The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
“Strega,” “strix,” “estrie”: these terms are synonyms for “witch,” although literally what they mean is “owl.” Owls were witches’ familiars from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Asia to modern Africa and Native America, with many stops in between. They represent divine yin: night, darkness, magic, and sacred lunar and feminine mysteries.
Owls are associated with wisdom, both conventional and secret, witchcraft, magic, sex, death, and birth. In the Eastern Hemisphere, owls were understood as emblematic of the uterus and as embodying the Great Mother’s power over life and death. Owls are sponsors of shamanism. They bestow gifts of clairvoyance and teach the arts of astral projection. They serve as guides to the realms of the spirits and the dead because, of course, owls can navigate the darkness.
There are approximately 135 living species in the order Strigiformes, varying in size from the six-inch elf owl to the three-foot long Great Gray Owl. Owls have a very distinctive shape. Only their silhouette may be required for identification. Compared to other birds, owls are fairly odd looking, resembling cats with wings. (If seated silently on a tree branch, it may be hard to immediately distinguish an owl from a cat, especially from a distance and in the dark.)
Their eyes are circular, evoking the full moon’s shape and glow. Some owls are even horned, or at least they appear to be.
Owls announce the night like crows herald the day. No bird or animal is more associated with night than owls.
Owls made a very early impression on people: in Les Trois Frères cave in France, home of the “Dancing Sorcerer,” an unmistakable outline of a pair of snowy owls together with their chicks is chipped from the rock face. Paleolithic “Eye-Goddesses” may represent stylized owls.
“Striges” was the Roman name for witch, typically understood malevolently. Owls were perceived as harbingers of doom, trouble, and death—in short bad news; however the Romans also had tremendous issues with women’s power. By the classical period, women were essentially property belonging to men: their husbands, fathers or brothers. Those women who rebelled, for instance those who joined the Bacchanalia, were punished. It was not a culture innately sympathetic to women’s sexual autonomy or to their sacred arts.
Strix came to be understood as a specific kind of witch: grotesque, sexually voracious, baby killing, female cannibals—all the negative stereotypes that still exist. This isn’t an integral part of the word’s meaning, however. Strix and its linguistic derivatives may also be understood to denote witchcraft’s positive attributes: knowledge of Earth’s powers, the ability to journey between realms, and acquisition of great wisdom, especially of crucial, secret topics.
Various sacred female spirits are profoundly identified with owls:
Owls are sacred to Athena. The small screech owl is her emblem and Homer describes Athena as “owlfaced.” It was popularly believed that Athena appeared on the battlefield as an owl during a Greek battle with the Persians.
Owls are identified with the Semitic wind spirit Lilith, whose name is cognate with “screech owl.” (There are those who deny that she appears in the Old Testament because the only clear reference to her may also be understood to literally mean “screech owl.”) Unlike most other formerly prominent Middle Eastern deities, Lilith, identified as Earth’s real first woman, survived to star in worldwide Jewish folklore, where she serves as the prototype of the witch.
Blodeuwedd, the Welsh magical woman, is formed from flowers. Since she is a magical being, she is immortal and cannot be punished by death for betraying and killing her husband Lleu; instead she is transformed into an owl, condemned to hunt alone at night for ever. The implication is that Blodeuwedd, as the embodiment of the lustful, fickle, secretive, plotting, murderous woman now displays her true form—that of a witch.
Owls fly with Tlazolteotl, Aztec witch-goddess with dominion over life, death, magic, and spiritual purification. Tlazolteotl cleans up sin like owls gobble up rats.
Marinette, Vodou sorceress lwa, manifests as a screech owl. Those whom she temporarily possesses demonstrate her presence by behaving like owls too.
Owls signify witchcraft. Whether this is understood positively, negatively or neutrally reflects cultural and individual perceptions of witchcraft. Owls famously serve as witches’ familiars and messengers and most frequently as the guise into which witches transform.
Some Siberian shamans’ coats are cut to resemble owl wings and tail.
Apuleius witnessed the successful transformation of the witch Pamphile into an owl in his novel, The Golden Ass.
In central and southern Africa, sorcerers are believed to fly at night like owls to steal food and valuables from their neighbors.
African witches who prefer not to shape-shift into hyenas are believed most likely to choose the shape of an owl instead.
Aztec nocturnal shape-shifting sorcerers were known as “tlacatecolotl,” “owl-men.”
The Aztecs associated owls with caves and mirrors—the same magical world of sorcery inhabited by sacred jaguars and presided over by the divine sorcerer, Tezcatlipoca.
Owls signify birth and women’s power, especially their reproductive and sexual powers:
In Ecuador and Peru, dating back at least as far as 300 BCE, owls representing the divine mother are favored decorative motifs on spindle whorls. The deity is usually depicted in a birthing position. (These spindles strung together are found in abundance at gravesites as well as other sites associated with death, perhaps as charms of rebirth.)
In parts of France and Wales, the hooting of owls doesn’t signify death but its opposite. It’s believed to foretell the birth of daughters.
In the nineteenth century, “owl” became slang for whore or harlot.