Owl Symbolism

Symbolism of Owl in Literature

Owl is one of the birds that has held significant importance in many cultures. Owls are one of the very few birds that are unique. As these birds are creatures of the night, also called nocturnal birds of prey, they are tied to supernatural symbols as well as omens. There might be nearly 200 species of these birds. Except in the continent of Antarctica, these solitary birds of prey are found across all continents and hold important meanings in both ancient and modern cultures. Owls are also used as figures of speech and quotes. The word owl might have been derived from the Old Norse ‘ugla’ and Latin ‘ulula’. These fascinating birds are even believed to possess supernatural powers. Below are a few symbolism and meanings of an owl.


Owls, as a symbol of courage, are prominent in literature as well as cultures across the world. While they are solitary creatures. The owlets stay in the nest with the mother for several months. So, they do fiercely protect their young ones. Owls are called power animal and are also regarded as a teacher who teaches courage.  The owl is a symbol of courage and bravery in Dakota Hidatsa, a Native American type. Also, the burrowing owl was regarded as a guarding spirit for the warriors. With their courage and power, owls also stand as a symbol of the doorway to another dimension.


Throughout literature, the owl has been used as a symbolism for wisdom. It also means a person doesn’t have to be clever but has a good intuition that keeps him or her from making any wrong decision. With exceptional eyesight, owls have been considered wise since the middle ages According to Egyptian culture, owls are considered wise and often were believed to be great advisers. Also, in ancient Greek mythology, Goddess Athena is associated with owls for their looks and wisdom. The owl is also an emblem of the goddess. In Roman culture and Native American culture, owls are symbols of both wisdom and divination for major events. Chinese culture and the isle of Sulawesi, Indonesia, also symbolize owls as an usher for wisdom along with assistance in education and guidance to their new journey.


Dreams and wisdom are reconnected when considering owls as symbols. Thus owls as a symbol of dreams mean that you might make wise decisions or meet wise friends or a group. In ancient Roman culture, dreaming of owls means an encounter with a witch or a warning against witchcraft. Dreaming of owls, especially a single owl, are also symbols of warning signs against someone trying to harm the dreamer or his/her loved ones.  If one sees a group of owls, it can symbolize a group of friends looking out for the person and offering good advice. The black owl represents awakening in dreams and in real life. Seeing a barn owl in your dreams symbolizes improvement in finances. A snowy owl in a dream means experiencing peace and happiness in life. If one dreams of an owl hooting, it is a sign of bad news in the near future. Killing an owl in a dream means the person is trying to get out of a problem or making their current problem worse.


A white owl is a symbol of change or transformation in most cultures, along with wisdom. The change or transition is natural but mostly attributed to supernatural things such as witchcraft. One of the Roman superstitions is that the owl consumes babies’ blood, and witches can change into owls. According to the Innuits, a short-eared owl was once a young girl who was changed magically into a bird. In old English or Anglo-Saxon culture, a screeching owl symbolized changes in the weather, such as storms or cold weather. Seeing snowy owls mean a change in place or situation.

Good Luck and Bad Luck

The ancient Chinese culture considers an owl as a powerful symbol of prosperity in wealth. In Feng Shui, the owl represents a source of good luck as well as wisdom that can protect its believers. Hence its symbol is used to avert bad luck. In Japan, the word ‘Fukuro’ means an owl. It is usually written as a warding spell or protection and to bring some good luck, especially while owl. Owls also symbolize bad luck, especially when one sees them during the day. It means a soon-happening tragedy or a warning. According to the Native Americans, the owls are shapeshifters or spirits of the dead people, which can bring bad luck if seen. Seeing twin owls or owning figurines of twin owls is believed to bring good luck. Hindus also consider owls as symbols of good luck.

Owl Hoot

Owl’s hoot as a symbol is also interconnected with luck, both good and bad. The Cherokees, a Native American tribe, believe hearing owl hoot at night can bring extremely bad luck. While in the other tribes, including Arabians and Romans, considered owl hooting as a warning, a bad omen, or hearing a piece of bad news. Owls’ hoot also represents warning the listeners of the presence of danger.


Owls, as a symbol of endurance, are mostly represented by white owls or snowy owls. The white or snowy owls are considered a power source to overcome obstacles.  Thus seeing them in their dreams could mean a sign to achieve dreams or new openings.


Owl also symbolizes death in every ancient culture and folklore that believes or mentions witches and warlocks. During the middle ages, hearing owl hoots meant death, especially when heard in dark and near unholy places such as graveyards. Ancient Egyptian and Mayan cultures also kept owl amulets or totems to protect their loved ones. In Roman culture, seeing owls were believed as imminent death or even suffering the loss in wars.

Examples of Owl as Symbolism in Literature

Example #1

The legend of the wise old owl nursery rhyme

A Wise Old Owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?

This nursery rhyme was written in 1875 and has different variations. However, here the owl stands as a symbol of wisdom, encouraging people to hear more and speak less, thus being wise.

Example #2

Owl Song by Margaret Atwood

i am the heart of a murdered woman
who took the wrong way home
who was strangled in a vacant lot and not buried
who was shot with care beneath a tree
who was mutilated by a crisp knife.
There are many of us.
I grew feathers and tore my way out of her;
I am shaped like a feathered heart.
My mouth is a chisel, my hands
the crimes done by hands.

In the example, the owl represents endurance and change the speaker has been through near-death experiences or perhaps had died.

Example #3

Burrowing Owl BY Stanley Vestal

Ghost of the praire, perched on the open grave
Where he was hatched, and nests, and dies at last;
Droll puff of feathers without body born;
An empty target, shedding plumes, not blood,
And curtseying when a bullet passes near.

Here the owl is a symbol of death and bad luck, as the poet is passing through the grave or escaping an attack by an enemy in the midst of a war.

Example #4

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured, or well-bred is merely a popinjay. And this too remember; a serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl.”

Here the author points out the nocturnal nature of an owl and also compares a writer to an owl the same. The above example also quotes an owl as a symbol of endurance.

Example #5

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

(Act 3 Scene 2 Lines 49-53)

Light thickens, and the crow Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day being to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.

In the above example, the owl symbolizes death and a bad omen. Here, the hooting of the owl is a sign of King Duncan’s death, and Lady Macbeth realizes that Macbeth has killed the king.