If A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories taught us nothing else, it’s that owls are wise, knowledgeable creatures who generally mean well, even if they tend toward pedantry at times. Right? Well… maybe not. We might often think of owls as wise, but whether or not they are wise is a different story entirely.
What’s more, the association between owls and wisdom has existed since long before Milne dreamed up the Hundred Acre Wood. If you’ve ever wondered exactly where the belief that owls are wise originated, a few different possibilities exist, none of which has been definitively proven. We do, however, know that it goes back a long, long way—longer than you might think.
Here’s how it may have all gotten started.
A Mythological Origin Story
One of the most frequently cited explanations for why we think of owls as wise dates back to antiquity: In ancient Greece, the goddess Athena was often depicted in visual representations with an owl nearby, or sometimes even as an owl or with owl-like features herself. Specifically, her avian symbol was that of a little owl, also fittingly known as Athene noctua.
According to W. Geoffrey Arnott’s book Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z, the little owl lived in great numbers around the Acropolis of Athens, of which Athena was a protector and patron. Accordingly, the connection between Athens and the little owl may have led to a line being drawn between the little owl and Athena herself. What’s more, Athene counted among her titles the goddess of wisdom—so here, again, we see more lines drawn and more dots connected: If Athena values wisdom, and she is often seen with an owl in her presence, then owls must be wise themselves.
Athena’s Roman counterpart, Minerva, also served as the goddess of wisdom and similarly claimed the owl as one of her symbols. However, the owl also played several other roles in Roman mythology, many of which may also be associated with wisdom. For example, in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem telling the story of the Trojan Aeneas’ journey to Rome, owls have prophetic abilities—that is, they know the future. Specifically, Dido’s death in Book IV is foretold by the hoot of an owl:
“Thence she heard, it seemed, sounds and speech as of her husband calling, whenever darkling night held the world,” reads the passage, “and alone on the housetops with ill-boding song the owl would oft complain, drawing out its lingering notes into a wail; and likewise many a saying of the seers of old terrifies her with fearful boding.”
However, according to some sources, the reason behind owls’ association with wisdom might be much more straightforward. It may simply be because we associate large eyes with human-like qualities of wisdom or intelligence—nothing more.
The Owls Are Not What They Seem
Despite owls’ longstanding reputation for wisdom and knowledge, however, the reality is that owls aren’t that smart, as far as birds go.
Research has found that they tend to fail simple cognitive tests that many other birds—including those who have similarly-sized brains—don’t have trouble with. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology in 2013 tested 12 great grey owls (strix nebulosa) on means-end comprehension using a string-pulling task. Owls were presented with boxes holding strings which, when pulled, would release bait for the owls to eat; the test was whether the owls could figure out that pulling the string led to access to the bait. While in previous studies birds like crows, small parrots, and finches had passed this test with flying colors, the owls failed to do so, showing that they didn’t understand “the function of the strings and the physical causality involved (i.e., the physical connection between string and bait”) as the researchers put it.
This isn’t to say that all owls are idiots; many species display a lot of smart behaviors, especially when it comes to hunting and food. Little owls, for example—the same variety so often associated with Athena—make holes in which to store excess food for safekeeping if they have more than they need at any given time. Furthermore, a study published in the journal Nature in 2004 found that burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) display evidence of tool use. As a great predator of dung beetles, burrowing owls will collect mammalian dung and use it to lure or attract dung beetles so they can more easily hunt them.
Overall, though, owls generally don’t live up to their reputation for wisdom or intelligence. Some myths are just that—myths.
Other Perceptions of Owls Around the World
It’s also worth noting that owls aren’t universally considered wise. Sometimes, they’re viewed quite differently, depending on who you ask.
The flip side of owls being associated with prophetic wisdom in ancient Rome, for instance, has to do with the fact that so many of those prophecies involved death—so many that the bird might be seen less as prophetic and more as a harbinger. In addition to Dido’s death as described in the Aeneid, the deaths of Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus, and Agrippa are also all said to have been heralded by an owl’s hoot. Other Roman beliefs included the sight of an owl predicting an imminent military defeat and a dream of an owl foretelling a shipwreck.
In Celtic lore, owls are often associated with the supernatural, misfortune, and death. As Shanon Sinn notes at the Living Library, one Welsh origin story for the owl tells of a woman made from flowers who is cursed as a punishment for attempting to murder her husband. According to the terms of the curse, she is turned into an owl, with her name—Blodeuwedd—forever being associated with this most hated of birds. The owl may also represent Gwyn ab Nudd, the wrathful King of the Faeries, according to Sinn; it may carry messages between the dead and the living, and it may—as in Rome—signify an approaching death.
Meanwhile, according to Hindu beliefs, owls may be either auspicious or inauspicious, depending on their context. The owl is commonly cited as the vehicle of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and fortune; as such, owls may denote “wisdom in using wealth,” as Nikita Banerjee put it in the Times of India in 2016. However, owls have also been associated with Lakshmi’s sister, Nirrti, or Alaskhmi, goddess of calamity and destruction: In the Taittiriya Samhita, they’re described as one of the sacrifices made to Nirrti. Nikita Banerjee further noted in the Times of India that Lakshmi’s owl might sometimes be Nirrti herself accompanying Lakshmi on her travels; in this case, the owl represents “caution or [a] warning to use wealth intelligently, else all will be lost.”
And those represent just a few of the many, many stories about owls around the world—all of which depict owls slightly differently. To some, they’re wise; to others, they’re foolish. Some consider them good omens, while others view them as omens of ill fortune. As is the case with so many things, owls can represent anything we want them to. What do they mean to you?