Owls play an important role in the mythology of many cultures around the world. In mythology, they can be companions to the gods, evil spirits, wise observers or the embodiment of natural forces. In many cultures, owls are messengers of death or otherwise associated with the powers of the underworld. This negative connotation my arise from the fact that owls are nocturnal; animals that are active at night often have negative roles in myth and folklore.
The most famous owls in mythology are probably those associated with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, patron deity of the city of Athens. Artists depicted Athena with an owl on one shoulder. Owls may have been connected to the goddess because of their ability to see well at night and their large eyes, which evoked her epithet, "bright-eyed Athena." As a result of this association, owls continue to be symbols of wisdom in the Western world. One genus of owls retains the name "Athene."
Mythology from other parts of the world often give owls a more sinister role. Although the Romans adopted many elements of Greek religion, Roman folklore also featured dangerous owl-like creatures that could suck out the life force of an infant. Similarly, in Arabian mythology, owls were birds of ill omen. Legend had it that owls would hoot over the graves of murdered men, and their eggs were thought to have supernatural properties. Similar beliefs are known to exist or have existed in sub-Saharan Africa, where owls play the role of harbingers of death or bringers of ill luck.
In South and Central America, owls are again connected with death and the underworld. In Mayan mythology, Xibalba, "the place of fear," is ruled by two death gods, Hun-Came ("One Death") and Vucub-Came ("Seven Death"). Their messengers are four spirits who take the shape of owls. Similarly, the Aztec god Mictlantecuhtli, god of the dead, appears as a skeleton wearing a headdress of owl feathers.
The Native American nations of North America had a wide variety of different roles for owls in their mythology. In some cultures, the owl played the role of a messenger from the underworld, while in others, such as the Sioux, it was a guardian which protected the entrance to the afterlife. The Passamaquoddy nation told a story in which the bird was a helpful spirit that provided humans with magical gifts.