In western culture, if the owl were to take an IQ test he would probably score highly, probably, “superior intelligence!” A score between 120-129, not quite Genius, (130+) but pretty smart! Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Owl sees the bird as superior to all its countryside brethren. Looking down its beak at all that goes on around him! I have touched on lord Tennyson’s poem before. This poem was written in 1830, quite a while ago. But when did the owl become wise?
In Ancient Greece, Athena, The patron goddess of Athens and the goddess of wisdom, had the owl as her symbol. Was she wise? Or was the owl wise? It is a little bit unclear. Across cultures and across time it would seem owls are wise! Having human characteristics placed upon animals is called Anthropomorphism and it first appeared in literate in ancient Greece in a poem by Hesiod called Works and Days. It was written in about 700 BC and is a story about,”The Hawk and the Nightingale“, it was later attributed to Aesop the famous fable teller in accent Greece (two centuries later) and it’s not as punchy as some of his, i.e. The `Hare and the Tortoise, but Hesiod was first and at his doorstep all the creatures of the world can lay the blame of their Anthropomorphism.
After Hesiod the flood gates opened, next Aesop and his animals fables, The Jataka Tales and the Panchatantra, Then come fairy tales like The tale of Cupid and Psyche (Rome in the 2nd century) in which Zephyrus, the west wind (a horse), carries Psyche away. Another example is in 13th century Egypt, The Tale of Two Brothers, this one has talking cows. More recent examples are the Brothers Grim, then into the modern times, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Winnie-the-Pooh and on and on an on…..
So When and how did the owl become wise, well its to do with Athena and darkness.. Athena’s wisdom and the owls are it seems intertwined. The greek goddess took the little owl and used him for her symbol. There is the suggestion that owls were her favourite birds. Did she take the owl as her symbol because in ancient Greece it represented the wise or was it because Athena was the goddess wisdom that the owl became wise by association? Still in the dark? Well here is food for thought, owls are nocturnal, and this association with the dark and being able to see in it has something to do with the “wise old owl” status. After all if you can see in dark it would suggest you can see things that others can’t. It is not much more of a leap to suggest that because you can see all things clearly you would be able to asses whether something is true or right. Very wise!
Images © Daniel Mackie
See this design and other Owls at The DM Collection
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With the exception of artists, inventors, and teenagers - we humans are diurnal daytime creatures on the whole, and although it’s one thing to be out and about during the night in a street lit urban environment, it’s a very different scenario if you find yourself in, say… oh, I don’t know, a forest per se. Where, if you’re lucky, you may hear the unmistakable cry or hoot of an Owl: natures very own nocturne, a stark reminder of the unknown peril of night, and a creature that has featured heavily in myth and folklore throughout the ages.