Silver tetradrachm coin depicting the owl of Athena (circa 449–413 BCE). The inscription “ΑΘΕ” is an abbreviation of ΑΘΗΝΑΙΩΝ, which may be translated as “of the Athenians”. In daily use, the Athenian drachmas were called glaukes (γλαῦκες, “owls”).
In Greek mythology, a little owl (Athene noctua) traditionally represents or accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, or Minerva, her syncretic incarnation in Roman mythology. Because of such association, the bird — often referred to as the “owl of Athena” or the “owl of Minerva” — has been used as a symbol of knowledge, wisdom, perspicacity, and erudition throughout the Western world.
The reasons for the association of Athena and the owl are uncertain. Some mythographers suggest that she may descend from a Minoan palace goddess associated with birds and some claim to trace Athena’s origins as an Old European bird and snake goddess.
On the other hand, some theorize about the appeal of some characteristics of owls–such as their ability to see in the dark–to be used as symbol of wisdom, while others propose a simple association between founding myths of Athens and the significant number of little owls in the region (a fact noted since antiquity by Aristophanes in The Birds and Lysistrata).
In any case, the city of Athens seems to have adopted the owl as proof of allegiance to its patron virgin goddess, which according to a popular etiological myth reproduced on the West pediment of the Parthenon, secured the favor of its citizens.
Owls were commonly reproduced by Athenians in vases, weights and prize amphoras for the Panathenaic Games. The bird even became the common obverse of the Athenian tetradrachms after 510 BCE and according to Philochorus, the Athenian tetradrachm was known as glaux (γλαύξ, “little owl”) throughout the ancient world. They were not, however, used exclusively by them to represent Athena and were even used for motivation during battles by other Greek cities, such as in the victory of Agathocles of Syracuse over the Carthaginians in 310 BCE–in which owls flying through the ranks were interpreted as Athena’s blessing.
The Coin Above is a fine example of the Silver Tetradrachm “Athenian Owl” that is available for sale in the Tauler & Fau Auction #40 to be held on October 1 as Lot # 2004. Bidding is available online.