Feathers are such a commonplace object today. Whether you get them real or artificial or use them as an accessory or decor, the feather actually has some symbolism and meaning behind it.
Feathers in general represent a certain idea, feeling, or value, but there can be different meanings depending on the feather’s color or what bird the feather came from. In this article, we look at the significance of feathers and what they symbolize or represent.
Where Do Feathers Come From?
Feathers are the natural outer covering of birds that form a bird’s plumage. It’s also believed that the earliest dinosaurs actually had feathers rather than the popular view that they were green and scaly. This suggests that, at one point, some reptiles had feathers, too. However, no such reptile exists today.
You can get feathers two ways. One is by obtaining feathers from a bird. Companies that sell feather products most likely source their feathers from poultry farms. These are then cleaned and either sold as is or as an accessory for a different product. You could also happen to find a feather that molted off a bird, or you can pluck a single feather from a live bird (but this is very painful for the bird, so avoid this method as much as possible).
Another way is by using polyester and other man-made materials like plastics to make artificial bird feathers. These are less expensive than bird feathers because they can be mass-produced in a factory, and they’re said to be more durable and clean than regular feathers.
What Do Feathers Symbolize?
Generally speaking, feathers are associated with freedom, transcendence, communication, and spirituality. Feathers come from birds, and while different birds have their own specific meaning, birds have similar characteristics that also give them shared meanings. Feathers symbolize freedom because of the way birds are free to travel on earth and sky. This means there is nothing stopping them from going where they want to.
Religious Meaning of Feathers
Because birds can soar into the sky, some cultures believe that birds are the link between heaven and earth. In fact, feathers are often linked to mythical angels in Christianity, Judaism, and Islamic religions. Angels are usually depicted to look like humans but with a pair of white-feather wings on their backs. However, some believe that angels have wings in different colors depending on their purpose. There’s a superstition that goes, “Feathers appear when angels are near.” This means if you find a feather in an unlikely place with no explanation (i.e. somewhere where there aren’t any birds to leave a feather) or find one floating along your path, it means either an angel or a deceased loved one is watching you and offering you comfort and encouragement.
Spiritual Symbolism of Feathers
Like a bird taking flight, a feather can symbolize the flight for freedom. A lone feather can make us visualize a bird that has already taken flight and flown away from its starting point. This doesn’t necessarily mean you get on a plane and fly to worlds unknown to be free. It can simply be the mental or spiritual longing to be free. If you’re stuck with an ordinary life and you long for adventure or just want to chase a certain dream once you have the means for it, a feather can symbolize your eventual need to take flight towards that goal of doing what makes you happy.
And as a bird soars through the skies, it has nothing to stop it from flying where it wants to and can see everything from its vantage point. Thus, feathers also symbolize the ability to transcend all boundaries and limitations. A person sees a feather and thinks about the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional barriers that stop them from being free. It also reminds them to look at the bigger picture from a different point of view to remember what matters.
A person who takes a feather for their spiritual symbol longs for the freedom of a bird. They don’t want any limitations to what they can achieve and try to remember the important details in life. Sure, they may be experiencing troubling times or many problems at the moment, but they will eventually remember to see the bigger picture, work for that moment to be free, and move through life freely like a bird.
Significance of Feathers in Native American Culture
Feathers are arguably most popularly used by Native American cultures. Male leaders and esteemed male members of Native American and Plains Indians Nations are often depicted as wearing large feather headgear. This actually has great symbolism that goes back to their earliest history, and here’s why it should never be used as a costume in scenes of cultural appropriation.
War bonnets (also known as headdresses) are worn only by male leaders and esteemed members of a tribe. This is one of the most highly sacred headpieces of a tribe, as one would have to both earn the right to wear it and be formally recognized as a person of great honor by the tribe. Originally, they were worn in battle, but now they’re used for ceremonial occasions to distinguish that person from the rest of the tribe.
Headdresses are made with eagle feathers. In Native American cultures, eagles represent courage, honor, and valor, so wearing eagle feathers is one of the highest forms of commanding respect. To earn the right to wear it, one must show the same values represented by the eagle, and this usually involves going into battle, military service, or doing something for the benefit of the community. One way to earn an eagle feather in every battle, you would have to stand in the front lines and be the first warrior to touch an enemy in battle and come out unscathed. The number of eagle feathers on a headdress also indicates how accomplished a person is that, in most cases, a warrior may only have up to three eagle feathers in their headdress.
Eagle feathers are highly valued in Native American culture because eagles are believed to be the most powerful bird. However, because more and more eagles are becoming endangered species, laws are put in place to prevent people from killing eagles and taking all their feathers. The exception to this, as explained in Eagle feather law, are Native Americans are allowed to collect and own eagle feathers as per their tradition. Native Americans do not kill eagles for their culture. Instead, they take the matured feathers of young eagles still in the nest up to three times before they can never grow back. The rarity of eagle feathers may also attribute to why it is highly valued in Native American culture.
Why This Symbol Shouldn’t Be Culturally Appropriated
Cultural appropriation happens when a dominant culture takes an element from a minority culture and disregards its symbolic meaning and turns it into a fashion piece. While many people on the internet have varying opinions on the limit for it (some think white Americans dressing up in another culture’s clothing even with the intent of showing respect for the culture is still appropriation), I believe it becomes appropriation when a dominant culture treats a minority culture’s sacred piece as an accessory without any special meaning. And when it comes to Native Americans’ war bonnets, it’s common to find them being appropriated at Bohemian-themed events, especially festivals like Coachella.
Headdresses are a symbol of pride and respect in a Native American tribe. But you wouldn’t know that given the way it’s treated by the dominant white American culture. Makes many Native Americans value the symbolism offended because their sacred object is taken and used in a commercialized way devoid of all meaning except as an accessory.
Feather Symbolism in Ancient Egypt Civilization
In Ancient Egyptian culture, feathers are seen in the goddess Ma’at. Earliest records of her go back as far as 2613 BCE, but it’s highly likely that she existed even before then. She is depicted as a woman with wings and an ostrich feather on her head. She is the goddess of truth, justice, harmony, and balance. In the afterlife, she uses her feather during the Weighing of the Heart of the Soul ceremony. When a person dies, the heart of their soul is placed on one side of the scale and Ma’at’s feather on the other. That person would then recite the Negative Confession before Osiris and the Forty-Two Judges. If they told the truth and never committed anything evil, their heart will be lighter than Ma’at’s feather, and will be allowed to pass through to paradise. But if it was heavier than her feather, Osiris will throw the heart to the floor and let the monster Ammut consume the heart, which ended a person’s whole existence.
Ma’at symbolized living a life with justice, order, and harmony. As the spirit of all creation, she represents living a good life in order to proceed to paradise in the next life. Ma’at’s feather was the symbol of living for one’s self and for others, and living an immoral life only for one’s self was believed to bring disorder.
Feathers have different meanings in various cultures and superstitions. What other meanings have we left out? Leave it in the comments sections below!