The land of Ancient Egypt was home to an abundance of animals and especially birds. The Ancient Egyptians believed that this world was a reflection of the divine realm and birds provided an important source of symbolism. Not only could they represent a specific deity – Ra and Horus as falcons, Thoth as the Ibis – birds and parts of birds represented concepts that were crucial to enjoying a successful afterlife.
Ostriches were frequent subjects in Predynastic Egyptian rock carvings found in the desolate valleys of Egypt’s Eastern Desert, which stretches between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. Six thousand years ago this area was an open savannah and supported a wide variety of animals including the ostrich. The ostrich population was abundant and broadly distributed in Ancient Egypt. However, the population started to decline through the years, first disappearing from North Egypt and ceasing to exist in Egypt before the end of the nineteenth century.
In terms of potential symbolism, a number of features of the ostrich stand out: its size, powerful legs and stamina, as well as its lack of flight and soft plumage. It is unknown what the ostrich symbolized in Predynastic Egypt, but as Egypt moved into recorded history, only one part of the ostrich was regarded as particularly special: its feathers.
The ostrich feather, because of its name, “shut”, was a symbol of the God Shu. Shu, whose name means “he who rises up” and “luminous space” was the Egyptian god of the air and the father of the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut). He was one of the primordial Ancient Egyptian gods and one of the nine deities of the Ennead of the Heliopolis. He was the god of peace, lions, air, and wind; often shown wearing an ostrich feather in his hair. The slightest movement or breath of wind will animate an ostrich feather, its soft, wispy feathers would have made a pleasing metaphor for the lightness of air. As the air, Shu was considered to be a cooling and calming influence, a pacifier. The association with air, calm, and peace, was also associated with the concept of Ma’at.
Ostrich feathers are probably best known for their association with the Goddess Ma’at. She was always shown wearing an ostrich feather in her hair and the feather by itself was her emblem. The Feather of Ma’at is a tall ostrich plume with the tip bent over under its own weight. So why use an ostrich feather for Ma’at? Perhaps it refers back to the word shu meaning “luminous space” and connects with the Sun the prime representative of cosmic order and equilibrium. Also, it has been suggested that the ostrich feather is the only bird feather that is of equal width on both sides of its central axis and thereby represents equity and balance.
In Ancient Egyptian art, paintings and carvings in tombs, the Feather was shown in scenes of the Hall of Ma’at. This hall is where the deceased was judged for their worthiness to enter the afterlife. The deceased’s first task upon entry into the Hall of Ma’at was to correctly address each of the forty-two Judges (or Assessors) in the hall by name. This process allowed the dead to demonstrate that they were knowledgeable of the gods and established that they were pure; and free of sin by reciting the “negative confessions” which were the sins they did not commit during their lifetime.The Judges oversaw the weighing of the heart and each was pictured holding an ostrich feather.
After confirming that they were sinless, the deceased was placed before the scale where the deceased’s heart was weighed against the Feather of Ma’at. Anubis was the god usually seen administering this test and the results were recorded by Thoth. If the heart balanced with the feather, then the deceased was declared justified. If the heart was heavier than the feather – presumably weighty with wickedness – then it was swallowed by the Ammut the “Soul Feeder” a monster that was part crocodile, part hippo and part lion.
Perhaps the size and appearance of the ostrich feather may have been a factor in its representation of Ma’at. One could argue that using the biggest and heaviest feather to be found would be a distinct advantage when it came to improving your chances in the Hall of Ma’at. For if a person had led a good and proper life, the heart balanced with the feather and the person was rendered worthy to live forever in paradise with Osiris, God of the Afterlife, in the Field of Reeds, a lush, idealized version of Egypt, with boundless fields of wheat, intersected by waterways bursting with life, animals, and many birds!