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The Owl and the Bard

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Reader Barry Crume asks an interesting question about my first post. Was the owl at the bard’s feet intended as a harbinger of death? The association between owls and death is an old one. “It was the owl that shriek’d, the fatal bellman,” Lady Macbeth says, as her husband murders King Duncan. Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet Edmund Spenser, refers to “the ill-faced owl” as “death’s dreadful messenger.” An owl is a solitary, nocturnal bird of prey - with peculiar features and a disagreeable screech. Imagine yourself alone on a nighttime stroll down a country lane, startled by this noise -

You may find yourself wholeheartedly agreeing with Spenser.

The ancient Romans held the owl in particularly low regard. An owl was a bad omen. In his encyclopedic ten volume work “Natural Histories”, Pliny the Elder in 77 AD writes:

“The horned owl is especially funereal, and is greatly abhorred in all auspices of a public nature: it inhabits deserted places, and not only desolate spots, but those of a frightful and inaccessible nature: the monster of the night, its voice is heard, not with any tuneful note, but emitting a sort of shriek. Hence it is that it is looked upon as a direful omen to see it in a city…A horned owl entered the very sanctuary of the Capitol, in the consulship of Sextus Palpelius Hister and L. Pedanius; in consequence of which, Rome was purified on the nones of March in that year.”

In the final book of Virgil’s Aeneid, before the final dual between Aeneas and Turnus, Jupiter sends a fury in the form of an owl to terrify Turnus (Book XII, 1146-1150):

“she shrinks into the shape of that small bird

which sometimes sits by night on tombs and lonely

rooftops, where it chants late, among the shadows,

its song of evil omen; so transformed,

the foul one howls before the face of Turnus”

Pictured below is a painting of Luca Girodano (1634-1705) depicting the death of Turnus. Notice the owl.

An owl, however, also has quite a different association. It is the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. A red figured lekythos from the early 5th century BC at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts the goddess holding her helmet and spear, with an owl by her side.

As Athena was their patroness, the citizens of Athens adopted the owl into their own civic iconography. Depicted below is a silver tetradrachm from 5th century Athens. I took the image from the catalogue of an auction house in Germany for their upcoming June sale. These coins are not rare; there are 13 examples in this one auction alone. If you would like to dabble in numismatics, starting bids for the coins range from 160 to 1600 Euros, depending upon their condition. Alternatively, in continuation of a 2500 year old iconographic tradition, a packet of Wise Potato Chips also depicts the eye of an owl. It will set you back only a few dollars.

But back to Barry’s question: why did Girodet depict an owl?

I have no doubt that Girodet intended for the owl to serve a symbolic purpose; it is not a mere decorative detail. An owl would not hide at the feet of a hunted man if it felt threatened. It would fly away. Moreover, the owl’s pose, recoiling from the advancing army, mirrors that of the bard. Their fates appear intertwined. I think the composition of the painting thus lends itself primarily towards an interpretation of the owl as a symbol of Athena. The advancing murderous army will destroy both culture and wisdom.

We can also consider whether Girodet ever used an owl in another composition, and, if so, how did he use it. I found only one example, a drawing in the Louvre depicting the Trojan Horse.

The owl is depicted on the neck of the horse. To understand why, we need to look again to Virgil’s Aeneid, where the fall of Troy was recounted. We may remember the overarching story – exhausted by war, the Greeks contrive a ruse to end their great siege. Their ships set sail, and they leave at the gates of Troy a giant wooden horse, inside of which are hidden some of their best soldiers. The horse is taken into the city. The warriors emerge at night, open the city gates and allow the returning Greek armies to sack to the city. But until I re-read the passage, I had forgotten one detail – the horse was purportedly an offering to Athena. (See Book II, 228-275.) Girodet uses the owl in the drawing to reinforce the association with Athena.

Girodet immersed himself in the study of Greek and Roman culture to a level that is difficult to imagine today. From the age of 12, he could read Latin, and was already familiar with Ancient writers and philosophers. Later in life, he translated ancient poetry and even wrote his own poetry imitating the ancient style. His letters and inscriptions contain quotes of Virgil, Pliny and Horace. The subject matter for his paintings was frequently scenes from classical history, literature or mythology. As a young artist, he studied in Rome and in the atelier of Jacques-Louis David, the driving force behind neo-Classicism.

Considering how well he understood antiquity, Girodet certainly could have used the owl for both its Greek meaning, wisdom, and its Roman one, death. By knowing the past, he could harness the richness of its iconographic vocabulary, and integrate it into his own creations.

I will leave you with one final image – a self-portrait in charcoal from the Louvre. I look forward to seeing his other works again one day...

Works Cited:

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, translated by John Bostock and H.T. Wiley, London: 1857.

Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum, New York: 1971.

Luca Girodano, (1634-1705), Aeneas defeats Turnus, oil on canvas, 176 x 236 cm © DEA / L PEDICINI.

Lekythos depicting Athena, Attributed to the Brygos Painter, 490-480 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Athenian Silver Tetradrachm, Gerhard Hirsch, Sale 357, Lot 153.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), The Trojan Horse, Pen and brown ink, and brown wash, 36.9 cm. x 32 cm., The Louvre.

Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson (1767-1824), Self-Portrait, Charcoal on Paper, 25 cm. x 20 cm., The Louvre.

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