What is more symbolic of wisdom than the owl? When asked to think of an animal that is smart, mysterious, or nocturnal, we automatically think of the owl, who alights upon the trees of the forest in the night, its big, piercing eyes glowing in the dark, its haunting call—Hoo, hoo—like a wistful calling for someone who is gone, its panoramic view taking into account the entire landscape, watching patiently at twilight. Some people like to think of the owl as their “spirit animal,” an animal that represents their inner nature, their personality, that symbolizes who they are. But from where do we get these associations? Why is it that we associate owls with wisdom? Were owls always wise, or did they mean something else at another time? I myself am quite fond of owls and am in possession of a collection of owl stuffed animals, so this question appealed to me. Reaching back over 2,000 years, we find yet another enduring contribution from the Ancient Greeks, from whom we get our archetypal “wise owl.”
It is important to note that, as with many symbols, meanings can change. While we nowadays impute owls with wisdom, they were once regarded as evil. Cloaking themselves in the darkness, stalking silently and surreptitiously, owls represented solitude. They hid in the shadows, unseen, and so were viewed negatively, in some cultures as the bringer of death, or at least the messenger thereof. Like the raven, the owl became an image of death and the afterlife, thought to be the animal that guided the spirits from this life to the next. Ancient civilizations in Mexico, the Middle East, and especially China created horrible myths around the owl, making it the pet of Hell or the punisher of those who have done wrong. Its loud, longing screech was unsettling, and because of its ability to see in the dark, the owl could see into the future, but it also meant, in the Christian and Judaic traditions, blindness, or an inability to pierce through the darkness, ultimately preventing spiritual insight. As such, early people saw the owl as a negative force, rather than a positive one.
However, this was not true for all the world, for other cultures, like the Native Americans and Greeks, designed elaborate mythologies that lionized, not demonized, the owl. What the eagle was to the sun, the owl was to the moon. Whereas other cultures linked the owl’s nocturnal nature with depravity, the Greeks linked its night vision with a special sight, a clairvoyance. Fortune tellers, seers, soothsayers, and augurs, all of whom specialized in predicting the future, had as their symbol the owl. It seems plausible, too, that owls’ nocturnal vision suggests a kind of sight that, by lighting up the dark, is revelatory, or which is diametrically opposed to darkness, a kind of clearing therein, or, as some scholars say, an ability to see through the shroud of obscurity. In the dark, things appear faint, in mere outlines, unable to made out; but the owl is wholly perceptive and has clear vision. The owl stands for rational, inner knowledge because it, like a mirror, reflects the light of the moon. This lunar reflection leads to the owl’s being described as pensive, as deeply thoughtful, and, consequently, as reflective. Quiet, reserved, yet vigilant, the owl kept watch, observant, cautious, curious. Owls tilt their heads to the sides, much as we do when we are confused or puzzled, as though they are mimicking our curiosity—their way of scratching their heads. Thus, it is no surprise why the Greeks related learning and studying to owls. The aloofness of the owl also lends itself to the idea of “bookishness” or “studiousness,” an image closely related to the scholar who stays up at night, working by lamplight (lucubration), disengaged from the rest of the world. It is from this comparison that we call people “owlish,” referring to the silent, intellectual type, who resembles the owl, both behaviorally and physically, in that they stereotypically wear big glasses, which look like an owl’s blank, penetrating stare. Owls seem to stay where they are and rarely move. They are some of the most patient birds we know. It is as if they are waiting for something, as if owls are awaiting something. Perhaps it is their prophetic wisdom at work. Owls seem to know something we do not. They are symbols of inner-knowledge, of looking-inward. They are serious and lack humor. They are constantly engaged in thought. Being able to fly, to soar high above us, and to see in the dark, where everything appears concealed, owls have a perspective much more inclusive than ours: Owls have a bird’s eye view, an ability to look down upon us, to ponder and perceive the insignificance of our actions. Maybe when they are sitting in their trees, or hiding in their little nooks, they are, like a knowing parent, shaking their heads, wondering if we humans will ever learn; and therein lies the owl’s wisdom—to be patient and consider things from a grand point of view, with matters brought forth from the dark into the light, wide-eyed, all-knowing, and waiting until we are ready to receive their wisdom. But this does not yet answer the question: Why are owls wise?
Allow me to introduce to you the little owl, known also as the Athene noctua, from the family Strigidæ. Only 8.5 inches, or 22cm, long, it dawns a wide, low, and small forehead, putting it in a scowl, and it lives in wide, open spaces, like fields. What is so special about this small bird? The little owl is the very owl that rests on the Greek goddess Athena’s shoulder! Yes, that is right: The famous Owl of Athena, or Owl of Minerva in the Roman tradition, is a real owl—the little owl. The little owl became Athena’s symbol because they could be found everywhere in Athens. As Matt Sewell writes in his charming little book Owls, “The Acropolis [a fort in a Greek city-state, or polis] was once full of Little Owls, living amongst the pillars and rocks, looking down upon a great civilization.” Again the imagery of “looking down upon” is supposed to connote protection and vigilance and insight. There is an idiom—”bringing an owl to Athens”—that refers to the abundance of owls in Greece; to bring an owl to Athens would be completely unnecessary, given the large numbers that already frequented it. Athens was one of the most famous Greek poleis, and after it was named the goddess Athena, who happened to be the goddess of wisdom. The logic goes: Because the goddess protected the city, she was named after the city, and because little owls could be found within the said city, they were to be associated with the goddess. Hence, little owls came to be Athena’s symbol. Later, at about the first quarter of the 5th century (c. 420 B.C.), Athens adopted its silver coinage with the owl of Athena printed on one side. There are many versions of Athena, including Pallas Athena and Athena Pronoia. Pronoia (πρόνοια) means “Providence,” or “foresight,” in Greek, from which came the idea that owls could see into the future.
G.W.F. Hegel in The Philosophy of Right wrote in his preface, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. In other words, what Hegel is saying is: True insight, or wisdom, can come only in retrospect. Dusk is the latest part of the day, the end of the night, and so, metaphorically, the owl of Minerva, representing foresight, reveals the lessons of life only after they have happened; it is then that they are taught to us, and that we can apply them.
So what can we take from the majestic owl? From the owl, we can all learn to be patient, attentive, humble, introspective, thoughtful, and reflective. Then, and only then, can we hope to achieve wisdom.
 Sewell, Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, p. 19
 Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, p. 7
For further reading: Owls: Our Most Charming Birds by Matt Sewell (2014)
The Complete Dictionary of Symbols by Jack Tresidder (2004)
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (1992)
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier (1994)
Birds of the World by Colin Harrison (1993)