Feathers In Religion and Culture

Feathers are sacred to many people, especially white feathers. The concept of feathers symbolizing flight, ascension, the gods, has been around since the beginning of time. Feathers - going back to those of flying dinosaurs - were regarded as both ceremonial and decorative.

Various birds and their plumages serve as cultural icons throughout the world, from the hawk in ancient Egypt to the bald eagle and the turkey (bird) in the United States.

In Greek mythology, Daedelus the inventor and Icarus tried to escape his prison by attaching feathered wings to his shoulders with wax, which was melted by the Sun.

In India, feathers of the Indian Peacock have been used in traditional medicine for snakebite, infertility and coughs.

Eagle feathers have great cultural and spiritual value to American Indians in the USA and First Nations peoples in Canada as religious objects. In the United States the religious use of eagle and hawk feathers are governed by the eagle feather law, a federal law limiting the possession of eagle feathers to certified and enrolled members of federally recognized Native American tribes.

In South America, brews made from the feathers of Condors are used in traditional medications.

During the 18th, 19th, and even 20th Centuries a booming international trade in plumes, to satisfy market demand in North America and Europe for extravagant head-dresses as adornment for fashionable women, caused so much destruction (for example, to egret breeding colonies) that a major campaign against it by conservationists led to the Lacey Act and caused the fashion to change and the market to finally collapse. Frank Chapman noted in 1886 that as many as 40 species of birds were used in about three-fourths of the 700 ladies' hats that he observed in New York City.

Feathers and Neanderthals

Neanderthals Wore Colorful Feathers, Study Suggests   Live Science - February 23, 2011

Neanderthals plucked the feathers from falcons and vultures, perhaps for symbolic value, scientists find. This new discovery adds to evidence that our closest known extinct relatives were capable of creating art.

Scientists investigated the Grotta di Fumane - "the Grotto of Smoke" - in northern Italy, a site loaded with Neanderthal bones. After digging down to layers that existed at the surface 44,000 years ago, the researchers discovered 660 bones belonging to 22 species of birds, with evidence of cut, peeling and scrape marks from stone tools on the wing bones of birds that had no clear practical or culinary value.

"The first traces on the bones of large raptors were found in September 2009," said researcher Marco Peresani, a paleoanthopologist at the University of Ferrara in Italy. "After that, we decided to re-examine the whole bone assemblage recovered from that layer."

These birds included red-footed falcons (Falco vespertinus); bearded lammergeiers (Gypaetus barbatus), a type of vulture; Alpine choughs (Pyrrhocorax graculus), a relative of crows; and common wood pigeons (Columba palumbus). The birds' plumages come in a variety of colors - the gray of the red-footed falcon, the orange-shaded slate gray of the bearded lammergeier, the black of the Alpine chough, and the blue-gray of the common wood pigeon.

"We know that the use of bird feathers was very widespread and that humans have always attributed a broad and complex value to this practice, ranging from social significance and games to the production of ornamental and ceremonial objects," Peresani told LiveScience. "Reconstructing this usually hidden and poorly known aspect among extinct humans is one of the aims of our research."