Feathers, while seemingly simple, are deeply layered with meaning as an artistic image. Most commonly, they have represented a connection to our human lives and the celestial existence of gods or goddesses. They have also stood for immortality and peace. Birds (See bird tattoo designs) have often been thought of as the go-between between the world of land and the world above the sky – where gods live. Feathers have held a number of other religious meanings as well, varying by species and tradition, which we’ll address later.
Taking them on their looks rather than cultural significance, feathers suggest lightness and flight. They also appeal to a sense of delicacy and gentleness. Feathers are used as both a standalone tattoo or incorporated into a design with many elements.
Peacock feathers, among the most visibly striking of bird feathers, are also among the most notable in terms of cultural significance. In Hinduism, peacocks are a symbol of the god Saraswati, who represents compassion, knowledge, and patience. Kwan-Yin, another god in Asian religious traditions, is associated with peacocks and represents these same things.
For the Greeks and Romans, peacocks were associated with Hera. It was said that Hera placed the “eyes” on the peacock’s feathers in memory of Argus, who had 100 years and served as a guardian to one of Zeus’s lovers.
Peacocks were also a symbol of eternal life in the early Christian church. The dozens of eyes on peacock feathers were likened to the all-seeing eye of the church, and the bird itself was thought to be similar to the phoenix by many in its ability to recreate itself.
Feathers evoke the birds they come from. Anyone with a connection to a specific bird or who admires qualities of that bird may choose to get a feather. A black swan’s feather, for example, conjures up the idea of that dazzling outcast of the swan world – dark, beautiful, set apart from the flock.
For Native Americans, feathers were a status symbol. Richly feathered headdresses were worn by those at the top of the tribe – in particular the chief. Feathers were reflective of cosmic knowledge and wisdom (See American Indian tattoo designs).
White feathers are a complicated and contradictory symbol. In countries under British rule, the white feather has traditionally been a symbol of cowardice, sometimes given to able-bodied men who would not join the military. Alternate meanings abound, however; it is co-opted by pacifist groups as a symbol of harmlessness, and in the United States military may represent superior marksmanship. When worn on a helmet, white feathers are thought to mock the enemy, since it makes an easier target for snipers to spot.
Feathers work as a kind of dual symbol, bringing to mind the meaning associated with the feather itself as well as the bird it comes from. This is a powerful and immediately recognizable effect. We know without needing to be told that there is a difference between a vulture’s feather and a dove’s in terms of the ideas it raises, don’t we? And so feather tattoo designs come with a certain amount of weight, weight one might not expect given their rather simple nature.
Birds have always fascinated humanity with their freedom, their lightness, and their ability to soar closer to Heaven than we are able to readily attain. It’s not surprise, then, that feathers are treasured as a symbol, left behind by birds, collected and depicted artistically by people like gifts left behind.