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Owls in Society and Culture

A Barn Owl guarding its nest.

Throughout history owls have been linked to unnatural forces, evil, and death. Ancient Babylonians believed that the hoot of an owl at night came to represent the cries of a woman who died during childbirth. In Hungary, the owl was referred to as the bird of death. Owls were official symbols of death for ancient Egyptians. The hieroglyphic for the owl also symbolized darkness, cold, and a state of passivity.

Ancient Romans considered the sight of an owl an extremely unlucky omen. According to legend, the only way to negate the effects of this omen was to catch the owl, burn it, and then scatter its ashes in the Tiber River. It has been said that before Julius Caesar was murdered, owls were heard making their mournful cries.

Not all societies and cultures have assigned negative attributes to owls. Buddhists have long thought the owl to be an enemy of ignorance and a representation of isolation and the need for deep meditation. In Athens, owls represented a force of mystery, but one associated with good. The owl was the symbol of the Greek goddess Athena, goddess of night, war, wisdom, and the liberal arts.

In many ancient cultures, owning or carrying a piece of an owl as a charm was thought to provide special protection from evil spirits and health problems such as epilepsy and rabies. Other ancient cultures believed that energy, wisdom, and bravery might be imparted to the carrier of owl charms. Different cultures utilized different parts of owls in their charms, including the feet, feathers, eyes, heart, bones, or even the entire owl.

There are many natural areas named after owls in the United States. Lakes, rivers, bays, swamps, and mountain ranges contain "owl" in their names. There are at least 2 towns in the United States named "Owl," one is in Arizona and the other is in California. You can also visit Owls Head, Maine, and Owlsville, New York.