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Civetta: The Owl and Its Symbolism in Italian Folklore


Imagine a creature of the night, with piercing eyes that see in the darkest hours, and a silent flight that strikes fear and wonder into the hearts of those who witness it. This is the Civetta, the owl, a creature deeply embedded in Italian folklore, where it carries a rich tapestry of symbolism, embodying both wisdom and danger, life and death. In this exploration, we delve into the multifaceted world of the Civetta owl, unraveling its cultural significance in Italian history and its enduring presence in modern society.

Table of Contents

The Civetta Owl in Italian Folklore

The Civetta owl, scientifically known as Asio flammeus, is a common sight in the Italian countryside, often perching on rooftops or soaring through the twilight sky. This small, brown owl, with its distinctive facial disc and piercing yellow eyes, has long held a place in the hearts and minds of the Italian people, captivating their imaginations and inspiring a rich tapestry of myths, legends, and symbolism.

Physical Characteristics

The Civetta owl is a medium-sized owl, typically measuring around 30-35 centimeters in length with a wingspan of 75-85 centimeters. Its plumage is predominantly brown and white, providing excellent camouflage in its natural habitat. One of its most striking features is the facial disc, a circular pattern of feathers that surrounds its large, yellow eyes. This disc helps to focus sound and allows the owl to pinpoint prey in the dark.

Habitat and Behavior

The Civetta owl is a nocturnal hunter, preferring to forage for food under the cover of darkness. Its natural habitat includes open grasslands, agricultural fields, and woodland edges. The owl uses its keen eyesight and exceptional hearing to locate prey, primarily small rodents, insects, and occasionally birds. Its silent flight, aided by soft, fringed feathers, allows it to approach prey undetected, making it a highly efficient hunter.

Cultural Significance

The Civetta owl’s nocturnal nature and sharp intelligence have led to its association with wisdom, knowledge, and the mysteries of the night. In ancient Roman culture, the owl was a symbol of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts. This association cemented the owl’s position as a symbol of intelligence and insight, a perception that persisted throughout history and into modern Italian culture.

Guardian of the Night

In many Italian folk tales and legends, the Civetta owl takes on the role of a guardian of the night, protecting people and property from evil spirits and misfortunes. The owl’s piercing eyes were believed to see beyond the veil of darkness, recognizing and warding off malevolent forces. This protective symbolism fostered a sense of security and peace in the hearts of those who believed in its power.

Symbol of Death and the Supernatural

Despite its association with wisdom and protection, the Civetta owl also carries a darker symbolism in Italian folklore. Its nocturnal habits and haunting calls have linked it to the realm of the dead, witches, and the supernatural. Some legends depict the owl as a harbinger of death, its presence believed to foreshadow impending doom. The owl’s association with the underworld and the unseen forces of the night often instilled fear and apprehension in those who encountered it.

The Civetta in Literature and Art

The Civetta owl’s symbolic significance has transcended folklore and found expression in various forms of Italian art and literature. Its presence in these mediums serves to illuminate its multifaceted cultural impact and the enduring power of its symbolism.

Literary References

The Civetta owl appears frequently in Italian literature, from ancient myths and fables to contemporary novels and poetry. One prominent example is the story of “The Owl and the Nightingale,” a medieval English poem that was later adapted into Italian. This story highlights the owl’s association with wisdom and its ability to see through deception, a theme that resonates strongly in Italian culture.

Artistic Representations

The Civetta owl is depicted in a wide array of Italian art, from Renaissance paintings to modern sculptures. Its symbolic significance is often embedded within the artwork, enriching its meaning and creating a deeper connection with the viewer. For example, the owl’s presence in a painting depicting a wise old sage reinforces the association between the owl and intellectual prowess.

Folk Tales and Legends

A multitude of Italian folk tales and legends feature the Civetta owl as a central character. These narratives explore the owl’s diverse symbolic meanings, showcasing its role as a guardian, a harbinger of death, and a creature of mystery and intrigue. These tales often convey moral lessons and offer insights into the cultural values and beliefs of the Italian people.

The Civetta in Modern Italy

The Civetta owl’s symbolism has evolved and adapted to contemporary Italian society, finding new expression in popular culture, branding, and even fashion. Its enduring presence in modern Italy highlights its ability to transcend time and resonate with new generations.

Contemporary Symbolism

The Civetta owl continues to be a popular symbol in modern Italy. It is often used in branding and advertising, evoking associations with wisdom, intelligence, and sophistication. The owl’s image can be seen on logos, packaging, and merchandise, capturing the attention of consumers and reinforcing its cultural significance.

Conservation Efforts

Despite its cultural importance, the Civetta owl faces threats in modern Italy, including habitat loss, pesticide use, and human encroachment. Conservation efforts are underway to protect the owl’s population and ensure its survival in the Italian landscape. These efforts aim to preserve this iconic creature and its place in Italian culture.

Cultural Significance Today

The Civetta owl remains a powerful symbol in contemporary Italian culture, representing a blend of wisdom, mystery, and the enduring power of folklore. Its image continues to inspire artists, writers, and designers, reminding people of the deep connection between nature, culture, and the human spirit.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: What is the difference between a Civetta and a Gufo in Italian?

In Italian, “Civetta” refers specifically to the Asio flammeus species of owl, while “Gufo” is a broader term encompassing other owl species found in Italy. The “Civetta” is known for its small size and distinctive facial disc, while “Gufo” can refer to larger, more traditional owl species like the Eurasian Eagle-Owl.

Q2: What are some of the most common myths and legends about the Civetta owl?

One common myth portrays the Civetta as a guardian spirit that protects homes and families from evil spirits. Another legend suggests that seeing a Civetta owl at night is a sign of impending misfortune or death. These tales, while differing in their specific details, underscore the owl’s association with both protection and danger in Italian folklore.

Q3: Is the Civetta owl considered a good or bad omen in Italian culture?

The Civetta owl’s symbolism is complex and multifaceted, reflecting its dualistic nature in Italian folklore. While often seen as a symbol of wisdom and protection, it also carries a darker association with death and the supernatural. Ultimately, whether it is considered a good or bad omen depends on individual beliefs and the specific context in which it is encountered.

Q4: How can I learn more about the Civetta owl and its cultural significance?

There are several ways to learn more about the Civetta owl and its cultural significance. Researching online resources such as academic journals, cultural websites, and folklore databases is a good starting point. Consulting Italian folklore books and engaging with local experts on Italian culture can provide deeper insights into the owl’s historical and contemporary relevance.


The Civetta owl, with its piercing gaze and silent flight, has captured the imaginations of the Italian people for centuries. From its association with wisdom and protection to its darker connotations with death and the supernatural, the owl embodies a rich tapestry of symbolism, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Italian folklore and culture. As we continue to appreciate the beauty and mystery of this iconic creature, we also recognize its enduring presence in the hearts and minds of those who cherish its legacy.