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Ancient Symbolism of the Owl: Omen of the Good, the Bad and the Deadly

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About 48 million years ago, an owl swooped down to catch its prey in broad daylight - we know this because in 2018 Dickinson Museum Researchers found the exquisitely preserved remains of the owl. Its skull shares a telltale characteristic with modern-day hawks which also hunt by day. As they have evidently existed since the ancient times, the owl has been regarded with fascination, awe and fear throughout history. They feature prominently in the myths and legends of a variety of cultures.

Egyptian birds for the most part seen in the Nile Valley, Screech Owl (1909) (Public Domain)

Egyptian birds for the most part seen in the Nile Valley, Screech Owl (1909) (Public Domain)

Ill Omens

An owl's appearance at night, when people are helpless and blind, linked them with the unknown. Pliny (23-79 AD) described the owl as: “the very monster of the night” and argued that: “when it appears, it foretells nothing but evil.” However, despite his apparent distaste for owls, Pliny also believed that the viscera of owls held curative properties that could restore health and relieve pain. For example, a healthy mixture of owl brain and oil dropped directly into the ear canal was a handy cure for an earache.

Hooting of the owls was regarded an ill omen. In Ancient Egypt, if a lowly official received the glyph of an owl from the pharaoh, it was understood that the recipient had to take his own life. In the Teotihuacan culture, the owl was also seen as an evil omen as well as one of the many sacred animals of the rain god Tlaloc. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the owl had become the associate of witches and the inhabitant of dark and profane places.

The Owl of Athena. Acropolis museum, (fifth-century BC.) (CC0)

The Owl of Athena. Acropolis museum, (fifth-century BC.) (CC0)

Mesopotamian and Levantine Owls

The Sumerians called the owl the ukuku. An example is from the Cursing of Agade, an ancient Mesopotamian story written around 2100 BC: “May the ukuku, the bird of depression, make its nest in your gateways, established for the Land,” and: “The bird of destroyed cities… The sleep-bird, bird of heart’s sorrow.” In ancient Syria, the owl is found recorded in the eighth-century treaty in the Aramaic inscription from Sefire, in which the owl serves as an emblem of desolation.

Owls appeared in graves from the earliest layers of the Carthaginian settlement, contemporary with the Tyre al-Bass cremation burials.


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Martini Fisher is a Mythographer and author of many books, including "Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture” and "Time Maps: Australia, Early Sea Voyage and Invasions" / Check out

Top Image: Saul and the Witch of Endor. Inside a magic circle, the witch, sitting on a throne of owls, practices her witchcraft by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (1526) Rijksmuseum (Public Domain)

By Martini Fisher

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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