The History of the Owl and Tattoo Meaning

The owl has been a highly regarded animal since ancient times. While modern readers’ most often associate it with wisdom, originally, the owl was seen as a sinister and ferocious creature, a reputation that came largely from its nocturnal nature, predatory night flights, and eerie call.

Ancient Middle Eastern Demonology

In ancient Middle Eastern demonology, the owl was said to be sacred to Lilith (the name varies slightly depending on the specific culture), a female demon mentioned in Isaiah 34:14. In fact, what translates to “the Lilith” in the Hebrew text is often translated to “the screech owl,” particularly in the King James Bible. Talmudic lore regards her as the devilish and dreadful first wife of Adam, but she is actually of Babylonian origin, appearing first in their demonology where she was thought to prey on infants and pregnant women. Lilith was also a feature in Hittite, Egyptian, and Greek mythology, where she merged with Hekate.

Chinese Culture

Chinese culture considers the owl to be an evil bird because the young are thought to peck out the eyes  of and eat their mother, making it an unfilial bird. It is seen as a harbinger of death with a call that resembles that of a demon or spirit speaking to its fellows or that of an expression of digging a grave.

Greek and Roman Mythology

Birds were often paired with deities in Greek and Roman mythology. The owl often accompanied or represented the goddesses of wisdom, Athena and her Roman incarnation, Minerva Even at that time, the owl was seen as a symbol of knowledge, erudition, and wisdom. It has also been suggested that the owl came to be associated with Athena primarily because of the large number of owls that inhabited Athens, and then, by extension, came to symbolize wisdom.

Hawaiian Culture

The owl has a special place in Hawaiianlore—it is seen as a protector and worshipped as such, as well as being venerated as a spirit and god.  Hawaiian lore holds that Pueo, an owl god, had the ability to brings souls wandering the on the plains of Maui back to life; additionally, in Old Hawaii, bodies of the dead were offered to another owl god, Ku-kaua-kahi. This was done so that the deceased could become owls and protect their living family members.

In Literature

The owl’s ominous-sounding hoot has been seen as prophetic of death or sign of ill omen by both ancient and modern authors. Virgil, Ovid, Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare have all used the owl in this manner. Spenser, for example, names them among his “fatal birds,” describing it thusly: “The ill-fac’d Owl, Death’s dreadful messenger.” (Spenser, The Faerie Queen).