Athena is the Greek goddess of Wisdom and the patron goddess of the city of Athens in Greece. She is also confused with the Roman goddess, Minerva, who shares similar atributes, but appears to be an Etruscan as opposed to Greek import.
If you examine the art that surrounds Athena, both Ancient and Modern, you might have notice she always has a little friend near her. If you look closely, you will find an Owl.
Now it’s very difficult to determine which came first, Athena or the Owl. Most likely the Owl became associated with Athena because of a couple of reasons. 1) The light that reflects off their eyes in the dark gave the appearance of an ‘inner light’ or Wisdom and 2) This is the most likely cause, a particular species of Owl was common ontop of the Arcopolis of Athens. Since that hilltop was dedicated to Athena, the Greeks took the fact that there were so many owls present as them being sacred to Athena. As a result the Owl and Athena have been linked and the Owl has come to represent Wisdom in many later cultures, heck right down to Owl in Winnie the Pooh.
But what kind of Owl was Athena’s Owl? The most likely candidate is the Little Owl (Athene noctua). Even the latin name, translates to “Athena’s Night” or “Athena of the Night”. At about 9″ it is perhaps slightly larger than a Northern Saw-Whet Owl. It is common across Europe, North Africa the Middle East in Asia. It also has a habit of nesting in buildings. No doubt the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens would have been very attractive to this species.
This is a very durable species, which is not native to Britain but was introduced to the island in the 19th century, likely as a result of the resurgent interest in Greek and Roman civilization and people no doubt wanted to bring ‘Athena’s Owl’ back to civilization (along with the Elgin Marbles).
Many other civilizations had birds play import roles in their mythology. The Egyptians used many birds and the Roman used the Imperial Eagle as their symbol (which the United States would copy later on) but those are stories for another day.