A Dictionary
of Symbols

J.E. Cirlot

In the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, the owl symbolizes death, night, cold and passivity. It also pertains to the realm of the dead sun, that is, of the sun which has set below the horizon and which is crossing the lake or sea of darkness (19).

The Modern Witch's Book of Symbols

Sarah Lyddon Morrison

In the Renaissance it appeared in artworks as sleep and death symbols (98).

A Woman's Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects

Barbara G. Walker

The wise-woman or witch had the same name in Latin as the owl: strix, plural striges, later the Italian strega "witch".

To the Algonquin Indians, the owl was a bird of death and of the winter, creator of the north wind. To the Babylonians, hooting owls were ghosts of women who died in childbirth, calling for their offspring.

In medieval times the owl was sometimes called Night-hag, like the daughters of Lilith who had been reinterpreted as demonic succubae. Female spirits with owl wings were feared as potential kidnappers of infants: another manifestation of the mother-ghost.

Christian legend insisted that the owl was one of the "three disobedient sisters" (the Triple Goddess) who defied the Judeo-Christian God, and so was transformed into a bird that could never look at the sun (403).


[ Return to Top ]

[ Back to Essays ]

O W L S

Or, "If it weren't for Jareth..."



      The owl seems to be one of the more complex animals in symbolism. It has contradictory meanings; I recently came across a reference that implied that because owls were nocturnal, they symbolized ignorance!
      Historically, it was thought that the owl could not bear the light of the sun, and was associated as a negative symbol of spiritual darkeness. I'm sure Athena, the Greek goddess of Wisdom, would argue that point! The owl was her sacred bird and was believed to be as wise as she. For as long as I can remember, owls were pictured on scholastic items, such as notebooks and such. Much the way apples are associated with teachers, the owl represented students.
      I suppose owls are much like my bi-polar nature - both good and evil simultaneously. It could explain my fondness for them. That, and the fact that the Goblin King transformed into an owl at various times in Labyrinth. Needless to say, this was when I first became interested in the creature.
      Owls became associated with witchcraft in the Dark Ages. As we now regard black cats as the companion of witches, the Puritans assumed owls were close associates of sorceresses. This was probably due to their nocturnal nature and their habitat in the untamed wilderness.
      I suppose the owl's association with witches and their male counterparts, wizards, led Jim Henson to use an owl to express Jareth's considerable powers. There are also references to owls in Terry Jones' The Goblin Companion, which probably surely had an influence on Jareth's alternate form.


      I've been inspired to do some more research regarding owls. I've added a few new books of symbolism to my library, and two recent additions greatly add new light to the owl. Both books describe the feminine aspect of owls more fully that previous sources.
      Not only were owls viewed as witches' companions, but as demons themselves. Both shared a common characteristic - the ability to turn its own head nearly all the way around. (Imagine The Exorcist scene!) I suspect our subconsious minds would recognize the implied wickedness of Jareth's original form being that of an owl.
      Hebrew legends also equate a storm and night demon, Lilith, with the owl. She was also associated with stealing children, much like our Goblin King who appears during a night storm as an owl to kidnap Sarah's brother. The Chinese association of owls with lightening strengthens Jareth's wicked imagery.

next essay

Signs and Symbols:
An Illustrated Guide to Their Meaning and Origins

Clare Gibson

Page 33

Athena (Minerva) was the goddess of wisdom, learning and the arts. Owls were prolific in Athens, the city which Athena was patroness, and this, along with its wise appearance and ability to see in the dark (in symbolic terms, thus penetrating ignorance), led it to become an important symbol of wisdom. It was also the attribute of Demeter (Ceres), goddess of the harvest, and with a prophetic quality: its hoot was believed to warn of impending death and its appearance preceded the death of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and several Roman emperors.

Page 61

In more recent times, its ringed eyes suggest the wearing of spectacles, and thus bookishness.

Page 110

...the owl suffers negative associations in most traditions. In many cultures, including those of Ancient Egypt and Christianity - this night bird denoted death, misfortune and spiritual darkness. Although the Celts regarded it as sacred, it was liked with the underworld as a "night hag" and "corpse bird". In Hinduism, it was the messenger of the Vedic god of the dead, Yama. West African and Australian Aboriginal cultures regard the owl as a messenger of sorcerers, and in medieval Western Europe, it was believed that witches could transform themselves into owls. For Native Americans; it shares this significance but can also symbolize wisdom. In China and Japan, it was believed to abduct children and therefore signified both crime and ungrateful offspring. The owl symbolizes blindness and is considered an unclean bird in Hebrew lore. Generally, the barn owl and horned owl are especially demonic. The screech owl, however, can sometimes play a benevolent role in warning the hunter of danger.

email address
March 8, 2000