Owl Symbolism (Meanings & Interpretations)

It’s probably not a surprise that there is plenty of symbolism surrounding owls. With their large size, big eyes, silent flight and mysterious nocturnal habits, they are a very intriguing creatures. 

You may be surprised to find out what owls are said to symbolize in the spiritual world. In some cultures it’s common for anyone to be fearful after a visit from an owl, owl symbolism is more detailed than what you think it is. For example, owls are known for their infinite wisdom and protection. 

What Does an Owl Symbolize?

We can figure out what owls symbolize based on their appearance and mannerisms. If you have ever seen an owl you may notice their large eyes, expert camouflage, and ability to sit very still while only moving their head, which they can rotate so far on either side it almost is able to make a complete circle.

Their special feathers make their flight nearly silent. Most owls are nocturnal which makes them seem mysterious since they are hard to see or hear during the day.

Their sounds can be anything from soft hoots to loud cackles and screams, which can sound particularly frightening echoing through a dark nighttime forest. 

Here is some of the most common symbolism associated with owls:

  • Truth / Honestly
  • Wisdom and Cunning
  • Courage and Protection
  • Gatekeepers to other realms
  • Clarity
  • Independence

Truth & Honestly

It is often said that you cannot deceive an owl. Perhaps this is because their large eyes seem to see right through you. Owls can be a reminder to stay true to ourselves and what we want for our future.

Don’t let others take you away from the path you know is right for you. They also warn about keeping secrets. Secrets and lies are almost always found out, and we may hurt those around us when the truth is revealed. 

Wisdom & Cunning

Perhaps the origins of owl’s wisdom began with the Greek goddess Athena, known for her wisdom and influence on war, and her owl companion. It may also be their silence and mysterious nature that makes people feel that owls have ancient secrets and knowledge.

Owls can symbolize using your intelligence to unravel problems. To look past the obvious and dig deeper, investigate all avenues before coming to conclusions. Also, to keep an open mind and take in wisdom from all sources. It’s always harder to get to the root of an issue with a narrow-minded view. 

Courage and Protection

As birds of prey, owls are fierce hunters, and also must take care of themselves for much of their life as, outside of breeding, they are quite solitary. Unlike other birds, owls will protect their young for months until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. This involves fending off many would-be predators.

The Greeks looked at owls as protectors, and believed that if an owl was seen flying over a solider or an army that they would have victory as the owl would keep watch over them.  

Gatekeepers to Other Realms

Their association with the nighttime often lead to beliefs that owls were gatekeepers to other realms, especially those associated with the afterlife. Some cultures believed that after death, they would accompany your soul and make sure you didn’t get lost on your way to the afterlife. In this way owls can symbolize messages from those who have passed on, as well as being indicators of psychic and clairvoyant ability. 

Independence 

Owls are known for their independent development. It’s rare to find a group of owls when they’re out hunting for food. They enjoy working on their own a bit too much. 

The only time when you’ll find owls together is when they’re mating or to stay warm. In some cases, they do teach each other about the best hunting grounds. They generally like to keep to themselves, and choose when they want to socialize. 

image: Pixabay.com

What do Owl Dreams Symbolize?

In most cases, it’s important for you to observe the feelings that you had in your dream. Being in tune with your emotions in a dream with an owl helps you to figure out what the overall message of the dream may have been. 

Dreams about owls have been interpreted by many cultures through history. Here are some symbolic meanings to owls in your dreams:

  • A dead or dying owl: a sign that you need to make significant changes in your life to improve your situation. Could be a relationship that needs ending, time to look for a new job, etc. 
  • An owl flying high above you: you may need to adopt a “higher perspective” on an issue currently on your mind. You need to distance yourself and look at the issue more logically than emotionally, or get an outside, unbiased opinion.
  • A screeching owl means that you should open up your subconscious mind. 
  • If you feed an owl: there is something in your life you are learning that would be of benefit to teach others
  • If you are watching an owl eat: you are processing important knowledge, often spiritual, that will help you gain a new perspective in life
  • An owl lands on your shoulder / arm: you have been or should be trusting your intuition, and know that it is guiding you in the right direction
  • An owl lands on your head: you’ve been thinking too much about an issue. Stop overthinking and start taking action
  • A sitting owl means that you should get in touch with your instincts and intuitive abilities more. 
  • An owl is attacking you: you may feel some truth about yourself that you wanted to keep hidden has been exposed. Also, it could represent feeling that things in your life are changing fast and it’s causing you anxiety and stress. 
  • An owl bites your face: you are having trouble with negative thoughts around your appearance and self-worth

Owls may appear in dreams when you are doing “shadow work”. Shadow work is a term used when people dig in deep to their own psyche to unearth and unravel tough emotions like fear, sadness, shame and trauma.

By trying to understand these deeper and darker emotions, trauma can be processed. The owl can symbolize that you are on the right path with your shadow work, or that perhaps there are emotions that you have been pushing down that need to be examined. 

Bottom line is that often dreams of owls in any capacity means there is something in your life that need examining. Time to focus on what is causing anxiety or worry and bring issues to light in order to process and move on. 

Symbolism in Visits or Encounters With Owls

There are many beliefs about what seeing an owl in real life means. Yet, the most common one is that this is a message from the spiritual realm. It’s rare to encounter an owl, which is why when it does happen, people often view it as a sign. 

In certain instances, this can mean that you’re about to go through a lot of changes in your life. And, since owls are independent hunters, it may be a significant message to remind you that you should focus on doing certain things on your own. Also, to stay true to your own vision and trust your instincts. 

For instance, you should consider changing how you’ve been pursuing your goals. This can be a good time for some introspection on how you’ve been involving other people in your plans. To reach your true potential, an encounter with an owl can symbolize that you should look at different ways to go about doing things. 

If you’ve been struggling emotionally it could be a sign that you really need to do deep work on your trauma. Seeking therapy or spending time on shadow work is necessary to work through painful emotions and be able to one day move past them.

Some people also view owl encounters as a sign that you are about to uncover something important about yourself that your subconscious was hiding.

Pay attention to what you are thinking and feeling at this time, as you may be about to have an important realization about the way you’ve been living your life, why you are engaging in certain behaviors, or what you need to do to improve your situation. 

Superstitions about Owls

The fact that you don’t get to see owls during the day is enough reason for it to raise a lot of superstitious belief. Their association with the night, their sometimes spooky appearance with large black eyes and haunting calls have culminated into some rather negative superstitions.

The African Owl has been associated with witchcraft. In many African cultures, owls are known as birds that carry negative energy that makes the young and vulnerable sick. This bird is famously known as a bird that makes you feel fear when you encounter it. 

It’s very common for people to believe that seeing an owl means that death is knocking on your door. These birds have been seen as messengers of death in many parts of the world, as well as escorts to the afterlife. In Native American culture, owl symbolism in death dates back to Apache and Navajo traditions.

There are stories told of owls speaking people’s names who would later turn out to die. In fact, these cultures still believe that if you happen to hear or see an owl, you should make sure that you stay indoors to wait for the upcoming bad news.

Some interesting superstitions include:

  • Eating their eyes can improve your eyesight. 
  • Some cultures believe that they’re protective spirits during wars. 
  • They carry people’s souls and shouldn’t be harmed.
  • They’re associated with witchcraft and that witches can transform themselves into owls
  • It is bad luck to hear an owl hoot three times
  • If an owl is nesting in an abandoned house, it means the house is haunted

Spiritual and Cultural Meanings of Owls

Owls in Christianity

The way that owls are perceived by many people today can be traced back to ancient biblical times. There hasn’t been any scripture that has painted owls a good light. 

The Bible has depicted an owl as an unclean animal that isn’t suitable for anyone to consume it. In Leviticus, Moses commands the Israelites not to consume certain “unclean” animals as food, including crocodiles, bats, ravens and owls. These are all the creatures that have been known to be symbols of disobedience and desolation throughout many Bible stories. 

Owls are also spoken about in the Bible in terms of loneliness, barrenness and desolation. This was seen when describing the desert lands and abandoned ruins of Egypt and the Holy Land, where owls were known to dwell. It was a powerful image to these early people’s, to see the animals that were living amongst ruins and abandoned lands.

Native American Owl Symbolism 

Native American cultures respect animal spirits and honor them despite what bad omens they carry with them. This can be seen with owl symbolism in their cultures. Most often, owls were viewed as symbols of death amongst Native American tribes.

They were thought to commune with the dead and carry messages from the grave, or deliver warnings to those who broke tribal law. In Aztec and Mayan religions, owls were often depicted as companions to the gods of death.

Hearing an owl hooting at night was often considered an unlucky omen. They were also used scare children and keep them from wandering at night, with stories that said if you didn’t stay inside at night and stay quiet, an owl would come and carry you away.

Some Native American cultures believed that owls are shape-shifting spirits. In addition, they believed that owls were witches and medicine men who had transformed into the night. 

But not all viewed owls as frightening. The Hopi tribe used a burrowing owl as one of their clan animals, and viewed the great horned owl as a “humorless lawman”. The Dakota Hidatsa thought burrowing owls were protective spirits for their warriors. Some tribes viewed the owl as a threatening good-for-nothing that was banished to only come out at night as punishment for being lazy or annoying. 

Owls in Greek Mythology 

The goddess of wisdom, Athena, was so impressed by the characteristics of an owl that she banished her crow companion for one. This is thought to be the origin of owl symbolism associated with wisdom and knowledge. In fact, there are texts that speak of how an owl was a great protector of the Acropolis in Ancient Greece. 

Additionally, Greeks believed that the owl presence was a protective guide when they went to war. And, that owls even gave them motivation before any great battle. The Greeks had a lot of faith in owls and what they represented for them because of how the goddess Athena cherished her owl companion. 

Owls in English Folklore

Much is written about the barn owl from 18th and 19th century England. Poets of the time often used owls as “birds of doom”, and during this period of an ill person heard an owl screech as it was flying by their window, it was taken as an omen that they would surely die. 

In earlier centuries, owl eggs were used in medicinal treatments. Raw eggs were used to treat alcoholism and eggs cooked into ash were used in potions for improving eyesight. Owl broth was used in soups to treat children with whooping-cough. 

Sometimes owls were even viewed as predictors of weather. A screeching owl foretold of an oncoming storm or drop in temperature. But if the owl was heard calling during bad weather, that mean the forecast would soon change for the better. 

Owl Spirit Animal and Totems 

Owl Spirit Animal

The owl as a spirit animal has strong symbolism tied to clarity and being observant. When the owl sits on a tree limb to observe its surroundings, it sees all with those careful eyes.

The owl spirit animal can help you to slow down and observe, both literally and intuitively, to find the things that have been eluding you. As previously mentioned, shadow work is tied with owls, digging inside yourself to see the places you are stuck, unpack and work through those blockages to emerge with a new perspective. The owl encourages you to see past the surface of situations, through to the heart of the matter. 

Owls also have amazing hearing. Their ears do not line up perfectly horizontally like ours, but are slightly skewed. This gives them the ability to pinpoint the source of even the smallest sounds.

When calling on the owl spirit animal you can ask it to help you hear more clearly, to really listen to those around you, and to the thoughts in your own mind, to cut through the noise to the important core message. 

Owl Totem Animal

The owl totem is tied strongly to spirituality within, clairvoyance and intuition. The owl totem can guide you through confusion, and teach you to tap into your gut feelings. Have trust in your inner voice and “spiritual radar” about people and situations in your life. 

Owl Tattoo Symbolism 

Contrary to other owl symbolism regarding bad luck and death omens, an owl tattoo usually means something entirely different in today’s culture. Some of the most common meanings of owl tattoos are:

  • Carefree and Independent Spirit
  • Independent Thinker
  • Following Intuition
  • Spiritually Open Minded
  • Wisdom
  • Magic and Ancient Knowledge
  • Symbol of an important life transition
  • A light shining through darkness
Owl sleeping in tree hallow

Are Owls Bad Luck?

Owls do have a long history of being considered bad luck or bad omens. From their association with witches to the souls of the dead, people have long been frightened of them and their meaning. From the Bible to many Native American tails, they often had a bad reputation. 

However like many creatures, the opposite was true in some cultures. Some Native American looked at owls as lazy or logical creatures of no particular significance. While other tribes or the ancient Greeks saw wisdom and a protective spirit in the owl. 

In today’s society some superstitions may remain, but in terms of “bad luck” owls are really only looked at as spooky creatures associated with Halloween. I think most people today would just as easily associate them with an intelligent, wise spirit, and enjoy their presence and beautiful and fascinating birds.  

Conclusion

Owls have a long history as birds to be feared that dwell in the darkness and bring bad luck with them. However you can just as easily find historical symbolism of their wisdom and protective nature.

Whichever way you slice it, they are powerful birds surrounding in much mystery and fascination. Owls remind us to look beneath the surface to the root, seek truth through spiritual investigation, and to trust our own powerful intuition.

Whether you’re getting an owl tattoo or trying to decipher a dream about them, it doesn’t hurt to read up and get a clearer understanding. 

About Mary Richardson

Mary is an outdoor enthusiast, nature lover, and amateur birdwatcher that enjoys sharing her knowledge and experiences with others.