To diurnal humans, nocturnal hunters are disturbing and unnatural. When they’re also silent as they fly through the air, they have all the ingredients of terror. Today we may cherish owls and value their uncanny abilities, but in the past they resulted in many superstitions. In this article and tomorrow’s sequel, I look at some of my favourite paintings of owls, and how they have been portrayed in art.
In many paintings, owls have been painted simply as another bird, without sinister connotation.
Albrecht Dürer’s delightful watercolour of a Little Owl (1508) may not be what you and I would now call a little owl, but shows the increasing care that was being taken to paint owls and other species more true to life. We should not, therefore, sit with a modern bird guide next to Dürer or Bosch’s paintings and follow modern identification techniques to try to determine exactly what they were representing.
A hundred and fifty years later, though, works such as Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s Concert of the Birds (1670) may be more fanciful, but could also be expected to be more accurate and specific representations.
Francisco Goya’s Hunting with a Decoy was one of a batch of cartoons he delivered in May 1775 to be turned into tapestries. Together with its fine portrait of a dog it features five different birds. At the upper right, an owl and another bird are shown in flight, with a different owl and a small bird in cages below.
As decoys and prey to the hunter, an unfortunate number of owls appear as nature morte, as in Édouard Manet’s Dead Eagle Owl (1881), painted when he was convalescing from a serious bout of illness.
Apart from appearing as themselves, owls are a not uncommon painterly device for indicating the time of day, or rather night. Several species of owl seen in Europe are active in the daytime too, but their strong association with nocturnal flight and hunting predominates.
William Hogarth employs an owl, together with bats and other symbols of night, in his print The Third Stage of Cruelty: Cruelty in Perfection – The Murder (1751). Just in case its purpose isn’t crystal clear, he shows the owl close to the face on the church clock.
Caspar David Friedrich brought owls into his paintings for their association with night, as in his Owl on a Bare Tree (1834). But for Friedrich night was hardly a time for peace and pleasant dreams.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau flies his owls in support of a personification of the mythical Night (1883), as do others showing similar motifs. Interestingly these owls are invariably shown in dark plumage; there is no role here for the white spectre of the barn owl, for example.
The popular association of owls with wisdom and learning most probably originated from their more ancient association with the Roman goddess Minerva, and by descent from the Greek goddess Athena (or Athene).
Athena may go back to an even earlier Mycenean goddess. In archaic images, Athena is often seen with an owl perched on her hand, and there is a suggestion that she may have originally been a bird goddess, nearly two thousand years BCE. Whatever the origins, there is no doubt that Athena then Minerva were goddesses of wisdom, learning, crafts, and skill, and that they were strongly associated with owls. Thus owls became proxied symbols for wisdom and knowledge.
Minerva of the Romans also had Etruscan influences, which determined her name: the Etruscan goddess of war Menrva, with origins from an Italic moon goddess of similar name. This may have reinforced her association with owls, and some Etruscan images of her show her shield with an owl on it, although to a certain extent this might confuse her symbolism with that of night.
Hendrik Goltzius shows a classical and fairly complete set of her attributes in his Minerva (as the Personification of Wisdom) from 1611: the owl, her distinctive helmet, here decorated with olive leaves, a spear, books, and great beauty.
Simon Vouet tucks the owl and helmet away more discreetly in his Allegorical Portrait of Anna of Austria as Minerva from the 1640s.
Elihu Vedder’s mosaic showing Minerva of Peace (1897) follows the more traditional line in associating the owl with Minerva of wisdom, and he has even signed this work under his owl.
William Blake’s Hecate, The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795) is an altogether more puzzling watercolour. Hecate is the goddess of the moon, magic, and sorcery, and was sometimes shown in this triple form. She wasn’t normally associated with owls, though.
Blake may have made that link through night, although several who have tried to explain Blake’s symbols have invoked the owl as a symbol of the false or tainted wisdom that comes with sorcery. The latter doesn’t appear to have much support in the classics, though, and may have been peculiar to Blake’s own constructed mythology of Enitharmon.
Tomorrow I’ll develop the theme of owls and wisdom, and conclude with the greatest painter of incidental owls, Hieronymus Bosch.