UNIVERSITY STUDIES – The Little Owl of Athens

Created 06/03 12:05 AM   Modified 05/31 12:16 PM




reflects wisdom and courage in the face of adversity:

Shortly after the temple dedicated to Athena was built on the Acropolis, an owl nested on an inner ledge near the roof, and others soon followed.  To see one was considered lucky, and worshippers often glanced up to its corner hoping to see its glowing eyes bobbing up and down.  The little elf-like owl dear to ancient Athens had greenish-blue-gray eyes that could see clearly where humans could not.  Glaukopis — the “shining eyed one” was often shortened to glaux, a nickname for the tetradrachm that bore the owl’s likeness.  The “owl” tetradrachms of Athens weighed about 17.2 grams each and were virtually pure silver.  Coins of the style University Studies adopted as an icon were minted about 449-413 BC of silver from Athenian mines and nicknamed “owls” all over the Aegean region.  They showed the little owl of Athens (Athena noctua) erect and the letters AOE (for Athens), a quarter moon (possibly signifying the victory of the Greeks over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC or the victory at Marathon in 490 BC* both occurred during the last quarter of the moon) and olive leaves (representing the economic power base–olives).  It was a remarkably stable currency, and hoards of the coins have been found from Sicily to Afghanistan.

The obverse has the old style head of Athena wearing a crested helmet with floral scroll. 

Each evening, the owl was thought to fly the circuit of Greek kingdoms.  Before morning the owl would inform Athena of all that had transpired wherever it flew.

What was a tetradrachm really worth?  To help rebuild the temples that the Persians burned in 480 BC, Pericles designated 5,000 talents (equivalent to 7,500,000 tetradrachms) from the treasury of the Delian League for the Temple of Athena.

[more about Athena]

* Military historians attribute the brilliant Athenian victory over the Persians at Marathon to their long spears, bronze breastplates (better than Persian padded cotton), and the inexplicable decision of the Persians to send their battle horses off to graze elsewhere.  The Athenians themselves, however, had little doubt that victory was inevitable when they saw the tiny owl overhead in the moonlight as they joined the Persians in a battle in which they were outnumbered four to one.  (In later years, some generals would keep a caged owl to be released at the strategic moment–such an owl also appeared in Aristophanes’ play, The Wasps:  “But Pallas sent her night-bird; and as the owlet flew / Across the host, our armies hope and joyous omens drew.”)  The victory owl of Marathon entered legend; even the conquering Romans’ counterpart goddess, Minerva, acquired an owl.  (Contemporary Scandinavians still enjoy their Minnervauggla.)


refs:  Angelo de Gubernatis.  Zoological Mythology Trubner, London, 1872; Virginia C. Holmgren.  Owls in Folklore and Natural History.  Capra Press, Santa Barbara, 1988.  Faith Medlin.  Centuries of Owls.  Silvermine Publishers, Norwalk, 1967.

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