The Owl: Wisdom and Doom

When I was out shopping for Christmas presents on the high street in December, I was struck by the ubiquity of owl accessories: owl jewellery, owl cushions, owl key rings – owl motifs everywhere:

48529081_m1Brian Barn Owl Ring, Accessorize.

75a27bcor_thumbCoral Owl Drop Earrings, Miss Selfridge.

image1l1Long Beaded Owl and Acorn Pendant, ASOS.

41e1jh-iril_ss500_Darling Owl Overnight Weekend Bag, Bobbypin.

image1lStone Encrusted Owl Brooch, ASOS.


Owl Pendant, Accessorize.

Coincidence? Or – since design is always a reflection of zeitgeist – sign of a general yearning for wisdom, stoicism and insight in times of crisis?


André Breton, Poème-objet (La chouette noire), 1955.

For the ancient Greeks, the owl, as the attribute of goddess Minerva, indeed represented wisdom, but its nocturnal habits also commonly aroused fear, loathing and ridicule, earning the bird a reputation as an essentially evil creature, a harbinger of doom. Thus ornithologist Jacques Delamain wrote in the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1935, conflating vernacular myth and scientific explanation in a manner characteristic of the Surrealists:

When it comes to the barn owl, certain individuals are phosphorescent, because tiny particles of the rotten wood they get in touch with in tree cavities remain stuck to their plumage; this explanation is reassuring, but can one contemplate without agitation these luminous phantoms that silently pass over the fields in complete darkness? […] Ought one to be surprised, then, that man’s imagination has created around the owl a network of sinister fables?


Pablo Picasso, Chouette et trois oursins, 1946.

I was also reminded of a funny anecdote I read a while ago: apparently Picasso, who created several owl paintings, drawings and ceramics in the 1940s and 50s, owned a pet owl for some years during this period. It was christened UBU, partly out of assonance with the French word for ‘owl,’ ‘hibou,’ and partly after the obnoxious hero of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi. This is how the bird found its way into his care:

While Pablo was still working at the Musée d’Antibes, [Michel] Sima had come to us one day with a little owl he had found in the corner of the museum. One of his claws had been injured. We bandaged it and gradually it healed. We bought a cage for him and when we returned to Paris we brought him back with us and put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons, the turtledoves. We were very nice to him but he only glared at us. Any time we went into the kitchen, the canaries chirped, the pigeons cooed and the turtledoves laughed but the owl remained stolidly silent or, at best, snorted. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice. […] Every time the owl snorted at Pablo he would shout, ‘Cochon, Merde,’ and a few other obscenities, just to show the owl that he was even worse mannered than he was. He used to stick his fingers between the bars of the cage and the owl would bite him… Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually he came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy.

Françoise Gilot, quoted in Neil Cox and Deborah Povey, A Picasso Bestiary.

4 thoughts on “The Owl: Wisdom and Doom

  1. Interesting post. I like how you’ve linked the decorative arts, fine arts, and philosophy around the owl. The owl is iconic & charismatic, its image & call familiar. Think of the darkened woods late at night, an old abandoned house or barn, the owl’s plaintive call sounding eerily. Or the magician, an owl perched on his bookcase, books full of arcane knowledge.

  2. Loved the viewpoint of this,
    but just one correction:
    Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, yes.
    But not the Greek one,
    that is Athena.

    And although they are considered the same people,
    the Greeks do not call her Minerva.

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