delanceyplace.com 3/28/12 - feathers, aspiration, and myth

In today's excerpt - from the deepest reaches of pre-history to the present, feathers have been symbols of mankind's aspirations and mysteries:

"On any given day, up to four hundred billion individual birds may be found flying, soaring, swimming, hopping, or otherwise flitting about the earth. That's more than fifty birds for every human being, one thousand birds per dog, and at least a half-million birds for every living elephant. ... Each of those birds maintains an intricate coat of feathers-from roughly one thousand on a Ruby-throated Hum­mingbird to more than twenty-five thousand for a Tundra Swan. ...

"Nothing competes with feathers for sheer di­versity of form and function. They can be downy soft or stiff as battens, barbed, branched, fringed, fused, flattened, or simple un­adorned quills. They range from bristles smaller than a pencil point to the thirty-five-foot breeding plumes of the Ongadori, an ornamental Japanese fowl. Feathers can conceal or attract. They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment. They can store water or repel it. They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom, and whine. They're a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered. ...

"By the late Stone Age, feathered headdresses and fletched arrows appeared regularly in rock and cave art from Europe to the American Southwest to the deserts of Namibia. Al­ready, people had co-opted feathers for uses both practical (to make an arrow fly true) and deeply cultural (as prized adornments for ceremony and status). Their varied, often vibrant colors made feathers an obvious choice for decoration. Before modern pig­ments, what other medium offered everything from the beige and umber of pheasants to the bright iridescence of sunbirds, mot-mots, and parrots? In time, feathers would spawn a global industry, clothe kings and courtesans alike, and define the height of fashion from Paris to New York. ...

"And if flight is sacred, then birds, wings, and feathers are its most potent symbols, appearing again and again in a dizzying range of rituals, beliefs, and customs. Birds and bird-gods figure heavily in all mythologies, and flight is the jealously guarded privilege giving them access to both the spiritual and the earthly planes. In an­cient Greece, Hermes relied on winged sandals to speed his pas­sage to and from Mount Olympus, but when the mortal boy Icarus flew too high, his wax and feather wings fell to pieces. The Hindu messenger god, Garuda, emerged from an egg with the body of a man and the plumage of an eagle. Flight earned him the honor of transporting Vishnu and gave him eternal advantage over his de­vious serpent-spirit adversaries, the Naga. ...

"Upon their death, ancient ancient Egyptians believed that the jackal-headed god Anubis would mea­sure the worth of their heart, and the soul it contained, against the weight of a feather. Those found in balance entered the pleasant kingdom of Osiris. But when the scales tipped wrong, Anubis flung the offending heart into the waiting maw of Amemait, 'the Devourer,' a slavering hippo-lion-crocodile beast that crouched at his feet. In the Peruvian Amazon, the Waorani people also faced a feathery judgment at death, as described by ethnologist Wade Davis in his book One River: 'Each Waorani has a body and two souls.... [T]he one lodged in the brain ascends to the sky where it meets a sacred boa at the base of the clouds. If and only if its nostrils have been pierced and decorated by the finest of feathers can the soul enter heaven. If turned away, it falls back to earth and is consumed by worms.'

"The connection between feathers and the sacred ... found firm footing in the great monotheistic faiths as well. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism all share a belief in angels, higher spiri­tual beings that serve as intermediaries on the path toward unity with God. Over the centuries, the depictions and descriptions of angels have been surprisingly consistent. They feature clearly rec­ognizable human figures augmented by the addition of certain fea­tures. And what was added? Just what was given to the human form to symbolize an elevated, angelic state? ... Ever since Vohu Manah first appeared to Zoroaster, Michael to Moses, and Gabriel to Mu­hammad, angels have come equipped with great feathered wings."


author:

Thor Hanson

title:

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle

publisher:

Basic

date:

Copyright 2011 by Thor Hanson

pages:

4-8
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