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.
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.