmful witchcraft and medical healing, and being either harbingers of death or messengers of the gods. And is it surprising? Anyone who has looked into the eyes of this powerful predator will likely feel as though they are looking at the face of an intelligent and unscrupulous creature.
So, here is a brief unnatural history of owls and what people have said about them over the centuries.
Owls are sacred symbols
If you asked someone to think about a historical symbol of an owl, we would bet most people in the West would picture the wide-eyed bird that accompanies Athena, the Ancient Greek Goddess of Wisdom. To be sure, most of the gods within the Greek pantheon were associated with some kind of animal that was meant to embody an aspect of their nature, but few are as immediately recognizable today as the Owl of Athena.
It is not clear where this association came from. There are some who believe the connection between the Goddess of Wisdom and this particular feathered being was inherited from an earlier culture, such as the Minoans or maybe a Mesopotamian Eye Goddess. Alternatively, because Athena was also a goddess associated with strategy, warfare, and skill – which is why she was the patron of Odysseus, the archetypal trickster hero – she may have been connected with a bird thought to embody such qualities, what with their accomplished nocturnal hunting tactics.
The owl’s prestige was further enhanced by the number of them that apparently lived around the Acropolis in great numbers. Their ability to fly at night was aided by an internal light that supposedly gave them night vision. If an owl flew over an army before a battle, it was regarded as a sign of success to come.
Owls are profane symbols
The Romans later adopted many of these features for their goddess, Minerva, who was essentially Athena in all but name (and with perhaps a slightly milder temperament). However, the owl as her symbolic creature took a blow at this juncture. This is because the Romans already had a belief that owls were evil and portents of death. In fact, it is said the deaths of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Commodus Aurelius, and Agrippa were all foretold by owls hooting and shrieking.
To see an owl in the daytime was particularly worrying for the Romans. If someone could catch one, they were to nail it to their door to ward off any pending harm. According to Columella, a first-century CE soldier who wrote extensively on agriculture, rural Romans would hang the bodies of owls to prevent storms.
Pliny the Elder also expanded on superstitions associated with these raptors. In his famous Natural History, the Roman natural philosopher explained how an owl’s visit to a city was a sign of disaster to come; though he himself expressed some skepticism on this point and, like a good empiricist, explained how he had seen many owls siting on city buildings without any ill outcome.
Nevertheless, through Roman superstition, the owl lost its shine as an agent of gods and became something darker and suspicious. To dream of an owl meant you were likely to experience some hardship. Travelers who dreamt of them could expect to be robbed or shipwrecked during their journeys. And then there were witches and sorcerers – these feared beings would allegedly turn into owls so they could feed on the blood of infants. If not a shape-shifting magic practitioner themselves, an owl seen in a cemetery could be one’s messenger who was there to dance on the grave.
In Chinese history, especially during the Warring States Period (roughly 475-221 BCE), owls were purely evil monstrosities. It was believed their young ate their mother’s eyes before fleeing the nest. Children born on the summer solstice were said to be born on the “day of the owl” and would therefore be more violent and aggressive. Within this culture, the owl was also associated with storms and lightning. Families would place owl figurines in the corners of the house on their roofs to prevent lightning from hitting the building.
All contradictions in one
So far the symbolic understandings of owls have tended to favor one side of the good-bad divide, but in America, the nocturnal predator had a more complex set of associations surrounding it. Within the various traditions of the Indigenous peoples who lived across the Americas, owls were both positive and negative symbols that represented wisdom and evil.
For instance, for the Moche culture, who lived in northern Peru between the first and eighth century CE, the owl was both a symbol of wisdom and healing, as well as the spirits of the dead and a being who ritualistically decapitated people. Similarly, among the indigenous peoples of North America, owls were often correlated with death and the afterlife, but could also be protective spirits who guarded warriors. The Lenape, or “Delaware” people believed that if an owl appeared in your dream, it would become your personal guardian. Equally, other people thought owls carried secret and ancient knowledge and wisdom.
There are many other beliefs about these enigmatic birds within the various cultures of the Indigenous American people.
The owl today
For centuries, owls have fascinated humans and inspired art, literature, and more. There should be no surprise here. Owls are among the oldest species of land birds, with fossils that are nearly 60 million years old.
There are currently around 250 owl species across the world, which can be found in pretty much every continent except Antarctica. They are tough birds and can adapt to environments in diverse biomes, such as deserts, prairies, woodlands, rainforests, mountains, wetlands, and the Arctic tundra. But despite their hardiness and their ancient mystique, many species of owls are now endangered. In fact, several species are listed as vulnerable or endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The great night predator of old is, like so many, threatened by the destruction of the habitats and damage to the food chain by human activity. It is important to protect these beautiful animals because, without them, what else is going to haunt our night sky?