The Symbolic Meaning of Owls Around the World
There are more legends and beliefs about owls than we could ever hope to tell, with more strange parallels between them than we could ever hope to uncover, due both to the owl’s pervasiveness on every inhabited continent, and due to the owl’s mysterious intelligence, real or imagined. The most common elements in owl legends are death, shapeshifting, and wisdom, which come together into the modern interpretation of change.
Owls as a Sign of Death
In modern day North America, owls are often seen as a bad omen, a messenger of death. This belief can be traced back to Navajo and Apache tradition, where the sight of an owl is taken very seriously. There are Navajo stories of owls speaking a person’s name followed shortly by that person’s death, and the sight of an owl is considered a good reason to cancel your plans and stay home.
In other Native American traditions, many of which have been lost, owls were not just messengers of death but psychopomps, creatures that sent the living to the afterlife. In modern day North America, many people regard owls with a feeling of unease, perhaps due to these stories passed down over time.
Legends of Owl Shapeshifters
Though shapeshifting tales are not unique to owls, there are memorable stories from around the world about people who were turned into owls.
La Lechuza is a Mexican legend of a shape-shifting witch whose favorite form is a giant with a human face. According to the story, she was a witch who was discovered and put to death by her village, only to come back to life with the power of transformation. Her hobbies include trickery, attacking people, and warning people about bad fortune to come.
There is a tragic Welsh story of a woman named Blodeuwedd who was made from flowers in order to marry an invulnerable warrior named Lleu Llaw. After she attempts to defeat him and escape, she is cursed to turn into an owl, scorned by birds and daytime. Only remembering her true floral form can break the curse.
Told as a lesson to both naughty children and domineering parents is the Tewa story of Father Owl. In the story, a child is too curious for his own good, sneaking out at night to spy on the adults. His parents punish him harshly until Father Owl takes pity on him and whisks him away. The parents search for weeks and Father Owl reconsiders, allowing the child to return. However, to the parents’ shock, the child has already begun transforming into an owl. For him to transform back, he would have to spend four days alone, without any interference, or else be an owl forever. With the roles reversed, the parents were too curious for their own good and opened the door, letting loose a young owl.
Owl Symbolism for Wisdom
A funny parallel about owl stories between cultures is their believed intelligence. While many carnivores and omnivores are known by scientists to be remarkably intelligent, owls are not on the list. They can’t recognize themselves in a mirror, or pull a string to get a treat, or pass other intelligence tests that other birds have succeeded at, yet the owl intelligence myth persists.
In ancient Greece, owls were a sign of the goddess Athena’s influence, providing wisdom in life and power on the battlefield. Looking for signs of hope, soldiers would scan the horizon for a promising glimpse of an owl.
In the ancient Iroquois story, all the animals were waiting patiently with their eyes closed to be formed by the everything-maker, but Owl kept peeking and asking for different things: a long next like Swan, beautiful feathers like Cardinal, and who knows what else. The everything-maker was patient, but finally had enough, giving Owl no neck, muck-colored feathers, big eyes and ears to pay better attention with, and the wisdom to understand his mistake.
The Symbolism of a White Owl
In modern day North America, white owls are regarded with extraordinary apprehension. In fact, there are ancient tales of white owls bringing great fortune: clouds of snowy owls warning of natural disasters, or a single white owl saving a village from starvation with its mysterious powers. The emphasis on white owls may come from their rarity: only adult snowy owls are predominantly white, and even then are rarely found south of Michigan.
Another Interpretation of Owl Symbolism
How did owls come to accrue so many strange and spooky tales? There are eerie nighttime tales from all over the world, from monsters to shapeshifters to the undead. Night time brings out creepy-crawly feelings in all of us, making us look around every corner and freeze after every unexpected noise? Why? Because despite our safe, warm houses, we are still animals at heart, always alert for threats. At night, our own senses are muted while predators like mountain lions and coyotes have the advantage. This means even harmless nighttime creatures like owls can make our skin prickle.
From the chilling screech of a barn owl to the human-like babbling of a screech owl to the ghostly whiteness of a snowy owl in its winter plumage, there are many things about owls that people might find unsettling. However, owls are the last creatures we should be worried about at night—in fact, we can heave a sigh of relief to know they’re around. Owls are natural pest control, keeping the rodent and insect populations down without posing a threat to humans. While the sight of an owl can be chilling, we’re glad to have them around.