Much is known about the ancient goddess, Athena (associated with the Roman Minerva), including her origin story—in which she strangely burst forth from the head of the leading god, Zeus—and the mysterious beginnings of her powerful defensive aegis, which was crafted from the remains of the titan, Pallas. Her divine jurisdiction over wisdom, art and war was defined by many ancient authors, as were the stories of her many interactions with legendary heroes such as Perseus, Heracles and Odysseus. It is also well known that birds, especially owls, had a sacred connection to Athena. Yet, few ancient authors took the time to write about whatever myths explained the backstory of Athena’s linkage to the owl. One rare writer who tried to fill the void was the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), who labeled Athena’s owl with a name and wrote down a brief backstory for the sacred bird.
As the story goes, Athena’s owl was originally a woman named Nyctimene (or Nyktimene), who lived as a princess on the island of Lesbos. Although being a princess of an ancient Greek island kingdom sounds pleasant, Nyctimene’s otherwise ideal life took the path shared by most women featured in ancient Greek mythology—she was abused by a man. In Nyctimene’s case, she was horribly raped by her own father, causing the poor girl to flee into the wilderness to escape her abuser and to avoid the unwanted gaze of judgmental eyes. Athena took pity on Nyctimene, turning her into an owl and keeping her as a companion. Ovid curiously told this tale from the perspective of a jealous crow that was bitter about being, as it self-professed in the text, “stripped of my place as Minerva’s protector and ranked underneath the owl!” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, book 2, lines 563-564). Ovid wittily had the rude crow slanderously try to frame Nyctimene as the instigator of her abuse. Speaking as the crow, Ovid wrote:
“…I’m forced to surrender my place
to the owl, who became a bird by committing a dreadful crime?
That owl was once Nyctímene. Haven’t you heard the story,
known through the whole of Lesbos, of how she corrupted her father
by incest with him? For sure, she’s a bird; but her guilty conscience
drives her to shun the eyes of men and the glare of the daylight.
She hides her shame in the dark, excluded by all from the clear sky.”
(Metamorphoses, book 2, lines 589-595)
This, then, is one possible origin story for Athena’s owl. According to Ovid’s account, the owl was an abused princess who ran away from home, and after being benevolently transformed into a bird, she chose to stay as a companion and guardian of the protective celibate goddess, Athena. Anyway, if Ovid’s tale of Nyctimene is too unpleasant or not convincing, one can always fall back on the commonplace suggestion that owls were associated with Athena because owls, like the goddess, were symbolic of wisdom.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Tetradrachm, Head of Athena (obverse); Owl (reverse), dated 449–440 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Cleveland Museum of Art).
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.