For us here at the Woman and the Owl Foundation, our name is a call, a mystery, a koan, an inivation, and story.
The symbols that we choose to represent ourselves to the world — or those that choose us — can take many forms. For some people, they will be words, for others, images, totems, archetypes, gestures, or even places.
In each case, finding the symbols that convey to other people (and to ourselves) who we are as women, as spiritual individuals, and as leaders is deeply important. They express our unique spiritual signatures and are invocations as well as declarations of our intent.
The owl is a potent symbol that appears in the lives of many of the women who are ripe for spiritual leadership.
The owl as “the eagle of the night” has a mystical and historical connection to women’s spirituality and the development of their ‘medicines’ and leadership. As an anthropologist and a lover of mythology, I have noticed how women and owls are connected to one another, and how in stories from around the world, women are often accompanied by or transform into owls. The woman and the owl are an ancient cross-cultural pairing that lends imagination and focus to this body of work.
The relationship between women and owls represents both our attraction to our spiritual selves (our calling), and our fear of what wildness, wisdoms, and pleasures might occur if we take responsibility for those callings and their relationship to the world.
What might happen if we decided to following our calling? If we shapeshift into a new woman? If we step into our leadership? The owl can represent both the desire and the fear we feel as we open up to these possibilities and the hero/ine’s journey into the darkness of the underworld to bring back gifts of knowledge and light.
One figure still recognized in the West is Athena and her owl. This goddess of wisdom and battle is often depicted with her owl perched on her shoulder or flying around her; a manifestation of her ability to send forth her ability to know and of her ability perceive truths unseen by the human eye. From places and cultures as distant from one another as Italy, Sweden, Nigeria, Mexico, Wales, Madagascar, Poland, France and the First Nations peoples of America and Australia, come stories in which witches and girls who shapeshift into owls and back again. The owl is connected to the moon, but also to dusk, the time in between night and day. Similarly, owls are known to be messengers and intermediaries between life and death, and particularly show up in stories and superstitions around childbirth and a woman’s “loss of virginity”. A woman’s ability to both create life and release it through childbirth, miscarriage, and menstruation, is linked to the owls and the stories that so frequently come to represent them.
Both women and owls are regarded as pagan (outside the main religious doctrines), clairvoyant, and possessing uncanny powers. In China, owls are associated with lightening and drums because they break the darkness and the silence with their white bodies and cries. The eyes of an owl have long represented the ability to see into the night, to hunt well in the dark, to travel far, and to perceive what others wish to hide. The owl is connected to the mature woman’s wisdom, self-possession, and ways of knowing, but it is also a symbol of the rites and processes of turning and transforming from the uninitiated girl into the woman or crone of deep, and potentially subversive power.
Like a siren of the night, the owl tugs at the edges of feminine spirituality, reminding us of the leadership and responsibility that is both a birthright and a challenge. Owl dares us to step into our power, into the unknown darkness, and to somehow, miraculously, return to our people with our arms, our hearts, and our eyes, absolutely full of light.
This isn’t to say that women are owls in all the stories, but that they have many attributes and ambivalent associations, which allow them to slip into each other’s stories. The two are so similar on a mytho-poetic and symbolic sense that women can actually step in and hold the place of owls, and owls may hold the place in the story where once a woman danced, dreamed, and worked her magics.
For me, the emergence of the woman spiritual leader is a complicated process involving many stages and people, yet at its foundation it is one that relies upon the development of ‘internal methodologies’, unique ways of seeing and knowing that are brought into the world and shared from the inside, out. In story after story, we see that the owl represents the cultivation of those ‘internal methodologies’ that allow women to transform, to flower, to become themselves, and to serve their communities — even when the qualities that make them unique are regarded with suspicion or incomprehension.
I recently learned that a conservative estimate of the number of women killed in Europe because they were found to be witches is upwards of 50,000 people. After generations of witch hunts and the murder of wise women, midwives, healers, and women community organizers, overcoming our learned and ancestral fear of being accused of witchcraft in a pejorative sense, is one of the keys to trusting our internal ways of knowing and stepping into our leadership. To me, the figures of the woman and the owl speak to the bundle of complex feelings we have around our callings and our natures.
The Woman and the Owl Foundation is a confluence of archives, media, writing, images, and teachings around what happens when women follow the calling of their own souls, not only to bring light into the shadowy world, but to fully embody their soulful selves. The relationship between the woman and the owl is the complex connection and attraction between ourselves and our potential, between who we are and who might become, and between the internal and the part of us that flies forward, exploring what the world might hold.
The Foundation supports the work of going again and again into that place of mystery, of the unknown, of the Divine, from whence much of the spiritual feminine comes. It is the work of renewing or commitment to ourselves, our communities, our students, to be brave, to step forward, and to be us.
Love and circles,
Dr. Jessamine Dana, Executive Director of the Woman and the Owl Project