Owls in the early modern imagination: Ominous omens and pitiable sages

Screech owl
Conrad Gessner. Icones animalium quadrupedum. 1560. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Owls were bad omens for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The general of the French forces, facing an English emissary in Henry VI, Part 1, calls him “Thou ominous and fearful owl of death, / Or nation’s terror and their bloody scourge!” (4.2.15) Similarly, when Richard III receives bad news on the battlefield, he reacts by shouting “Out on you, owls! Nothing but songs of death” and striking the messenger: “There, take thou that till thou bring better news” (4.4.536-537). When in King Henry VI, Part 3 the titular king wants to wound Richard, he says “The owl shrieked at thy birth, an evil sign” (5.6.36).

Owl as memento mori
George Wither. A collection of emblemes, ancient and moderne: quickened vvith metricall illustrations, both morall and divine: and disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation. By George VVither. The first booke. 1635. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s most famous ominous owl, however, appears in Macbeth. As Lady Macbeth waits for her husband to kill the king, Duncan, she hears a tell-tale cry:

Hark!—Peace.
It was the owl that shrieked, the fatal bellman,
Which gives the stern’st good-night. He is about it. (Macbeth 2.2.4-6)

Later, a Scottish nobleman staying at the castle also recounts “the unruly night” of Duncan’s murder, and the “obscure bird” (the owl) who “clamored the livelong night” (2.3.61, 67-68). A harbinger of the king’s death, the owl is good news for the ambitious Lady Macbeth, but a very bad omen for poor Duncan!

Scene from Macbeth
Plays… From the corrected text of Johnson and Steevens. Embellished with plates… 1807. Folger Shakespeare Library.

But owls were important to the early modern imagination in other ways, as well. It was probably relatively common to see owls in England since there are five different species of owls there, and the smallest were sometimes brought up as pets. Artists and writers were particularly taken with the way groups of other, smaller birds will attack, or “mob,” owls.

Owl being mobbed by other birds
George Wither. A collection of emblemes, ancient and moderne: quickened vvith metricall illustrations, both morall and divine: and disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation. By George VVither. The first booke. 1635. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In classical Greek and Roman art, owls appear alongside Athena/Minerva as symbols of far-sightedness, wisdom, and prophecy, and this idea still had currency in early modern England. For example, take the delightful anonymous text, “The Owles almanacke” (1618), which (according to the tongue-in-cheek title) was “Found in an Ivy-bush written in old characters, and [is] now published in English by the painefull labours of Mr. Jocundary Merry-braines.”

The owl almanac title page
The Owles almanacke. 1618. Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an opening epistle written to “Brother Raven,” the owl envies “the happines of other Birds,” who can freely enjoy “Woods, Fields, Parks, Forrests, Cities, Kingdomes, and all that the moving canopy of heaven can cover,” whereas the owl seldom “gad[s] abroad in the light.” At the same time, she brags about her knowledge and wisdom:

But if it shall be no dishonour for me to stand on the tiptoes of mine owne commendations, I would then against your ominous croaking thus farre preferre my wakefull hooting, that I have ever beene held a praedooming Bird; but (besides that) an Embleme of Wisdome, and so sacred among the Athenians, that they carried the reverence of my picture stamped upon their money.

The rest of the text is a satirical almanac, expounding on the parts of the (male body), the Zodiac, and the seasons of the year, among other topics.

However, owls truly reach their satirical heights in this anonymous tract from the Folger’s collection: “The alomode dress, or, The maidens mode admir’d and continued by the Ape, Owl, and Mistris Puss” (1687). The pamphlet, satirizing a late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century trend in which women wore elaborate knots of ribbon or bows on top of their heads, features a cat, an owl, and an ape in top-knots and capes. It uses the owl’s famous unpopularity among other birds as an object of its satire:

I am the owl that Stood in feare
Of other Birds it doth appeare
But being in this Dres I’e vow
I don’t beleeve they’l know me now.

The author goes on to chide the “Females that first found this Pride,” asking how they can abide to wear a fashion “us’d by Ape, nay Cat, and Owl.”

Cat and owl and ape
The alomode dress, or, The maidens mode admir’d and continued by the Ape, Owl, and Mistris Puss. 1687. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Perhaps, however, the poor, maligned, top-knot-wearing ladies could also look to owls for inspiration in withstanding criticism. In his 1635 book of emblems, from which the above image of the owl being mobbed by other birds is taken, George Wither comes down on the side of the owl and suggests that we all learn from its example how to patiently suffer unfair critique:

When I observe the Melanchollic Owles,
Considering with what patience, they sustaine
The many clamours, of the greater Fowles,
And, how the little Chirpers, they disdaine . . .
Me thinks, by their Example, I am taught
To sleight the slaunders of Injurious Tongues;
To set the scoffes of Censurers, at naught,
And, with a brave neglect, to beare out Wronges.

Next month on Wild Things, “Creatures that by a rule in nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom” (Henry V 1.2.196-197).

One Comment


  • Really enjoyed this! As you might note from my email I am a fan of the Owl. Look forward to reading the other articles posted . I like to share things like this with my students as examples of interesting aspects of history and they way all things ( areas of study ) are connected . LIfe and learning are a web. Which begs the question will there be an arachnid connection!


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