The association of owls with wisdom is peculiarly modern and Western, though it goes back to Greek mythology. (The owl was a symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and of Athens, a city noted for scholarship.) Perhaps it is the birds’ ability to see in the dark that suggests an end to ignorance? In many cultures, however, owls have historically symbolized darkness, bad omens, and death. Early Christians associated the birds with mourning and solitude.
This changed during the Victorian period of the 19th century, when owls found their way even into nursery rhymes (“The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea . . .”). Lamps and andirons were decorated with owls; the birds came to be associated with libraries and learning.
The depiction of owls was just as prevalent during the Arts & Crafts movement. Nature’s flora and fauna universally inspired the decorative arts in this period. Owls appear in watercolors, ceramics, printed wallpaper and fabrics, and embroidery. They may be rendered faithfully (the Great Horned Owl easily distinguished from the Screech Owl and the Snowy Owl), or they may be stylized, as in British designer C.F.A. Voysey’s delightful designs.