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Source: British Library - Collect Britain Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Harley MS 4751, Folio 47r



Latin name: Noctua

Other names: Bubo, Bubone, Chouette, Fresaie, Hibou, Huen, Huerans, Huhan, Hulotte, Nicticorax, Night raven, Night-owl, Noctua, Nycticorax, Strix, Ulula

The owl is a dirty bird that prefers darkness to light


General Attributes

The owl haunts ruins and flies only at night; preferring to live in darkness it hides from the light. It is a dirty, slothful bird that pollutes its own nest with its dung. It is often found near tombs and lives in caves. Some say it flies backwards. When other birds see it hiding during the day, they noisily attack it to betray its hiding place. Owls cry out when they sense that someone is about to die.

There are several kinds of owls described in the bestiaries: noctua, the night-owl, that lives in the walls of ruined houses and shuns the light; nicticorax, the night-raven; and the bubo, the common owl, a dirty bird that pollutes its nest.


The owl in general represents the Jews, who showed that they preferred darkness to light when they rejected Christ.

Hrabanus Maurus says that the owl signifies those who have given themselves up to the darkness of sin and those who flee from the light of righteousness.

While the owl is usually given a negative interpretation, the Aberdeen Bestiary provides a (mostly) positive moralization for the night-owl (noctua). "In a mystic sense, the night-owl signifies Christ. Christ loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners - who are represented by darkness - to die but to be converted and live. ... The night-owl lives in the cracks in walls, as Christ wished to be born one of the Jewish people... But Christ is crushed in the cracks of the walls, because he is killed by the Jews. ... Christ shuns the light in the sense that he detests and hates vainglory. ... In a moral sense, moreover, the night-owl signifies to us not just any righteous man, but rather one who lives among other men yet hides from their view as much as possible. He flees from the light, in the sense that he does not look for the glory of human praise."

Sources (chronological order)

Bible (Leviticus 11:13-18): The law says that a variety of owls are included in "the birds you are to detest and not eat because thy are detestible".

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 16): Owls see poorly in the daytime. The eagle-owl is thought to be a very bad omen, being as it is a funereal bird. It lives in deserts and in terrifying, empty and inaccessible places. Its cry is a scream. If it is seen in a city, or during the day, it is a direful portent, though several cases are known of an eagle-owl perching on private houses without fatal consequences. The owl never flies directly to where it wants to go, but always travels slantwise from its course. (Book 10, 19): Night-owls are crafty in battles with other birds; when surrounded and outnumbered they lie on their backs and fight with their feet, bunching themselves up so they are protected by beak and claws. The have an allience with the hawk, whcih comes and aids them in the war. Nigidius says that night-owls hibernate for 60 days in the winter. (Book 10, 41): The night-owl is not found in the island of Crete, and if they are brought there they soon die out.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:39-42): There are several kinds of owl. The screech owl (bubo) takes its name from the sound of its voice; it is a deadly bird, burdened with feathers and with a heavy laziness. It lives in caves and wanders in tombs day and night. The night-owl (noctua) is is smaller than the bubo it flies by night and cannot see during the day, because the brightness of the sun blinds it. It does not live on the island of Crete, and if brought there it dies at once. The night raven (nycticorax) loves the night and cannot stand the sight of the sun. Another kind of screech owl (strix) has its name from its strident (stridet) call. It is also called by the Greek word amma (nurse) because it loves (amando) infants and is said to offer milk to the newborn.


The long, hooked beak of the owl is prominent in most manuscript illustrations; this was intended to show the supposed hooked nose of the Jews. At times the owl is given an almost human face to emphasize this. The scene of the owl mobbed by other birds is common in manuscripts and is often carved on misericords.

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