Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena's Owl

Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena’s Owl

The Greek goddess Athena had as her sacred animal familiar the owl, also known as the Athene Noctua in Latin. The Romans, fond as they were of stealing from the Greek pantheon, renamed Athena to Minerva. Athena and her owl are considered to be symbols of wisdom, in both cultures.

Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena's Owl
Silver tetradrachm coin at the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon depicting the owl of Athena (circa 480–420 BC). The inscription “ΑΘΕ” is an abbreviation of ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, which may be translated as “of the Athenians

Athene Noctua

Athena’s owl or Athene Noctua is most famously depicted on ancient Athenian coins dating from the fifth century BCE. To the Romans an owl feather placed near you when you were sleeping would prompt the slumberer to reveal their secrets while in the throes of REM.

In Rome, the owl came to be synonymous with death if it was seen hooting in the moonlight on a rooftop or public building. The deaths of several Roman emperors, including the assassination of Julius Caesar, were signaled by an owl landing on the roof and hooting.

Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena's Owl

It wasn’t only the Ancient Greeks who loved Athene Noctua, in many other cultures, the owl has mythological and pagan symbolism as the seer into two worlds of night and day, and the ever-lasting symbol of democracy, wisdom and many other meanings.

Κομίζει γλαύκα εις Αθήνας She is the owl of Athens

Afghani: Chim bakhshgar چیم بخشگر

In Afghanistan, owls are known as چیم بخشگر chim bakhshgar ( aka the eye divider/distributor). The large eyes of owls make reference to wisdom in Afghani traditions and that wisdom resides in people’s eyes.

Welsh: Gwdihŵ

Surely the most sing-song and poetic words to refer to Athene Noctua is as a gwdihŵ. From Welsh the word is pronounced “good-eee-hoo”, accentuating the melodic nocturnal murmurs of owls.

Athena Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue 1502 by Andrea Mantegna
Athena Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue 1502 by Andrea Mantegna

Bengali: Goddess Lakshmi and her owl

In Hinduism, the goddess of wealth named Lakshmi travels with a white barn owl, which is said to represent wealth, prosperity, wisdom, good luck and fortune. In Bengali households, one never drives away an owl, especially the White Barn Owl, as it symbolizes good fortune and wealth. The White Barn Owl is also considered as a Brahmin (an upper caste amongst the Hindus) and is worshiped as the Vahan or the vehicle of Goddess Lakshmi.

Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena's Owl
Lakshmi and her owl

Spanish: Cada mochuelo a su olivo

A mochuelo in Spanish means a little owl. And a popular Spanish idiom is cada mochuelo a su olivo, which translates to “For each little owl, his own olive tree”. A Spanish version of – to each, his own.

Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena's Owl
Minerva Victorious over Ignorance, circa 1591 by Bartholomeus Spranger

Hegel

Philosopher Hegel noted in the 19th Century that Athene Noctua spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk. The meaning of this phrase means that the world only tends to understand a historical condition, just as it passes away. We can only come to see the weight of reality in hindsight.

The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”
— G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1820), “Preface”; translated by S W Dyde, 1896

4 thoughts on “Ancient word of the day: Athene Noctua or Athena’s Owl

    1. Oooh that sounds interesting what book is it? I have finished The Wind Up Bird Chronical and it was amazing, so much so I instantly got another Murakami straight after – Men Without Women, also incredible. I think you have got me hooked thanks for your recommendations 🙂

      1. What a book! Did you try Kafka on the Shore? That is perhaps his best…a treat. I don’t think I’ve read men without woman, is it short stories? I think I’ve read all his novels

      2. You will never believe it but I was in a shop near Tokyo station today and purchased Kafka on the Shore having not seen your comment. I am now doubly as excited to get into it now you say that :). Men without women is a short story collection, it’s really great I think you will like it too. Less surreal than his novels, as I guess it’s difficult to get too weird in a shorter word count, however really compelling.

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