An owl may symbolize wisdom in general; or that wisdom that belongs to the unconscious (night = unconscious); or intuition (associated with woman, who is associated with the moon); or knowledge of the unconscious (owls see in the dark; darkness = the unconscious).
In mythology, an owl may symbolize evil or death. The owl, like the tiger, has a numinous, awesome quality and, like all numinous things, is ambivalent: good and evil, bringing both wisdom and death. No wonder, then, that the owl may represent the unconscious or point towards it: the unconscious is invariably frightening and even threatening to one who has not made its acquaintance; it also contains all that we need for wholeness.
The archetypal symbolism of the Owl involves the keen insight of true wisdom. Furthermore, the owl flying and hunting at night, may suggest its knowledge is amassed from the dark recesses of an enigmatic unconscious. Fittingly, this sapient dream figure may represent a reflection of our own insight. In other words, the dream owl is reminding us that we instinctively possess all the necessary solutions to our own questions and personal quandaries. Accordingly, we may need to analyze the color of the owl and symbolic meaning of all characters and backgrounds which exist in conjunction with it, to fathom the presence of our obscured waking wisdom within the boundaries of the dream landscape itself.
The owl is the bird sacred to Athene, goddess of wisdom, and shares the goddess’s attribute. A nocturnal bird, related to the Moon and unable to bear sunlight, it is in this respect in sharp contrast with the eagle, which gazes directly at the Sun. Guenon observes that in this particular may be seen the relationship of the owl with Athene-Minerva, symbol of rational knowledge - perception of reflected (lunar) light (see mirror) - by contrast with intuitive knowledge - direct perception of (solar) light.
In Hindu iconography, the owl is sometimes an attribute of Varahi, the mother, although no precise significance can be attached to it.
In Ancient China the owl played an important part, being a terrifying creature which was supposed to have devoured its own mother. It symbolized yang, and even a superabundance of yang. Its manifestation occurred at the Summer solstice and it was identified with the drum and with thunder. It was also related to smelting.
The owl is also one of the most ancient symbols of China, going back to times known as the mythical period. Some writers maintain that it is confused with the Dragon-Torch, the emblem of the second dynasty, the Yin. It was the emblem of the thunderbolt and was depicted on royal standards. The bird was sacred to the solstices and to metal-workers and in ancient times presided over the days on which smiths made swords and magic mirrors.
In the medicine lodge during the initiation rites of the Midewiwin society among the Algonquin Indians, was perched the figure of ‘the owl-being, that guides into the Land of the Setting Sun, the land of the dead’. In this context the owl played the part of conductor of souls.
To the Aztecs, the owl was the creature which symbolized the god of Hell, as did the spider. In many of the codices, the owl is depicted as the ‘wardress of the dark house of Earth’. Through its association with chthonian forces, it was also an avatar (embodiment) of darkness, rain and storm. This symbolism associated it with both death and the lunar-terrestrial powers of the unconscious which govern the waters, plants and growth in general.
The grave furniture of the pre-Inca Peruvian Chimu civilization often includes depictions of a sacrificial knife with a half-moon blade and a handle in the shape of a god who is half human and half night-bird, or owl. The symbol is clearly linked to the idea of death or of sacrifice and the deity wears a necklace of pearls or sea shells, his chest is painted red and he is flanked by a couple of dogs, recognized conductors of souls. This owl often holds a sacrificial knife in one hand and in the other an urn to catch the victim’s blood.
Under Christian influence, it was regarded askance, so that the benign symbolism of the owl was probably pre-Christian. In the tale of Math the son of Mathonwy, Llew’s faithless wife, Blodeuwedd, is changed into an owl to punish her adultery with a neighbouring lord.