Saturday, May 16, 2020

Owls: Symbols of Wisdom or Harbingers of Death

Those of us who study the ancient world are familiar with Athena's owl and its association with wisdom and vigilance but even in the ancient world owls were not always viewed in such a positive light.  Pliny the Elder tells us Rome had to undergo a lustration, a purification of the entire city normally performed at the conclusion of the taking of the census every five years, because an owl found its way into the Capitolia. Pliny describes the owl as a funereal bird, a monster of the night and the very abomination of human kind.  Virgil describes an owl's death-howl as a precursor to Dido's death and Ovid speaks of the bird's presence as an evil omen.

Surprisingly, the same viewpoint was held by the Aztecs and Maya who considered the owl a symbol of death and destruction.  The Aztec god of death, Mictlantecuhtli, was often depicted with owls.  The Popol Vuh, a Mayan religious text, describes owls as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan "Place of Fright").  Later tribes of Native Americans also believed owls were messengers and represented supernatural forces.  Apache and Seminole people associated owls with the spirits of the dead and the bony circles around an owl's eyes are said to comprise the fingernails of apparitional humans.  The Hopi associated owls with sorcery and the Ojibwe used an owl as a symbol for both evil and death. Pueblo people associated owls with Skeleton Man, the god of death and spirit of fertility. Other tribes, though, had a less dire viewpoint.  Pawnee tribes viewed owls as the symbol of protection from any danger within their realms. Yakama tribes use an owl as a powerful totem, often to guide where and how forests and natural resources are useful with management.

Owl in a Roman mosaic in the Archaelogical Museum of El Jem, Tunisia courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Effi Schweizer

Owl with the inscription from an Attic black-figure amphora, ca 500 BCE at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol

Owl from the Athenian Acropolis 5th century BCE at the Acropolis Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wpopp.

Armed owl Attic red-figure Anthesteria oinochoe, ca 410–390 BCE at the Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen

Owl-shaped protocorinthian aryballos at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol

Large Native American owl shaped mortar from the Columbia Plateau region photographed at the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington.

Native American Stone Owl Effigies from the Columbia River region photographed at the Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale, Washington.

Silver Vessel in the form of an owl found in the silver hoard of Hacienda Mocollope in the Chicama Valley of Peru 14th-15th century CE photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Painting of an owl in the Vienna Dioscoride manuscript dated to 512 CE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Owl-shaped Zun wine vessel Shang Dynasty, 1600 - 1046 BCE courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art
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