Because of its ‘lighter than air’, fragile beauty, the archetype of the Feather indicates wisdom, freedom and peace. As opposed to the collection of feathers which make up a bird’s wings and aids in flight, the single feather ‘floats’ up ‘spirit-like’ into the breeze, and remains airborne in the perfection of its developed form. This is why we write down our ‘wisdom’ with a quill, and why a ‘feather in ones cap’ is observed as a credit for a great and nearly divine achievement. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a deceased man’s heart, or Ba, was weighed against a feather, which the ancients represented as divine love.
This comparative measurement determined whether or not that particular individual was worthy of eternity. If the person’s heart was (unfortunately) weighed down by the immoral nature of his worldly character and behavior, the feather would deny his entrance into the infinite realm of the afterlife. In Native American tribes, such as the Shawnee and the Cherokee Nations, feathers were worn by warriors to represent the strength and swift flight of their spirit guides. The force of a warrior was only as powerful as his wisdom and spiritual devotion to his guide.
In many civilizations feathers are associated with lunar symbolism and represent the growth of plant life. This is true of Central America, where to Aztec and Maya they had a similar symbolic function to hair, grass and rain. Similarly during the Great Feather Dance, the Iroquois offered ceaseless thanks to their twin culture-heroes for everything which sprang up to bless mankind, fruit and waters, animals and trees, sun and vine-shoots, darkness and moonlight, stars and the givers-of-life (beans, maize and pumpkins, which they called ‘the Three Sister Goddesses’).
The twofold symbolism of feathers as ascensional forces and as plant growth recurs in the use by the Zuni (Pueblo) Indians during their solsticial festivals of ‘prayer-sticks’ with bunches of feathers attached to their upper ends. These staves (staff) are set up in maize-fields, or in flower-vases, and in all holy places on mountain peaks and beside springs as offerings to the ancestors, the Sun and the Moon. ‘The fluttering of the bunches of feathers on the end of the sticks,’ Muller explains, ‘wafts their prayers to the gods’: in other words, to Heaven. In his autobiography, the Hopi (Pueblo) Indian chief Don C. Talayesva describes the first time he saw as a child the votive offering of feathers at the important festival of the Winter solstice, as follows:
A few days later, at sunrise, my mother took me to the eastern edge of the mesa [plateau] with everybody else in the village to place prayer feathers on the shrines. These sacrifices bore messages to the gods in order to bring good luck. The people placed feathers in the ceilings of their houses and in all the kivas [temples]. They tied them to the ladders to prevent accidents, to the tails of burrows [donkeys] to give them strength, to goats, sheep, dogs, and cats to make them be fertile, and to the chicken houses to get more eggs... This was also the safest day for mothers to cut their children’s hair without harm from evil spirits or Two Hearts.
This example clearly shows the association of feathers/hair/fertility linked to the symbolism of ascension, since the prayers and feathers go up to Heaven, from which the fructifying rain will fall.
Elucidating the myths of Australasia and New Guinea, Levy-Bruhl explains that:
feathers are an appurtenance of birds, their skin and body. Thus they are the bird’s self. To dress in feathers, to suck or eat them, is therefore to become one with the bird and, if in possession of the requisite magical powers, a sure means of transforming oneself into a bird... . For the same reason feathers have a specific magical power. They are used as flights for arrows. They are often employed as personal adornment. The first people to stick feathers in their hair doubtless flattered themselves with the belief that they were transmitting some of this power to themselves.
In fact feathers are symbols of the power of air, of freedom from the force of gravity. A crown of feathers worn by kings and princes is a reminder of the Sun’s rays and of the halo kept for the elect. Coronation ceremonies are related to rites of identification with the Sun-god or with those of delegation of heavenly power. The plumes which surmount the awnings over sovereigns and Popes, rising from the pillars supporting the four comers, signify that supreme authority, derived from Heaven, stretches to the four corners of their kingdoms or of the world itself. That authority brings with it a duty to administer justice. If, as was the case with the Ancient Egyptians, the feather is a symbol of justice, it is perhaps because, when set on the scales, its minuscule weight is enough to upset their just balance.
Some critics regard feathers as a symbol of sacrifice. Worldwide, when chickens or hens were offered in sacrifice to the gods, only the feathers were left around the altar. They bore witness to the proper performance of the rite.