The path was purple in the dusk. I saw an owl, perched, on a branch. Excerpt from “The Owl” by Arthur Sze
The Owl is one of those animals who have a mixed history with humankind. The Mayans considered the owl a symbol of death, and Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, often wore owl feathers in his headdress.(1) In Japan, the owl is said to bring good luck and protection from suffering.(3) In Ancient Greece, the goddess of wisdom, Athena, was often depicted with an owl. This owl symbolized great knowledge and allowed Athena to see the truth.(2)
This unique bird with its nocturnal lifestyle and distinct appearance, along with its connection to a variety of legends and folklore, has made it the perfect subject for poetry from across the ages.
Owls in Haiku
In the1800s, the Japanese poet Issa wrote a several owl haiku. Below are a few examples.
the owl is happy in his solitude... autumn dusk -Issa
in the owl's opinion every day is long -Issa
In 1973, Alan Watts wrote this haiku about an owl.
Owl at night is always sound, not sight -Alan Watts
Athena’s owl also found her way into this 1965 haiku by Marjory Bates Pratt.
Athene’s small owl is there, perched on a column in ruined Ephesus. -Marjory Bates Pratt
Owls in Long Form Poetry
The legend of the wise old owl, which began back in Ancient Greece, was brought forward into modern culture with this childhood rhyme.
A wise old owl lived in an oak The more he saw the less he spoke The less he spoke the more he heard. Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?
This nursery rhyme was first published in 1875. At that time its last line was, “O, if men were all like that wise bird”(4). Over the years, the rhyme has gone through some revision including this adaptation for national security during World War II.
In 1863, Emily Dickinson wrote her owl poem that begins with a reference to the wise nature of the owl, and then shifts to an actual encounter with an owl.
“The Judge is like the Owl” – by Emily Dickinson
The Judge is like the Owl – I’ve heard my Father tell – And Owls do build in Oaks – So here’s a Amber Sill – That slanted in my Path – When going to the Barn – And if it serve You for a House – Itself is not in vain – About the price – ’tis small – I only ask a Tune At Midnight – Let the Owl select His favorite Refrain –
Contemporary poet Susan Wood gives us this wonderful pairing of poetry and art called the “Dance of the Barn Owl”.
The evening draws nigh and the stage is set, An inspired portrayal awaits us yet. The jet-black eyes search the ground, While invisible ears, listen for sound. Balletic moves and contours to see, Floating feathers, airless and free. Cavorting glides and swaying moves, As night slowly ebbs, the dance improves. Ghostly white owls float on the breeze, Performing an encore draped by the trees. We perceive the ballet for a fleeting time, An accomplished performance: a vision sublime.
Both Dickinson’s and Wood’s poems highlight the behaviors of the owl. The gentle flight, the stoic perching, and the distinct call are all characteristics that make this bird so special.
To close out this exploration into owl poetry, I want to return to Issa. The following haiku was written in 1816.
you too owl dedicate a haiku... this winter rain -Issa
David G. Lanoue says that with this haiku, “Issa alludes to the death anniversary of the great poet, Bashô: Tenth Month, 12th day. On this day, every poet worth his salt composes a verse in Bashô’s honor–including, Issa jokes, an owl.” (5)
From this quick exploration, we can see that the owl plays an important part in our legends, folklore, and art. Their distinct features and mysterious habits have captured our attention. They can sometimes be signs of death, and sometimes they are signs of good luck. Sometimes, they can even write haiku!
- Learn Religions.com Mictlantecuhtli: God of Death in Aztec Religion
- GowiseOwl.com:What Does the Owl of Athena Represent?
- Owlcation: The Symbolism of Owls in Japan
- Wikipedia: Wise Old Owl
- David G. Lanoue: Issa Haikus
The Haikus from Alan Watts and Marjory Bates Pratt were sourced from “Owls: A Field Guide To North American Haiku” by Charles Trumbull first published in Frogpond volume 42.2
Issa’s haiku were found on Haikuguy.com. This website holds a comprehensive list of Issa haiku translated and curated by David G. Lanoue.
Emily Dickinson’s “The Judge is Like an Owl” was found on Dickinson’s Birds
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