The owls, patron birds of goddess Athena, have a history that goes beyond the common association with wisdom and knowledge. Much like in ancient Greece, where the love of wisdom flourished, owls played a part in many a peoples’ mythology, culture, language and art. An exploration into the role this bird had in people’s beliefs, provides us with a mirror that enlivens the beliefs of folklore that persist to this day. In ancient Egypt, owls were known as ‘keen-sighted hunters’ but were also associated with mourning and death. Owls, interestingly enough, even played a part in a parody of a scene from the Book of the Dead.Although few examples of owls in ancient Egyptian art are known to us today, their representation as a hieroglyph standing for the letter m (G17 of the Gardiner sign list) is very common. Thanks to these representations, together with some of their actual remains, we can have a glimpse today into what kinds of owls lived in Egypt in ancient times.
Whether they were carved with exquisite detail or painted with lively colors, some of the owl representations are certainly great works of art from this period. Before looking more closely at owl species depicted and some specific examples, it is relevant to look at what owls actually symbolized to ancient Egyptians.
Owls are often seen in nature turning their head left and right while observing their surroundings, focused on detecting the slightest sound or movement. These birds can turn their head and neck 270 degrees, without moving the rest of their body.
Egyptian artists seemed to have wanted to show their most characteristic features and depicted the bird the way it is most frequently viewed in nature – with its head gazing over its shoulder and the eyes facing the viewer.
The concept of owl as a keen-sighted hunter (‘Sonnenauge geschmückten Jäger,’ related to the hunting falcon) had been documented in ancient Egypt since the XVIII Dynasty (WB II, 218).
Owls were, however, also believed to be birds of mourning and death. These typical aspects are illustrated by the owl hieroglyph being used as a symbolic ideogram for m3 ‘see,’ in addition to jm ‘moan.’
The appearance with jm likely alludes to the crying sound of the barn owl (the species most frequently depicted as the hieroglyph), which does not hoot but makes hissing sounds.
Owls association with mourning and death seems to be an old and rather secondary symbolism, and owls who could see in the dark are also used as amulets, meant to help the owner in the underworld.
Hieroglyphs were not merely letters of the alphabet, but each sign was a miniature image and as such was seen as magical, just like any other artistic representation on the wall.
For this reason, hieroglyphs of animals that were perceived as potentially dangerous to the deceased were modified so as to render them harmless. This typically involved mutilation of the sign with parts of the animal’s body removed, such as legs and feet, as was sometimes the case with the owl hieroglyph .
However, mutilations of the owl sign are rare and the bird is shown complete most of the time, unless we consider the absence of a hind toe on its feet.
Some representations of the owl hieroglyph in Coffin Texts show only owl’s head . Perhaps this could have been done not to render the bird harmless but instead to emphasize its eyes and the ability to see in the dark, particularly as the sign appears with m3 – ‘see.’
One of the earliest representations of owl in ancient Egypt comes from the so-called Libyan palette (beginning of I Dynasty), which records the victories of a king over seven fortified settlements. Each of the settlements has a single hieroglyph depicted within the walls designating the name of the fortress or the city.
The largest settlement has an owl hieroglyph (Owl-city) and is represented as being attacked by a falcon.
Even at this early representation, the owl is shown turned full face with ears as they appear on ‘eared’ owls in nature. It is assumed that this depiction is that of an eagle owl, but Houlihan argues that it cannot be distinguished with certainty whether it is an eagle owl or long-eared owl (eagle owl resides in modern-day Egypt, while the long-eared owl is a winter visitor).
Owl-city seems to have been the capital of the conquered region, and Newberry suggested that this capital might be Sais, whose goddess Neith was generally known to the Greeks as Athena (he also mentions records indicating that Athens was founded by a colony from Sais). It is interesting to note that the όλολνγή chant (ululation/ololuge), which was proper to the worship of Athena (Homer, Il. VI, 297-301), was an imitation of an owl. According to Herodotus (IV, 189), this ceremonial chant ‘first took its rise in Libya, for the women of that country chant very tunefully’. As in many cultures, ululation exclamations in ancient Greece depended on the context, and were used as joyful/celebratory expressions or during the animal sacrifice. References to ululation also appear in Pyramid Texts.
Different owl species appear to be used as the hieroglyph m. Eagle owl appears frequently until the beginning of the Old Kingdom (until V Dynasty, according to Houlihan). Features of this bird appear sporadically later on, but it is mostly replaced by the barn owl until the Saite and Ptolemaic periods.
There are some indications that barn owl features appear as early as Dynasty I, but these species cannot be identified with certainty before Dynasty III. Barn owls do not shun human presence and they flourished in Egyptian temples. Thus, as Houlihan points out, it is not surprising that many of the barn owl features were chosen to design the bird sign.
It is interesting, however, that barn owl representations exhibit ‘ear’ tufts, a feature absent from barn owls. These feather tufts are not depicted above the head as they appear on eagle owl but instead on the bird’s brow.
A possible explanation for this might be that the ‘ear’ tufts of the short eared owl were used in creating the sign, as those are similarly located, and short eared owl mummies dating back to Predynastic times have been found at ancient Egyptian sites.
Keimer also suggested that ancient Egyptians most likely designed a composite sign, combining the most characteristic features of several owl species (as was the case with the falcon hieroglyph) –black piercing eyes and plumage of the barn owl with prominent ‘ears’ of the ‘eared’ owl species.
Small owl with a rounded head appears in the Saite and Ptolemaic periods. During these periods ear tufts were removed from the representation.
Owl remains have been found from Predynastic times, with the barn owl (tyto alba) being identified at Adaima, and the short eared owl (asio flammeus) at Merimde. Three additional species have been identified from owl remains found throughout Egypt: eagle owl (bubo bubo), small owl (athene noctua), and scops owl/striated scops owl (otus scops/o.brucei).
Lortet and Gaillard examined one group of owl mummies mostly from Giza and Kom Ombo. These owls were not mummified separately but were found together with other birds, and their remains were found decapitated or torn out. Griffith points out to the use of the owl hieroglyph in Pyramid Texts 962-3, where the owl sign stands as a determinative of ḥśḳ ‘chop off’ the head or limb while in Pyr. 635c it is the symbol of the same word, what might point to the owl being perceived as a bird of ill omen, desired to behead when caught.
A group of owl mummies was also found in the catacombs of Tuna el-Gebel, and included 17 short-eared owls, 15 small owls, 6 eagle owls, 5 barn owls and one scops owl/striated scops owl. Owl remains were found at other localities as well and one group from Greco-Roman period was found at Tell el-Maskhuta (2 barn owls and 13 small owls).
Owls in art
Many ancient Egyptian tombs featured representations of the tomb owner fishing and hunting. Three out of four known representations of owls in ancient Egyptian art come from such scenes depicted in New Kingdom tombs.
The most interesting among them is found on a fragment that was central part of hunting and fishing scene from the XVIII Dynasty tomb of Neferhotep (TT A5). The rounded head with the distinct heart-shaped white face and a hooked bill makes it possible to identify the bird as a barn owl. It is shown sheltering the nest with its wings, in an attempt to protect it from the approaching mongoose. This is the only instance where the barn owl is shown with its head in profile.
In the fowling and the fishing scene from the tomb of Ipuy (TT217, XIX Dynasty), the owl is shown just before the bow of the boat in which the deceased and his family are shown in the traditional bird hunting scene.
Similarly, an owl is also depicted in the hunting and fishing scene in the tomb of Suemniut (TT 92, XVIII Dynasty), but the wall in which this scene appears was never completed: only the outline of the bird can be traced, which makes it impossible to categorize.
It is interesting that in all of these examples owls are shown in waterside habitats, where barn owls don’t actually nest; they prefer nooks and crannies of buildings, temples, ruins as well as trees and rocks. Additionally, during the day barn owls hunt in fields and meadows where their pray can easily be spotted.
An owl is also found on a humorous ostracon from Ramesside period at Thebes. Here, a hippo stands upright on one arm of the balance, against a large crow on the other. Cat with its front paw raised and an owl occupy the place under the balance which belongs to the judge and his court.
This scene is probably intended as a parody of the scene in Chapter 125 of the Book of the Dead, which shows the final Judgment of the deceased before he or she attains eternal life.
In addition to these painted scenes, a significant number of relief plaques with barn owl depictions have been found from Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic periods.
The interpretation of these plaques is still under the discussion, they were either sculptors’ models or were used as ex-voto offerings. Although they could be used for training students and many were done by them, some of the plaques were clearly the work of master sculptors and are among the most beautiful representations of owls in ancient Egypt. As an ex-voto the representation of an owl might appropriately have been dedicated to a solar deity.
Few additional examples of owls in art are known from the Greco-Roman period, when the owl apparently had religious significance.
Looking more closely at owls in ancient Egypt helps us better understand their symbolism and role in other cultures throughout the world as well. Owls are commonly associated with wisdom and knowledge, but their association with evil and mystery have persisted through history, from the Americas, Africa to Europe. One interesting more recent example of owl representation as dark and mysterious is found in Goya’s famous painting The Sleep of Reason, where bats and owls are shown threatening from all sides while the ‘reason’ sleeps, which goes back to owls’ nocturnal life and association with the mystic and the unknown.
Regardless of their symbolism and the folklore, owls are charming and fascinating creatures, and Egypt is still a great place to observe both the local and the migratory species.
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