Keen and unusual birds of prey, with their swiveling heads and piercing eyes, owls are fascinating creatures that have come to be a well-known symbol of heightened perception and intelligence. According to celebrity psychic and mystic Inbaal Honigman, the owl’s meaning is to point you toward your own wisdom, and seeing one is an invitation to tap into your own inner knowledge. “An owl is seen as wise because of the way they look, which makes them appear very observant,” she says.
To this end, many a wise bird has graced pages and screens over the years, often to offer a fount of sage advice to their fellow characters; consider Owl in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, or the wizard Merlin’s sassy assistant Archimedes in Disney’s 1963 animated film The Sword in the Stone, and perhaps most famously Hedwig, Harry Potter’s pet snowy owl. Two major companies associated with learning and expanding your horizons, Duolingo and TripAdvisor, even have an owl as their logos.
One reason humans may associate owls and knowledge is because they, interestingly enough, see themselves in the birds. “They have their eyes facing forward which is sort of human-like so in some ways they look a bit more like humans than other birds do, so it’s thought that people identified with owls a little bit more and thought they were more intelligent,” says David Weidenfeld, PhD, ornithologist and senior conservation scientist at the American Bird Conservancy. “It’s something that’s very embedded in our culture.” In reality, owls aren’t particularly smarter than other birds, according to Dr. Weidenfeld. “But they do have that reputation,” he says.
The cultural meaning and symbolism of an owl
Owls have specific meanings across different cultures. The widespread association of owls with knowledge likely finds its roots with Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of reason, wisdom, and war for whom Athens, the birthplace of Western civilization, was named. Athena’s animal symbol was the owl, and it was said to embody her traits; Athenian coins bore an image of a small owl (Dr. Weidenfeld adds some scientific names of owl species bear the goddess’ name). Owls were also associated with Minerva, the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom, as well.
In other cultures, however, owls weren’t regarded so positively. The same qualities that make owls such skilled hunters, plus the fact that many owls are nocturnal, has built an association between the birds and the other side. Much like black cats and ravens, some cultures regard owls as harbingers of death or messengers from the spirit world. “There’s kind of a duality around the different messages, where the majority is positive and having to do with wisdom, understanding, and intuition, but a little bit of their meaning can be seen as scary because they’re seen as a creature that can go back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead,” explains Honigman.
In Renaissance England, for example, owls were thought to be messengers of death and doom; William Shakespeare repeatedly used owls to signal impending demise in his works. In his tragic play Macbeth, the playwright casts an owl as “the fatal bellman” whose screech signals to Lady Macbeth that her husband has murdered the king. Some version of the tradition of linking owls and death in prose is still alive as Helen Fielding, author of the Bridget Jones series, even used this literary device in her 2013 novel Mad about the Boy: a barn owl flies onto Bridget’s garden fence, which she interprets as her dead husband. “We have seen throughout literature that an owl either at a distance or in flight represents someone you’ve lost or who is just checking in on you,” says Honigman.
Particularly in North American Indigenous cultures, owls have nuanced meanings that garner both respect and fear. Some nations, such as the Lakota Sioux view owls as powerful and wise. Other tribes, such as the Cherokee, believed them to be shapeshifters that could make others do ill.
Honigman posits that the fodder for the darker connotations of owl meanings in some cultures is likely owed to the fact that they’re creatures of the night and such efficient predators. Much like bats, the fact that owls are nocturnal means they’re active when humans are asleep. It’s likely that this association, coupled with the owl’s unusual appearance, helped form the connection between owls and the beyond. “They don’t really look like other animals, and so they’re seen as messengers of spirits because of their very otherworldly look,” she says.
What it means if you spot an owl
As noted above, the owl’s incisive and methodic hunting requires keen insights. So it makes sense that seeing an owl is an invitation to channel this skills for yourself. “The spiritual message of an owl is to use your own intuition and knowledge,” explains Honigman “The owl is wise, so it tells you that you already know the answer and you have to look within.” Considering the duality of the owl’s symbolism, you may not like what you find or may even feel uneasy or frightened with the answer, but she says this is part of the full clarity an owl asks you to tap in to.
If you see an owl flying overhead or lock eyes with it perched in a tree, this message will likely be especially obvious. However, Honigman says even hearing an owl is a call to examine your life and see which realm of it requires your focused introspection. Pay extra attention if you see an owl in flight, which she says “represents the world beyond the living.” And if you just catch a glimpse of a flying owl out of the corner of your eye, Honigman says that could be the embodiment of a loved one “sent to check up on you.”
Take note of the color of the owl you see, too. “White or snowy owls give you a message that all the signs are there if you just open your eyes, whereas an owl that’s a darker shade shows that some things are still in the shadows so you have to do some digging, perhaps through some secrets and lies,” Honigman says.
If your encounter with an owl is somewhere out of the ordinary where you wouldn’t expect to see or hear one, Honigman says that’s a sign that the universe is especially trying to beckon you to pay attention and nudge your intuition awake. The same is true if you repeatedly see owls, like if one takes up residence in a tree in your yard or you keep seeing one perched outside. “If something just happens once, then it may or may not be a message, but if it happens repeatedly or in a way that’s very noticeable then it’s 100 percent a message,” she says. If something feels out of place, it’s worthy of your attention.
What to do if you see an owl
If you encounter an owl, take note of the context of your encounter. If it was more than a passing glance, Honigman advises taking an exacting look at your life to see which areas require your insightful eye’s attention. If you’re not sure where to start, journaling could be helpful to guide your thinking here.
The appearance of owls in your dreams could be a further invitation to really open your eyes, as well. According to Stephanie Gailing, astrologer, dream interpreter and author of The Complete Book of Dreams, seeing an owl in your dreams can be an invitation to use your skills to uncover what’s hidden.
An owl in your dreams can also point toward your subconscious trying to tell you to be confident in your intelligence and intuition. Much like dreaming about snakes, an owl could also be a sign that a new, transformative phase is on your horizon, but that something current has to die first. “Not necessarily literal death,” explains Gailing, “but that a deep ending is being called for something in the dreamer’s life so that a new phase, a deeply transformative experience of regeneration and life renewal, can begin.”