Owls were the holy birds of Athena, goddess of wisdom (among other things). With their huge heads, wide open eyes and ability to see in the dark, they were the obvious symbol of intelligence. The symbolism has stuck for centuries.
In Athens, whose patron goddess was Athena, owls were everywhere. Indeed, so common was the bird that the phrase “Bringing an owl to Athens*” was the equivalent of “bringing flowers to a florist.”
In the 20th century, rampant urban development covered the birds’ habitat with blocks of flats until owls all but disappeared. Honestly, I thought Athena’s holy birds were gone from her city for good.
Then suddenly, the other day, I caught sight of one, resting on the cross of a church in Ancient Agora. I almost pinched myself, but this silhouette cannot belong to any other creature. There it sat, waiting patiently for darkness to fall to begin its hunt, plumage perfectly matching the ancient tiles beneath it.
Not very fond of light, it refused to turn for a better shot but sat with its back to the sun. Then, as I circled the church looking for a better view, it turned, looking right through me with a piercing gaze.
Glory to you, oh mighty Athena, back in your city after such a long time.
Note: The proverbial phrase is found in one of Aristophanes’ comedies (can’t remember which) and refers to the Athenian currency, drachma, which had an owl on one side (something like bringing dollars to America). It is uncertain whether he coined the phrase or used an already established expression. If the latter, no one can tell for sure whether the phrase originally referred to the living bird or the coin.