Mere decoration or an eternal symbol connecting man with ancient ancestral powers? There has always been much more than the eye can see…
We can’t really talk about feathers without mentioning quills and vice versa since they both make up the plumage which is the main feature that distinguishes birds from other life forms. To cut a long story short, a feather is the “dead part” of which plumage is composed in the same way that skin is on mammals. And underneath the feathers we have the down, the main function of which is to trap heat, protecting the bird from rain, the elements and pollution-related problems.
The tickles terror!
It didn’t take long for mankind to divide feathers into two categories according to their uses: quills had a practical function as they were used for writing (in ancient times, at least) and feathers in general were for more decorative use, and at times, an ostentatious shows of luxury. In the field of medicine, there is actually a particular phobia associated with feathers called Pteronofobia. And it is no laughing matter, funny though it may seem, since here we are dealing with a fear, at times hysterical terror, of someone who is sensitive to tickles. Tickling, obviously, with a feather! The mere sight of a feather is enough to trigger a reaction of aversion, annoyance, restlessness and irritability.
Some legendary winged creatures…
The Greeks and Romans venerated feathers as a symbol of speed and concreteness, since it was feathers that directed an arrow straight to the body of the enemy. Alchemists, in the Middle Ages, adopted the winged (and feathered) Lion as a symbol of the golden path, the quest for spiritual and sacred enlightenment, the ultimate goal. Another animal (that does not exist in nature) celebrated at that time was Pegasus, the winged horse, which spurred man to pursue wisdom and realise his dreams. In classical iconography, Pegasus is shown with hooves planted firmly on the ground but airy feathered wings ready to take flight towards the realms of the gods. A marvellous metaphor for the magic which, starting from terrestrial beginnings (hooves), aspires to control the cosmos (the use of feathers allows it to rise from the ground).
The power of the eagle feathers
Native Americans used eagle feathers to decorate their weapons and the typical ornaments of their tribal chiefs. The feather took on a clear meaning of courage in battle; and many feathers all together suggested that that a particular individual had won many battles and was therefore worthy of greater honour. Eagle feathers were also the ultimate symbol of wisdom and fertility. In fact the eagle was the absolute personification of Wakinyan, that is “He who deciphers all mysteries”. It was he who put man in direct communication with the gods. And he still does it today. It is the eagle and not the medicine man who speaks with the Great Spirit.
The Quetzalcoatl myth
In Mexico there is Quetzalcoatl, the famous Feathered Serpent, a direct descendent of the Egyptian cobra, the messenger of Ra who can give life or take it away with his venom. Quetzalcoatl was venerated by the Olmecs (an ancient pre-Columbian civilization that lived along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and reached its golden age from 1400 to 400 B.C.) and represented the bearded god of creation and knowledge. It was he in fact who taught man how to use fire and weapons, but offended a more powerful envious divinity who sent him into exile. By the way Quetzalcoatl has never resigned himself to defeat. He promised the faithful that he would one day return and that this would mark the dawn of a new era. And the sign that his return was imminent would be his feathers. Floating effortlessly on the breeze…