Why are owls associated with Halloween?
When you think about Halloween, chances are that an image of a large owl perched high in a tree illuminated by a full moon may come to mind.
While owls can be creatures symbolizing wisdom and knowledge, as a fierce, flying nocturnal predator they are also more commonly associated with things like death, fear, and even witches. But how did owls come to be so connected to Halloween?
Although there's no known exact date, many historians think that there’s a connection to Roman mythology and folklore according to Simon Bronner, dean of the college of general studies and distinguished professor of social sciences at UW-Milwaukee.
"Particularly because the Romans did document [their] own beliefs and proverbs and myths, and there was a distinct connection of owls as harbingers of danger, harbingers of death," Bronner explains. "The Roman armies were traveling all over the ancient world at that time. They would often take very seriously if they saw owls as signs of dangers, particularly in battle."
Bronner says that the owl's connection to Halloween stems from when the Romans conquered the northern British Isles. There was likely an integration of Druid beliefs since the British Isles was a place where pagan religions— that were animistic — were prevalent.
"This is the notion that different parts of the environment will have spirits," Bronner explains. "So when the Romans came in and they had the view of the owls as harbingers of danger, there's this idea that it has a spiritual system that is distinctive...So the owls are looked at as being special creatures, not one of many."
From that, it was easy to make connections of the owl to the night, to predation and female power since female owls are the larger of the species — who are also the hunters. According to Bronner, this in turn associated owls with witches, who are also typically female and seen as predatory.
The full moon is another image and symbol associated with Halloween — and Bronner notes that owls tend to be more active during this part of the lunar cycle.
“Owls get excited by the moon and the light because they are nocturnal...[Some studies on owl communication have pointed out that] the hoots that you think of with owls tend to increase and become more rapid during moonlight,” he says.
"It's very likely that you will hear these kinds of owl noises if you are in a rural or semi-rural area. [So] much more that [it] might make you think that something is being haunted out there," Bronner adds.