Ba, Sirene, Owl
A little owl (Athene noctua - tytonidæ
(Stri-giformes)), the symbol of the Athenian people
IS PRESENTED AS A BIRD WITH A HUMAN HEAD. The earliest examples come, as with
more symbols, from Egypt and in connection with the death cult. A bird with a
human head symbolized there the soul, Ba or Baw of the dead and from there
also the terrifying character that the siren can have in later
of sirens are found on Greek vases from the sixth century BC and it seems
that the figure then spread almost exclusively in the Greek cultural area. On
Greek tombstones they are presented as musicians and this is in line with the
Homeric singing sirens.
appear in the chapter about the passage of Scylla and Charibdis in the
Odyssey and they enchanted passing sailors with their singing so that they
suffer shipwreck. Odysseus let himself be tied to the mast to be able to hear
their singing, but he ordered his crew to close their ears with wax and not
to loosen it, even if he ordered it. In this way he safely passed the Strait
of Messina. The story becomes even more dramatic when one considers that with
these Homeric sirens the whimpering souls from the
there can be meant who, because the ritual required by the Egyptian view that
they would have had to reunite with their bodies had not been performed,
could not find peace. Even more beautiful than the apparent jealousy of the
sirens on their living colleague that they also want to destroy.
connection between the Sirens and Sicily was later made by Ovid (43 BC - 17
AD) in his Metamorphoses, but he maintains a completely different and more
profane view of the nature of these beings. Sicily was the place where
Proserpina, the daughter of Ceres, was robbed by Pluto. At the robbery,
Proserpina had been accompanied by the
Sirens, the daughters of the river god Achelaus, and therefore no souls at
all from the Egyptian point of view. Ovid then continues: But how did the
daughters or Achelous come to have feathers and claws like birds, while
retaining their human faces? Was it because these skilful singers were among
Proserpine's companions, when she was gathering the spring flowers? And after
seeking her in the world, they prayed that they might fly across the waves on
beating wings, so that the seas, too, might know of their anxiety. The gods
consented, and suddenly they saw their limbs covered with golden plumage. But
in case those melodies that fell so sweetly on the ear should be silenced, if
the maidens lost their tongues, and their rich gift or song denied
expression, they retained the features of young girls, and kept their human
of their singing and their association with the sea, sirens are often
confused in the Middle Ages with mermaids who are represented as a woman with
a fish tail.  This figure, however, has a
research has been done into the popularity of the figure in Greek and Roman
visual art. The figure is rare in heraldry, presumably always referring to an
eagle with a king's head. In heraldry the figure is called harpy, a
qualification that is also known as a nasty female.  The arms of Nuremberg and
the arms of East Friesland are well known.
other hand, the siren in the East seems to have retained the meaning of a
soul symbol and the figure means a bird from Paradise, i.e. a soul incorporated
in Paradise. In Islamic iconography, the siren occurs under different names
and in different forms. "In Islamic tradition at least four different
names are used: murg-i ādamī,"
anqā, zāġsār and bahrī."
In the last term we may find the Egyptian Ba. The bodies of these beings
differ and they sometimes also wear different types of headdresses. The first
two are both feared and admired and can be both friendly and hostile to
people. They all live in remote and inaccessible areas. 
all, the sirens are a good example of the semantic shift (= change of
meaning) that a symbol can undergo over time.
It may be
interesting in this context to examine how the owl is interpreted in popular
belief. In appearance, an owl is very much like a Ba, especially because of the remarkably 'human' face. Add to
that the silent flight and the preference for hunting at dusk and it is
obvious that an owl was also experienced as a spirit in the Egyptian sense.
In this sense the owl can be found in the Arabic popular belief. Here it was believed that the soul
of the deceased in the form of a bird, usually an owl, floats around the body
to which he has belonged. The 'soul bird' casts out wailing complaints and if
it concerns the body of someone who has been murdered and who has not yet
been avenged, then in his shouting one hears the cry for the murderer's
blood.  In Europe, owls were often
seen as, of course, angry, ghosts, and dead owls were nailed to barn doors.  In medieval European
iconography, however, the soul does not resemble an owl, siren or Ba, but is
represented as a miniature person fleeing the body of the dying person. The
owl, siren and Ba have thus retained their wickedness in European culture but
have lost their character of soul.
Soul represented as a little human being leaving
Two hovering angels being
ready with shrouds
The hypothesis that an owl is essentially the appearance
in real life of a siren or Ba and would therefore be the soul of
a deceased person raises the question of the meaning of the owl of Athens.
Thus one may wonder whose soul is meant by that. Would this be about the "spirit" of
the Athenian people ?
Sirens in art
(souls) of Ani and his wife.
Papyrus Ani. Egypt,
1300 B.C. ca.. (British Museum Ms. 10.470. Part 7.)
The commentary in german on this part of the
„Im Bilde stehen die Baw, die „Seelen” des Ani und seiner Frau Tjutju, über dem Grab, das oben mit einer Hohlkehle abschließt. Vor dem Grabe befindet sich ein von Lotosblumen umrankter Tisch mit einem Libationsgefäß. Die Ba-Seele wird aufgrund ihrer unbeschränkten Bewegungsfreiheit (Himmelsflug) als Vogel aufgefaßt, der mit dem Kopf des Verstorbenen dargestellt wird. Hier wird die Vereinigung mit ihrem Ba auch für die Tjutju magisch vorweggenommen. Erst wenn der mumifizierte Körper durch die Zauberkraft des Rituals verklärt worden ist, kann sich der Ba wieder mit ihm vereinigen und damit die ganzheit der Persönlichkeit wieder begründen. Die Beischrift bezeichnet Anis Seele als:
b3 n Wśjr = Ba
des Osiris.” 
Assyrian man-bird between vultures 724-722 BC
Big Aryballos, decorated with a Siren.
Corinthian, from Nola (Italy) 600-575 B.C. (AntikenMuseum, Berlin.)
Tombstone of a
In front of the stone two servants with jewel-case and mirror. On the top
two sirens playing the harp and the flute.
Athens, beginning of the 4th cent. B.C. Marble. (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin.)
Mandulis on the Kalabsha Temple, Sudan. 15 BC
Kinnara guarding the Kalpataru
tree of life
Prambanan temple relief.
Java. 850 AD ca
are female heavenly beings represented half bird half (wo)man. They often
play musical instruments
Kinnari playing the drum
Phat Tich temple Bac Ninh,
Vietnam Historical Museum
Inv. LSb 19785
Middle Age S. Maria de Tera, Spain
Captital with two sirens
From Fontenay Abbey. 12th
century. Bourgogne, France
Seal of Nürnberg, 1243
Representing an eagle with a
(probably of Roman King Conrad IV)
Achievement of Jean de Berry (1340-1416), Poitiers
Arms: Of France
with a bordure engrailed Gules
This achievement in Poitiers of which he was a count
from 1369 until his death.
Achievement of Philip of Kleve, admiral of the
Kroniek van Froissart. K.B. den Haag
Froissart Chronicle originates from de Library of the Stadholder and is now
in de Royal Library in The Hague. The coat of arms Kleve-Mark with the
escutcheon in nombril point has been added much later and replaces a coat of
arms we do’nt know.
probably refer to the office of Admiral of the Netherlands of Philip
Foto H.d.V. ‘98
funeral shield of Enno I Cirksena (r. 1483-’91) preserved in the Landesmuseum
of Emden, originaties from the Mariental monastery in Norden. It shows:
Sable, a harpy between four stars Or, and for crest a fleur-de-lys Or. The
legend reads: In the year of Our Lord 1491 on the 19th of
February, the noble Lord Enno, knight and second count of Eastern Frisia
The Bird of
Russia, 1st half of 19th
cent. Coll. State Historical Museum,
Kinnara, Royal Palace, Bangkok
woman-bird its wings on its
© Hubert de Vries 2006 Updated 2019-07-04
 Penguin translation, p.
 As in the achievments of Josef Bonaparte and Joachim Murat for
Sicily Nr 19. Due Sirene, che sostengono
lo scudo delle armi della Corona. Una di esse porta il cornucopia, e l’ancora;
e l’altra il cornucopia, ed un timone antico. represented
The dictionary says: L. Harpyia, G. Harpula = mythical
rapacious monsters, from. G. harpax = rapacious] shrew, witch, vixen
 More in Gierlichs, Joachim:
Drache . Phönix
. Doppeladler. Fabelwesen in der islamischen Kunst. Berlin, 1993, pp. 23-25.
 Gattiker, Ernst & Luise: Die Vögel im Volksglauben. Wiesbaden, 1989, p. 342.
 „Een valk of uil op de achterdeur gespijkerd,
houdt de mussen van het koren.” (A falcon or owl nailed on the
backdoor keeps the sparrows from the
corn) (Gelderse Volksalmanak voor 1845,
 Papyrus Ani, BM 10.470. Vollständige Faksimile-Ausgabe im Originalformat des Totenbuches aus dem Besitz des British Museum. Kommentar Edmund Dondelinger. Graz, 1978. Tafel 7 p. 58.