When in Athens, you know you’re in the favorite city of goddess Athena.
Athena is accompanied by an owl, which over time became her symbol and one of the symbols of Athens too.
The exact reason why the owl became a bird sacred to Athena is lost in time. No story survives that gives us a clear explanation but we can piece together bits from ancient sources to understand why Athena chose the owl as her favorite animal.
The owl was meant to reveal unseen truths to the goddess (having also the ability to light up Athena’s blind side) and it enabled her to see and speak the whole truth. This was fervently believed by the Romans too -who called her Minerva. Let’s not forget that Athena frequently appeared to mortals by night – giving them advice and guidance- which made the owl a fitting companion to have by her side. The Ancient Greeks saw the bird’s ability to see in the dark, representing watchfulness, wisdom and even omniscient!
Going further into Greek Mythology, Athena was also known as a storm and lightning goddess. In Homer’s poems she’s described as “the bright-eyed goddess” linking once again the owl to Athena, due to the owls’ eyes being so distinctively large and shiny that it instantly reflected Athena with her stare of knowledge that seemed to bore into you.
There were large numbers of owls scattered all over Athens for centuries. There were so many, that the rest of the Greeks had a saying to tease the Athenians. When something was in abundance the saying was: ‘bring owls to Athens’ much like the English ‘carry coal to Newcastle’.
Surprisingly enough, there’s still a population of owls in the 21st century huge metropolis that modern Athens is nowadays!
The owl in flight was also a symbol of good luck: the sudden appearance of such an owl before the naval battle of Salamis, instantly boosted the morale of the Greek fleet. The larger part of the warships were contributed by Athens, so seeing an owl flying high above their heads, just before the battle started, that was the best omen Athenian sailors and marines could wish for!