The Owl

by Helen Valborg @ Theosophy Trust


There was an old owl liv'd in an oak,
The more he heard, the less he spoke;
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
O, if men were all like that wise bird!

Punch, 1875

  Still and solitary, the owl sits in the tree as though frozen in time, a piece of corrugated bark merged into the dapples and designs of the forest. A silent-seeming foot falls softly on decaying leaves and, abruptly, great golden eyes dominate the scene, fixing the intruder with their piercing gaze. He is taken aback by their sudden appearance and made uneasy by the fact that the enormous orbs seem to penetrate through him to his very soul. If he were an Egyptian who had wandered far from his Nile delta to Lebanon's wooded hills, he would surely be gripped with fear, thinking that the sombre bird before him was the Ba, or Third Soul, of a deceased, come up from the realm of the dead sun. If the intruder were a Mayan, a Zapotec or an Aztec, he would tremble with foreboding, believing that his time had come. But an ancient Minoan or a Greek who came upon that spot would have looked up with receptive eyes to behold a wise counsellor and protector. For them the sight of an owl was a good omen, which pointed the way through darkness to light.

  The darkness to be penetrated is, however, awesome, and many people have associated the apparently disconcerting habits of the owl with the darkness of death and evil. Wherever Christian ideas have come to dominate, there has been a strong emphasis on evil, whilst most other parts of the world continued to identify the owl with night and often the personification of death. The link with darkness readily overlaps into one with stillness and the quietude closely associated with wisdom. Though Chaucer and Spenser wrote of the owl as the prophet of "wo and myschance" and "death's dreadful messengere", and Shakespeare referred to owls as the "comrades of ghosts" and bringers of ill omen, farmers were continually aware that the large-eyed avian destroyed rodents harmful to their crops, whilst hardly ever harming a valued animal. Owls are not scavengers, nor do they specialize in feeding on carrion, as do the great birds of prey so often associated with death. Thus there is an ambivalence and a mystery to the owl, who is symbolic both of wisdom and of death, of all that which is associated with Light and also that which is connected with Darkness.

  After Deukalion's flood, Zeus commanded Athena to assist Prometheus in calling forth a new race. Archaic Greek art forms illustrate how they fashioned the new man out of the silt left by the flood waters. From the richest and purest essence culled out of the material of the old, a new human vesture was prepared by the Hellenic deity most intimately linked with the lighting-up of the mind-principle in man and the owl-goddess of wise counsel and fearless combat. Athena assisted in this birth with all the creative potency at her command, whilst remaining chaste and aloof from the material itself, like her quietly withdrawn namesake perched high above the teeming forest bed. In his epic prose, Homer continually refers to Athena as glaukopis, meaning 'bright-eyed' or 'owl-faced', which is derived from γλαυκος (glaukos, meaning 'owl'). referring to the owl's glaring eyes. The goddess soars in an all-seeing flight of poetry through Homer's melodious lines:

I begin to sing about Pallas Athena,
Renowned goddess, with bright eyes, quick
Mind, and inflexible heart, chaste and
Mighty virgin, protectress of the city, Tritogeneia.
Wise Zeus himself gave birth to her from his
Holy head and she was arrayed
In her armour of war, all
Gleaming in gold, and every one
Of the immortals was gripped
With awe as they watched.

  Zeus was counselled by Gaea and Uranus to swallow his wife Metis, as they feared that the children she was destined to bear would surpass him in glory. First of these was to be the keen-eyed maiden Athena, equal to her father in might and good counsel. In springing from her father's forehead, she emerged with a thunderous cry manifesting fully the masculinity of her mind, while her virginity shone through the grace and grandeur of her female form. Among her many by-names, Athena was called Promachos, 'she who fights in the foremost ranks', and Alalcomenes, protectress 'who repulses the enemy'. In her peaceful guise she was protectress of industries, arts and all things basic to civilization, and she was Pronoia, 'the far-seeing', wise counsellor of the assembly. Sexually unapproachable, she was Valkyrie-like in her steadfast protection of heroes like Herakles, Perseus and Odysseus. The owl so closely identified with her (often called Minerva's owl after her Roman counterpart) is the nocturnal Athene noctua, whose barred and speckled plumage can still be spotted along the rocky bluffs and acropolis of ancient Greek cities. Commonly known as the 'little owl' (glaux), members of this species were so plentiful in the city of the goddess that any needless task came to be referred to as "taking owls to Athens". At the Acropolis in Athens owls flew unmolested in and around the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the temple of Athena Nike.

  Though the forty-foot statue of the goddess in the Parthenon depicted a powerful, helmeted maiden with spear and shield, it was believed that Athena could assume the form of her owl and did so at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. In The Wasps, Aristophanes credited this owl with raising the morale of the Athenians:

With rage our lips we swallow'd; while the darts so thick did fly,
They seem'd to form a coverlid between ourselves and sky.
But Pallas sent her night-bird; and as the owlet flew
Across the host, our armies hope and joyous omens drew.
So by the help of Heaven, ere yet the day did close,
We shouted word of victory, and routed all our foes.

  The Athenians came to be identified so closely with the owl that the Samians, during a temporary victory over them, branded the foreheads of their Athenian prisoners with the figure of the large-eyed bird. Almost all Hellenic coins (except for the smallest) produced during Athenian supremacy between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars had owls on them, often with the helmeted goddess on the obverse side. So auspicious was this symbol that to say "there goes an owl" was to acknowledge a success, a sentiment played upon adroitly by Agathocles, who, while attacking the Carthaginians, released numbers of birds to encourage the troops.

  With Apollo, Athena acts to support heroes who take up their fate actively, as in the case of Odysseus or Orestes, where she sees to the latter's acquittal, as dramatized by the great Initiate and playwright, Aeschylus, in the Oresteia. By outwitting the Furies and bringing Orestes before the court of Aereopagus (which she created) in Athens, the owl-goddess silenced an older order of gods and the practice of blood-feuding ("eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth"), which was a residual aspect of an outdated order in a primitive society. The owl-goddess closes a chapter involving the unavenged death of Clytemnestra and introduces the qualities of reason and choice into the concepts of morality and justice in a new order. This association underlies the link that symbolically relates the owl with the mind and with wise and deliberate action. The idea of the lighting-up of the mind has often been symbolized by lightning, and in the owl this is particularly related to the luminosity of its penetrating gaze. Europeans (in Germany until the nineteenth century) nailed dead owls to buildings, believing that their brilliant eyes would sympathetically attract lightning and thereby spare the structure itself. Perhaps a more telling relationship was shown by the Chinese of the Shang Dynasty, to whom the owl was a patron sage who monitored the propitious time for making mirrors and swords. In attempting to think of an ideal symbol for wisdom, it is difficult to imagine anything better than these two reflective and incisive instruments.

  The earliest symbolism attached to the owl in general stresses the characteristic of sagacity. Its piercing, highly focussed eyes, its ability to stay awake at night and its gift of seeing in the dark are all qualities meriting such an association. The idea of the 'wise old owl' has survived into our own century, where to be 'owlish' is to be studious, bookish and, maybe, intelligent. It is undoubtedly because of its presumed intelligence that the owl figures so predominantly in the divination practices of many cultures. It is not taken as coincidental that the bird should sit on a particular side of a tree, or hoot at a particular moment or fly alongside a ship at a certain angle. The coming and going of owls has been widely linked with the beginnings and endings of things, even, sometimes, of life itself. It matters not that the owl behaves as befitting a bird of prey; to many his contemplative stillness, his gravity of mien and precision of action far outweigh such mundane aspects of his character.

  In the ruins of an old castle a treasure-seeker observed an owl catch and devour a mouse: "Is that fitting for the philosophical favourite of Minerva?" taunted the intruder. "Why not?" replied the owl; "because I am fond of quiet meditation, can I therefore live upon air? Though I am well aware that mankind frequently condemn to die the learned to such a diet."

Aesop's Fables and Others

  The owl has been around for at least sixty million years. It began to develop in the Tertiary after the last of the great dinosaurs had disappeared, when mammals had begun to proliferate along with their predators, including birds of prey. The forerunners of the modern owl evolved in the Miocene period (ten to twenty-five million years ago) and eventually achieved such variations as the elf owl, which is sparrow-sized, and the very large eagle owl of Eurasia, which grows to thirty-three inches in length. A thirty-thousand-year-old Aurignacian cave in France contains petroglyphs of what are recognizably snowy owls that must have been the focus of magical and religious practices. It was only much later, with Aristotle and then Pliny the Elder, that the owl was considered as a subject of natural history. In the eighteenth century Linnaeus placed the owl in his Systema naturae, distinguishing thirty-one earless and nineteen eared owls, whilst modern ornithologists recognize one hundred and thirty-two species-types, which are divided into two families within the order Strigiformes. Adapting to so many habitats, it is no wonder that the owl is almost omnipresent in the world. As one writer put it, the screech owl is found "screaming, snoring and hissing in almost every country of the world". Even so, it is the owl's remarkable prowess as a hunter and its stillness which, more than any other characteristics, are responsible for its widespread and enduring survival. Its wonderful stillness along with its camouflaged colouration render it often invisible, and it is expert at the art of decoy when it comes to protecting its nestlings. It will even fly to the ground and utter a cry sounding like an injured rabbit to throw a predator off the path. A wise old bird indeed.

  The owl possesses two extraordinarily developed senses: those of vision and hearing. Its eyes are very large, far larger than what they appear to be on the outside, where only the iris and the pupil show. They are tubular in shape rather than spherical, taking up so much room in the skull that they sacrifice almost all mobility. Over the lens is a nictitating membrane (a third eyelid) especially developed to shield the highly sensitive retina from excessive brightness. The owl sees better in semi-darkness than we can see in daylight. An unusually large pupil dilates to let more light enter the eye so that it sees at a hundredth of man's need of light, thus making the maximum use of small amounts of light in natural darkness. Despite all claims to the contrary, the owl can see very well in the daytime, having even then, like other birds, powers of vision far superior to our own. As it wings slowly along a bluff or sits in dignified surveillance of the land, the owl is far-sighted, and it relies on tactile feathers to guide it while subduing prey or feeding.

  Looking at the structure of the eye itself, one notices immediately that the cornea and the lens are very large, allowing more light to enter the eye. To accommodate this, the lens is much rounder and can focus light over the short distance to the retina without loss. The retina of the owl's eye is covered with light-sensitive rod cells, the density of which is many times greater than in the human eye, whilst the colour-sensitive cones are not so abundant. Rods are particularly adapted for nocturnal vision, which is why man, who has fewer rods that are placed only around the periphery of the cones, tends to look askance (at an angle) at objects in poor light. The owl can hunt with deadly accuracy, using its eyes in any kind of natural darkness, but in a totally blacked-out environment it relies entirely on its power of hearing. Experiments with barn owls placed in a completely lightless room (where they are watched with infra-red equipment) show that the birds would unerringly pounce upon their prey the instant the slightest sound was made. Many owls rely upon sound more than sight in hunting and can pick up a frequency as high as 20,000 cycles per second, as compared to 8,500, which is the highest audible pitch for humans. It can truly be said that owls are not alone in having well-developed auditory organs, but they are unique among birds in the degree to which their hearing has developed.

  Owls have large ears, one tending to be larger than the other, so as to increase their binaural efficiency in locating sources of sound. They are covered with flaps which are very mobile and can open and close and change in shape at will so that the owl can concentrate on sounds coming from any quarter. The shape of the flaps affects the shape of the facial disks, which open up when the owl is alerted. The disks themselves have an acoustical function in gathering and concentrating sound, much like the parabolic reflectors used by sound specialists. Little wonder that the owl prefers to remain still and very quiet. It is listening intently to a world of sound that stretches far beyond anything that we humans can experience on the physical plane. The owl is a superb listener, and to aid him in his task he has evolved wings covered and edged on the outer margins with velvet-soft, sound-deadening filaments. Air streaming over these does not produce audible vibrations, and their broad shape permits the owl to glide soundlessly and leisurely, without stalling or abruptly altering its course. The experience of seeing one of these great-eyed birds gliding in absolute silence through the darkened air is awesome. If we bear in mind the occult lore concerning the meaning of their appearance at certain times and places, the arrival of a white Siberian owl in California can assume an unexpected significance. One such may have appeared, though only a Sage could realize why and interpret correctly the meaning of its remarkable migration. Hovering along the roadside verge, the ghostly form, moving in complete silence with its enormous golden eyes intently focussed, would swerve and dip and disappear. In such a manner are messages delivered between great Rishis, Bodhisattvas and Adepts who, like the owl, can see beyond the curtain of what, to most men, seems darkness.

  In his delightful tale "The Owl Who Was God", James Thurber joined a long line of literary figures who have falsely accused the owl of day-blindness. Perhaps Thurber can here be excused because of his humorous wit. Holding up two claws, a secretary-bird approaches an owl and asks him how many he sees, to which the owl replies, "Two!" Then the secretary-bird asks for an expression meaning 'that is to say' or 'namely'. The owl answers, "To wit!" The secretary-bird is impressed and asks why a lover calls upon his love, and the owl cleverly answers, "To woo!" News spreads of this great sage-like being and all the birds of the forest claim that the owl is God. They follow him everywhere in the daytime, and when he bumps into and stumbles over things, they do too, until he leads them blindly onto a road where they all meet an untimely end. The moral of this story is not difficult to draw, but its ready reception by generations of readers is largely due to a centuries-old defamation campaign launched against the owl by the Christian church. Whilst it is true that even in the ancient Hindu Panchatantra there is reference to the day-blindness of the owl, it is the Christian tradition that associated this idea with turning away from the spiritual and embracing evil. In the words of Samuel Coleridge:

Forth from his dark and lonely hiding place
(Portentous sight!) the owlet Atheism,
Sailing on obscene wings athwart the noon,
Drops his blue-fringed lids, and holds them close,
And hooting at the glorious sun in Heaven,
Cries out, "Where is it?"

  Church fathers likened the Jews, who rejected Christ, to the light-shunning, evil owl, whose habits were unclean but who sustained enormous conceit in its blindness. In fact, the theme of the conceited owl has continually recurred throughout the development of what has been basically a non-intellectual religious movement to the point of very nearly eclipsing the bird's earlier association with wisdom. This was paralleled with an intensification of its identification with witchcraft, heretical philosophies and ghoulish entities who make their home in the darkness of night. One is instantly reminded of all the standard figures in a typical Halloween tableau. Ecclesiastical art throughout Europe depicted the owl in various negative aspects, including one where it is held aloft by an ape riding a goat - all three helpmates of the devil.

  The association of the owl with the ape is not completely far-fetched. They both are quite humanoid in their appearance. The owl, having eyes that are set in the front of its head (unlike other birds) and standing so upright while resting, does indeed look like a judge in robes. This is probably one of the reasons one is so startled to suddenly see an owl silently standing, as it were, on the limb of a tall tree. Of course, this impression would quickly be shattered if it began to bob its head up and down in the process of getting a good sighting with its binocular vision.

  It would be even more disconcerting if the bird turned its head fully upside down in its efforts or kept a bead on one who circled it below by rotating its head two hundred and seventy degrees without moving its body at all. This striking ability is, no doubt, partially responsible for the macabre circumgyrating heads that have played such a startling role in Christian demonism. It is a relief that not all succumbed to such fearful ecclesiastical melodrama. Some writers and poets succeeded in maintaining a balanced and even benign attitude towards the owl, delighting in its remarkable talents and marking its dignified air. In Edward Lear's jaunty lines, Pussy says to the owl:

"You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows,
And there in the wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose.

The Owl and The Pussycat

  The darkness, so deplored by some and associated with evil by others, is applauded as that which harbours true light by Sages. To put it in another way, light on our plane is darkness in the higher spheres. The Secret Doctrine reminds us that the 'Body of Light' is the darkness of ignorance, but also that of silence and secrecy. Of the Creations mentioned in the Puranas, the first is that of Mahatattva, in which the primordial self-evolution of that which had to become Mahat, the Divine Mind or Spirit of the Universal Soul, takes place. This creation witnesses the emanation of Light (Spirit) out of Absolute Uncreate 'Darkness', and it is followed by a secondary creation involving darkness, not to be confused with Pre-Cosmic Darkness. This secondary creation belongs to the triple aspect of Ahamkara ('I-Am-Ness'), that which first issues from Mahat. At this stage, the first shadowy outline of selfhood unfolds, wherein the devas who are the originators of form will do their work. This is allegorized in the Vishnu Purana, where the creations subsequent to the First are spoken of in terms of the Bodies of Brahma. Concentrating his mind (Brahma's) "onto itself and the quality of darkness (matter) pervading (his) assumed body", he produced the Asuras from his thigh, "after which abandoning this body it was transformed into Night". Here, Asuras (demons) is derived directly from asu, referring to the Breath of God, and indicates several classes of beings, including those which have the power to dispel ignorance, and Rakshasas, whose concern it is to preserve the silence and secrecy of truth from profanation.

  Thus, in the Creations, darkness follows light and all emanate from that Darkness which is the Ever-Concealed Deity. In the Book of Hermes, Pymander appears to Hermes saying, "The Light is me, I am the Nous, I am thy God, and I am far older than the human principle which escapes from the shadow ('Darkness' or the concealed Deity)." This Light refers to the Second Logos, which, whilst preceding the Light of the human (Third) Logos, is itself emanated from the Body of Night, into whose essence the First Logoic ray has withdrawn. This archetypal occult process does not take place in steps through time. In reality, "Darkness radiates Light" continually, and those who have the ability to transcend the brain-mind, which is only able to perceive things in increments of contrast on the gross physical level, experience this regularly. The Day and Night of Brahma are not merely successive cycles, but have to do with planes that coexist. Humans seem to move through them in time, but that too is mayavic because they are simultaneously manifested all along. Time and space, that which seems to separate us in one state from another, are complete illusions. Man can assume the perspective of the Builder who rested in the darkness of Paranishpanna prior to beginning the work of producing "Form from No-Form". Right now, not in time, man can be in that state where Non-Ego, Voidness and Darkness are the Three-in-One.

  The lower mind of man, the darkness in which the owl is most active, is filled with bhuts and evil possibilities. It is heavy and covers one like a leaden cloak. The owl experiences this absence of physical light in a very different way. We know that with its extraordinary sight it can see well enough to hunt in natural darkness. It does so, in part, by focussing upon patterns of movement, which it anticipates skillfully. More important, it relies strongly on its remarkable sense of hearing with which it 'sees' with precision what the enveloping night holds. In this manner it is vibrantly in touch with an entire environment only very dimly sensed by human beings. The owl not only sees in the dark, but in the daylight as well. It possesses twenty-four-hour vision through which it can participate equally in both aspects of the universal cycle, which we easily see as analogous to life and death as well as to manvantaras and pralayas. The light and darkness on the other side of darkness in this way coexist for the owl.

  It is said that Athena originated in Lemuria at the close of the Third Race. This would correspond with her task of assisting Prometheus to create a new race, for it was during that time that thinking man emerged. Now, just as before that period there had been cycles of development followed by obscuration, so also, after that period, the flood of darkness covered all. Twice, long before the rise of the Third Sub-Race (of the Fifth Race) in Greece, was there darkness covering sunken continents and civilizations dimly remembered. With the impetus of the Hellenic flowering, far-sighted Athena blossomed forth to stir up bright and penetrating beams of consciousness in human beings and teach them how to look beyond the darkened veil of appearances. To them the owl was the symbol of all that is capable of seeing through duality to the core which transcends it. To them the owl symbolized all that was wise. But later people, like the medieval Christians, scorned the goddess and reviled her owl. For these, what had been a joyful and protective omen became an emblem of evil and death. In the fluctuations of light and dark, the rise and fall of civilizations, what was life for one people at one time became death for another. The occult truth that lies between these apparent opposites is often glimpsed by one who, though vainly seeking it throughout life, discovers it only as death comes. Out of darkness comes light and it existed all the time.

  Just as this may happen to an individual, so too with nations. As Hegel eloquently pointed out, at the collapse of a great civilization, when all is lost, Minerva's owl can appear and reveal the painful truth. He may come in the form of a Sage who might have been overlooked by almost everyone when things were going well. Thus are old cycles brought to a close to be replaced with the new. The Siberian owl carries its message from an old and dying European culture to the seedbed for the new civilization of the future. It is, in part, like a rich swan-song wafted across the darkness separating two continents. There will be those who hear the song and merely give poor and superficial imitations of it, but there will be some who see to the heart of the melody and recognize its original spiritual genius. In order to do this, one must, like the owl, listen at the highest possible level of one's being. Only in darkness, when the appearances of the daylit world have been seen for the illusion they are, can one listen well enough to become wise. The wonderfully large ears of a Buddha or a Gandhi belonged to beings who were profound listeners attuned to the universal sounds of Akashic heights. To see what to do in their lives they had to perceive first the patterns in what is a blinding darkness to others.

  The owl has always been associated with death, but for two quite different reasons. To those who saw darkness and death existing fully in light and life, the owl was a symbol of transcendence, whose hooting was a constant reminder of the Oneness inherent in duality. To those who feared darkness and death, the owl's appearance could only strike panic in their hearts. Ill prepared to learn the painful truth, they would see the owl as evil, when in reality he is merely (like the Rakshasas) preserving the secrecy and sacredness of Truth from general profanation. The ancient Chinese were very intuitive when they identified the owl as a Sage who monitored the propitious time for making mirrors and swords. The owl's nature perfectly reflects the means by which the human mind can become like a Truth-re flecting mirror which, with the sword-like accuracy of the great bird's brilliant gaze, can cut through the layers of endless contrasts to a realm of Absolute Light.

  At twilight one glimpses this. This is the moment of Truth. If one is still appearing as nothing in the eyes of others, camouflaged to blend in while listening deeply to the often poignant undercurrent of sound that lies behind the cacophony and bright dazzle of the world, one may discover the thread that connects one's own incarnations and the incarnations of billions with the Logoic Light. One can soar like the owl through darkness and light with equal ease, arriving at last, beyond all boreal forests and the acropolis as we know them, at the pristine origin of Light and Life.

His silent flight and piercing gaze
Scatter the rodents from the maze;
And in devotion to that Sage
They likewise in their minds did cage
The rodent-thoughts of worldly wage.
Entering thus, in stillness held,
They pierced the dark and Truth beheld.