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Have you ever seen an owl when it’s pitch black outside and watched it turn its head 270 degrees so it could get a better look at you?
The owl’s huge eyes make you feel like it’s looking through you, as its penetrating glare leaves a chill down your spine.
In many Indigenous and African cultures, seeing an owl is a bad omen — a sign of something dreadful to come.
Owl Sightings and Bad Omens
“Cuando el tecolote canta, el indio muere” is an old saying in Mexico that means “when the owl sings, the Indian dies.” To the Aztecs and Mayans, the owl was a harbinger of death and a symbol of destruction. In fact, if an Aztec heard an owl above their home or in a nearby tree, they believed that someone was going to die soon. And, in many Native American cultures, adults warned their children that if they didn’t stay inside at night and behave, an owl might carry them away.
Perhaps it’s their eerie nighttime hooting or their silent flight before they attack their prey that makes these birds the subject of many spooky stories and legends. Cultures in East Africa believed that owls brought illnesses to children, and many people in Nigeria believe that owls are possessed by witches.
Although there are no superstitions in the Baha’i Faith, Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, acknowledged the depressing effect that owls can have on some people.
In 1868, Baha’u’llah, along with His family and companions, was banished to the prison city of ‘Akká, because He announced He was the latest messenger sent from God and shared revolutionary messages of the oneness of humanity, the oneness of religion, the equality of women and men, and the agreement of science and religion.
The Ottoman Empire didn’t expect anyone they sent to ‘Akká to survive for very long. The city had no source of fresh water, filthy streets, and an air so putrid that birds flying overhead would drop dead out of the sky. Abdu’l-Baha was imprisoned for 40 years there and referred to this city as “the capital of the owl’s realm, where thou wilt hear no sound, save only the echo of his repeated calls.”
There were a few trees inside the walls, and on their branches, as well as up on the battlements, the owls cried all night long. How disquieting is the hoot of an owl; how it saddens the heart.
Abdu’l-Baha also used owls to symbolize loss, damnation, and emptiness. He wrote:
Although to outward seeming the divines and the unjust and foolish rulers are raising an uproar and flaunting themselves, erelong ye shall witness how, like the owls of the night, these people will creep into a desolate ruin, hasten to the tomb of eternal loss, and fall into the abyss of everlasting perdition. Even now, they wander distracted in the wilderness of disappointment, while the friends of God gleam brightly from the horizon of everlasting glory.
Owls: Symbols of Wisdom
Now, owls don’t only elicit feelings of fear or melancholy. The trope of the wise owl often appears in Western fables and literature. This association likely dates back to Ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, the little owl — referred to as the “owl of Athena” — accompanies Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and reveals truth and knowledge to her. This owl is also called the “owl of Minerva,” who is the goddess of wisdom, healing, and the arts in Roman mythology. This owl is currently the smallest owl in Britain with a height of 22 centimeters.
And, in Hinduism, an owl is almost always in the presence of Maa Lakshmi, the goddess of wisdom, health, luck, and prosperity. This owl symbolizes intelligence, wit, and wisdom and is known to not waver in its decisions.
The Spiritual and Prophetic Meaning of Owls
Owls are also mentioned in an inspiring prophecy about humanity’s future. Abdu’l-Baha said that when humanity becomes loving, considerate, and united and extols all of God’s prophets “in the spirit of acceptance and true vision,” then “this world will become a paradise, and the promised Day of God will dawn. Then, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, the wolf and the lamb will drink from the same stream, the owl and the vulture will nest together in the same branches, and the lion and the calf pasture in the same meadow.”
The owl and the vulture nesting together spiritually represents the association and reconciliation between people of different beliefs, religions, and creeds. Abdu’l-Baha explained:
There will never be a day when this prophecy will come to pass literally, for these animals by their natures cannot mingle and associate in kindness and love. Therefore, this prophecy symbolizes the unity and agreement of races, nations and peoples who will come together in attitudes of intelligence, illumination and spirituality.
The Baha’i Faith is made of people from different colors, cultures, and classes who praise all of the prophets of God, believe in the truth of all religions, and spend their lives working for universal peace.
Regardless of what your feelings of owls might be, these birds are fascinating creatures with amazing night vision, extraordinary head rotations, and impressive camouflaging abilities. They are also free pest and rodent exterminators, so I’m grateful to have them around.