A Journey into the Magic of Birds and Feathers
Originally published in issue 25 of Witches & Pagans Magazine, September 2012.
he story of Raven stealing the sun was always my favourite as a child. The idea of that great black bird creating humans and stealing fire and light for us humans made perfect sense to my little head stuck in a book of Native folktales from the Pacific Northwest. There’s no proof, but I would highly suspect my early love of fairy and folk tales may be what led to me becoming an animist, worshipping nature and all its creatures with awe and wonder. That and my earthy backwoods parents who like to live away from cities and talk to plants and animals I’m sure. Along with folktales, I fell in love with birds at a young age and quickly claimed my mother’s field guide to North American birds as my own. I remember memorizing their names and the colours and patterns of their feathers. I loved to watch them from my window and out in nature and listen to all their songs from the beautiful ones of robins to the cacophonous croaking of crows and ravens.
Birds are deeply magical creatures. They are reptiles who, instead of dying with the rest of the long-dead dinosaurs, transformed themselves by growing feathers, taking flight, and surviving to become an entirely new creature made of air itself with their feathers, hollow bones, and reversed lungs. Feathers are essentially the fur or hair of reptiles, reptiles who have been around millions of years longer than we humans with their sharp, ancient, reptilian brains which we are only just beginning to comprehend the intricacy and intelligence of today (although I think our ancestors knew better). There’s very ancient and powerful spirits flying above our heads in the form of these winged creatures of the sky. In some Pagan pantheons it can be difficult to separate a god from an animal such as Bran and Raven, Perun and Eagle, Thoth and Ibis. I like to think the worship of gods may have started out as animal worship and over time our wild shape-shifting animal deities evolved to be more human in appearance as we left the wilds and animism behind for cities and agriculture. If such a thing were true than birds would be the oldest of our ancestor’s gods.
The Feather Collector
I don’t dare admit the size of my feather collection as it has become a large beast of all colours, stripes, and spots with long flight feathers, soft breast feathers, and beautiful wings. It all started innocently enough with a large feather I had found in the wilds of the North while hunting along riverbanks for bones and stones as a child. I didn’t know anything of feathers’ history of sacred use, but I knew they were special and treated feathers I found with much care over many moves across province and country collecting more along the way. It seems I am always collecting feathers; feathers of light, feathers of dark, feathers of song, feathers to carry prayers, feathers to banish, feathers to bless and heal, and feathers to fly between all three realms of earth, sea, and sky. Some feathers I found along my walks in the wild forests of impossible tall cedars and hemlocks along the Pacific Northwest coast; little hints of movement and colour against brown earth and dead leaves turning out to be feathers of tail, wing, or down shed from the many different birds haunting the woods. Other feathers and wings I sought myself from hunters and taxidermists.
The majority of my feathers came to me as gifts for, you see, once you tell people you collect feathers they tell everyone they know and suddenly feathers are slipped into cards for you or handed to you in bundles – the proud collectors beaming with smiles and saying “I found these for you”. My mother, who lives on an 83 acre homestead, sends me feathers from her chickens, from ducks that swim in the marsh, from wild turkeys and grouse in the forest, and from the birds that come daily to devour seed and suet at her bird feeders. My sister sends me feathers from her African Grey parrot tucked in birthday cards and now are tucked in one of my hats. My Pagan friends, who also collect feathers, trade and gift feathers and wings to me. People started requesting specific feathers from me for use in their own spiritual practices – which I usually just happened to have. Soon, what started as an innocent collection turned into a role and, before I knew it, I had become the feather collector.
The Bone Collector
Of course it’s only natural for people finding feathers for you to escalate into people calling you to say they found a dead bird and do you want it and if not what they should do with it. Shortly after this you end up as the very eccentric witch whose freezer becomes a temporary morgue for panicking dead-bird-finding members of your local Pagan community. I was already looking quite strange enough leaving chicken guts on my roof for the crows of my neighbourhood alongside the usual feeders of sunflower seeds and beef suet. Without looking or intending too, I started to find dead birds as well – apparently the gods and spirits heard I was collecting feathers and wanted to give me more of a challenge to see what I would do. When life gives you lemons, or dead birds, you make something of it. I decided I would honour these sacred creatures, who I had held in awe as powerful spirits for so long, and do right by them. I became a bone collector: not one who kills things for bones, but one who collects the bones of creatures already dead (whether naturally or killed by another animal or a vehicle), and reverences them through burial or the crafting of sacred ritual tools. I had lived on a farm and was used to burying animals who didn’t make it and I had grown up in the North with fishing and hunting. I was a cook for many years and trained in butchery and preservation. I made the possibly controversial decision to delve into death work and taxidermy as part of my spiritual practice.
The birds that had been dead too long and were a danger to health were reverentially buried whole in the woods or in planters if their bones would be kept and cleaned. Protected and threatened species were also buried whole to return to the wild forest they belong to; their bones left alone to turn to dust and then to forest earth. Birds that had been dead only a day or two I processed like I would a chicken or turkey on the farm after first being frozen to kill any mites and other pests. After performing a ritual of release of the soul and smudging the little creatures with smoke, wearing gloves, a mask, and an apron, I kept the wings, tail fans, and some feathers from the body and put them between layers of borax, cornmeal, salt, or a mixture thereof to dry. If the skull wasn’t damaged I buried it with the rest of the body, in a ritual with offerings of the bird’s preferred foods, to be dug up months later for the bones which would then be whitened and sterilized in hydrogen peroxide for a couple of days before they were ready for ceremonial use. I met other collectors of bones and feathers and together we shared our rites and different practices of cleaning, preservation, and crafting. I felt a little less creepy and eccentric knowing there were others out there with a love and passion for birds who had also become bone collectors and ritual tool makers thanks to what was at first an innocent collection of feathers. Spending time with them was, and still is, dear to me and working together we found more birds and I amassed even more feathers.
The Ritual Tool Maker
What was I to do with all these feathers I had collected from childhood into adulthood? Some of you may be asking that very same question about your own feathers. Ever the practical witch, I knew I had to discover their sacred uses, their magico-religious history, and put them to work – for it is in the doing and the practice of magical things that I truly learn my art. I read every book and article I could get my hands on about ancient and modern ritual tools and ritual costumes. I looked at endless images of the sacred art of Animistic and Pagan cultures. And I found feathers everywhere: feathers buried as offerings to gods and spirits by the Native tribes where I live and by my ancestors across the pond in Scotland; feathers painted onto frame drums and cave walls; ancient art and sculptures of winged supernatural beings called psychopomps; feathers stitched onto the ritual robes, headdresses, and masks of shamans from the British Isles across to the Far East and from the Pacific Northwest down to the jungles of South America; feathers tied to shamans’ staffs, wands, drum beaters, and ritual pipes; and feathers crafted into fetiches and charms like dream catchers, spirit traps, and the handspun witches’ ladder curses of English and Italian witches. Wherever I looked I saw that I was not alone in holding birds as sacred and having strong desires to incorporate their feathers into ceremonial tools to be used in my magic and ritual. I was only doing what every other animistic magician across cultures and times had done: surrounded themselves with feathers.
I took up charm making and ritual tool making becoming a skilled carver of wood and bone. I hung feathers from spirit traps, rowan crosses, and other charms of protection. I tied feathers to wooden staffs and wands I carved from sacred woods which I had ritually harvested in the forest. I started crafting fetiches of bird skulls, bones, and feathers for other magicians to tie to their staffs and beloved ritual tools. I hung feathers from ritual masks or painstakingly covered their faces in layers of feathers. I designed smudge fans of feathers and wings attached to handles of bone and wood. Most importantly, I began using feathers as tools in my own magic and ritual.
I use a feather in my ceremonies to invoke the element of air in place of the usual athame, sword, or wand. The long and razor-tipped flight feathers are the best-suited to be used in ritual in place of an athame or sword for casting a circle and cutting it down again as well as to protect from and banish spirits and to cut energy as with a ritual blade. Along with the feather, I use earth collected from the forest to invoke the earth element, local spring or sea water to invoke the water element, and a candle flame for the fire element. I find having all the elements themselves present in ritual over symbols of them leads to powerful experiences full of spirits, especially when I perform rituals outdoors.
For a simple prayer, breathe on a feather to activate and charge it and then whisper your petition or blessing across its surface. Set the feather free into the wind to carry it to the spirits like you would blow the down of a dandelion wish into a breeze.
A traditional offering to nature spirits is the feather down of a bird covered with red ochre or a red juice like pomegranate or beet, to mimic the blood that would’ve once been used, and left in a shallow pit in the earth. It is also an excellent offering to ancestral spirits and underworld deities.
The Smudge Fan
The smudge fan can be just a simple but beautiful wing or feather up to an elaborate tool with a wood, leather, bone or stone handle and sometimes carvings or gemstones. They aren’t just used for fanning the smoke of incense and smudging herbs – wing or feather smudge fans can be used to cleanse and bless sacred space for ritual in place of sweeping with a besom. Feathers and smudge fans can be used to energetically cleanse and heal people by running feathers over their body to sweep away what needs to be released or by using the feathers to control the flow of smudge smoke around their body so it touches and fumigates every part of them and their spirit, not overlooking the soles of the feet. Smudging with feathers can also be used to cleanse objects (talismans, ritual tools, statuary, etc), altars, temple rooms, an entire house, an outdoor ritual space, and even your car to cleanse and purify to remove any past or present negative influences, and, of course, to chase away any evil spirits.
The staff is a symbol of the World Tree the bridge or axis between the worlds found in man cultures’ mythologies. It is used to aid in travelling between worlds acting as a shaman or spirit-worker’s horse to the Otherworld granting them the ability to travel anywhere between the upper world, middle world, and underworld. Not a literal horse, but a horse as in a symbol of transportation, in this case to the spirit world. Think of the staff as having your own personal World Tree or, at least, a key to the real one. Feathers are tied to the staff to symbolize wings and flight – the spirit-worker’s soul taking flight and leaving the body. Birds and the air element rule travel and communication and the staff is used to aid in communion with the spirit world and for one’s soul to fly there. Feathers and bells also just happen to look gorgeous streaming from a wooden stave on leather or ribbons maybe with your main animal guide’s head carved at the top or a fetiche of a bird skull with feathers tied to it… but I digress. Hold on to your staff when you invoke your gods and spirits, when you pray, and when you wish to stand between worlds and see and hear spirits. Tap your staff on earth, stone, or water to open doors to the Otherworld.
The shamans of many animistic cultures wear headdresses of feathers to symbolize their mind’s connection to their soul, the higher level of awareness and intelligence that comes with it, the attainment of divine wisdom, and to aid in their communication with the supernatural beings of the spirit world (2). To mimic this practice tuck a feather in your hair when meditating at your altar, when invoking spirits and gods during ritual, and when travelling between worlds. If you have short hair or no hair, hold a feather to your forehead over your third eye after charging it with breath instead. Another option is to craft a bird mask with feathers to use in your rituals of spirit work and shape-shifting. Or, to kill two birds with one stone, you could make a hooded feathered cloak for yourself.
The Feather Cloak
In my chasing down of animistic ritual tools I found feathered ritual costumes are common in shamanism around the world. The feathers are sewn or tied to clothing still symbolizing the shaman’s connection to the spirit world and ability to travel there. There are ancient Irish legends describing the feathered cloaks of shaman-like magicians, layer upon layer of white and black feathers covering hood and shoulders, and their spotted bird masks which they together used to leave their bodies and shape-shift into birds to travel far distances quickly, to spy on their enemies, and to travel to the Otherworld (3). Make your own feathered cloak by sewing feathers onto a wool cloak or ritual robe.
The Witches’ Ladder
A witch’s ladder, or witches garland, is a fetiche charm from folk magic and examples of its use have been found in England and Italy by folklorists in the late 1800s (5). This charm is thought to be traditionally used for cursing, but can be applied to blessing and other spell work too. It’s name gives away its purpose which is to allow the intent of the witch’s spell to “climb” to the spirit world via the feathers so it may be heard and manifest in our world. The process of creating one involves spinning a thick cord with feathers twisted into it during the act of hand spinning on a drop spindle. If you have no idea how to hand spin it is a common practice today to braid a witch’s ladder instead. In your magical working you can use any colour of thread and feathers to correspond to the purpose of your spell, such as peacock feathers with blue wool to protect from the evil eye or black chicken feathers with black wool for a curse. To stop the charm’s effectiveness you must unravel your spinning or braiding or throw the charm into running water.
The Dream Walker
Now that I had my feathered ritual tools and knowledge of the sacred meanings and uses of feathers, it was time to work with them. For me magic and ritual are mainly an internal thing. I do most of both in the Otherworld so the most natural next step for me was dreams. I am a dreamer. I dream of messages and the future for myself and others. I also practice dream walking: using dreams as a bridge to travel between worlds when one is between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness. I go dream walking to speak to spirits but also to shape-shift and to fly. Feathers aid in all these things; feathers hanging from the dream catchers over my bed and feathers tucked under my pillow. I started dreaming of birds and feathers, of finding impossible large and soft Raven feathers, of grooming a family of thrushes, and of being surrounded by a council of owls. One of my most memorable dreams was when three birds native to the forest where I lived visited me. The messengers came to me together and gave me of their feathers; the softest silence of Screech Owl feathers, the jewelled blackness of Crow feathers, and the camouflage cloak of Red-Tailed Hawk feathers.
Screech Owl left its feathers on the stone wall of a cave for me. Owl is the messenger of the underworld. Owl belongs to Old Woman as the White Bone Mother, guardian of the gate and crossroads of the underworld. Owl serves her as messenger of death and psychopomp for the spirits of the dead. Owl is silent as a ghost; revelling in the darkness of night and its mysteries. Owl brings messages from her mistress and from the dead. Owl helps you to travel to and from the underworld safely and its ability to see in the dark can light your way in the blackest depths.
Crow shed its feathers for me on the green grass beneath the trees. Crow is messenger of the middle world. Crow belongs to Old Woman as the trickster witch-hag lost in the ancient woods. Crows are creatures of the daytime and scavengers eating the leftovers of hunters and warriors. Crows are not of death and darkness (though they follow it closely for scraps), but are tricksters, humour, curiosity, family, and fellowship. Crows are reflections and shadows of we humans. They are territorial guardians and watchers for the other creatures of the earth warning of dangers, predators, bad weather, outsiders, bad luck, and misfortunes. This is where their bad reputation comes from, but they’re just trying to help. Crow is messenger of the creatures and spirits of the middle world; of the animals, plants, wights, and elemental forces all around us every day.
Red-Tailed Hawk dropped its feathers for me from high in the sunny blue sky and they slowly floated down to my feet. Hawk, flying ever so high, is messenger of the upperworld and of is deities and spirits. Hawk belongs to the Sun and Mercurial spirits. Hawks deliver messages pertaining to the bigger picture, ones that will affect your life and your spiritual path. When hawk brings you a message it is time to borrow its sharp all-seeing eyes and fly high enough with its strong wings to view a situation or path from above and understand the full picture – the past, present, and future. Other times Hawk delivers messages to and from the gods and spirits of the upperworld. Belonging to the upperworld doesn’t mean sweetness and light though; Hawk is a predator and a warrior after all.
All three messengers belong to the crossroad and World Tree. Winged mercurial beings are they. Now, thanks to this dream, when one of the three come to me with news of the three realms I will know what kind of message they bring and from where and whom it comes. Now when one of the three comes for me I will know for whence we ride.
When you dream of finding a feather, or of a bird gifting you of its feathers, it can mean many things: that you need that magic or medicine of that bird in your life right now (or alternately that you’ve mastered their particular medicine), that the bird is offering to be a spirit guide, or that the bird has a message for you from gods or spirits. When you have such dreams pay attention to what specific species of bird the feather is from, where you found the feather, and what you do, if anything, with the feather in your dream whether it be actions, rituals, or the crafting of magical tools. To receive messages in dreams from your spirits or to have prophetic dreams, put a bundle of your spirit guide’s feathers under you pillow or mattress at night when you go to sleep. The feathers of underworld and water birds are the most-suited to this for their connections to the subconscious and the emotions which are linked to the dream world.
The psychopomp is a bird shape-shifting magician who acts as a guide or transporter of the souls of the dead. In my magical work with birds I had become a psychopomp of their dead with my rites aiding in the release of their souls to their underworld journey by treating them with love and reverence in death and by using their feathers to aid in the underworld journey of other spirits.
Psychopomps are a very ancient idea found in many different mythologies as magicians and supernatural beings. In myths, folktales, and legends around the world birds most commonly enact the role of messenger between our world and the spirit world, mortals and deities, the living and the dead. Many culture’s folklore describes birds as being the spirits of the dead visiting this world or travelling on their way to the underworld and so were held sacred because any bird could possibly be housing the spirit of one’s ancestor. Their role as psychopomps gives our feathered friends an association with the ancestors as well as deities – the underworld and the upperworld – death and rebirth. Further associations with this death-role can be found in myths of bird women harvesting the souls of the dead as the Valkyrie of the Norse, the Russian Rusalka, the Slavic Vila, the Greek Harpies and Sirens, all often associated with ravens and swans, who also share similarities with the Baobhan Sith, Badbh, and The Morrigan of the Gaels who are female crow and raven spirits associated with death and soul-harvesting. These supernatural psychopomps can often be found serving chthonic goddesses like the Norns, Persephone, and Baba Yaga.
I swear when I collect the small light bodies of dead birds, and carry out my funerary rites for them, that I can hear the flapping of wings following me and sometimes I wonder if they are the swan and raven wings of these psychopomp spirits or the deities they serve.
The Bird Woman
And so here I am still on my journey with birds surrounded by feathers, still ever learning from them of their languages, their behaviours, their omens and messages; still working with them to strengthen my practices of bone collecting, spirit-flight, dream walking, shape-shifting, psychopompery, and the creation of sacred ritual tools. My feather collection will never dwindle as, even though some I gift and some I turn into tools for other magical practitioners, my friends the birds will always lay more feathers across my path. Next time you pick up a feather on your journey through this life, I wonder, where will it take you?
- Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN, 1994.
- Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2004.
- Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. Grey House in the Woods: United Kingdom, 2005.
- Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits. HarperCollins: New York, 2009.
- Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. St Martin’s Press: New York, 1973.
I. Disclaimer and Legal Note
Do not attempt to handle dead wildlife with your bare hands, especially if you do not know how long the animal has been dead. Animals can carry diseases and parasites that may be harmful to us if touched or breathed in and much care should be taken. Educate yourself and children about how to handle dead wildlife to avoid illness and legal issues.
Many migratory songbirds, raptors, and endangered species are protected and the possession of their feathers can be regulated or prohibited with penalties of fines and jail time. Permits for legally scavenging and possessing dead bird parts are given by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In Canada permits are dispensed by the Provinces’ individual ministries of wildlife and natural resources.
- Canadian Migratory Birds Convention Act
- Canadian Species At Risk Permits
- U.S. Guide to Protected Migratory Birds
- U.S. Endangered Species Permits
- U.S. Migratory Bird Permits
II. Caring for Feathers
Feathers found in the wilds, farms, and cities should be cleaned before being put to sacred use. I put feathers and wings new to my collection in the freezer first for 2-3 days to kill any mites or other unwanted pests. Some feathers may need a bit of washing to remove dirt and bird droppings. Gently wipe them with a soft, warm, damp cloth until clean and then carefully brush them back into place if disarrayed before leaving to dry. After being frozen and cleaned, put your feathers into a mix of borax and salt to sterilize and completely dry them; start with a layer then lay down the feathers on top and gently add another layer of the mixture so as not to harm the feathers to keep their shape. The feathers of wings should be fanned out before drying so the wings remain open. Some people pin the wings open on a wooden board and others weigh them down once spread open with borax, salt, or cornmeal or a mixture thereof. After a couple of weeks for individual feathers or a 1-2 months for wings, remove them from the mixture and carefully shake out and brush off all remaining particulates. Now your feathers are ready to use for magic and ritual.
Feathers can be stored in a vase or lidless jar of a suitable height. When your most sacred feathered tools wrap them in a cloth of a natural fibre such as linen, silk, cotton, or wool, and place them in a wooden box or drawer laying down. Cedar is an excellent wood for feather storage as it naturally repels insect pests, but you can also craft a sachet of cedar wood chips as well as other insect repellent herbs like mugwort and yarrow to store with your feathers and protect them. With proper care and storage your feathers might even outlast you.
III. Birds & Deities
- Crow/Raven – Apollo, Athena, Baba Yaga, Badbh Catha, Baobhan Sith, Bran, Branwen, Lugh/Llew, Macha, Morrigan, Nephthys, Odin, and the Valkyrie
- Crane/Heron/Egret/Ibis – Aoife, Ariadne, Esus, Frigg, Hekate, Manannan mac Lir, and Thoth
- Dove – Aphrodite, Hera, and Yemaya
- Eagle – Lugh/Llew and Zeus
- Goose – Aphrodite, Hathor, Holle/Hulda, and Nicnevin
- Hawk – Freyja and Horus
- Owl – Ares, Athena, Baba Yaga, Blodeuwedd, Ereshkigal, Lakshmi, Lilith, and Santa Muerta
- Peacock – Hera and Yemaya
- Robin – Green Man, Puck, Robin Goodfellow
- Swallow – Aphrodite and Freyja
- Swan – Aphrodite, Brighid, Caer Ibormeith, Norns, Rusalka/Vila, and the Valkyrie
- Vulture – Ares, Athena, Brighid, and Nephthys
Article and illustrations © 2012 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article or its artwork without the express permission of the author.