Owl of Athena

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Silver tetradrachm coin at the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon depicting the owl of Athena (circa 480–420 BC). The inscription "ΑΘΕ" is an abbreviation of ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, which may be translated as "of the Athenians". In daily use the Athenian drachmas were called glaukes (γλαῦκες, owls).

In Greek mythology, a little owl (Athene noctua) traditionally represents or accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, or Minerva, her syncretic incarnation in Roman mythology.[1] Because of such association, the bird — often referred to as the "owl of Athena" or the "owl of Minerva" — has been used as a symbol of knowledge, wisdom, perspicacity and erudition throughout the Western world.[2][3]

Classical World[edit]


Athena holding a helmet and a spear, with an owl. Attributed to the Brygos Painter (circa 490–480 BC). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The reasons for the association of Athena and the owl are uncertain. Some mythographers, such as David Kinsley and Martin P. Nilsson, suggest that she may descend from a Minoan palace goddess associated with birds[4][5] and Marija Gimbutas claim to trace Athena's origins as an Old European bird and snake goddess.[6][7]

On the other hand, Cynthia Berger theorizes about the appeal of some characteristics of owls —such as their ability to see in the dark— to be used as symbol of wisdom[2] while others, such as William Geoffrey Arnott, propose a simple association between founding myths of Athens and the significant number of little owls in the region (a fact noted since antiquity by Aristophanes in The Birds and Lysistrata).[8]

In any case, the city of Athens seems to have adopted the owl as proof of allegiance to its patron virgin goddess,[8][9] which according to a popular etiological myth reproduced on the West pediment of the Parthenon, secured the favor of its citizens by providing them with a more enticing gift than Poseidon.[10]

Owls were commonly reproduced by Athenians in vases, weights and prize amphoras for the Panathenaic Games.[8] The owl of Athena even became the common obverse of the Athenian tetradrachms after 510 BC and according to Philochorus,[11] the Athenian tetradrachm was known as glaux (γλαύξ, little owl)[12] throughout the ancient world and "owl" in present-day numismatics.[13][14] They were not, however, used exclusively by them to represent Athena and were even used for motivation during battles by other Greek cities, such as in the victory of Agathocles of Syracuse over the Carthaginians in 310 BC —in which owls flying through the ranks were interpreted as Athena’s blessing[2]— or in the Battle of Salamis, chronicled in Plutarch's biography of Themistocles.[15]


The association between the owl and the goddess continued through Minerva in Roman mythology, although the latter sometimes simply adopts it as a sacred or favorite bird. For example, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Cornix the crow complains that her spot as the goddess' sacred bird is occupied by the owl, which in that particular story turns out to be Nyctimene, a cursed daughter of Epopeus, king of Lesbos.[16]

As for ancient Roman folklore, owls were considered harbingers of death if they hooted while perched on a roof, and placing one of its feathers near someone sleeping could prompt him or her to speak and reveal their secrets.[1]

As a philosophical metaphor[edit]

The 19th-century German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously noted that "the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk"—meaning that philosophy comes to understand a historical condition just as it passes away.[17] Philosophy appears only in the "maturity of reality," because it understands in hindsight.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Eason, Cassandra (2008). Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters, and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport, CT, USA: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 71. ISBN 9780275994259. The Roman goddess of wisdom Minerva has the owl as her sacred creature, as does her ancient Greek counterpart Athene. Athene was often depicted with an owl, which was considered a symbol of wisdom in both cultures. The best known image of Athene's owl, the Little Owl, is seen on ancient Athenian coins dating from the fifth century BCE. To the Romans an owl feather placed near sleeping people would prompt them to speak in their sleep and reveal their secrets. However, in Rome the owl was considered a harbinger of death if it perched on a roof or on a public building and hooted. The deaths of several Roman emperors, including the assassination of Julius Caesar, were signaled by an owl landing on the roof and hooting.
  2. ^ a b c Berger, Cynthia (2005). Owls. Mechanicsburg, PA, USA: Stackpole Books. p. X. ISBN 9780811732130.
  3. ^ Deacy, Susan J.; Villing, Alexandra (2001). Athena in the Classical World. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-9004121423.
  4. ^ Kinsley, David (1989). The goddesses' mirror: visions of the divine from East and West. New York: SUNY Press. p. 141. ISBN 9781438409139.
  5. ^ Nilsson, Martin Persson (1950). "The Minoan-Mycenaean religion and its survival in Greek religion". Acta Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. 9: 491. ISSN 0347-5123. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  6. ^ Gimbutas, Marija (1982). The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C.: Myths and Cult Images (2 ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 147–150. ISBN 9780520253988. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  7. ^ Gimbutas, Marija (2001). Robbins Dexter, Mirijam (ed.). The living goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 157–158. ISBN 9780520927094. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  8. ^ a b c Arnott, William Geoffrey (2007). Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. London: Routledge. pp. 84–85. ISBN 9780415238519.
  9. ^ Sacks, David (1995). Murray, Oswyn (ed.). A dictionary of the ancient Greek world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 41. ISBN 9780195112061. Retrieved 20 May 2013.
  10. ^ Palagia, Olga (1998). "The Pediments of the Parthenon". Monumenta Graeca et Romana. Brill. 7: 40. ISSN 0169-8850. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  11. ^ Philochorus: Scholion to Aristophanes, Birds 1106.
  12. ^ Thompson, D'Arcy Wentworth. A glossary of Greek birds. Oxford, Clarendon Press 1895, pp 45-46.
  13. ^ Philip Harding: The story of Athens: The Fragments of the Local Chronicles of Attika.
  14. ^ Kraay, C.M. The archaic owls of Athens: classification and chronology.
  15. ^ Rich, John; Rich, John; Shipley, Graham, eds. (2012). War and Society in the Greek World. London: Routledge. ISBN 9781134807833.
  16. ^ Anderson, William Scovil (1998). Ovid's Metamorphoses, Books 1-5. Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press. p. 301. ISBN 9780806128948.
  17. ^ Smith, John E. (30 October 2009). "When Dusk Is Only Dusk". New York Times. Retrieved 28 February 2013. Hegel’s claim, however, bestows no special importance on a closing phase; it refers instead to the end of an era, which is confirmed as such by the appearance of philosophical critique and appraisal that involves making explicit the ideas and beliefs that drove that era but could not be fully articulated until it was over