In terms of animal symbolism, owls occupy an intriguing and perhaps unique place in our consciousness in that they are used to represent both good and evil. On the one hand they are seen as representations of wisdom, and on the other they are a figure of doom. They are seemingly irreconcilable, but under close examination both these interpretations might be seen to originate from the same attribute of our human condition.
First, let us lay to rest the idea that one or the other of these usages is an anomaly. Many separate cultures including Greece and India have used the owl as a representation of wisdom, and similarly many have used it as a representation of death, bad luck and doom, among them the Aztecs and some medieval European peoples to name just a few.
In order to understand this duality, we need to look at the attributes of the owl to see what makes it unique. We then need to use that knowledge to see why it is triggering such a schizophrenic response from us that we see it as both good and evil.
Of the order Strigiform, most owls are nocturnal hunters, and as a result their eyesight is superb, but there are other less well known adaptations that are extremely interesting. Owls’ main flight feathers are covered in a velvety substance that muffles the sound of the wings’ movement, which means that their flight is noiseless, to help ensure that prey is not alerted by the sound of their flight. The front edges of the main flight feathers are serrated, which again has the effect of reducing noise, in this case by reducing wind turbulence over the wings. So the owl can fly extremely quietly; however it can also fly extremely slowly. Research suggests this is due to it having abnormally large feathers.
Picture the owl in its own environment and we have a tableau of apparent good and evil. Night falls, and mice and lizards go about their work on the forest floor. We can then envision the owl, some as large as the largest eagles, sweeping the forest so slowly we think they should fall out of the air; but they don’t, and they are able to spot their prey and then, making barely a sound, they swoop and make a kill as silent as death itself.