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Feather ornaments – magic and symbolism

Over a thousand colorful feather ornaments sway in the air around the exhibition room - all collected by the Italian missionary and human-rights activist Carlo Zacquini during 33 years among the Yanomami.

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Feathers have strong festive and ritual importance for rain forest indians over all of tropical America. Feather ornaments may be used on the head, in the earlobes or on the upper-arms. Some types, such as upper-arm bands, may be used as daily adornment. Feathers remind wearer and viewer alike of the feathered bird, and show the natural relationship between humans and animals. For the wearer, feathers are a confirmation of identity. Feather ornaments are status symbols, and the combination of feathers and colors show a persons artistic and esthetic sense. Feathers provide spiritual power and protection. They complete the individual, and act as a kind of spiritual medicine.

In the Indian view, all things are of equal value and contain life - the earth, stones, trees, humans and animals. The various species of birds each have their personalities, their characteristic ways of singing and behaving. The social life of birds can be seen as a model of human society. Just as humans know their own homes, their own technology and their own dining manners - Indians claim that birds also have their own places and habits. The connection between birds and humans is based on this resemblance. Birds populate the heavens and maintain the connection between this world and the spirit world. Through the shaman's messages, wishes and prayers are carried in both directions.

Feathers create an element of change. When the human body is clothed in feathers, ones thoughts turn to the possibility of release from this world. Feather ornaments are used at both funerals and rites of passage - Life and death are closely tied together.

Because feathers are the "hair" of the birds, they give the wearer spiritual power. A normal view is that a person's spiritual power lies in their hair, therefor a bird's spiritual power lies naturally in their feathers. Feathers are also used as healing medicine and as protection against evil spirits and demons. This gives them a central place in all important life situations for a rain forest Indian.

Collection of feathers

If a feather becomes soiled with blood, it loses its power. Rain forest indians therefore normally use broad-tipped arrows to knock a bird senseless so that it falls to the ground, a single feather is plucked and the bird can fly on again when it awakes. Indians have great respect for the mystical quality of blood.

In a Yanomami village, there are always several tame parrots. The indians pluck tail feathers from them, and new feathers grow out. Some birds are captured and fed while they are still chicks. These come constantly back later in order to feed. The wings of grown birds are clipped in order to hinder them from fleeing.

Mythical origin

Countless myths tell that the original birds were either pure white or pure black. Then by various ways, birds took on their characteristic colors, and the various species may be recognized. In the myths, birds often act as transmitters of culture - they carry knowledge of fire and edible plants to humanity.

Shamanic feather ornaments and their use in healing rituals

Feathers are important constituents of a shamans costume. Feathers from colorful ara and toucan bird are often used. Head ornaments of deep-red ara-parrot feathers are considered to bear strong magical power, allowing the shaman to gain contact with supernatural beings and utilize their powers. Among many peoples, shamans base their power much on their ability to leave their body and fly like a bird throughout the universe. Yanomami shamans also use feathers as magical accessories: the magical rattle is ornamented with feathers that connect the shaman with his avian spirit helpers and contribute to overcoming sickness.


For further reading

Federarbeiten der Indianer Sudamerikas : aus der Studiensammlung Horst Antes / herausgegeben von Gisela Volger und Ursula Dyckerhoff ; mit Beitragen von Ursula Dyckerhoff, Andreas Franzke. Köln : Gesellschaft für Völkerkunde, 1994

Published Dec. 21, 2020 1:36 PM - Last modified Dec. 21, 2020 1:36 PM