From ancient literature to modern literature and TV, people have been portraying owls as wise creatures, bad omens, harbingers of illness, and death. These solitary, nocturnal birds of prey with fascinating characteristics and recognizable physical traits have inspired all sorts of superstitions and myths.
Owls have characteristically large heads able to rotate up to 270°. Their feathers are adapted for silent flight. There are over 200 species of owls in the world. They produce a hooting noise that sounds more like a groan(unique among different species), and since most of them live in ruins, it feels like they are mourning over the devastation.
Throughout history and literature, owls are considered symbols of wisdom, mystery, death, bad news, intuition, witchcraft, black magic, and Satanism.
Superstitions About Owls
- Wisdom and knowledge
Even Though studies have shown that owls have average intelligence, the night bird has been used as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge since ancient times. This idealization of owl’s great wisdom is probably due to its solitary nature and the terrific binocular vision that allows it to see objects at a long distance.
Growing up, we were taught to say ‘as wise as Solomon’ or as ‘wise as an owl’. We know that King Solomon was the wisest man in the Bible because his wisdom came from God(1 Kings 3:1-15), but where did the phrase ‘as wise as an owl’ originate from?
The origin of this phrase goes back to Ancient Greek legends, where their goddess of wisdom, Athena, was often portrayed in art holding an owl. She was also described in literary works as ‘owl-eyed’ or ‘owl-faced’.
- Bad omen and death
Silent and mysterious, owls have often been associated with bad luck and death across Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of Europe and America.
These people believe that if you hear a cry from an owl, something bad is about to happen, or someone close would die.
Which Species Of Owls Appear In The Bible?
The Bible mentions various species of owls in different contexts to symbolize desolation, loneliness, misery, mourning, and judgment. Most of these owls are regarded as unclean, and Jews are not supposed to eat them. (Leviticus 11:16-17; Deuteronomy 14:16)
- The great owl– is translated from the Hebrew name yanshuf, which means twilight. It is probably the same owl about 2 ft in length found in Egypt known as the eagle-owl. Some other versions of the Bible have changed ‘great owl’ to ‘dart-snake’ or ‘arrow snake.’ (Leviticus 11:17; Deuteronomy 14:16; Isaiah 34:15)
- The little owl –translated from the Hebrew word kos, it is smaller than the great owl and is often referred to as the ‘mother of ruins’. It is commonly found in Palestine and dwell in deserted temples and cities.
- Screech owl– translated from the Hebrew’s Lilith, but then revised to ‘night monster’ probably because of its hooting(Isaiah 34:14)
- Horned owl–translated from the Hebrew tinshemet, it appears among the unclean creatures in Leviticus 11:16 and Deuteronomy 14:15.
- Ostrich(Heb. Bat ya’anah)- Some revised versions of the Bible have translated this species of owl in some passages to ‘ostrich’, which, however, lives in the desert and rarely utters a cry. Bat ya’anah, on the other hand, is described as living in desolate places and emitting a mournful cry. (Leviticus 11:16; Deuteronomy 14:15; Job 30:29.)
What Owls Symbolize In The Bible
Owls appear in different contexts in the Bible to symbolize and mean various things, including unclean creatures, desolation, loneliness, misery, and mourning.
- Unclean creatures
The Mosaic Law placed some species of owls among the unclean birds that were not supposed to be eaten by the Israelites.
“These are the birds you are to regard as unclean and not eat because they are unclean: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, the red kite, any kind of black kites, any kind of ravens, the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawks, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of herons, the hoopoe, and the bat.”
(Leviticus 11:13-18; Deuteronomy 14:11-18 NIV)
The Jews considered these birds as unclean probably because they are predatory birds that feed on flesh with the blood in it.
- Desolation and emptiness
Owls are mostly birds of ruins. They are among the wild predators that dwell in ruined cities and desert lands. Prophets Isaiah, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah speak of owls living in ruined wastelands to symbolize barrenness, emptiness, and utter desolation.
In Isaiah 13:21-22, Isaiah prophecies about God’s judgment on Babylon. He describes how the Medes will attack and destroy the city of Babylon and how “it will be a place where desert animals live, and owls build their nests. Ostriches will live there, and wild goats will prance through the ruins. The towers and palaces will echo with the cries of hyenas and jackals.”
The prophet also predicts the fall and destruction of Edom in Isaiah 34:8-11. “This is the time when the Lord will rescue Zion and take vengeance on her enemies. The rivers of Edom will turn into tar, and soil will turn into sulfur. The whole country will burn like tar. It will burn day and night, and smoke will rise from it forever. The land will lie waste age after age, and no one will ever travel through it again. Owls and ravens will take over the land. The Lord will make it a barren waste again, as it was before the creation.”
Prophet Zephania also predicts the fall of Assyria in almost the same way. “The Lord will use his power to destroy Assyria. He will make the city of Nineveh a deserted ruin, a waterless desert. It will be a place where flocks, herds, and animals of every kind will lie down. Owls will live among its ruins and hoot from the windows.” (Zephania 2:13-14)
Prophet Jeremiah describes Babylon’s destruction and perpetual desertion, where the only inhabitants will be desert creatures, hyenas, and owls. (Jeremiah 50:39)
- Loneliness and misery
Owls have also been used in the Bible to symbolize loneliness and misery. In Psalms 102:3-6, the psalmist compares his loneliness and tortured heart to a desert town.
“My life is disappearing like smoke; my body is burning like fire. I am beaten down like dry grass; I have lost my desire for food. I groan aloud; I am nothing but skin and bones. I am like a wild bird in the desert, like an owl in abandoned ruins.”
People have often compared the hooting of an owl to that of someone mourning. In the Bible, Micah compares the sound of an owl to a mournful lament.
“Because of this I will weep and wail; I will go barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl.” (Micah 1:8)
During his misery, Job compared his voice to that of these nocturnal creatures. “ I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls (ostrich).”(Job 30:28-29)
One scholar described his account of the owl’s haunting hooting. “It’s cry is a loud, prolonged, and powerful hoot. I know nothing which more vividly brought to my mind the sense of desolation and loneliness than the re-echoing hoot of two or three of these great owls as I stood at midnight among the ruined temples of Baalbek.”(Tristam’s Natural History of The Bible ‘Owl’)
Owls In Christian Art
Due to its nocturnal activities, and association with the dark and mysterious, the owl has often been used in Christian art to symbolize satan. According to George Fergerson’s Signs And Symbols in Christian Arts, owls trick other birds into falling in traps set by hunters the same way Satan has is known for deceiving humanity.
Ironically, owsl have also been used in crucifixion scenes. Since the bird can see in the dark, it represents those who are saved by Jesus Christ, who died. “He will cause the bright dawn of salvation to rise on all those who live in the dark shadow of death, to guide our steps into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:79)
The owl also symbolizes solitude and is, therefore, used to show the spirit of a hermit: always vigilant, in seclusion, alone. That’s why owls often in scenes where hermits are praying.
Owls Are Part Of God’s Creation
Owls may symbolize different things to different people. From bad omens to mourning, unclean creatures to desolation and misery, or wisdom to solitude. Whatever they symbolize, we need to remember that they are also part of God’s creation.
Genesis 1:20-21 says that God created all living things, and He was pleased with his creation. “So God created the great sea monsters, all kinds of creatures that live in the water, and all kinds of birds. And God was pleased with what He saw.”
Therefore, whether we think owls are evil or not, it is our responsibility to care for them and preserve them because they are part of God’s creation. “I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals.” (Genesis 1:28)