Owls symbolism and meaning exist in the cultures of people all around the world as these special birds can be found on every continent except Antarctica. Thus, owls have made their way into the myths, folklore, and artwork of different cultures throughout the ages. In addition, the owl spirit animal is an important totem to many people.
Owls exist for their own purposes. They are not here for us. However, they have much to teach us.
In this post, you’ll find a comprehensive guide to owl meanings and symbolism, as well as the owl spirit animal. To go to a specific section in this post, just click on the jump links in the table of contents.
Table of Contents
What do owls symbolize?
Here’s a list of common owl meanings and symbols in both ancient and modern cultures around the world. You can read more details about these below.
Courage and Protection
Insight and Wisdom
Owl Spirit Animal
Owls are exceptional birds. Indeed, they are exceptional beings. They possess special powers that other birds and 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 on your human life path and in your soul’s journey.
According to Native American traditions, you don’t necessarily choose your spirit animals. Rather, they choose you. 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 seek them. We are all here to learn, and the owl can guide you in understanding which direction to take in a given situation, as well as what you can learn from the experience.
What does it mean when you see an owl?
If you see an owl, it can mean different things, 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 environmental content. At heart, UniGuide is an environmental blog, and veganism is an important aspect of being an environmentalist.
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 wing span flew right in front of my face. 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, and they had just been added to the Endangered Species List in 1990.
Having this rare spotted owl cross my path at that moment told me what I needed to know: focus on the environmental content. I tell this story to illustrate that what seeing an owl at a particular time can mean to you, whether in real life, in a movie, art, or the media, is very personal, and worth exploring.
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.
If you are wondering if the owl is your spirit animal, consider the questions below. As you read this post, you’ll learn more about owls, so it will become more clear to you. If you already know, you may learn some new things about owls that will help guide you on your life path. There is always more we can learn from these wise beings.
Questions to consider:
- Were you especially interested in owls as child?
- Has an owl somehow made himself or herself known to you, whether by crossing your path in real life, or in art or the media, in a way that riveted your attention?
- Do you feel a strong connection to owls, and do you experience a feeling of wonder when you see them or hear about them?
- Has an owl or owls entered your dreams?
- Do you tend to be awake at night, either up later than most people or up much earlier in morning, when most people are asleep? In other words, are you a night owl?
- Are there stories, books, or movies that involved an owl or owls that had a strong impact on you and stayed with you?
- Are you intuitive? Have friends or family ever called you insightful or even psychic?
- Do people often come to you for advice, such as how to make the next move in their life or what they should do in a given situation?
- Are you the type of person who is quiet unless you have something important to say, as opposed to the types of people who like to chatter and make small talk?
Only you can truly know if the owl is one of your power animals. You may be a person who has never even thought of owls, but then one suddenly crosses your path and has a powerful effect on you. Animals can also be subtle. It’s up to us to fine tune our senses and pay attention to what they have to teach us.
Detailed Owl Meanings and Symbols
If you are especially drawn to owls, and their unique traits resonate with you, then it’s worth understanding them better. Owls are unusual birds, possessing special powers that some might even describe as super powers, which other birds, animals, and humans lack. Here are some of those unique traits:
Owls hunt independently, but 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 may even live alone, but you still enjoy the comfort and stimulation of being with others from time to time.
Withstanding the Mob
Because owls are such successful birds of prey, other birds feel threatened by them. Thus, other birds, even of different species, will group up and attack an owl, which wildlife biologists refer to as mobbing.
Often the owl will not react to the harassment, and owls are rarely hurt in these attacks. Sometimes the mobbing will cause the owl to leave an area, but that’s usually the extent of it.
Stay true to yourself and your ideas.
If the owl is one of your sacred power animals, remember to stay true to your ideas, even if the crowd is skeptical or downright mean. Even if the mob makes fun of you, your ideas, and your differences, treating 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 things that others do not. They have special powers that other birds lack, which causes jealousy. Yet, they hold true to their ideas and visions, despite the negativity and harassment from naysayers.
While owls have been described as having super powers, they are not the best nest builders, according to the Owl Research Institute. 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. Great horned owls will use vacant nests in trees or on cliffs that were built by hawks, crows, magpies, or other birds. Other owls will nest in hollows in trees, which may 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
If the owl spirit animal resonates with you, you may be a perpetual Air BnB-er who loves staying in different people’s homes just for the variety. You may 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.
For some of us, the owl spirit animal may have 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 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. According to the Owl Research Institute, male owls will find and advertise a territory that is theirs. But the female owl will select the actual nesting spot. 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 Documentary, 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 animal 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. Take good care of your close friends.
Reaffirm your boundaries.
If an owl makes him or herself known to you, it may be a sign that you need to reaffirm boundaries, whether social, psychological, spiritual, or physical, in order to protect your important relationships, whether they be your nuclear family (and protecting sacred family time), your significant other, or even very close friends. The owl 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 reminds us to get back to basics.
Owl Meaning: Insight and Wisdom
One of the owl’s most extraordinary gifts is their keen eyesight. Their powerful sense of sight is one of the unique qualities that sets them apart from other birds, animals, and humans. According to the Audubon Society, 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.
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. Our eyes take up just 5 percent of our skulls. This underscores what an important part owls’ keen eyesight is in term of how their brain power is used.
These unique birds have something else that’s exceptional about their eyesight: They can see in the dark. This sets them apart from other birds of prey. In the dark, owls see things 2.5 times more brightly than we can. Owls can successfully hunt at night while avoiding obstacles. Undoubtedly, this is why they’re so often associated with the night in art and literature – they are truly nocturnal creatures.
Ability to See 270 Degrees
It cannot be forgotten that in addition to their super-powered gift of sight, owls can also see in every direction: Their heads can turn 270 degrees.
Owls have special 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.
Seeing Things from All Perspectives
The owl power animal reminds you to see things from all sides, as there are always multiple points of view on any given topic. A truly evolved and intelligent being is able to view a matter from different perspectives. In addition, having this insight gives you the ability understand how history impacts the present and will influence the future. After all, the past, present, and future is happening at once. The owl spirit animal also reminds you to tap into your reserves of intelligence, your insights, and the gift of perspective.
As birds of prey, owls are exceptionally skilled hunters. No doubt, this is one of the reasons they are found 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 powerful memories. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons they are considered to be so wise. 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, 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.
What are your unique powers?
If the owl is resonating with 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 other people.
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, owls have also been blessed with acute hearing. They can hear before they hatched from their eggs, and they have sharp hearing into adulthood. 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. According to the Audubon Society, many species of owls have asymmetrical ears. 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 powerful than our hearing.
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 people’s mouths. The owl spirit 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 keen sense of insight that might be described as psychic. You can see things that others do not, and you are aware of things that others are not. You may even have the gift of prophecy. If you have such gifts, 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.
With the owl, you also get the gift of hope. The owl can see light where others only feel lost in the darkness. After all, this is what a lightworker does here on Earth. Your challenge is to “show people the light,” to gently help them find their way.
Another of the owl’s super-powers is their special flying skills. They are able to take off vertically from a standstill, a skill they use to defend their nests from other birds of prey 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 special 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 owls are 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.
With the owl, you are reminded not to squander your gifts. To fully utilize our gifts and reach our maximum potential on the Earthly plane, we must hone our skills. This involves practice. When we look at great artists, learned people, musicians, athletes, surgeons, or other successful people, we might think they come upon their success by luck and their natural gifts. Certainly, those two things play a role, but a dedication to craft, the ritual of practice, and continual improvement is what sets them apart.
Owl Symbolism and Meaning in Ancient Cultures
Owls have meant different things to different cultures throughout history. There are over 240 species of owls, and they exist on every continent on Earth except Antarctica. So, it’s not surprising that these special beings have made their way into the myths, folklore, and artwork of different cultures throughout the ages.
While owls exist of their own accord, 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. The small companions owls were referred to as the Owl of Athena and the Owl of Minerva.
Owl meaning in ancient Greece has carried over to the modern western world, as owls symbolize knowledge and wisdom to modern humans.
In fact, 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.
Owls as Protectors
It’s written that owls protected the Acropolis, and indeed, history shows there were many owls in ancient Athens. The Greeks believed that a magical inner light gave owls night vision.
Owls also protected Greek warriors when they went into battle. The owl was considered a protector who accompanied Greek armies to war, helping with motivations. 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.
The deaths of Julius Caesar and the emperors Augustus and Commodus Aurelius were all predicted by owls.
Here is a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
“And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noonday upon the market-place,
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. This view most likely has played a role in why owls are associated with scary things today, like Halloween. But as is the case with so many other things in the Bible, that which was misunderstood was often feared.
In the Bible, owls were seen as unclean and not fit for human consumption. According to Emmanuel Isaiah Smith, founder of EIS Media Group and the Bible Discourses Collection, in the Bible, owls are compared to dragons, bats, and ravens.
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 all symbolized desolation and disobedience in the Bible. An interesting side note is that the Egyptian hieroglyph for Edom contains an owl.
Symbols of Loneliness
Owls were also symbols of great loneliness and loss in the Bible. Here is 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.”
African Owl Symbolism
Unfortunately, owls were not positive symbols in African folklore either. East Africans believed that owls brought illnesses to children. Cameroonians referred to the owl as “the bird that makes you afraid.”
Owls were also associated with sorcery and witchcraft in a number of African cultures. In the same way that Native Americans saw wolves, Africans believed that owls traveled freely between the material and spiritual worlds.
As with Roman and Native American mythology, in Africa, the hoot of an owl presaged something negative to come.
Celtic Owl Meaning
The owl symbolized some strange things to the ancient Celts. The most positive image of the owl in Celtic mythology is of it being sacred to the Goddess in her crone (or old woman) form. Barn owls are called Cauilleach-oidhche gheal, which means “white old woman of the night.” The Cauilleach is the goddess of death. Thus, the screech of an owl, also in Celtic mythology, was an omen that someone was about to die.
There is a Welsh myth in the Mabinogion stories about Blodeuwedd, who was the goddess of betrayal. Blodeuwedd is always associated with an owl. In the story, the magician Gwydion creates Blodeuwedd from flowers. The intention is that she will be a gift for Prince Llew Llaw Gyffes.
Unfortunately, Blodeuwedd has an affair with a man named Goronwy. Together, the lovers plot and kill Prince Llew. When Prince Llew dies, he is transformed into an eagle. However, the magician Gwydion steps in and returns Llew to his human form.
Now Prince Llew wants revenge (as human so often do.) But instead of killing Blodeuwedd, he orders Gwydion to turn her into a white owl who will 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.”
Native American Owl Meaning
As they revered nature and so many living beings, the Native Americans also revered the owl. It’s true that like so many other cultures around the world, some Native American tribes believed the cry of an owl was the harbinger of death. Owls were also associated with the nighttime and nighttime spirits.
A number of tribes seemed to be especially fearful of horned owls – those with the feathers that stuck up on the sides of their heads like horns. Some tribes believed owls were never real birds at all, but instead were shape-shifters.
However, not every view was negative. Many tribes believed that medicine men could shape-shift into animals, and commonly an owl. Owl spirit animal medicine could be used for negative consequences or for a person’s benefit.
The Lakota, Cherokee, Blackfoot, and Caddo tribes believed that medicine men gained insight from clear dreams at night, thanks to the powerful sight of the owl. Thus, these medicine men wore owl feathers and vowed to never harm an owl.
The Importance of Laughter
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. Indeed, Western medicine is finally catching up to realize how bad stress is for people and how healthy it is to laugh.
In other Native American legends, birds that were around during the daytime were considered “bumbling good-for-nothings” who don’t have what it takes to be up at night like the 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 screech owls and horned owls. Virtually every Native American tribe has owls in their legends and stories.
Certain Native American tribes have owl clans, just as they have bear, crow, fox, wolf, hummingbird, snake, and other animal clans. Native American tribes are comprised of different clans, and each clan is associated with an animal. Your clan is the clan of your mother, not your father.
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, as well as the guardian of their fires, and the keeper of all underground things, including the germination of seeds. The Hopi call burrowing owls Ko’ko, which means “watcher of the dark.” The Hopi also believed that great horned owls helped their peaches to grow.
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 owls were the souls of people who have passed, and thus they should not be harmed. If an owl was killed, it would mean that the person to whom the soul belonged would also die.
In all, many Native American tribes believed that owls held ancient knowledge and were therefore the carriers of mystical wisdom. Is it a coincidence that the word “owl” is contained in the word “knowledge”?
Owl Dream Meaning
The Lenape tribe revered the owl spirit animal. They believed that if one dreamed of an owl, it meant the owl spirit animal was now their guardian and guide.
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 in awake, while in your conscious mind. It can mean the same thing as when you hear an owl screeching in your dream. This can be a wakeup call, meaning that you need to pay closer attention to specific situations in your life, and not just assume everything is going fine.
Also, feeling emotional in a dream as you dream of an owl 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 owls are symbolic of supernatural powers, dreaming of an owl can also be a sign that you need to tune into your intuition and instincts more.
Are Owls Endangered?
Experts at the UN have warned us that one million species around the world are on the brink of extinction. While not every owl species is considered formally endangered, like so many wild animals with whom we share our planet, owls are threatened because of human activity.
Owl that are currently on the Endangered Species List include:
Seychelles scops owl – Otus magicus (=insularis) insularis
Anjouan scops owl – Otus rutilus capnodes
Giant scops owl – Mimizuku (=Otus) gurneyi
Northern spotted owl – Strix occidentalis caurina
Mexican spotted owl – Strix occidentalis lucida
Madagascar red owl – Tyto soumagnei
In addition to the owl species listed above, according to the World Atlas, these are the other species of owls that are at-risk of becoming extinct:
Moheli scops owl – Otus moheliensis
Karthala scops owl – Otus pauliani
Pernambuco pygmy owl – Glaucidium mooreorum
Siau scops owl – Otus siaoensis
Forest owlet – Heteroglaux blewitti
Blakiston’s fish owl – Ketupa blakistoni
Biak scops owl – Otus beccarii
Congo bay owl – Phodilus prigoginei
Sokoke scops owl – Otus ireneae
Serendib scops owl – Otus thilohoffmanni
Long-whiskered owlet – Xenoglaux loweryi
Taliabu masked owl – Tyto nigrobrunnea
Organizations that Protect Owls
If you care about owls, please support organizations that are working to protect them. Here are a few: