Exploring the Symbolism of Owls in Literature: What Do Owls Symbolize in Literature?

Owls have long been a fascination in literature and popular culture. Unlike the other birds of prey, owls are known for their nocturnal habits and silent flight. But what exactly do they symbolize in literature?

Symbolism of owls in literature can be traced back centuries. In Greek mythology, the owl was associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and was believed to be a sign of good fortune. In many Native American cultures, the owl is a symbol of wisdom, foresight and protection. And in popular literature, owls have been used to signify knowledge and mystery. With their unique ability to fly silently and stealthily hunt prey, owls can represent an otherworldly wisdom and keen insight that lurks in the darkness.

Despite their seemingly mystical qualities, owls can also be seen as harbingers of ill omens in literature. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for example, featured a screech owl that signaled the death of the king. Similarly, the ancient Greeks considered the owl to be an omen of impending death. Whether they are creatures of wisdom, foreboding or both, owls have played a significant role in literature and remain one of the most popular animal symbols in modern culture.

Owls as Symbols of Wisdom

In literature, owls are commonly associated with wisdom, knowledge, and intellect. This symbolism can be traced back to ancient Greek mythology, where the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was often depicted with an owl perched on her shoulder. This association between owls and wisdom is also seen in Native American traditions, where the owl is revered as a spiritual guide and a symbol of clairvoyance.

  • The owl’s large eyes and ability to see in the dark are often interpreted as a metaphor for acquiring knowledge and understanding the truth.
  • The bird’s quiet and observant nature also adds to its image as a wise creature that watches and learns from the world around it.
  • Many literary works have used the owl as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, where the character of Professor Dumbledore has an owl named Fawkes as his familiar.

The owl’s association with wisdom is not limited to literature, as it is also used in modern culture. For instance, the graphic design company, 99designs, uses an owl in its logo to represent intelligence, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

In conclusion, the owl has been a symbol of wisdom and knowledge throughout history, making it a powerful image in literature and culture. Whether it’s through Athena’s companion in Greek mythology or Harry Potter’s trusted friend, the owl reminds us of the importance of acquiring knowledge and using it wisely.

Owls as Omens of Death or Misfortune

Owls have been viewed as harbingers of doom and misfortune in many cultures throughout history. This belief is rooted in the owl’s association with the supernatural and the unknown. The bird’s nocturnal habits, sharp talons, and piercing gaze are all contributing factors to the myth of the owl as an omen of death or misfortune.

  • In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena was often represented by an owl. In ancient Greece, owls were seen as a symbol of wisdom, but in later times, the owl became a symbol of death. The Romans also associated owls with death, believing that the hooting of an owl foretold the imminent death of a family member.
  • In many Native American cultures, the hooting of an owl was seen as a sign of impending death. Some tribes believed that if an owl flew into your home, it was a sign that someone in the household was going to die soon. In other tribes, owls were believed to be the spirits of deceased loved ones, come to bring a warning of impending danger.
  • The owl’s nocturnal habits and eerie look have caused it to be viewed as a symbol of witches and the occult. In medieval Europe, owls were often depicted as witches’ familiars, helping them to cast spells and work their magic. This association has continued down through the ages, with owls often being associated with Halloween and other spooky holidays.

While owls are often seen as ominous birds, it’s important to remember that they have many positive associations as well. From wisdom and intelligence to grace and beauty, the owl is a fascinating creature that has captured the imagination of humans for centuries.

If you’re interested in learning more about the symbolism of owls, there are many resources available online and in print. Whether you’re looking to understand the history and mythology behind these creatures or simply want to appreciate their beauty and grace, there’s something for everyone.

Owls in Medieval Literature and Mythology

Owls have been a prominent feature in medieval literature and mythology, where they are associated with various symbolic meanings. In some cultures, owls were revered as sacred creatures with divine associations, while in others, they were feared and considered as harbingers of ill omens.

  • The Owl as a Messenger of Death
  • The Owl as a Wise Creature
  • The Owl as a Symbol of Witchcraft

One of the most enduring and widespread beliefs about owls in medieval Europe was their association with death. Due to their nocturnal nature and haunting calls, they were often thought to be messengers of the underworld or emissaries of death itself. In fact, they were often depicted in medieval paintings and illustrations alongside skeletons and other such symbols of death.

However, not all cultures saw owls as ominous. In ancient Greece, for instance, the owl was revered as the sacred bird of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge. In medieval Europe, they were often regarded as wise creatures and even used to symbolize learning and scholarship. This reputation likely stemmed from their large, expressive eyes and their ability to see in the dark, as well as the fact that they were skilled hunters who rarely missed their targets.

Finally, in some cultures, particularly in medieval England, owls were viewed as symbols of witchcraft and sorcery. This association may have arisen from the fact that they were believed to be in league with nocturnal creatures like bats and cats, which were also associated with witches and magic. Additionally, their eerie hooting calls may have been seen as evidence of their conniving and malevolent nature.

Mythology/CultureSymbolic Meaning of Owls
Ancient GreeceWisdom and knowledge
Medieval EuropeLearning, scholarship, and wisdom
Medieval EnglandWitchcraft and sorcery

Overall, the symbolism of owls in medieval literature and mythology was complex and multi-faceted, reflecting the diverse beliefs and cultural practices of different societies and civilizations. From harbingers of death to symbols of wisdom and magic, owls have continued to captivate the human imagination for centuries, leaving an indelible mark on our cultural consciousness.

Owls in Native American folklore

For many Native American cultures, the owl is not only a symbol but also a sacred animal. In Native American folklore, the owl is often portrayed as a wise, powerful, and mysterious animal, with various meanings and interpretations across tribes.

  • The Cherokee believe that the owl is a symbol of death and doom. They believe that if an owl is seen or heard hooting at night, there will be death or illness in the community.
  • The Hopi people believe that the owl has healing powers and can cure sicknesses. They also believe that the owl is a messenger of secrets and wisdom that can only be revealed at night.
  • The Pueblo tribes view the owl as a symbol of protection and good fortune, often carving owl figures on their pottery and other artifacts for this purpose.

There are various other interpretations of the owl’s symbolism in Native American folklore, depending on the specific tribe and cultural context. Some tribes believe that the owl is a symbol of the afterlife and the spirit world, while others see it as a sign of prosperity and abundance.

Interestingly, different owl species are revered differently in various Native American cultures. For example, the Barn Owl is seen as a symbol of evil and darkness in some tribes, while the Great Horned Owl is associated with wisdom and insight.

In summary, the owl’s symbolism in Native American folklore is multifaceted, with various meanings and interpretations depending on the cultural context. However, one thing is clear – the owl holds a significant place in many Native American cultures, symbolizing wisdom, power, protection, and spirituality.

Owls in Harry Potter Series

Owls play a significant role in the Harry Potter series written by J.K. Rowling. These mystical creatures are used to deliver messages to wizards and witches, and they possess unique abilities that aid Harry and his friends in their quest to defeat Lord Voldemort. Let’s take a closer look at the role of owls in the Harry Potter series.

  • Hedwig – The most notable owl in the series is Harry’s owl, Hedwig. She is a snowy owl that Harry receives as a gift from Hagrid on his 11th birthday. Hedwig is a loyal companion to Harry and helps him communicate with his friends and allies.
  • Owl Post – In the wizarding world, owls are used to deliver mail. The Owl Post is a reliable and efficient way for wizards and witches to communicate with each other without the need for Muggle technology.
  • Magical Abilities – Owls in the Harry Potter series possess magical abilities that make them more than just ordinary birds. They can fly long distances, even across oceans, and they have the ability to find the person to whom a letter is addressed without any additional information.

Owls in the Harry Potter series represent loyalty, intelligence, and magic. They are more than just messengers; they are Harry’s companions and his link to the wizarding world.

Below is a table of some of the owls mentioned in the Harry Potter series:

Owl NameOwl TypeOwner
HedwigSnowy OwlHarry Potter
PigwidgeonScops OwlRon Weasley
ErrolGreat Gray OwlThe Weasley Family

The owls in the Harry Potter series are more than just a means of communication; they are magical creatures that add to the wonder and mystery of the wizarding world.

Contemporary portrayal of owls in literature

In modern literature, the portrayal of owls has taken on various meanings and connotations. Here are some examples:

  • Owls as wise creatures: This idea is perpetuated in many modern stories and is tied back to the ancient Greek belief that owls are symbols of wisdom and knowledge. They are often seen as sage-like figures that offer guidance and advice to the protagonist.
  • Owls as ominous creatures: In contrast, many contemporary authors have portrayed owls as dark and ominous creatures. They are often associated with death and danger and are used to create an eerie atmosphere in horror or suspense novels.
  • Owls as protectors: Some writers have depicted owls as protective creatures that watch over the protagonist, keeping them safe from harm. This portrayal is often linked with the idea of owls being wise and all-knowing.

While the portrayal of owls in literature has evolved over time, they remain a popular symbol in modern works. In fact, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling includes a wise and benevolent owl named Hedwig who is a companion to the main character, Harry Potter.

Here is a table that summarizes some popular contemporary works that feature owls:

Book TitleAuthorOwl’s Representation
The Guardians of Ga’HooleKathryn LaskyOwls as noble warriors and protectors
Watership DownRichard AdamsOwls as fearsome predators that terrorize the protagonist
Deltora QuestEmily RoddaOwls as guardians of ancient artifacts

Overall, contemporary literature continues to use owls as powerful symbols that can evoke a range of emotions and ideas in readers.

Owl as a Symbol of Femininity in Literature

In literature, the owl has been utilized as a symbolic representation of various concepts and ideas. One of these concepts is femininity. Throughout various cultures, the owl has been linked to women and their qualities. This is evident in literature, where the owl is commonly used as a symbol of femininity.

  • Wisdom: In literature, women are often portrayed as wise and knowledgeable. The owl, as a symbol of wisdom, is often used to represent these qualities in women.
  • Intuition: Women are also often associated with intuition. The owl’s ability to see in the dark and its acute hearing are qualities that are linked to intuition. As a result, the owl is often used as a symbol of intuition in female characters in literature.
  • Mystery: Women are often seen as mysterious and elusive. The owl, with its nocturnal nature and its silent flight, is also seen as mysterious and elusive. As such, it is often used as a symbol of femininity to represent this quality in women.

Moreover, the owl has played a significant role in various myths and legends related to women. In Greek mythology, the owl is linked to the goddess Athena, who is known for her wisdom and strategic prowess. The owl was considered her sacred animal and was often depicted with her. In Native American legends, the owl is often connected to the Moon and the feminine cycles of life. The owl is also seen as a symbol of protection for women and their families.

Greek mythologyAthena, wisdom, strategic prowess
Native American legendsMoon, feminine cycles of life, protection

Overall, the owl’s linkage to femininity in literature and mythology is a testament to the importance of women and their roles in shaping our societies and cultures. As a symbol of intelligence, intuition, mystery, and protection, the owl serves to represent the strength and power of women in literature and beyond.

The significance of owl eyes in literature

Throughout literature, owl eyes have been used as a symbol to represent wisdom, foresight, and the ability to see the truth in any situation. The unique structure of owl eyes, which are large and forward-facing, gives them exceptional vision and the ability to see in low light conditions. This visual acuity has contributed to the owl’s reputation as a symbol of insight and understanding.

  • In Greek mythology, the owl was associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare. Owls were considered to be her sacred animal and were believed to have the ability to reveal the truth to those who seek it.
  • In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, the appearance of an owl is a foreboding omen of death and destruction. The owl’s ability to see in the dark symbolizes the characters’ inability to escape the consequences of their actions.
  • In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the character Albus Dumbledore possesses a pair of half-moon spectacles that resemble the appearance of owl eyes. This alludes to his vast knowledge and wisdom, as well as his ability to see things that others cannot.

In addition to symbolizing wisdom and insight, owl eyes have also been associated with mystery and the unknown. The appearance of mysterious owl eyes watching over characters in literature often foreshadows impending danger or an unexpected event. The owl’s ability to fly silently and move swiftly through the night adds to its ominous reputation.

Whether appearing as a symbol of wisdom, insight, or danger, the significance of owl eyes in literature has been an enduring motif throughout history.

WisdomAssociated with the ability to see the truth and possess knowledge
InsightSuggests an ability to see things others cannot
DangerThe presence of owl eyes may signify impending danger or a foreboding omen

Overall, the significance of owl eyes in literature remains a powerful symbol that has been used to convey a variety of meanings and emotions, ranging from wisdom and insight to fear and foreboding.

The owl as a symbol of the occult

Owls have intrigued us for centuries with their mysterious and enigmatic nature. They are often associated with the occult, a term which refers to hidden or secret knowledge. In literature, the owl serves as a symbol of the occult, representing magic, mystery, and the unknown.

  • The number 9: In occult symbolism, the number nine is of great significance. It is believed to represent the completion of a cycle and the attainment of enlightenment. In many ancient cultures, the owl was associated with the number nine, as it was believed to possess the power of supernatural knowledge.
  • Darkness: The owl’s nocturnal nature makes it an animal of the darkness, and therefore it is often associated with the occult. In literature, the owl has been used to represent darkness, magic, and the mysterious world beyond our understanding.
  • Death: Owls have also been associated with death and the underworld. In some cultures, they are believed to be the messenger of death, while in others, they are seen as the protector of the dead. The owl’s ability to see in the dark and its silent flight make it a perfect symbol of the underworld.

In addition to these specific symbols, the owl is also associated with other aspects of the occult, such as divination, prophecy, and magic. In ancient Greece, the owl was considered to be the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and knowledge. The owl was also associated with the goddess Lilith, who was believed to be the patron of witchcraft and the dark arts.

So, the next time you come across an owl in literature, remember that it is not just a bird. It is a symbol of the occult, representing mystery, magic, and the unknown.

Christian Symbolism of Owls in Literature

Owls have long been associated with wisdom, but in Christian literature, they often symbolize something much darker.

In the Bible, owls are mentioned several times in a negative light. They are often used to symbolize desolation, darkness, and even death. In Isaiah 34:11, owls are mentioned in a list of creatures that will inhabit the desolate kingdom of Edom. In Psalm 102:6-7, the psalmist describes himself as being like an owl in the wilderness, alone and disheartened.

  • In Christian literature, owls often represent:
  • Satan or demonic forces: Because of their association with darkness, owls are sometimes used to symbolize Satan or demonic forces. In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Satan is described as a “black, dreary, gloomy, and vast” owl.
  • Death and decay: Because owls are predators that feed on smaller animals, they can be seen as harbingers of death and decay. In Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth invokes the “owl that shriek’d” as a symbol of death.
  • False prophets or teachers: In the book of Micah, false prophets are described as “blind” and “dumb” owls.

However, it’s important to note that not all references to owls in Christian literature are negative. In some cases, they can represent wisdom, as they do in secular literature.

Overall, the symbolism of owls in Christian literature varies depending on the context and the author’s intent. However, more often than not, they represent the darker aspects of life rather than positive ones.


Isaiah 34:11Psalm 102:6-7John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”Book of Micah

Source: The Bible, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Book of Micah.

What do Owls Symbolize in Literature?

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about the symbolism of owls in literature:

1. What do owls represent in literature?
Owls are commonly associated with wisdom, knowledge, and mysticism in literature. They are often seen as guardians of the afterlife or protectors of secrets.

2. What is the significance of an owl being portrayed as nocturnal?
Since owls are nocturnal creatures, their symbolism in literature is often linked to darkness, mystery, and death.

3. Are owls always portrayed as positive symbols in literature?
Not necessarily. While they are often seen as wise and powerful creatures, they can also represent bad omens or be associated with witchcraft in some stories.

4. What is the origin of the owl as a symbol of wisdom?
The owl became a symbol of wisdom in ancient Greece, where the goddess Athena was often depicted with an owl on her shoulder.

5. In what cultures are owls considered a sacred animal?
Owls are sacred animals in many cultures around the world, including Native American, Hindu, and Egyptian cultures.

6. Why are owls used so frequently in literature?
Owls have a long-standing association with magical and mystical powers, making them popular symbols in literature that explore themes of magic, folklore, and the supernatural.

7. Can you provide examples of famous literary works that use owls as a symbol?
Certainly. Some notable works that feature owls include Shakespeare’s Macbeth, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to learn about the symbolism of owls in literature. As you can see, the significance of this majestic creature stretches across many different cultures and time periods, making it a potent and enduring symbol in the world of storytelling. If you want to learn more about other fascinating literary symbols, be sure to check back here for more articles in the future.