The Ultimate Guide to Owl Symbolism & Meaning

Inside: Owl symbolism and meaning are revealed from the perspective of cultures, religious groups, specific encounters such as dreams and tattoos, and based on the color and species of owl.

The owl has been a powerful symbol throughout time and culture, appearing in stories and mythology since the beginning of recorded history. 

Owls carry a lot of spiritual and mythic weight on their shoulders. They are a fascinating bird of prey species, with large eyes that peer into history and seek out your answers. Their meaning changes depending on the culture, from knowledge and wisdom to being symbols of death and transition. 

Owls Symbolism  

Owls can mean a host of different things depending on the context of the situation.

Dreams 

In general, the presence of an owl in your dreams is a sign of knowledge or wisdom. If they’re flying, you’ve likely missed an important message in your waking hours. An owl may be a loved one who’s passed on but returns as a messenger or spirit animal. 

The actual depth of the dream interpretation will come from what kind of owl you see and what it is doing. So many people and histories consider the owl a sign of magic, astral projection, wisdom, and divination. 

Tattoo

owl tattoo symbol being applied to a man's arm
Owl tattoo. Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

In many cultures, an owl represents a soon-to-come change or transition. An owl tattoo will symbolize vision and hope in the face of uncertainty. For some people, owl tattoos represent a new outlook on life, particularly if they experience a difficult period and want to move on to something better.

Sometimes these tattoos can also represent protection and watchfulness, especially if they depict an owl staring out. These owl tattoos can act as guardians to those who bear them, so someone might choose an owl tattoo to help them through a difficult time.

Owl tattoos can also refer to wisdom and learning. They can symbolize a willingness to accept change and learn new things or a desire to learn more, gaining knowledge.

Feathers

an owl feather
Owl feather.

Owl feathers are often used in ritual work. Pagan, Wiccan, and Indigenous people all greatly revere owl feathers. As in many other contexts, the owl’s feather is thought to be a sign from a messenger bringing wisdom and hope.

The common interpretation of finding an owl feather is that you’re healing. The spiritual understanding suggests you’re overthinking something that is outside of your control.

Spirit Animal | Totem | Power Animal

These terms are often tossed around interchangeably among different cultures and religions. The term “spirit animal,” when used by non-indigenous peoples, is considered to be a grave faux pas. The term “power animal” is more widely accepted by the general population.

A power animal refers to helpful spiritual energy instead of an actual animal guide. It’s a closer definition to what people actually mean when they say “spirit animal,” so saying “power animal” instead is a more respectful and accurate term.

If you hold the owl as your totem, spirit, or power animal, likely, you’re closely entwined with your instincts and intuition. As the owl is nocturnal and can see in the dark, you will find it easy to read a situation past shadow, darkness, deceit, and illusion. The mysteries of life and the energy cycles from one life force to the next will fascinate you; the owl is wise and curious.

Different Species of Owls 

Not every owl species will represent the same thing. Generally, the owl represents wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence. However, this bird also symbolizes transition, change, or death. 

Through these broad interpretations, specific owl species symbolize one or several aspects. So, if you come across an owl, you will have an easier time understanding what it might be trying to tell you.

Barn owl

barn owl
Barn owl. Image by Jean van der Meulen from Pixabay

The Barn owl represents death, rebirth, and transformation. This species of owl also has ties to foretellings or obscure future dealings. Because of these ties, the Barn owl frequently symbolizes mystery, omens, or deception. In some beliefs, the Barn owl can help you discover the meaning behind a mysterious encounter or find the truth behind a deception.

Barred owl

Barred owl
Barred owl. Image by Dawn Huddlestone from Pixabay

Unlike other species of owl that may symbolize darker omens or death, a Barred owl is an optimistic symbol. This species represents protection but also peacemaking. As an omen, the Barred owl can symbolize the rebuilding of relationships or forgiveness, hinting toward repairing broken ties. 

The Barred owl acts as a guardian to those it appears to, and in some cultures, it can also bring the gift of sacred knowledge.

Snowy owl

snowy owl flapping wings
Snowy owl. Image by Norbert Knaupp from Pixabay

The Snowy owl represents individuality or adaptability. Due to its white plumage, it can also refer to concealment or hidden danger. Snowy owls can be an omen of hidden things to come or the ability to adapt to sudden change. In some cultures, the Snowy owl symbolizes wildness, the unpredictability of future events, and the natural order of death and birth.

Great Horned owl

Great horned owl
Great horned owl. Image by Amber Dawn from Pixabay

As one of the more famous owl species, the Great Horned owl represents courage, strength, and beauty. Often, they have ties to acting fearlessly or with confidence. As an omen, a Great Horned owl represents the need for decisive action. They also symbolize determination or confronting a problem without fear.

Different Colors of Owls

As with the different species of owls, different colors of owls can have different meanings. Particularly in dreams, the specific color of an owl can help you determine its purpose and how you should respond.

White

White owls symbolize wisdom, intelligence, and knowledge. They may also represent the natural order of things, including death or rebirth. Because of this representation, they may also refer to change or transformation. In dreams, a white owl may symbolize soon-to-be-coming peace or happiness.

Black 

A black owl represents transition, particularly between life and death. In dreams, the interpretation of seeing a black owl is the death of the dreamer or someone close to them. Black owls can also symbolize spiritual awakening, meaning the person who sees one may transition from spiritually unaware to aware.

Brown

Brown owls symbolize protection, specifically regarding spiritual energy. Seeing a brown owl can help protect your spiritual energy or revitalize it. Often, a brown owl sighting brings helpful energy to the onlooker, nurturing their intuition or self-worth.

Gray

A gray owl can represent mystery, and by extension, the hidden workings of the universe. As an omen, a gray owl symbolizes the need to trust in the unknown. Gray owls can also represent the spirit world and communication from beyond. To a lesser extent, the gray owl can also mean adaptability and coming changes. 

Red 

Red or reddish-brown owls symbolize potential problems regarding physical or emotional health. They might also indicate future or current anger issues or home issues. 

Yellow

Though wild owls may have a yellowish-brown or partly yellowish-brown coloring, you will only find a true yellow owl in fiction or dreams. Dreaming of a yellow owl can symbolize individuality and independence. They might also refer to self-discovery and self-worth.

Owl Symbolism in Different Cultures & Religions 

Owls have held significance in many different cultures throughout history, and have been considered the embodiment of certain gods or goddesses from our heritage. The owl is an animal recognized worldwide, though they may not all look the same. 

Greek 

In Greek mythology, owls represented the blessings of Athena. The owl was considered a protector who flew into battle with Greek Armies as a display of Athena and her overseeing the battle. It was thought that if you saw an owl flying over Greek Soldiers before a fight, it was a sure sign of a victorious outcome. 

Romans

The Roman Goddess Minerva and her owl companion are linked to wisdom, healing, arts, and intuition. On the other hand, some retellings of the Roman beliefs would suggest that the owls’ hoot was an omen of impending death. Some believers would hunt the owl and nail it to their door to ward off the evil the owls’ hoot had summoned. 

Egyptian 

The hieroglyph representing the letter m depicts an owl. The owl was considered a sign of death to some and a messenger of good wine vintage to others. The owl was revered for its keen vision for hunting and its association with death and mourning. The ancient name for the owl was jmw, which translates to “the one who laments.” 

Biblical Christianity 

In the Old Testament Bible, owls and other birds of prey are considered unclean and therefore inedible. They often were written to represent isolation, loneliness, and judgment. Owls have created their habitats in the ruins of Egypt and the Holy Land, adding to the superstitions behind the thought that they are symbols of death and desolation.  

African 

The paradox of the owl is seen in the starkest of contrasts when you consider that most Western cultures admire them. In contrast, most Africa-originated superstitions and ideals fear them. The association of owls with death is compelling with the Kikuyu people of Kenya. The belief continues to the modern-day that if you hear an owl or see one flying, death is imminent. 

Celtic 

In Celtic Irish culture, the owl is considered a sacred representation of the Crone, the oldest iteration of the triple goddess. In traditional Gaelic owl is called the Cauilleach-oidhche, or the Crone of the Night. The Crone is the goddess that carries you out of this plane of existence, the goddess-face of death. 

The owl also represents the wisdom gained as a soul ages and the magic of the moon. Some Celtic myths speak of a shape-shifting spirit that often takes the form of an owl, appears before a death, and represents transition and change. 

Norse Paganism

The Norse pagans embrace death in a way the rest of the world doesn’t. Owls are also seen as guides through the underworld; they are said to provide light and direction through the spiritual realm and the darkness in ourselves on the way to the final resting hall. The owl also has ties to the hawthorn tree.

Native American

Native american dreamcatcher depicting owl symbolism

Native American is a broad term for many vivid belief systems. Most native tribes hold the owl in high respect, but often for different reasons. Some, such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Fox, and Ojibqa tribes, believed sighted in daylight is both a symbol of death and a guide to the afterlife. The Dakota and Hidatsas tribes consider the owl guardian spirits for their warriors. 

Chinese

By the principles of Feng Shui, the owl is a representation of good luck, wisdom, and protection and can be considered a totem of abundance and prosperity. The word for Owl in Chinese is mao-tou-ying or Cat-Headed Hawk. 

When the hoot of an owl is heard, many believe that death or illness will befall the home. It’s also said that the owls are connected to the spiritual world and will drag away your soul if you touch or kill an owl. You can often see owls used in statuary in Chinese cemeteries. 

Hindu

In Hindu mythology, owls hold double meanings. On Diwali, they are worshiped as the vehicle of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. At other parts of the year, exorcists often use owls as a sacrifice to the gods to dispel unsettled energies, bad luck, and other sorcery. Each body part has a marginal significance to the practitioner.  

Aboriginal Australian

Similar to African culture, Aboriginal Australian beliefs tend to connect owls with evil spirits and bad omens. Hearing the call of an owl at night meant someone would die, and the only way to prevent it was to kill the owl first. However, seeing an owl in the daylight did not bring about any bad happenings, and owls could also help people find food and shelter, provided they understood the correct rituals.

Shapeshifters

In many cultures, the owl is a shapeshifter with the ability to change into a human form. This ability comes from the owl’s ties to the supernatural or as a messenger. The owl can appear as a deceased loved one or carry messages from beyond. Shapeshifting also comes from the owl’s ties to the moon. As it is a nocturnal creature, it can take on some of the moon’s attributes, like altering its appearance. 

What Does It Mean When You See an Owl

Seeing an owl in the daylight can mean that something in your life is amiss. It could refer to a great upheaval soon to come. It could also mean you have an inner imbalance that you need to address or that someone in your life will die. 

What Does It Mean When An Owl Flies Overhead 

In some cultures, this is a sign of impending death, illness, or tragedy. In others, it signifies satisfaction or victory in the upcoming battle or task. 

What Does It Mean When An Owl Crosses Your Path

An owl crossing your path signifies that your life will take a new direction. You are either about to experience or are in the middle of a transition. This transition could either be good or bad. Seeing an owl crossing your path could also refer to an awakening of your intuitive awareness. This omen could help you better understand your situation and all its aspects. 

The Omen of the Owl

Whether you see the owl as an open of death, a messenger of wisdom, or a guide through the spirit world, the omen of the owl is ever-growing and changing as our cultural systems shift and grow in society. Remembering our heritage and its history often results in the blending of historic and modern myth and superstition.