The owl is an ancient symbol that has long been connected to occult groups and rituals. There are plenty of sites that will show ancient and modern examples and give a quick sketch of the meanings. For an example of a sanitized academic version, click here; for a more typical in-depth internet dive, click here. There are countless sites like this that turn up in a simple search.
Mural of Great Goddess from Tepantitla Palace (reconstruction), circa 400-700, Teotihuacan, Mexico
Owls were associated with darkness and death in ancient Mexico as well. Here, the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, a spider goddess of the underworld, and her priests wear symbolic owl headdress. The abundant pictures of human sacrifice in this complex drives home the evil nature of the symbol.
E.H. Shepard, So Owl wrote, ink on paper, 7.4 x 5.5 cm, Private collection
But the history of the symbol is ambiguous and there are plenty of positive associations as well. The wise old owl is a long running motif, and the bird's nocturnal nature even led to occasional use as a symbol of the Resurrection. And everyone knows Pooh's stuffy friend.
So how do we know what to make of a symbol like this, and why is so often favored by organizations with dark reputations?
The Witches’ Sabbath, engraving after Parmigiano, 1732
An eighteenth-century copy of a Renaissance picture showing a prominent owl connected with black magic.
Let's start by breaking it down
Groups use symbols to represent their ideas and define themselves. Symbols are a bit like writing in this way, because they can preserve knowledge and identity so long as people can read them. But they are also more vague in their associations than words, which are more precise, and people and meanings shift over time. So we have at least three different things to consider:
There are three basic parts to the meaning of a symbol that have to be considered in order to understand it. The names of the categories are arbitrary - what matters is what they describe.
The Idea refers to the concept or concepts that need a symbol
The Symbol is the actual symbol
The Users are the people or groups that use the symbol
Many symbols are ancient, and have been used in similar but different ways throughout history. Does the same symbol mean the same users? This is the perspective taken by most researchers into the Illumnati - that occultist elites have remained the same for millennia through ritual and nepotism. The Band can't prove that either way, but it doesn't have to. Entirely new users can take up an old symbol to express the same idea.
Animals as symbols
Animal symbolism goes back to the prehistoric past where it seems to be connected to supernatural or "religious" uses.
Löwenmensch or Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel, 33,000 and 38,000 BC, woolly mammoth ivory, 31.1 cm tall, Ulm Museum, Germany.
It is hard to talk about primitive religion because we know nothing about these people's beliefs, but they seem to have used animal symbols and hybrid animal-human creatures to represent beings and forces that were beyond the human.
In the earliest civilizations were we do have surviving writings, we learn that the oldest religions were polytheistic, meaning that they worshiped multiple gods with different areas of influence.
Wall painting showing Egyptian gods from the tomb of Pharaoh Horemheb, 18th dynasty 1323-1295 BC, Valley of the Kings, Egypt
Some of these gods still have animal parts, while some have animal symbols.
At the most basic level, the worship of gods and spirits comes down to power. On a personal level, the worshiper hopes to bring about a positive outcome, or avoid a negative one, by gaining the favor of a god. And as society got more complex, organized priesthoods use access to the gods as a means of political power. As an aside, the idea of trying to gain favor from supernatural entities is not different from sincere believers in the occult today.
Temple of Khonsu, 20th dynasty circa late 12th century BC, Karnak, Egypt
Someone had to look after those grand temples...
In general, animal symbols identify gods in terms of their areas of influence, but historical reality can make that confusing. Ancient polytheism had no set of theological rules or Bible, and different cultures, and cults within cultures had their own customs and beliefs. Even these weren't fixed and shifted and changed over time as civilizations rose and fell. The ancient Middle East was a string of different empires, each maintaining some continuity with the earlier mythology. This gets more confusing at the end of the ancient world when a series of huge multi-national empires - Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman - facilitated the movement of large numbers of people. Over time, some cults merged while others picked up details from others, meaning that the symbolism keeps changing.
Roman statues of Persephone/Isis, Cerberus, and Pluto/Serapis, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete
Syncretism is the word for the mixing of different belief systems without serious consideration of their incompatibilities. Ancient paganism could accommodate any number so shifting deities, cults, and philosophies without fundamentally changing. Here, we see syncretic fusions of Greco-Roman and Egyptian gods.
Fresco of cult ritual from the Villa of the Mysteries, circa 50 BC, Pompeii, Italy
Ancient religions didn't have holy books like the Bible, and rituals differed with culture and cult. In ancient Rome, cults to deities tended to be secretive, involving initiation into "mysteries". The problem is that what these were died out with the users.
In addition to the gods, the ancients tended to see the world as filled with other supernatural beings that also needed to be managed. Trying to define one specific meaning for a symbol is nearly impossible. You have to look at who is using it, and why.
The owl has been associated with night and darkness, evil, knowledge and perception, and sometimes rebirth. Like any animal symbol, these are based on appearance and behavior. Owls are nocturnal, which accounts for night, rebirth (rising when most sleep) and evil (living backwards or in reverse to the norm), and their large eyes and night vision are a natural metaphor for for "seeing". These associations are pretty broad, and it is easy to see how they could be applied to lots of contexts.
Burney Relief / Queen of the Night, likely Ereshkigal or Ishtar, 19th-18th century BC, Old Babylonian, clay, 49.5 x 37 cm, British Museum, London
Sinister meanings seem the oldest. It is not clear who this god is, but it is most likely Ereshkigal, an Babylonian deity associated with night and the underworld.
The association with the Greek goddess Athena appears more positive, considering the importance of Athens to the Western tradition. She was not always connected with the owl, but by the sixth century BC the link is becoming established (click for an in-depth look at the classical history). Athena was the goddess of wisdom among other things, so this is evidence of an early connection between the owl and supernatural knowledge.
Attributed to the Brygos Painter, Athena holding a helmet and a spear, with an owl. Attic red-figure lekythos, circa 490-480 BC, terracotta, 32.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This vase is about 2500 years old, and it clearly shows Athena with the identifying owl.
Minerva, second century AD, 18th-century resorations, white marble, gilded onyx, 1,33 m, Louvre Museum
Minerva was the Roman name for Athena, and you can see that the name and style have changed, the symbols - helmet and owl - stay the same. It was restored in the 1700s, meaning that people with no connection to the original users are working closely with the symbols.
This is how symbols live on through time.
Silver tetradrachm coin with the owl of Athena, circa 480-420 BC, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France
Athena was also the patron of Athens, so the presence of her owl on their money was meant as a protective symbol. The ΑΘΕ inscription is an abbreviation stating that the coin is from Athens.
Christianity combined metaphysics and religion into theology and reoriganized the chaotic mess of ancient polytheism into a more binary opposition. On one side, there is a transcendent God as the source of being and cosmic order, while the whole mess of false and misleading idols and other fronts for human vanity lands on the other.
Gustave Doré, The Triumph of Christianity over Paganism, 1868, Oil on canvas, 300 × 200 cm, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Canada
From this perspective, the old gods were recast as diabolic deceptions and suppressed, though many survived in the form of unofficial folk practices.
Owls, as night creatures, became connected with all sorts of moral inversions during the Middle Ages, from the Jews, who rejected Christ, to the sorcery of witches.
In more learned culture the gods survived in a variety of symbolic forms. Some forms of Renaissance magic was based on the idea that the ancient formulas had power, and the "gods" were references to spirits, daemons, and other supernatural entities.
The gods also lived on as symbols for celestial phenomena. Renaissance astrology was based on the belief that heaven and earth were linked by cosmic spheres marked by the planets, which were named after ancient deities. By reading planetary movements, astrologers believes that they could predict what would happen on earth.
Abraham Cresques, Atlas de Cartes Marines (the Catalan Atlas), 1375, vellum mounted on wooden panel, 65 × 50 cm, Bibliothèque nationale de France
The idea that the universe was a sort of interlocking machine goes back to the ancient Greeks and continues through the Middle Ages. This chart from a Catalan atlas shows the familiar spheres with the earth in the middle and the heavens on the outside. The gold ring shows the same zodiac signs that are popular today. Watching them move is a way of tracking the bigger cosmic movements that drive events on earth.
The lasting popularity of astrology means that many Christians were in the habit of believing that their lives were influenced by what were originally pagan deities. The fact that planets, constellations, and other heavenly bodies are named after mythological beings just shows how symbols live on.
Once a symbol is known, anyone can take it up. The association may be different, but the ideas are consistent. So when we look at ancient symbols, we need to know what they are understood to mean, but even more importantly, WHO is using them? When a modern group used a symbol, ask why? Especially when that symbol is oddly prominent or common. Remember, people can chose anything, so excuses for why a symbol isn't sinister mean less than the reasons for why you did choose it.
Jakob Bohme, Mysterium pansophicum
A lot of old symbolism came back into the spotlight during the Renaissance, when all kinds of ancient knowledge was being revived. The tangled mess of polytheism, occultism, and philosophy of the late antique period sometimes known as Hermeticism found its way into elite circles alongside Virgil and Galen.
Knowledge is power, and Renaissance students of ancient occultism hoped to attain the kinds of abilities that they read about in old texts. This was the time when alchemical societies like the Rosicrucians formed, while even the Church seemed to welcome this expansion of knowledge. For a while, it looked like humans were reaching the deepest secrets of reality and uniting Christian and ancient knowledge in a universal whole. But it was short lived.
Michelangelo, Night, 1526-31, marble, 1526-31, 155 x 150 cm, from the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Sagrestia nuova, San Lorenzo in Florence.
Even in the Renaissance, the owl's dark associations remained. Michelangelo's figure of Night, one of four personifications of the times of day in the project, included identifying details. The most noticable are the owl and theater mask. It is notable how many scholars attempt to wave away the meaning of the owl as a generic symbol of the night, or as a reference to the wisdom of Minerva, despite that not being an artistic association at the time.
The mask tells us that we are in a world of deceptions, meaning that the associations of the figure aren't positive. Now, consider Michelangelo actually shows us. Look at the placement of the owl between Night's legs and the wrinkled skin on her belly.
Michelangelo, Dawn, 1526-31, marble, 1526-31, 155 x 150 cm, from the tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Sagrestia nuova, San Lorenzo in Florence.
It is true that Michelangelo wasn't great at sculpting females, but the personification of Dawn, in the same room and designed at the same time, shows how he conceived a young woman differently. Look at the differences in the skin on their stomachs. Night is a mother, and what she gives birth to are dark and deceptive phantasms.
Even if the skin doesn't convince, the placement of the owl is not accidental. Michelangelo was a meticulous designer, and Dawn isn't birthing anything.
Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799, etching, aquatint, drypoint and burin, 21.5 cm × 15 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The association of owls with the literally un-reasonable terrors of the dark lasts long past Michelangelo. Goya's print appeared during the Enlightenment and reframes the monstrous in terms of reason and sanity, rather than Christian ethics, but the connotations of the owl are the same.
Note how owls and bats predominate among the "monsters". For what it's worth, Goya often painted scenes of witchcraft and the occult, so the symbolism is familiar to him.
Two things worked to kill this respectable Renaissance occult: the Reformation and the Scientific Revolution.
Ettore Ferrari, Giordano Bruno, 1889, bronze, Campo de’ Fiori, Rome
The Reformation divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant Christians, putting much more of an emphasis on precision and purity in belief. When people are dying over points of doctrine, official tolerance of heterodoxy goes down, although this has little effect on hypocrisy.
Bruno was a heterodox thinker with an odd blend of beliefs, including Hermetic occultism, who was burned at the stake for heresy. Something of a saint to idiot Postmodernists, his monument was funded by the Freemasons, and the artist was a member of that order.
Giuseppe Bertini, Galileo Showing the Doge of Venice how to use the Telescope, 1858, fresco, Villa Andrea Ponti, Varese, Italy
The Scientific Revolution attacked from the other side, redefining truth as what can be shown empirically. None of the older beliefs in things like alchemy, divination, astrology, manipulation of spirits, etc. could be empirically proven, so they were evicted from science as well.
With empiricism and faith clearly defined, where does all the other occult "wisdom" go?
From Darkness to Light, poster, New York: Hazen, 1908. The illustrations are based on Albert G. Mackey's Manual of the Lodge, New York: Macoy Publishing, 1862.
More modern occultists turn up in secret societies and other organizations, often hiding behind the organizations' reputable activities. Post-Enlightenment groups like the Masons downplay the supernatural for the powers of human "enllightenment", but their symbolism is full of old religious and Hermetic references.
The question to ask is not whether all Masons are occultists, because they obviously aren't. The question to ask is why choose those symbols, with all their history, in the first place?
If we can proceed empirically and stick to what is at least credible given our limited information, it is apparent that some elites actually believe in supernatural powers, while others see the images and rituals more as signs of membership in circles of power. They all share the same goals - worldly power and influence - but have different attitudes towards what that means. As always, the latter group provides legitimacy and cover for the former, whether they know it or not.
The plaque on the Bohemian Club in San Francisco and the huge owl altar at Bohemian Grove have fueled rumors surrounding this exclusive group of elites.
The motto on the plaque is usually explained as meaning members should leave their scheming and politicking outside - this is for pleasure. But a spider with an owl was probably a reference to Arachne, which comes back to Athena and the wisdom connection. But there is a threat here too. The owl is almost all-seeing eye watchful, and remember what happened to Arachne...
Walter Crane, She Changed her into a Spider, frontispiece to Mary Macgregor's The Story of Greece: Told to Boys and Girls, London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, date uncertain.
Arachne challenged Athena and was turned into a spider for her hubris.
The thing about symbols as old and ambiguous as the owl is that they are impossible to pin down. Any claim can be answered with another interpretation. But symbols never mean one thing. They move through history gathering meanings which hang around like ornaments on a Christmas tree, and any knowledgeable user will be aware of that. The choice usually takes all this into consideration, because it it the cluster of meanings that refines and focuses the symbolism. A different sign of wisdom - a book or a lighthouse, for example, would bring different associations.
So why chose this one?