An ode to the owl: a mytho-philosophical exploration of owl symbolism

A prose poem, plus an exploration of the symbolism of the owl through the lens of Indian mythology, philosophy & spirituality

Owls in Indian mythology, symbolism of owls, and a prose poem on owls

There’s something about owls —
mysterious creatures of the night,
their golden eyes, staring unblinkingly
into the shape shifting shadow
and then lightning quick —
they pounce.
fear, like a mouse, held firmly in their talons.

There’s something about owls —
head cocked comically sideways
and you want to laugh
until you look into its tawny eyes
that seem to stare into your very soul
demanding to know if you
have the courage
to die and be born again.

There’s something about owls —
magical, mystical wisdom keepers
the thrumming vibration of their song
reminiscent of the ancestral vibration of the soul
singing of blood wisdom, bone wisdom, soul wisdom.

There’s something about owls.

Whimsical owl painting + owl meaning and symbolism

The call of the owl

Did you know that different types of owls have distinctive calls? The one I found most fascinating is the Barred Owl, which almost sounds like a neighing horse! And the one I love the most is the call of the Eastern Screech Owl. It sounds ancient, ancestral, primal. Play it on loop long enough, and you could go on a journey, accompanied by the owl.

Which one of these is your favorite?

Owls in Indian mythology

Owls have a bad rap in India. They’re regarded with fear and superstition. With death, destruction, and evil. With the deep of the night and all of the fear that holds.

Tantriks (who are considered black magic practitioners in India), sacrifice them in rituals. Certain tribes kill them to ward off the ‘evil eye’. 

They’re associated with the goddess Lakshmi’s elder twin Alakshmi, the goddess of strife and misfortune. 

…[There is] speculation that the owl actually represents Lakshmi’s consort, Vishnu. Favoring this line of thought, is the fact that in Hindu mythology, the vahana or vehicle of a deity is always male, not female. But the idea that Lakshmi would ride her own husband, thought acceptable to feminists, is abhorrent to traditionalists. They insist that the owl accompanies the goddess; she does not ride it. If she does not ride the owl, then it could be  either Vishnu, or Alakshmi.

Devdutt Pattanaik

Even the vedas, apparently, believed that owls were the harbinger of nairrta, ill fortune.

Symbolism of the owl

Though I heard some of these superstitions growing up, I’ve always been fascinated with owls. Far from scaring me, I find their gaze hypnotic….compelling…like they have something to tell me.

We have a special relationship, the owl and I. Magical and mystical creature that it is, the owl shows up at least once every year in my moon journal – which is where I create an intuitive ritualistic painting every new and full moon.

You can see one of these paintings in this art journal flip through from 2019 – if you want to go straight to the owl painting, it’s at the 9:04 minute mark.

I associate the owl with wisdom, knowledge, and contemplation. It also reminds me to remain true to myself, my voice, and my vision.

Being a creature of the night, owls are also associated with the shadowy realms of the subconscious and with underworld journeys, shadow work, and ancestral work.

I recently came across a Cherokee myth that tells how all the animals were challenged to not eat and not sleep for seven days. Most animals did not manage this, but the few that did were given the power to see in the dark. The owl was one of them, thus becoming a creature of the night, and by extension, of dreams and the subconscious. The owl glides confidently and silently through this realm and its sight lets it see through lies and deceptions, cutting through them like a sword.

Fasinating, right?

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Symbolism of the owl in philosophy

Interestingly, in philosophy, the owl is viewed as a metaphor for wisdom, which I find fascinating given my interest in practical philosophy (You can find my writings on practical philosophy on my new website.)

If Peter Singer is right, the owl is a “metaphor for philosophy” itself. Singer traces this philosophy/owl association to antiquity, recalling that the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva, was symbolized by the owl. Formulated in this way, therefore, G. W. F. Hegel’s association of philosophy with the owl is instructive.

Makurdi Owl Journal of Philosophy

In the Preface to his Philosophy of Right, Hegel writes: “when philosophy paints its grey in grey, then has a shape of life grown old. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.”

Here, Hegel implies that the kind of self-conscious reflection that makes up philosophy can occur only when a way of life is sufficiently mature. But this isn’t entirely true. His doctrine neglects the fact that self-consciousness and reflection (or contemplation) more often than not can and does co-exist with activity.

In this way, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk” also ties in to cyclical time. We are constantly moving between periods of frenetic activity and quiet contemplation, with the owl of Minerva flying each time we sit down to think, reflect or contemplate the nature and contents of our lives.

Owl symbolism as it relates to duality and non-duality

From evil to wise, harbinger of death to a portend of good luck, the symbolism of the owl is firmly dualistic in nature – reminding us that we live in a world where two fundamental concepts that often oppose each other exist. This is in opposition to the New Age concept of non-duality, which is in many ways different from the Indian and Buddhist understanding of non-duality.

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‘Non-duality’ is the translation of the Sanskrit word ‘Advaita’, which simply means ‘not two’ and points to the essential oneness of life that exists here and now, without any apparent separation. In other words, two things that we have understood as separate from one another are, in fact, so dependent on each other that they are simply two sides of the same coin. 

Often the question arises, “If it is all one thing, why don’t I experience it that way?” This is confusing oneness for the appearance of sameness. Things can appear different without being separate. Just look at your hand for a moment. Your fingers are all different from each other, but are they separate? They all arise from the same hand. Similarly, the objects, animals, plants and people in the world are all definitely different in their appearance and functioning. But they are all connected at their source—they come from the same source. This one Being that is behind all life has an infinite number of different expressions that we experience as different objects.

Endless Satsang

The Hindu view on non duality is different from the Buddhist view.

There are different Buddhist views which resonate with the concepts and experiences of primordial awareness and non-duality or “not two” (advaya). The Buddha does not use the term advaya in the earliest Buddhist texts, but it does appear in some of the Mahayana sutras, such as the Vimalakīrti. While the Buddha taught unified states of mental focus (samadhi) and meditative absorption (dhyana) which were commonly taught in Upanishadic thought, he also rejected the metaphysical doctrines of the Upanishads, particularly ideas which are often associated with Hindu nonduality, such as the doctrine that “this cosmos is the self” and “everything is a Oneness”

Wikipedia

Here, too, we see a duality in non-dualistic thought! Then comes the New Age movement, which tends to take complex ideas and simplify them, stripping out any religious and cultural context from the teachings. This further muddies the waters, leading to a fundamentally flawed understanding of non-duality.

Most New Age teachings on ‘unity consciousness’ or non-duality actually promote toxic positivity, and bypass deeper truths and issues on the more difficult aspects of the human experience.

All too often what is presented as non-duality/‘unity consciousness’ is something that has removed everything uncomfortable from the unified field. You can’t have All-Oneness if you discard the ego, the emotions, the stories, the identity, the body, the psyche and the self. That may be unity for a robot, but not for a human being. Presence is a whole being experience. And detachment is a tool—it’s not a life.

Jeff Brown

I think it’s difficult to truly understand non-duality, especially when you try and reconcile concepts like good and evil through a non-dualistic lens. Which is why I really liked this explanation by Norman Fisher. Speaking about the rise of evil, Fisher writes in the Lion’s Roar:

Oneness would be: yes, this happened. A man was tortured to death. A child was born. Like all that happened or ever could happen, these are true, living facts, and as such I must accept them as real—good or evil, whether I like it or not. Dualism would be: wrong is wrong, and I am committed to doing what is good and right, not what is evil or wrong.

In actual living, I can’t see any way but to embrace both of these ways of seeing. How else could we live a reasonable human life?

How, indeed? That’s what owls can symbolize too – reminding us that we are separate and connected, whole and broken, hurt and healed, loved and abhorred – that non-duality and duality are two sides to the same coin. That one cannot exist without the other. That we live and experience both as we go through our days. That one isn’t better than the other. That we contain multitudes.

Tell me, what does the owl symbolize to you?

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I’m an artist and art educator, podcaster, tarot reader, and writer. I share my discoveries along the path to inspire you to live a more creative, soul-centered life. Receive my love letters for more of my musings on life and creativity. P.S. I love Instagram - join me there?

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