On one level, the reason we have projected our fears onto the owl is obvious. Humans fear the night for the physical threat it contains – simply put, many animals of prey are nocturnal, and we were very vulnerable. However, psychologically we have also been afraid of the dark. The night represented the dark recesses of our mind where we hid the awful fear – always to be resisted – that we might be without worth. While we have been clawing our way toward enlightenment, the night has been a symbol of the fear that lurks at the heart of the human condition.
When we see the owl, we see an animal that is in its element where our minds fear to go. It's easy to see why it became a symbol of death and a companion of witches. Nor was it by chance that Goya, the most prophetic of artists, chose owls to represent the fears that lie below our questioning minds when he created his celebrated etching ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
But wisdom? As we have said, like Janus the owl represents simultaneously both good and evil. So where does the good –this association with wisdom –come from? Again it must be related to the owl’s adaption to the night. I would suggest that we project wisdom onto it because of the owl’s ability to see in the dark; and that this is a metaphor for being able to penetrate through superstition to perceive the truth that we cannot see. Within this reasoning, if we look closely, lies a tacit admittance that we are benighted; that we are chained in Plato’s cave; that “our boat is asleep on Serchio’s stream”. However it is also an admittance that perhaps an answer lies within the darkness waiting to be found, and that if we could only see it it would make us wise.