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Common Origins of Man: A Universal Practice

The Decoration of the Head with Feathers

by Theresa Mitsopoulou

Various exotic birds found in Asia ,South America, Australia and Africa, such as, the pheasant, peacock, mythical phoenix, parrot, egret, ostrich, cascar, eagle, rooster, duck and goose, owl, quetzal (winged snake) fly-catcher, and cockatoo, have had their feathers used as headgear by  Mexican emperors, the antefix of Olympia, the Prince of  Lilies in Knossos, in Crete, and on traditional Chinese figures within the Shadow Theater.  We have also seen the winged snakes with similar feather headgear within museums located in Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, China and within the Acropolis museum in Greece.

The feathers have been used in ritual dances during the youth initiation process  and in rewarding winners.  Feather decoration has also been used by the Ancient Egyptians, the kalash of Pakistan, the Indians of North America, the Chinese, i.e. the Dong minority, for leaders of tribes in Africa and for the Australian aborigines.  Man has created imaginary human beings with feathers, like “demons”, Nikes, Angels, Gods with birds’ faces and winged animals, lions, horses and snakes.  The feathers symbolized freedom. According to legend, fortune tellers are able to understand the language of the bird and also train eagles to bring food, such as birds and fish.  Certain species of birds in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas have beautiful shiny colors and their king is a peacock - the sacred bird of Hera.

It is believed that Alexander the Great brought the parrot to Greece and the Argonauts brought the pheasant from Colchis to Greece.  Today, a certain species of pheasants, known as  “jewel of nature” exists around Mt. Olympus, in Greece,  and it is known for its tender meat.  The male pheasant has many different colors such as turquoise, green, purple, orange, and yellow. The feathers of their tails are often two meters long and were worn by the sovereigns, priests, and shamans to decorate their heads.  Warriors also decorated  their weapons, spheres, shields, helmets and their coat of arms with feathers. 

Ritual dancers, winners of games, and adolescents during initiation, usually engaged in these activities with feathers on their heads. Besides the famous quetzal of Central America, the peacock of India, the pheasant of China, the ostrich of Africa, the exotic birds of Australia, New Guinea and the Carribean, feathers of geese, ducks and eagles, were used for decoration as well.   In Greek art, there is rare usage of feather decoration, (with the exception of Crete), because such beautiful birds did not  exist in Greece.  The big industry for finishing, dying and discoloring bird feathers started during the Middle Ages in England and France. Later, the fashion of wearing bird feathers flourished in Europe and America in the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Ultimately, this fashion brought serious threat to birds of rare species.   The J.J Audubon Society was founded in California for their protection. 

Head Gear for Emperors and Priests made with tail feathers of one hundred quetzals birds “quetzal” is the Aztec name for “winged snake”.  The arrangement of the colored feathers had astronomic and calendar meaning. From Mexico City Museum of Anthropology (to create such a head gear, one hundred male birds were needed).

Large antefix (diameter of  2.4 meters, about 600 b.c.) from Terra Cotta housed in the museum of Olympia, in Peloponessos, Greece (imitation of exotic feathers).

Bronze etruscan fan from a grave (600 b.c. housed in the archaeological museum of Florence, Italy.)

It looks like a fan made of feathers.         

Feathered headgear of the Aztecs housed in the museum Fur Voelkerkunde in Vienna, Austria.

th century parrot feathers head dress.  From the Amazon river housed in the museum of the American Indian in NY. 

Codex Talleriano Remensis, 1388–1399 A..D., library M.N.A.H.

Winged Goddess Snake.
Detail of a relief from Abu Shimbel.

6th c. B.C. Winged Stone Snake, Triton housed in the Acropolis museum in Athens, Greece.  (Do the stripes make it a Boa?) 

Winged Gold Dragon of the 18
th c. “England’s Brighton Pavillion has many examples of Chinoiserie”.

The Aztecs believed that man at the beginning had the shape of a snake that came out of the Earth and that little by little, as he became “humanized” feathers grew on his body which, at one point, would lead him to the skies.  Apparently, the feathers symbolized the passion of man to fly and meet immortality.

Winged Gods (Hermes, Nike, Eros, Isis etc.) Animals (Sphinx, Horse, Lion, Bull, etc.)

Archaic Sphinx
A copy of the archaic Sphinx (about 560 B.C.) found at Spata, in Attica, Greece, decorates today the International Airport of Eleftherios Venizelos (original is housed in the Archaeological Museum in Athens).

Winged Horse near Xi'an
Stone-Winged Horse near Xi’an, engraved for the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Gaozhong and his wife, Empress Wu Zetian

Tang Dynasty winged figure
Was the Greek winged Nike-Victory known in China? Tang Dynasty Tile-End “with winged figure” with her hands clasped against her chest similar to the Greek statues--Qinghai
County Museum

Nike Victory of Paionios
Reconstruction of the Nike–Victory of Paionios (321 B.C.)
  The original marble statue (2.15 meters height) is in the Archaeological Museum of Olympia--Peloponessos, Greece.

The peacock (the bird of Hera), “smiles when it looks at its feathers” and “cries when it looks at its ugly legs”.  It opens its feathers like a fan which are full of “eyes” like the beads for the protection against the “evil eye”.  The peacock feather forms inside an “eye” like the “spectacle” of the Cobra, which offers protection in addition to the color blue.  My idea is well supported by the fact that the “eyes” of the peacock feathers resemble the eye of the Cobra and moreover, the Chinese name of this species of snake means exactly Yanjingshe which means: “spectacle” snake.

Blue Bird of Knossos
The famous “blue bird” of the wall painting in Knossos is most probably a peacock.

Peacock made of yak butter the main product of Tibet.

157 Korean girls with feather fans.

Traditional Chinese puppet show figures.

Prince of Lilies from Knossos, Crete
“The Prince of
  Lilies” with pheasant feathers. Wall painting of about 1500 B.C. from Knossos

Detail of a scroll of a tenth century Chinese painter; Cleveland Museum of Art

Chinese opera figure (Taipei review July 2002). The feathers symbolize the snake.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Mandarin in the Palace Museum of Taiwan with peacock feather (the eye of the peacock on the back of his head.)

Chinese Emperor with feather on his head.  From the Ming Dynasty Scroll “the Emperor’s Procession” in the palace museum of Taipei.  The Emperor’s horse has two long feathers next to the ears and a red one next to the muzzle.  In the Olympic games, the athletes were decorated with red ribbons (on the forehead and the left arm and thigh) after their victory and so were the horses of the chariots that won the race.

Sultan with feathers in his head.
  Photo from the book “Silks for the Sultans from the Topkapi Palace”.  Published by Ertug and Kocabiyik.” Istanbul, 1997. “Collectors Series” worth $550.

The feather was the prize of games and exploits, for sovereigns, military men and musicians. The number and position of the feathers was of importance. Feathers were used for ritual dance and the ceremony of the initiation of the youth.

Detail of a clay painted vase with a Maya Prince.

Clay mask. Teotihuacan. 1
st c. B.C.-900 A.D. M.N.A.H.

A youth of the Paiwan tribe of Taiwan with pheasant feather because he took part in a foot-race. His brother, who came first, won 3 feathers, the first prize.

Young boys of the Gogo tribe of Tasmania. Circumcision and initiation with feathers.

War dance of the Ami tribe of Taiwan. Under the right knee most probably the Order of the Garter, known in Greece since Mycenean times.

The Touchi of Rwanda dance; ritual dances with feathers.

Australian Aboriginal during a ritual dance.

Australia, cape York. Ancient dance with cockatoo feathers.

American Indians, Their Headresses and Shields

American Indian with eagle. Absaroke (crow).

“The Medicine Man”. Louisiana, 1904.

Indian leader from Mazatzal, Arizona.

Late 19
th c. Lakota headdress (red cloth, glass beads, porcupine quills, eagle feathers). “Such bonnets were the regalia of Plain leaders, whose exploits were numbered in eagle feathers.”

Absaroke (Crow) shield from the Northern Plains.
Buffalo hide with feathers. New York Museum of the American Indian.

Northern Plains shield. New York Museum of the American Indian.

From the movie of Kevin Kostner. “Dances with Wolves”.

“Sitting Bull”. Dakota Indian (1885 A.D.).

The number of feathers and the position (in the middle of the head or on the side, vertical or oblique, was not accidental.

Fool Bull (1849-1911). Dakota Indian with shield of feathers. Many will have feathers through the nose and ear.

For the Indians of North America,
  when there was no more space for feathers on the head they used to hang them on their back and breast and shoulder.

Feathers, Shields and Headresses from Other Societies

Chinese fan (1850 A.D.) made of painted duck feathers tipped with the eyes of peacock feathers N.M.N.H. Photo from the Smithsonian Engagement Calendar (1978).

Aztec fan from about 1500 A.D. with Quetzal feathers. Feather fans were a mark of nobility. Vienna Museum fur Volkerkunde.

Monster made of feathers and gold on an Aztec leather shield. Feathers are affixed to the rim. Colors of feathers: “scarlet macaw, blue cotinga, yellow oriole and rose spoonbill bird.” Vienna Museum fur Volkerkunde.

Leader of the Ami tribe of Taiwan (one of the nine Aboriginal tribes) during the Japanese occupation.

Silver figurine with parrot feathers found near the body of an Incas child. Cuzco, Peru. Photo: LIFE TIME books.

Mongol Princes used to have feathers on the head. The eagle (like the eagle of Zeus) was trained to kill and bring many birds. Indian miniature (about 1600). Paris Guimet Museum.

Papua of New Guinea, where the paradise birds are at home.

The Kalash, known as the “the descendants of Alexander the Great” in Pakistan also have feathers on their head.

A wedding of Aboriginals of Taiwan.

One of the nine Aboriginal tribes of Taiwan dancing with feathers.

Funeral ceremony in Northern Australia.

The minorities of Yao and Dong in Southern China still decorate their head with feathers.

Native of the Louson island, the largest of the Archipelago of the Phillippines in a rice field.
The tribe of Ifugaos, men and women, decorate the head with feathers.

Isolated elements that survived in the most unlikely and distant corners of the Earth helped  find the missing rings in the history of mankind. “To bring together again the two halves of Humanity will be the great work of our times” (P.L. Couchoud, French Diplomat and Historian, 1879-1959).

The Egyptian Goddess Maat with egret feather. 19
th dynasty relief in the Museum at Florence.

God with a bird’s face and feathers. From a Chinese children’s book.

The Chinese general Cai E (1911) with ostrich feathers on his hat. 1983 Chinese History movie. He is riding a white horse like the Indian of Kevin Kostner.

Marie Antoinette (1755-1793). Austrian Princess and French Empress.

Queen Elisabeth II of England with ostrich feathers and the Order of the Garter on the left shoulder. Prince Charles of Wales also has three ostrich feathers (called “the Wales Feathers”) on his coat of arms. The first prize for the winner of the Aboriginals of Taiwan also consisted of three feathers. Ostrich feathers are indispensable in the official attire of UK sovereigns. The feather was given as a prize maybe because feathers were the proof that the hunter had succeeded in killing birds to feed the people (today we do not eat, for instance, the eagle or the seagull but at that time any bird was edible). To understand that the feather was given as a prize and reward for a certain achievement helps the expression in English “you have now a feather in your cap”.

Paradise birds of New Guinea. They live at a height of 5,000 ft. The tail of the male bird is twice as long as its body

One female and two male Paradise birds, one of fifteen species of Paradise birds of New Guinea and the only one that has the long feathers growing from its head and not from its tail. Probably this bird about which not much is known gave the idea to decorate the head with feathers. Strong sexual dimorphism is the characteristic of the Paradise bird and the female has neither the beautiful colors nor the long feather of the male.

Goddess on phoenix bird.12
th c. painting on silk in the Museum of History at Beijing.

“Supernatural bird” (probably a phoenix) from Palaikastron, in Crete. Ivory plaque (LMI).

Phoenix birds embroidered on the back of a Qing dynasty imperial chair. Collection of the Summer Palace of Chengde.

Forked-tail male flycatcher. Chromolithograph (c. 1860) N.M.H.T.

Cloisonne parrots made (1871) in the imperial workshop. N.M.N.H.

The coats of arms of Austria decorated with birds and feathers. From the “handregister” of the Emperor Frederick III (1446). Vienna Staatsarchiv.

Austrian imperial musketeer. Oil on canvas, about 1640. Vienna Heeresgeschichtliches Museum. The hat of the national costume of Austria, today, is decorated with feathers and woodcock feathers have the Scotch on their hat.

French cadets of the military school St. Cyr in dress uniform. The cadets of the military school Saint Cyr north of Paris have on their hats cascar bird feathers (a kind of ostrich from Malaysia). Eagle feathers have the Italian Alpini and pheasant feathers decorate the hats of Tyrol.

Korean warrior during a ceremony with feathers on his hat.

Philharmonic orchestra of the Athens Municipality. Red feathers and red or blue jackets.

Africa and Shaka Zulu

It was easy for Shaka Zulu and the colored people of Africa to find feathers for their headdresses.

Shaka with one feather on his head...

....and his “prime minister” with his head full of feathers.

Warriors of Shaka Zulu with feathers on their head and blue paint on their breast for protection.

National Day of Nigeria. Horsemen, that look medieval, wear helmets decorated with feathers.

Karo woman of Ethiopia.

Hotel Attalos, Athens

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