Monday, November 29, 2010

Bringing Owls to Athens

It is difficult to picture the symbols of Athena without noting her constant avian companion the Athene noctua, or Little Owl. The Little Owl is sometimes seen as an aspect of Athena herself, and historians relate how Greek generals would keep a tame owl to release amid a heated battle in order to encourage his troops that Athena was with them.

In western culture the owl is interpreted as a symbol of wisdom. Scholars debate if this is due to the owl's fixed human-like gaze, or its ancient associations with Athena. But, which came first, the owl-as-wisdom-goddess or Athena herself, who came to be associated with owls?

Goddess figures with characteristics similar to Athena have existed since before recorded history. Marija Gimbutas traces veneration of the owl as a goddess, among other birds, to the culture of the Pre Indo-Europeans (PIE). From Sumeria comes the Burney Relief, dated around 1750 BCE, depicting a helmeted Goddess flanked by owls. Unfortunately, we can only guess at the significance of these icons, and cannot therefore conclude that they have any direct association to a Goddess of Wisdom.

So how did Athena become associated with the Little Owl? One clue lies in the ancient proverb "bringing owls to Athens". Although many scholars state that the "owls" of Athens were its famous tetradrachms. These silver coins depicted Athena's profile of the face, and her Little Owl with an olive branch on the reverse. Presumably, because Athens minted these coins themselves, there was little need to bring more silver to the city.

A more ancient interpretation of the proverb points to the significance of the first Parthenon, built by Xerxes I. One of the noted features of this early temple to Athena were its lofty rafters. In these rafters nested many generations of Athene noctua. The Athenians took this as a sign that Athena was present in the temple, and the birds were welcome there. Therefore, it was foolish to "bring owls to Athens", as they were already famous for their flock on the Acropolis.

Did the owls of the Parthenon influence the symbolism of Athena so much that she became forever associated with the Little Owl, or was the association already present before the building of the old Parthenon, so that the birds were simply seen as Athena's blessing?

Could it be a bit of both? One of Athena's most famous epitaphs is Athena Glaukopis, which is gleaming, silver, or gray-eyed Athena. Glaux itself means owl, so that even her name "A-Thea-na Glaux-Kopis" can be read "Holy Lady with Owl Eyes". Very early images of Athena sometimes depict her with bird wings in the place of the Aegis. Nike, often called Athena Nike, another of Athena's epitaphs, retained her wings into recorded history. Could these wings point to an early connection to the owl? Are they vestiges of the PIE owl Goddess?

When looking to Athena's association with the Gorgons, Monstropedia points out:
"The large eyes of the Gorgon, as well as Athena's flashing eyes, are a symbol Gimbutas termed "the divine eyes", appearing also in Athena's bird, the owl. They can be represented by spirals, wheels, concentric circles, and other ways. They radiate the sun's rays and weep the spring rains. Snakes also possess the eyes. The fangs of the gorgoneion are snakes' fangs. Snakes are a symbol of propitiation and increase. The round face is the moon. Sometimes gorgoneia are endowed with birds' feet or bee wings, more symbols of regeneration. The mouth is open so that streams may flow from it. The lolling tongue is a symbol of death. It cannot be said that these motifs belong exclusively to the European Neolithic and not to the Indo-Europeans. They appear among the Celts and Germans] as well. The Balts kept snakes as household pets. As Gimbutas points out, masks with staring eyes are portrayed in Paleolithic cave art. Very likely, the goddess precedes any Indo-European/non-Indo-European distinction."
Owl eyes, snakes, (as on the Aegis and found throughout PIE art) bees, fresh streams of water, the moon, the labrys, the olive tree... Athena's ancient symbols are varied and point to a strong connection to an indigenous PIE Goddess figure.


  1. Loved it!

    Where can I find about bees being of Athena? I always liked them, and I thought it was only connected to Artemis Melissa and to Zeus (I don't remember why Zeus). ;D

  2. Admittedly, the connection between Athena and bees is tenuous, and is through Athena's relationship to the Gorgons who were associated with bees. In at least one instance they were said to have had bee's wings.

    The Melissae were also associated with Aphrodite, especially the idea of groups of her sacred whores living together in a hive-like environment.

    Aphrodite also has strong associations with honey. It is a common offering to her. I'll ask Laurelei later if there is anything else to the bee/Aphrodite connection.