The Spiritual Significance of Owls

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I woke from dreamless sleep to an owl’s cries outside my bedroom window. I was in the woods on Lake Superior in October. As its calls plucked my consciousness from the void, my soul shivered. Breathing suspended. The moment crystallized. Within my bones bloomed a deep recognition.

The owl called again.

It was then I knew my friend was going to die.

(You can read about her story in the Night Workers post, right here.)

Who’s Who?

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Owls have a rather polarizing reputation. Depending on where you live, your beliefs, your culture, you may revere the owl, or fear the owl. (Or in the case of some of my bird nerd friends, they will stick to enjoying owls as raptors, thank you very much.) 

Owls are fascinating. Their fluffy flight feathers make them nearly silent as they stalk their prey, their luminous eyes are immobile, boosting depth perception to extremes, and they are crowned by that gloriously absurd head rotation. (But, a field mouse would then notice the beak-and the claws, the asymmetrical ears-the better to hear you with, my sweet.)

Owls are pretty cool. We loved them in the Harry Potter books and films. Pop culture has helped cast the birds into some specific niches, which has reinforced our own ideas about them.  

To many people, owls represent wisdom-perhaps it’s the way their eyes are open wide to the world, that yards’-long stare (or over half a mile, in some instances) perfectly designed to track prey in the blackest of nights. The ability to see through the dark is associated with Athena, of Greek mythology, who came to be known as the Goddess of Wisdom. She was represented as an owl and later was often depicted with one. A.A. Milne’s 100 Acre Wood has Owl, and Richard C. O’ Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH featured a terrifying, ancient, and wise raptor (perhaps made more so by the fact our heroine was a field mouse!).

If you Google owls, you’ll find a plethora of associations about their character and spiritual significance. 

Magic. Mystery. Trust. Transition. Intuition. 

These silent night stalkers invite conjecture.

Multiple cultures across time believe owls as a harbinger of death-the ultimate transition. Once, in some spaces and places, spotting an owl meant imminent doom. Some believed owls were a psychopomp-there to sweep away the souls of the sick to the next realm. Shakespeare wrote about owls as omens of ill luck. Yet, other cultures associate owls with fertility, and in some countries they are a totem of good fortune.

Given their paradoxical roles, it is no wonder they are featured in numerous Oracle and Tarot decks. Like the oft-feared black cat, owls were often thought to be witches’ familiars, too.

Revered, feared, or neither? 

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I was always in the meh camp when it came to proclaiming judgment on animals. Animals are magic in general to me. (Except sharks. That’s a nope.) Chipmunks are some of my BFF’s. I love fish. Owls were always the elusive and cool kids.

That feeling evolved, when the owl called and I listened. The universe was knocking (or hooting in this instance). Lying awake during the witching hour, crisp frost on the ground, the owl’s call was plaintive, and as my eyelids snapped up as far as they could go, I could see nothing in the dark space of the bedroom. My heart, and the marrow of my bones- my DNA on some cellular level told me that my friend wasn’t long for this world. 

Perhaps it wasn’t my gut that knew-I wasn’t channeling the owl’s message, at that moment I was the field mouse.

However, I may have had a clue. It wasn’t the first loss.

It takes more than one stone to build a bridge. 

Two short months earlier, my husband, son, and I were on a walk in the woods. We spotted a stunning barred owl in the twilight. It eyed us, curious, and we did the same. Our two-year-old wasn’t nearly as enthralled, but we adults were pretty excited to glimpse the elusive bird. Something in that moment churned my gut. I felt brittle, hollow and light, like an owl’s bones.

I knew it was the last walk we’d all take together in that place.

Two days later, the adoption of our beautiful son dissolved due to his complicated family background.

There was nothing we could do.


Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

So when I found myself wide awake in the north woods, two months later, with dread in my heart. It wasn’t until that moment that I sat up and Googled the spiritual significance of owls.

I was truly shocked.

For a long time after that, I felt guilty about fearing such beautiful birds. I reminded myself about those who cherish their visits-a friend’s daughter who passed on, absolutely adored Harry Potter. Owls are her sign. A joyful hello.

I tried watching videos of people rescuing baby owls and feeding them. Their awkward faces, floofy feathers, and ridiculous noises were so muppety. It still wasn’t enough though.

Much like grief, the thing that eased it for me was time.

It’s been three years now, and earlier this summer I heard the soft whinny of an eastern screech owl outside our bedroom window. I checked within apprehensively, and I felt nothing.

On a walk, I discovered a gorgeous barred owl feather.

Once more, I went within, and I felt nothing. 

This time I smiled.

Not Every Cardinal is a Sign From Heaven

Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

My belief in animal signs, spirit animals, and totems evolved from wishful thinking, to belief. That was my experience, but we have to keep in mind that not every cardinal is a sign from heaven. Trust your gut. Ask yourself: what else do you feel in the moment when you get your sign? Take a second and check in. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, it’s about your feeling, that animal instinct.

Now when I see an owl, I pay attention, and enjoy the moment. I tune into my other spidey senses, tugging that web- because sometimes it’s a sign.

And sometimes a bird is just a bird.

What do owls signify to you? Do you believe in spirit animals? Signs or warnings from above? Post your comments in the box below, we all love a good animal story!

And if you haven’t yet, you should really check out some of those baby owl videos. They will lift your spirits.

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