Owl symbolism and meanings include wisdom, intuition, supernatural power, independent thinking, and observant listening. The mysterious owl has been a subject in the myths and folklore of cultures around the world for centuries. After all, owl species exist on every continent except Antarctica, thus most of us are aware of owls. In addition, the owl spirit animal is an important figure to many who feel a kinship with these special birds. In this post, you’ll learn about owl symbolism, the owl in mythology and folklore, owl spiritual meanings, and more.
Table of Contents
- What do owls symbolize?
- Detailed Owl Meanings and Symbols
- Owl Spirit Animal
- Owl Power Animal
- Owl Totem
- Owl Meaning in the Mythology of Ancient Cultures
- Greek Owl Meaning
- Owl Symbolism in Ancient Rome
- Owl Meaning in the Bible
- African Owl Symbolism
- Celtic Owl Meaning
- Native American Owl Meaning
- Owl Dream Meaning
- Owl Tattoo
- Organizations that Protect Owls
What do owls symbolize?
Owls exist for their own purposes. They are not here for us. However, they have much to teach us. Here’s a list of commonly shared owl meanings and symbols in both modern and ancient cultures. You can read more details about these qualities and what they might mean in your life below.
- Independent thinking
- Courage and protection
- Observant listening
- Powerful intuition
- Supernatural powers
Detailed Owl Meanings and Symbols
If you are especially drawn to owls, and their unique traits resonate with you, you are not alone. Owls are unusual in that they possess mysterious abilities that some might even describe as superpowers that are unique in the animal kingdom. Because of their rare traits, owls represent a number of awe-inspiring qualities. Here are some:
The owl is an independent hunter. However, they will roost with other owls not only to mate but to stay warm and learn about good hunting grounds. If the owl spirit animal resonates with you, you are probably a person who enjoys your independence and working on your own. You might even live alone. But you also enjoy the comfort and stimulation of being with others from time to time.
Withstand the mob mentality.
Because owls are such successful birds of prey, other birds feel threatened by them. Thus, birds of other species will group up and attack an owl, which wildlife biologists refer to as mobbing.1
Often the owl will not react to the harassment, however, and they are rarely hurt in these attacks. But sometimes the mobbing will cause the owl to leave an area.
Stay true to yourself and your ideas.
When the owl is your spirit guide, you must remember to stay true to your ideas, even if the crowd is skeptical or downright mean. If the mob makes fun of you, your ideas, or your differences, and treats you like an outcast – don’t let them ruffle your feathers. As Mark Twain once said, “Everyone with an idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” Stay true to yourself.
The owl spirit animal represents the free thinker, the oddball, and the quintessential entrepreneur. Owls see what others do not. They have unusual skills that can cause jealousy in others. Yet, they hold true to their ideas and visions, despite the negativity and harassment from naysayers.
While owls have been described as having superpowers, they are known to not be the best nest builders.2 Yet, perhaps it’s not so much a lack of skill as it is that nest building takes a needless amount of work? After all, why build a nest from scratch when there are so many other existing possibilities?
Owls are known to take the nests that other birds have built. For instance, great horned owls will use vacant nests in trees or on cliffs that were built by hawks, crows, or magpies. Other owls will nest in hollows in trees, which occur naturally or have been drilled out by woodpeckers.
As their name implies, burrowing owls will nest in underground tunnels that have already been dug by ground squirrels, prairie dogs, badgers, or other burrowing animals.
Still other owls nest in human-made structures, such as abandoned buildings or the rafters in barns, hence the name “barn owl.”
Owl Symbolism and Your Home Life
If the owl spirit animal resonates with you, you could be a perpetual Air BnB-er who loves staying in different people’s homes just for the variety. You might not be the type of person to buy a piece of land so you can build your dream house. Why go to all that work when there are so many other beautiful structures that have already been built? Or perhaps you love hotel life and the ease and convenience it provides.
Too much energy in your home?
For some of us, the owl spirit animal selected us to remind us that we are over-investing in our homes. Perhaps we’re putting too much time, money, and energy into our homes at the expense of the rest of our lives. The owl guide reminds us that a vast, wonderful world of relationships and places to explore exists beyond our home.
Symbols of Courage and Protection
While owls are opportunists when it comes to finding a nest, once they are there, they will fiercely protect it while they raise their owlets. Male owls will find and advertise a territory that is theirs. But the female owl will select the actual nesting spot.3 Then together, the owl couple will defend their nest for several months, particularly when they have young owlets to look after.
Owls show tremendous courage when protecting their nests. They will attack other birds of prey, and they are not above attacking people. In the film The Owl Documentary4, an owl is seen dive bombing a wolf fearlessly and repeatedly as it infringes on the owl’s territory. The wolf lunges at the owl, but the owl is not curtailed and attacks again.
Put those near and dear to you first.
The owl spirit guide reminds you to put your family and other close relationships first, above all else. Your children will only be young for so long, and while they are still vulnerable, you must protect them at all costs and from any potential threat.
In addition to healthy family relationships, a close friend is one of the greatest gifts one can hope for in life. The owl spirit guide reminds you to take good care of your close friends.
Reaffirm your boundaries.
If an owl makes him or herself known to you, it could be a sign that you need to reaffirm boundaries, whether social, psychological, spiritual, or physical. This could be a sign that you need to better protect your important relationships, whether they be your nuclear family (including sacred family time), your significant other, or even very close friends. The owl spirit guide reminds us of what quality time with loved ones truly means.
The owl spirit animal also asks you whether you are prioritizing your important relationships. Are you giving enough quality time to your significant other? Have you ensured that life at home is secure and serene? Are you giving enough of yourself? The human world is full of distractions. The owl spirit animal reminds us to get back to basics.
Owl Symbolism: Wisdom
One of the owl’s most extraordinary abilities is their keen eyesight. Their sense of sight is one of the unique qualities that sets them apart from other animals and humans. For instance, a northern hawk owl can see a vole (which is a rodent that’s a relative to lemmings and hamsters) from as far as a half a mile away.5
Like people’s eyes, owls’ eyes face forward in their skulls. This may be one of the reasons we relate to them so much. However, unlike us, in some species of owls, their eyes take up 70 percent of their skulls.6 Our eyes take up just 5 percent of our skulls. This underscores what an important part owls’ eyesight is in term of how they use their brain power. This uncanny eyesight is one of the reasons that owls are symbols of wisdom.
Owls have something else that’s exceptional about their eyesight: They have nocturnal vision. In the dark, owls see objects 2.5 times more brightly than we do. Owls can successfully hunt at night while avoiding obstacles. Undoubtedly, this is why we so often associate owls with the night in art and literature – they are truly nocturnal creatures who can thrive in darkness.
Ability to See 270 Degrees
It cannot be forgotten that in addition to their super-powered gift of sight, owls can see in every direction: Their heads can turn 270 degrees.
Owls have adaptations in their necks that enable their blood vessels to stay open vs. getting cut off when they turn their heads. Furthermore, they have a blood reservoir in their heads that provides blood to the brain when they turn their heads.
Thus, the owl’s almost supernatural eyesight is why they are symbols of wisdom and insight. You can imagine that having this kind of vision and being able to see in nearly every direction gives them a view on life that we can only imagine.
Seeing from All Perspectives
The owl power animal reminds you to see situation from all sides, as there are always multiple points of view on any given topic. A truly evolved and intelligent person is one who has the capacity to view a matter from different perspectives. In addition, having this insight gives a person the ability understand how history impacts the present and could influence the future.
The owl spirit animal also reminds us to tap into your reserves of intelligence, our insights, and the gift of perspective. This is where true wisdom lies.
The owl is an exceptionally skilled hunter. No doubt, this is one of the reasons they have survived all over the world. Except for the threat they face from human activity, owls thrive in their natural habitats. Furthermore, they have adapted to live in a variety of environments.
Another uncanny ability that owls possess is having very vivid memories. This is undoubtedly one of the other reasons they are symbols of wisdom. The owl is able to create a mental map of their territory, which enables them to fly safely and take advantage of the nighttime world, and then find their way home.
This is yet another way that the owl spirit animal serves as a guide, and how owl people have been chosen to guide others. The owl power animal reminds you to hold on to your memories and to share them, in stories, memoirs, or songs.
Your Unique Aptitudes
If the owl has made themselves known to you, he or she may be asking you to explore whether you are tapping into your unique aptitudes. Owls have evolved to be successful all over the world because they use all of their innate gifts to thrive. Human beings also come into this world with a unique combination of aptitudes that sets them apart from others.
You may have better listening skills than others, you may be more empathetic, or you may have a knack for quantitative analysis. The key is to understand your natural abilities and to use them. They are your gifts to the world. (If you’re not sure what your aptitudes are or how they might be used in a professional sense, check out the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, a nonprofit where you can go to get professional, in depth aptitude testing.)
As if having powerful sight isn’t enough, the owl has also been blessed with acute hearing. They can hear before they hatch from their eggs, and they have sharp hearing into adulthood. In fact, an owl can hear prey even when it’s hidden under snow.
A miracle of nature, the owl’s entire head has evolved for listening. In fact, many species of owls have asymmetrical ears.7 Each ear is located at different heights on the owl’s head. This enables the owl to pinpoint the location of sounds from multiple directions. At certain frequencies, owls’ hearing is 10 times more acute than our own.
The All-too Rare Skill of Listening
If the owl spirit has called to you, you have the capacity to be an observant listener. You may have an aptitude for music, languages, or accents. You may also be able to decipher the truth from lies when words flow out of another person’s mouth. The owl spirit animal hears and knows things, even when they cannot be seen. The owl teaches us to look past the surface and to listen for what is actually going on.
Intuition and Supernatural Powers
If the owl is your spirit animal, you may have a mysterious sense of insight that others might describe as psychic. You can see what others do not, and you are aware of that which others are not. You may even have the gift of prophecy. If you have such abilities, it is your purpose and challenge in this lifetime to bring others along with you, to guide them in the darkness so they can see the light.
Seeing Light in the Darkness
With the owl, you also get the gift of hope. The owl can see light where others feel lost in the darkness. After all, this is what a light worker does here on Earth. Your calling is to “show people the light,” to gently help them find their way.
Another of the owl’s special abilities is their flying skills. They are able to take off vertically from a standstill, a skill they use to defend their nests or to quickly get out of harm’s way.
The other aspect to the owl’s unique flying skills is that they’re able to fly silently, generating very little turbulence. The owl has noise-reducing fringes on their wings that enable them to fly with limited air movement.
The owl power animal tells you to move with grace in this world, to avoid causing a commotion, and to protect your privacy. Perhaps you’re being too boisterous or dominating the conversation. Or you may be over-sharing. It may be time to utilize more discretion in your activities.
Learning to Fly
What’s important to keep in mind is that the owl is not born knowing how to fly. They must learn how to fly and they must practice flying. While flying is natural to them, when owlets are learning to fly, they must take a leap of faith from their nest to begin. Then, they get better at flying with practice.
Don’t squander your innate abilities.
With the owl, you are reminded not to squander your gifts. To fully utilize your abilities and reach your maximum potential on the Earthly plane, you must hone our skills. This involves practice. When we look at great artists, musicians, athletes, surgeons, or other successful people, we might think they come upon their success by luck and their natural gifts. Certainly, those qualities play a role. However, dedication to craft, the ritual of practice, and continual improvement is what sets the experts apart from everyone else.
Owl Spirit Animal
Owls are exceptional beings. They possess skills that other animals, including humans, do not. If you are drawn to owls, you are feeling the power of the owl spirit animal.
Your spirit animal serves as a guide, bringing you messages from the Universe to help guide you in this lifetime and in your soul’s journey.
If an owl makes him or herself known to you, whether in real life or through art, the media, or elsewhere – pay attention. There are no coincidences.
What is the spiritual meaning of the owl?
On a spiritual level, the owl can teach you about your purpose in this lifetime, as well as help you to find answers when you seek them. We are all here to learn, and the owl can guide us in understanding which direction to take in a given situation, as well as what we can learn from a given experience.
What does it mean when you see an owl?
If you see an owl, it can have various meanings, depending on what you’re going through in your life at that particular time and what you’re thinking about right before you see one. Sometimes you have to explore a little, even do some research, to unearth answers.
An Owl Who Crossed My Path
I had an experience with an owl when I was hiking with my dog, Roo, very early in the morning near Phoenix Lake on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County in California. As I was hiking, I was thinking about UniGuide and the different directions that I could take with the site. For a time, I had been very focused on veganism and was wondering if I should partner with a vegan chef to expand the collection of recipes on the site. However, I also felt that I needed to have more content that focused on biodiversity and the environment, as well as our spiritual connection to the Earth.
As I was walking and thinking, suddenly a spotted owl flew right in front of me on the trail and then perched on a branch right near me. Both Roo and I were startled because the hike so far had been very quiet. Then, all of a sudden this huge bird with a shockingly wide wingspan flew right in front of us. Yet, he wasn’t afraid because he perched right near us, watching us calmly. I grabbed my phone and took his photo, which you can see here:
I first learned about spotted owls when I moved to California in the late ’80s. I was an environmental studies major in college and was doing a lot of protesting of the logging of old growth redwood forests up in Northern California. These forests are critical habitat for northern spotted owls, who had just been added to the Endangered Species List in 1990.8
Having this rare spotted owl cross my path at that moment told me what I needed to know: Focus on the environmental and biodiversity content. I tell this story to illustrate what seeing an owl at a particular time can mean to you, whether in real life, in a movie, art, or the media. Consider those things you need answers to you in your life at that time and look for insights from the owl’s special traits and meanings.
How do you know if the owl is your spirit animal?
While many of us have not had the opportunity to see an owl in the wild, we can still get to know them through the work of wildlife biologists, filmmakers, artists, and owl protection organizations who can help us understand them better. Only you can truly know if the owl is one of your power animals.
According to Native American tradition, your spirit animals choose you in a profound life experience, through a vision quest, or through a special kinship you have with them.
Owl Power Animal
As the name implies, a power animal can inspire you with their most dynamic traits. So, if you want to transform an area of your life, mediate on the attributes that the power animal represents. Summon the owl power animal when you:
- Need to have your wits about you in a situation or when you need to make a decision and you don’t want to miss any critical details.
- Want to sharpen your intuition and have a stronger connection to your spirit guides.
- Wish to hone your protective instincts and reaffirm boundaries to protect those and that which you love and hold dear.
- Want to be more insightful and intelligent about how you live your life.
The owl totem is a symbol that represents the protective attributes of this unique bird. Thus, the owl totem serves as a helpful symbol for manifesting more wisdom, protection, and intuitive insights in your life. In addition, the owl totem will help you exert more independence in your life and help you to gain the types of insights you get from spending time alone.
Owl Meaning in the Mythology of Ancient Cultures
Owls have had different meanings in various cultures throughout history. There are over 240 species of owl and they exist on every continent on Earth except Antarctica. So, it’s not surprising that these wise beings have made their way into the myths, folklore, and artwork of different cultures throughout the ages.
While owls exist for themselves, they have meaning to us as human beings on multiple levels. They are fellow species with whom we share our existence on this planet, and they have held symbolic meaning to humans around the world for centuries.
Owl meanings and symbolism vary by culture, geography, and period in history. The following are some examples.
Greek Owl Meaning
The Greek Goddess Athena, who was the virgin goddess of wisdom, was always accompanied by a small owl. Even Minerva, who was Athena’s later incarnation in Roman mythology, was accompanied by an owl. This small companion was referred to as the Owl of Athena or the Owl of Minerva. This little owl came to be known as an important messenger for Athena, expanding her wisdom and warning her of changes to come.
Athena was so impressed by the great eyes and solemn appearance of the owl that she banished the mischievous crow and the owl became her favorite bird.
Owl meaning in ancient Greece has carried over to the modern western world, as the owl still symbolizes knowledge and wisdom today.
The Owl as a Symbol of Protection
Historians have found ancient texts that say that owls protected the Acropolis. Indeed, historical artifacts show there were many owls in ancient Athens. The Greeks believed that a magical inner light gave the owl night vision.
The Greeks also say owls as the protectors of warriors when they went into battle. Owls were often seen around battlefields, and the Greeks believe they accompanied their armies to war, helping with motivation and even protecting them from death. In fact, it was considered a good omen if an owl flew over Greek soldiers before a battle.
Owl Symbolism in Ancient Rome
By the time of the Roman Empire, owls were viewed in a more negative light. To the ancient Romans, hearing the hoot of an owl meant that death was imminent. And interestingly, this belief was not unique to the Romans. Over 5,000 miles away in what would become North America, many Native American tribes shared the same belief, associating the owl with death. They believed if the owl called your name, it meant you were going to die.
In fact, legend has is that the death of Julius Caesar, as well as the emperors Augustus and Commodus Aurelius were all predicted by owls.9
Here is a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
“And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday upon the marketplace,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons, they are natural,’
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.”
Owl Meaning in the Bible
Owl meaning in the Bible was not positive either. This view most likely has played a role in why the owl is connected with frightening topics today, including death and scary things on Halloween. But as is the case with so many other things in the Bible, that which was mysterious or misunderstood was often feared.
In the Bible, the owl was seen as unclean and not fit for human consumption. In fact, in the Bible, owl meaning was on par with dragon, bat, and raven symbolism – all of which had negative connotations.10
In the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 34, Verse 13, under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the kingdom of Edom would experience a land filled with dragons, owls, unicorns, vultures, and cormorants – creatures that symbolized desolation and disobedience in the Bible. An interesting side note is that the Egyptian hieroglyph for Edom contains an owl.
Symbols of Loneliness
The owl was also a symbol of loneliness and loss in the Bible. Here’s quote from Psalm 102:6-7:
“I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.”11
African Owl Symbolism
Unfortunately, the owl was not a positive symbol in African folklore either. East Africans believed that owls brought illnesses to children, and thus they associated them with death. Cameroonians also connected the owl to negative emotions, referring to it as “the bird that makes you afraid.”12
Many African cultures associated the owl with sorcery and witchcraft. In the same way that Native Americans saw the eagle and wolf spirit animals, Africans believed that the owl traveled freely between the material and spiritual worlds, bringing messages back and forth.
As with Roman and Native American mythology, in Africa, the hoot of an owl presaged change and something negative to come.
Celtic Owl Meaning
The ancient Celts also applied deep symbolic meanings to the owl. The most positive image of owls in Celtic mythology is their connection to the Goddess in her crone (or old woman) form. The Celts called the barn owl Cauilleach-oidhche gheal, which means “white old woman of the night.” The Cauilleach is the goddess of death. Thus, the Celts viewed the screech of an owl as an omen that someone was about to die.13
There is a Welsh myth in the Mabinogion stories about Blodeuwedd, who was the goddess of betrayal. The Welsh associated Blodeuwedd with an owl. In the story, the magician Gwydion created Blodeuwedd from flowers. The intention is that she would be a gift for Prince Llew Llaw Gyffes.
Unfortunately, Blodeuwedd had an affair with a man named Goronwy. And together, the lovers plotted to kill Prince Llew. When Prince Llew died, he is transformed into an eagle. However, the magician Gwydion stepped in and returned Llew to his human form.
Naturally, Prince Llew wanted revenge (as human so often do.) But instead of killing Blodeuwedd, he ordered Gwydion to turn her into a white owl who would haunt the night in loneliness and sorrow.
“I will not slay thee, but I will do unto thee worse than that. For I will turn thee into a bird; and because of the shame thou hast done unto Llew Llaw Gyffes, thou shalt never show thy face in the light of day henceforth; and that through fear of all other birds. For it shall be their nature to attack thee, and to chase thee from wheresoever they may find thee.”14
Native American Owl Meaning
As they revered nature and so many living beings, the Native Americans also revered the owl. As in other cultures, some Native American tribes believed the cry of an owl was the harbinger of death. They also associated the owl with omens as well as nighttime and nighttime spirits.
A number of tribes seemed to be especially fearful of the horned owl because the feathers that stuck up on the sides of their heads reminded them of horns. Some tribes believed the owl was not even a real bird, but instead was a shapeshifter.
Many tribes believed that medicine men could shape-shift into animals, and commonly an owl. The medicine man would use owl medicine for both negative consequences or for a person’s benefit.15
The Lakota, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Caddo tribes believed that medicine men gained insight from clear dreams at night, thanks to the sharp sight of the owl. Thus, these medicine men wore owl feathers and vowed to never harm an owl.16
The Hopis called the great horned owl “Mongwu.” In Hopi storytelling, Mongwu was the enforcer or lawman – the straight man playing the foil to the comedic Koshari clowns.
So, it appears that every culture has their buffoons. For many Native Americans, their clowns had the serious power of curing diseases.17 Indeed, Western medicine is finally catching up to realize how bad stress is for people and how healthy it is to laugh.
In other legends, Indigenous People viewed birds that were around during the daytime as “bumbling good-for-nothings” who don’t have what it takes to be up at night like the wise owl.
The tribes of the American and Canadian northwest coast have owls carved into their totem poles. And the Creek tribe has dances for both the screech owl and horned owl. Virtually every Native American tribe has owl legends and stories.
Some tribes have owl clans, just as they have bear, crow, fox, wolf, hummingbird, snake, and other animal clans. Various tribes have a number of clans, and they associate each with an animal. Your clan is the clan of your maternal line.
The Hopi tribe has an owl clan, as do the Tlingit and the Mohave tribes.
The Hopis saw the burrowing owl as their god of the dead, the guardian of their fires, and the keeper of all underground things, including the germination of seeds. The Hopi call the burrowing owl Ko’ko, which means “watcher of the dark.” The Hopi also believed that owls helped their peaches to grow.
Owl Meanings to Different Tribes
The Tlingit tribe believed the owl helped them in battle. When warriors went into battle, they hooted like owls to gain confidence and to put fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Members of the Mojave tribe believed they would become an owl after they died, then shortly thereafter, they would transform into a water beetle, before evolving into pure air.
The Kwakiutl tribe believed that the owl was the soul of a human who had passed, and thus they should never be harmed. In fact, they believed that if a person killed an owl, their soul would die.18
In all, many tribes believed that the owl held ancient knowledge and was therefore the carriers of mystical wisdom. Is it a coincidence that the word “knowledge” contains the word “owl”?
The Lenape tribe revered the owl spirit animal. They believed that if you dreamed of an owl, it meant the owl spirit animal was now your guardian and guide.
Owl Dream Meaning
If you dream of an owl, consider the emotions you felt in the dream. Fear and anxiety can mean you have to address a situation that you may be avoiding when you are awake. This can also be the meaning of dreaming about an owl screeching: They are trying to wake up your conscious mind. In other words, it’s wakeup call, meaning that you need to pay closer attention to specific situations in your life and not sweep things under the rug.
Also, feeling emotional in an owl dream can be a sign that you need to use your intellect more to deal with a challenge and find answers instead of reacting emotionally.
Dreaming of a dead owl can mean that change is imminent, as death is a transformation from one state to the next.
Because the owl symbolizes supernatural power, an owl dream can also be a sign that you need to tune into your intuition and instincts more. Give yourself the quiet time for meditation and prayer, so that you can connect your subconscious as well as your super conscious.
An owl tattoo can be a positive symbol that tells the world that you are a freethinker who relies on your own instincts. It can also demonstrate that you seek to understand the deeper mysteries of life and what the spirit world has to teach you. It can also be a sign that you believe in the power of magic. While tattoos are personal to each individual, understanding the historic animal symbolism applied to the owl, and well as the owl spirit animal, can hopefully imbue your tattoo with greater meaning.
Organizations that Protect Owls
Are owls endangered? The answer is, unfortunately, yes. Experts at the UN warn that one million species of owls around the world are on the brink of extinction. While not every owl species is formally endangered, like so many wild animals with whom we share our planet, they still face threats. And unfortunately, we humans are the problem. Habit loss, environmental changes from climate change, and poisons in the environment are all impacting these special birds.
If you care about owls, please do what you can to help them. Here are some organizations that are working to protect owls:
- Audubon Society
- Owl Research Institute
- Burrowing Owl Conservation Network
- Center for Biological Diversity
- Defenders of Wildlife
- World Wildlife Foundation