Owls inhabit every continent on the planet except Antartica. There are more than 200 species of owls and many enjoy a lifespan of about twenty years. Throughout history, owls have appeared in lore and mythology both as symbols of wisdom and as harbingers of bad luck. Annually on Halloween in the United States, the owl often is used as a spooky decoration, standing sentinel at the entrance to a haunted house. Its eerie hooting also adds delightful creepiness to a haunted hayride.
Physical appearance contributes to air of mystery
Owls have large staring eyes that can make a human feel as if the creature is staring into the depths of the soul. In actuality, the owl's oversized eyes allow for better vision for hunting. The enlarged size of the owls' eyes means they can't move them in any direction. To compensate, owls swivel their entire head when hunting. This physiological trait often has humans believing that owls can swivel their head from front to back. This is not true. According to the San Diego Zoo, most owls only can swivel their heads no more than 270 degrees in either direction.
In addition, some owls have tufts of feathers atop their heads that appear like horns, leading to some ancient beliefs that the bird was a creature of the devil or demons, which may lend to the usage of owls for Halloween decor. Their distinctive cries that can echo through the forest or countryside at night, also added to the layers of spookiness surrounding this mostly nocturnal creature.
Bad luck or symbol of wisdom?
In ancient Greece, the owl was associated with the Goddess Athena. The owl's wide, staring contributed speculation the creature had the inner sight or unnatural depths of wisdom. However, the owl also became associated with the darker side of mysticism, connected to crones-typically depicted as an old witch woman, which may connect the bird to the superstition that it is a symbol of bad luck. In many cultures, the owl is seen as guide through the Underworld and the ability to reveal anyone who presents a false truth. The owl's nocturnal nature most likely is the link between the various beliefs and folklore surrounding the owl and its magical abilities.
Death, bad luck and swooping owls
Throughout history, humans have created stories and legends to explain the things they didn't fully understand; this includes the mystery of death. One ancient Greek and Roman superstition contended witches could manifest into owls, swooping in and sucking the life out of innocent babies in order to extend their own life force. Another superstition proposes the hoot of the owl means the death of a newborn baby (most likely a derivative of the ancient Greek and Roman lore. A different superstition states the owl's hoot predicts the approach of a dangerous storm. In both Europe and early America, superstitious people believed that to see an owl perched on a house roof, foretold of death coming to that house.
Not such bad luck for some
Author J.K. Rowling used the owl extensively in her Harry Potter book series. For this author, the owl was a symbol of loyalty, wisdom and good. In Houston, Minnesota, the International Festival of Owls is held annually. The owl is celebrated for its uniqueness at this festival that promotes owl education through various activities and events.