Explorations Into Liminality
“and there came an arm and a hand above the water and met it and caught it, and so shook it thrice and brandished it, and then vanished away the hand with the sword in the water.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hope Is A Thing With Feathers

Feathers speak in images… breath, freedom, spirit, hope, transformation, truth, flight, vision, wind, power.

Since ancient times they have held symbolic meaning and spiritual significance for people across the continents; depicted in the earliest art on cave walls, pottery, jewelry, and tombs, mythology and creation stories, feathers are infused in virtually every culture.

Macaw feathers, native to the southerly Americas, have been found in prehistoric archaeology sites in North America, indicating extensive trade or import of these valuable objects, though their use is not certain. However, in recorded history, colorful parrot feather head dresses have been worn by indigenous people of Central and South America to signify nobility. Whether used as status symbols, religious items, or pure ornamentation they must have been highly prized to have traveled so far from their indigenous origins.

In Egyptian religion, Ma’at sat in judgment of the dead, wearing her ostrich feather on her head. She stood for truth and order, and weighed the deceased’s heart against the feather in hopes their souls were pure enough to attain the Afterlife. I wonder if the popular imagery of the “freedom heart”, the winged heart, is a descendant of the Goddess’ trial.

Feather cloaks were widespread in European and Norse mythology. Druids wore ritual cloaks made from many different birds; think of Rhiannon’s three birds which were white, gold and green. The Valkyries donned swan capes to transform and fly away, and Freyja could turn into a falcon by wearing a robe of the same feathers.

There are countless stories of maidens-who-are-birds and alight to the ground to take human form, folding their feathers into a garment beside them. One of my favorite stories is a re-telling in the shape of a song by the Decemberists, “The Crane Wife”. Set in Japan, a peasant man finds a crane that’s been shot by an arrow and he heals it, watches it fly away. Days later a woman appears to him, they fall in love and are married. To assuage their poverty she begins weaving with his vow that he will never look upon her while she makes this beautiful cloth. In his greed he works her to illness, and as is the wont of mortals, he fails her and spies, cracks the enchantment open:

“Each feather, it fell from skin

Until threadbare, she grew thin

How were my eyes so blinded?

Each feather, it fell from skin”

Of course, his fate is sealed and she resumes her crane form, leaving him alone on the ground; she, adorned in feathers again at last.

Feathers are certainly imbued with magical properties, as seen in the wands in the world of Harry Potter. At the core of the wand lies a feather, and the combination of the wood and the feather resonates with individuals differently.

Probably the most significant spiritual feather symbolism lies within the belief system of indigenous people of the Americas. Native American chiefs and warriors, especially of certain plains tribes, wear magnificent head dresses of eagle feathers which have been earned, each by each. Eagle feathers are incredibly important in creation myths, cultural ceremonies and healing. They transcend the mundane world and carry prayers to the spirit world; they are powerful medicine.

When you find a feather how does it make you feel? Do you see it as a gift, an omen? A message from Elsewhere, healing medicine?

Well, before you pick it up as a special treasure, be forewarned: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was designed to protect birds from the irresponsible trade in birds and feathers at the time. Four other countries signed this agreement (Canada, Mexico, Japan and Russia) to protect migratory birds. “The statute makes it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell birds listed therein (“migratory bird”). The statute does not discriminate between live or dead birds and also grants full protection to any bird parts including feathers and nests. Over 800 species are currently on the list.”

Eagles, hawks, owls, doves, crows, ravens, vultures, swans, geese, ducks, cranes, and even pigeons, are a tiny representation of the huge list of protected birds. The only special exception is for Native American tribes that are “recognized” by the federal government; they can apply for a permit and then request some frozen eagle parts collected by the Eagle Repository, replete with permission slips to avoid $100,000 fines. So not even an indigenous Holy Person can pick up an eagle feather in the wild.

A parting blessing, with gratitude to Terri Windling for bringing this to me as recorded over 100 years ago in the Scottish Highlands:

Power of raven be yours, Power of eagle be yours, Power of the Fiann. Power of storm be yours, Power of moon be yours, Power of sun. Power of sea be yours, Power of land be yours, Power of heaven. Goodness of sea be yours, Goodness of earth be yours, Goodness of heaven. Each day be joyous to you, No day be grievous to you, Honor and compassion. Love of each face be yours, Death on pillow be yours, And God be with you.

*special nod to Emily Dickinson for the title of this blog post


Studio618 said...

Very interesting read about feathers. Thanks for sharing. Beautiful feather pendants, BTW.

AJ said...

Great post! I love how you draw from so many disparate sources to give a complete picture of the importance of the materials and symbolism in your work.

(look at me, sounding all hoity-toity)

mermaiden said...

AJ, I love the hoity-toitiness, and the fact that you *get* what's going on in my brain when I'm making these pieces!

sandydotcom said...

as i was reading and worrying about how people get feathers now... thank you for adding in the section on protection law.
lovely blog - i saw a crane yesterday and now I have imagery to weave into that memory :p

Athena's Armoury said...

How do you know about all of this stuff?! I love reading the history and meaning behind your pieces. Love it.

stregata said...

Great post! Love those feather pendants - so magical!

Merily said...

I love this post- I'm very interested in feathers, so I love learning more about them!

I collect feathers (and use them in my art sometimes), so I get kind of worried about the laws about feathers. I don't see how it can be a crime to pick up feathers off the ground, you know?

Linda said...

I have a thing about feathers, they are like shells to me, indivual little creations.
I always enjoy your posts and your art.
Have a Lovely weekend

Coastal Sisters said...

This was such a lovely posting.


Linda said...

Julie you have been given the domestic witch blog award on my pyewacketts blog.. Lindax

mrsb said...

That is just gorgeous!

Pamela Zimmerman said...

what a great post! We all love feathers, and it is so hard to leave them be and not use them in our artwork. But so many birds were massacred for their feathers before the MBTA was enacted. We need to be good guardians of our planet and it's fragile species. Thanks so much for writing this wonderful blogpost!

Becky Wilson said...

I've just finished reading a chapter in a book simply called Dublin - its a fictional historical saga about the origins of Irelands greatest city, its people and culture and in the first chapter kind of early early times it describes the druids wearing feathered cloaks for ceremonies etc. I couldn't help but think of your peice when I read it :)

Blue said...

My son-in-law gifted me with one of your feather ornaments. It is beautiful! I am so blessed. I would love to have one of my parakeets feathers made into one,
his feathers are so beautiful.

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