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The Owl of Athena

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In Greek mythology, a little owl traditionally represents or accompanies Athena, the virgin goddess of wisdom, or Minerva, her syncretic incarnation in Roman mythology. Because of such association, the owl has been used as a symbol of knowledge or wisdom throughout the Western world.[1] In mythology, Athena's owl was once a human princess, Nyctimene of the island of Lesbos, who was raped by her own father. She fled to the woods and there hid herself in shame. Athena in sympathy transformed the girl into an owl and appointed her as her animal familiar.[2]


Minerva transforms Nyctimene into an owl. Engraving by Johann Wilhelm Baur, 1641 CE. Public domain.[3]


Based upon representations on coins and ancient art, scientists believe Athena's owl to be the little owl (Athene noctua), which also appropriately called the owl of Athena or owl of Minerva.[4]
The little owl is a small owl with a flat-topped head, a plump, compact body, and a short tail. Its plumage is grayish brown, spotted, streaked, and barred with white. The underparts are pale and streaked with darker color. It typically measures 22 cm (8.7 in) in length with a wingspan of 56 cm (22 in) for both sexes and weighs about 180 g (6.3 oz).[5]


Little owl (Athene noctua) in Teira, Galicia, Spain. Photograph by Arturo Nikolai, used with permission.[6]

Representations in Ancient Greek Art

Owls were commonly reproduced by Athenians in vases, weights, and prize amphoras for the Panathenaic Games.[7] Here are just a few examples.


Athena holding a helmet and a spear, with an owl. Attributed to the Brygos Painter (circa 490–480 BCE). The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen, used with permission.[8]


A comical depiction of the owl of the goddess Athena on an Attic red figure œnochoé. The bird is depicted as Athena Itonia, wearing a crested helm, and wielding a spear and shield in its human-like arms. Musée du Louvre, Paris, CA2192.[9]

Representations on coins

The most famous representation of Athena and her owl are, of course, on the silver tetradrachms of Athens featuring the goddess on the obverse and the owl on the reverse. I do not have one of these iconic pieces in my collection, but I do have a tiny bronze of Sigeion (Latin Sigeium) featuring similar iconography. It is one of my favorite coins.


Troas, Sigeion, c. 335 BC.
Greek Æ 12.2 mm, 2.37 g, 5 h.
Obv: Head of Athena facing slightly right, wearing triple crested helmet and necklace.
Rev: ΣΙΓΕ, owl standing right, head facing; crescent to left.
Refs: BMC 17.86,7-10; SNG von Aulock 7637; SNG Ashmolean 1214–6; SNG Copenhagen 496–8; Sear 4145.

I particularly enjoy coinage where Athena is depicted holding the little owl in her hand. I have a couple such reverse types from the Roman provincial series.


Macrinus and Diadumenian, AD 217-218.
Roman provincial Æ Pentassarion, 12.06 g, 26.5 mm, 6 h.
Moesia Inferior, Marcianopolis, Legate Pontius Furius Pontianus, June/Aug 217-Nov/Dec 217.
Obv: ΑΝΤ Κ ΟΠΕΛ CΕV ΜΑΚΡΕΙΝΟC Κ Μ ΟΠΕ ΑΝΤΩΝΕΙΝΟC, Confronted heads of Macrinus right, laureate, and Diadumenian left, bare.
Rev: VΠ ΠΟΝΤΙΑΝΟV ΜΑΡΚΙΑΝΟΠΟΛΙΤΩΝ, Athena wearing helmet and aegis, standing left, holding owl and inverted spear; E in right field.
Refs: AMNG I 734v.; Hristova & Jekov; Varbanov 1170a; BMC 30v.; Moushmov 537; Wiczay 2148v.


Faustina II, AD 147-175.
Roman provincial triassarion, 7.19 g, 21.7 mm, 7 h.
Thrace, Pautalia, AD 161-175.
Obv: ΦΑVCΤΕΙΝΑ-CΕΒΑCΤΗ, draped bust of Faustina II, right; double band of pearls around head.
Rev: ΟVΛΠΙΑC ΠΑV-ΤΑΛΙΑC, Athena seated, l., holding owl and spear; resting foot on footrest; leaning against seat, shield.
Refs: RPC IV 10035, Ruzicka 108.
Notes: Double die match to RPC IV 10035(1) = Ruzicka 108(2) = Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France 957 (ex 779).

Let's see your coins featuring Athena (or Minerva) with her owl! Post anything you feel is relevant!



1. "Minerva's owl wisdom" in Berger, Cynthia. Owls. Wild Guide. Stackpole Books, 2005, p. x.

2. "Athene Favour: Nyctimene." Theoi.com, https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/AthenaFavour.html#Nyktimene.

3. File:Metamorphosis of Nyctimene.jpeg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Metamorphosis_of_Nyctimene.jpeg.

4. "Little Owl." Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Oct. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_owl.

5. "Little Owl Athene Noctua." BTO BirdFacts | Little Owl, British Trust for Ornithology, https://app.bto.org/birdfacts/results/bob7570.htm.

6. File:Mochuelo Común ( Athene Noctua )(1).JPG - Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mochuelo_Com%C3%BAn_%28_Athene_noctua_%29%281%29.jpg.

7. Arnott, William Geoffrey. Birds in the Ancient World from A to Z. Routledge, 2007, pp. 84-85.

8. File:Athena Owl Met 09.221.43.Jpg. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Athena_owl_Met_09.221.43.jpg.

9. "Œnochoé." Musée Du Louvre, 3 Oct. 2022, https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010260146.

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Interesting write up and coins. I pretty much only have one ancient Greek coin, which is an owl.

Attica Tetradrachm, 454-404BCimage.png.08c9b5ed94305be2722c39b5c3db050d.png
Athens. Silver, 24mm, 17.19g. Helmeted head of Athena right, with frontal eye. Owl standing right, head facing, closed tail feathers; olive sprig and crescent to left; all within incuse square (Kroll 8; HGC 4, 1597).

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I don’t think I’ve ever come across an Athena holding an owl in the western Greek world’s coin output. Athena wasn’t a particularly common theme there, (especially after Athen’s awful Sicilian Expedition!) but here’s one from Tarentum with Athena and an owl on the reverse. 

AR drachma, 282/270BC BC; 3g Athena head l. with Attic helmet, Scylla crest // owl reverse.



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Exceptional thread @Roman Collector! The little owl always gives me a good chuckle whenever I see one. Their annoyed look reminds me of celebrities when they see paparazzi staring at them while they try and go about their day. I need to find a reproduction of that fearsome warrior owl vessel ASAP, it is glorious 😂 Perhaps if the Greek city-states had a legion or two of warrior owls, they wouldn't have been defeated by the Romans..... 🤭

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I don't own an Athens tetradrachm either. But I have a much smaller denomination. This is not a fantastic example, no doubts about it, but being a small coin the aspect is much more pleasant in hand.


Attica. Athens circa 454-404 BC.
Hemiobol AR

6 mm., 0,27 g.

Obv. Helmeted head of Athena right.  Rev. AΘΕ ; Owl right head facing, wings folded, olive-leaf and berry behind, all within an incuse square.   Sear SG 2531


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