Owl Omen and Symbolism: Why Do Owls Fascinate Us?

By: Jesslyn Shields, Nicole Antonio & Sascha Bos  | 
The great grey owl (Strix nebulosa) is the world's largest species of owl, by length. Jim Cumming/Getty Images

In many different cultures, owls represent a connection to the spiritual world, perhaps because, unlike other birds of prey, they only come out at night. But whether owl encounters are good or bad luck depends on who you speak to.

For some, an owl symbolizes wisdom, power and spiritual awakening; for others, seeing an owl is a sure sign of bad luck. You can find at least one owl omen anywhere the barn owl (Tyto alba) lives — that’s worldwide, except Antarctica and Micronesia.


What's So Special About Owls?

There’s no doubting the majesty of owls. On silent, fluffy-edged stealth wings, they hunt small, nocturnal animals while it's dark, occasionally hooting or screaming at each other through the night. Then, when the sun shows up again, they return to their favorite roost and let the other raptors go about their business eating day creatures.

"Owls are probably one of the most widely recognized groups of animals in the world," says Denver Holt, the founder and lead researcher of the Owl Research Institute based in Charlo, Montana.


"They're in all cultures — no matter how far back you go, there's always art or myths or stories about owls. They're on our corporate logos, sports logos; products use them to advertise, they're on castle walls and churches. I have a Greek coin that dates back to 400 B.C.E. with an owl on it."

Even the Chauvet cave in France, which includes Pleistocene art dating back around 30,000 years, contains an etching of an owl. So, what about owls drives humans to treat them as modern-day totems for everything from Tootsie Pop to Trip Advisor and Duolingo? Well, they are pretty cool.

Owls Use Camouflage

Owls are masters of camouflage. During the day, these nocturnal birds use their feathers to help them blend in with their surroundings and hide from predators. That’s why the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), aka the white owl, is white — it lives in the tundra. In Hindu mythology, Lakshmi, the goddess of good fortune, rides a white owl, and some see white owls as good omens.

The tawny or brown owl (Strix aluco), on the other hand, matches the tree trunks in the European woodlands it occupies.

Owl Have Unique Eyes

Owls possess what’s known as binocular vision. Their eyes face forward, like humans (and unlike other birds), which allows them to process more complex visual information [source: Klein]. Their humanlike appearance may also contribute to humans' affinity for these unique birds.

Like most nocturnal animals, owls have big eyes that let in more light, allowing them to see in darkness. But instead of spherical eyeballs, owls have cylindrical eyes extending to the back of their head. You can even see some of their eyeballs through their earholes!

Because their eyes aren't spherical, they can't roll around in their heads, which means an owl's round head has to do most of the rolling around work. That’s why they can swivel their heads entirely around on their necks — which adds to their otherworldliness.

Owls Have Super Hearing

Technically, owls don’t have supernatural powers. But it’s not surprising that some ancient cultures believed they did. Without sunlight to see their prey, owls rely on their sense of hearing to hunt.

Their ears are large openings on the sides of their heads — one ear lower than the other, which helps them triangulate sound (a noise goes in one ear a little before it arrives in the other) to tell which direction it's coming from.

To make their sense of hearing even keener, an owl's entire face acts as a satellite dish for sound waves to make their sense of hearing even keener. Their beaks are tiny to keep out of the way, and the circular depressions around their huge eyes boost their ability to snag the sound of a mouse scurrying beneath the snow like a catcher's mitt.


Owl Myths and Superstitions

With their physical abilities, nighttime habits and uncanny resemblance to humans, it’s easy to see why so many cultures have some form of owl mythology.

"If we have strong feelings about owls, maybe it's because they look like us," says Holt. "They've got a large head, a flat face, big eyes, a symmetry about their mouth and nose. We tend to be attracted — and repelled by — animals that are morphologically similar to us."

Some see owl dreams as visits from an animal spirit guide. Others fear an unusual daytime owl encounter or an owl's hoot in the night.


Owl Meanings in African Cultures

The Luhya, Luo and Kalenjin people of Kenya consider owl sightings a bad omen. For the Tsonga people of South Africa, owls symbolize magic and wisdom — which can be good or evil [source: Mandillah & Ekosse].

According to South African owl legends, something terrible will happen to your family if you see an owl sitting on your roof [source: Chauke].

The Owl Totem Animal in China

The owl was one of several totem animals in ancient China, dating back at least 6,000 years ago to Yangshao culture [source: Zhaoyuan et al]. In Chinese tradition, owls’ nocturnal habits indicated their ability to communicate with the underworld or spirit world and oversee the transition between the earthly realm and the spiritual realm.

Scholars believe that Chinese people may have worshipped owls from prehistoric times through the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.). The xuan bird, believed to be an owl, was the totem animal of the Shang. When the Zhou dynasty (1046 B.C.E.-256 B.C.E.) took control of China, they replaced owls with the phoenixes, entirely mystical creatures [source: Zhaoyuan et al].

Native American Owl Symbolism

Several Native American cultures assign spiritual meaning to owls. For the Catawba people, the cry of a Great Horned Owl is a good omen, while for the Puyallup-Nisqually, a daytime sighting of a screech owl could signal death [source: Wilson].

In one Lenape legend, the an owl hooting lets a warrior know that he will have good luck on his hunt. Due to their connection with nighttime and dreams, owls could be powerful collaborators for the Teton Sioux, Kiowa, Clayoquot and Chippewa, who harnessed their strength through an owl dream or by wearing owl feathers [source: Wilson].

Owl Celtic Symbolism

In Welsh Celtic mythology, the hero Gwydion transforms Blodeuedd into one of British tradition’s most famous folklore owls as punishment for attempting to murder her husband, Lleu [source: Parker]. According to the Mabinogi, owls are nocturnal creatures because other members of the animal kingdom hate them. Gwydion says to Blodeuedd:

"Because of the shame that you have wrought upon Lleu Llaw Gyffes, you will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that [will be] because of enmity between you and all [other] birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you."

However, this mystical creature is not always negative. For example, a Celtic owl tattoo may represent wisdom or protection [source: Heinz].

Owls in Greek Mythology

One ancient Greek and Roman superstition indicated that owls were witches in disguise and would suck the blood right out of your baby. In 77 C.E., Pliny the Elder wrote of an owl sighting: "It is looked upon as a direful omen to see it in the city, or … in the day-time."

But the same cultures also used the owl as the symbol of Athena, the powerful and influential goddess of wisdom. Athena’s ancient Sumerian precursor was Lilith, a horned, taloned goddess surrounded by owls, depicted in a 4,300-year-old Sumerian tablet.


The Owl Spirit Animal

If you believe in spirit animals and feel a strong associate with owls, you may find yourself drawn to their aura of wisdom, mystique and independence. Different cultures have different ways of determining an individual's spirit animal, but if you find comfort in the qualities that owls represent, it does no harm to draw on that energy.