Athena the Owl – London, England - Atlas Obscura

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Athena the Owl

Florence Nightingale Museum

The Florence Nightingale Museum is home to the famous nurse's most treasured possession: her beloved pet owl. 


At the Parthenon in Athens, Greece in 1850, a tiny owlet fell from its nest and into the hands of wicked children. The tiny bird was spotted by a young woman who, sure it was about to be tortured to death by the rascals, saved the baby bird. It was the bird’s extreme luck that young woman happened to be none other than Florence Nightingale, the British nurse whose name is now synonymous with the word “mercy.”

Ms. Nightingale skedaddled off the offending youths and rescued the poor owlet, who she named Athena after the Greek goddess of war and wisdom. True to her nature, the nurse lovingly cared for Athena, hand-feeding her, training her to bow and curtsy, and tucking her safely in the pocket of her apron. Athena responded with fierce loyalty. On occasion, a little too fierce. Athena was not fond of people she found intrusive to her human and often used her impressive beak to peck at those who dared to get within reach.

After five years of blissful owl/nurse companionship, war broke out in Crimea, and Florence was called on to take her nursing skills into the field. A war zone is no place for a pet, even one as intelligent and devoted as Athena, so Florence arranged for her feathered friend to reside in her attic during her absence. Unfortunately, the tender loving care that had saved Athena’s life when she was just a baby was the very thing that ultimately led to her demise. Too domesticated to hunt for herself and devastated by loneliness, Athena perished in the attic when family members failed to check on her.

Florence, who had been busy preparing to leave but had not yet departed, was heartbroken. Not willing to part with her dear friend so quickly, she delayed her trip and found a trusted taxidermist to preserve Athena forever. She kept the feathery shell of her beloved pet mounted in her family home for the rest of her days. When Florence went to join Athena in the great beyond, the owl was displayed in the home of wealthy sister Parthenope, who wrote a book about her with the title, The Life and Death of Athena an Owlet.

Later on, the owl fell into the care of an elderly care charity by the name Age Care, which also owned Lea Hurst, Nightingale’s family home. The trust loaned the owl and other artifacts to the Florence Nightingale Museum, and when the items were put up for sale, a community fundraiser effort was successful in making the museum Athena’s permanent home.

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