Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Ostrich in Biblical Symbolism

In the ancient world, ostrich eggs were placed in the tombs and graves, especially those of rulers and children. They appear to symbolize the hope of resurrection or immortality.

In Church Tradition, the Lion, the Bull, the Man and the Eagle represent the four Evangelists.

Alice C. Linsley

Because of Earth's precession of the equinoxes it is not possible to know exactly what ancient planispheres symbolize, but there are points in Earth's seasons that are more or less fixed. They fall at different times given one's location on Earth.  For example, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere, and June 20 or 21 in the Southern Hemisphere.  As the Afro-Asiatics (who gave us the Bible) would have been most familiar with the cycle of the Northern Hemisphere, that will be the subject of this analysis.

The ancient Afro-Asiatics observed the Spring Equinox (March 21-22), the Summer Solstice (June 21-22), the Autumnal Equinox (Sept. 21-22), the Winter Solstice (Dec. 21-22). From the Winter Solstice, the hours of daylight lengthen again and the Sun is shown to be Sol Invictus ("the undefeated Sun").  In 12-division zodiacs, this is symbolized by the ostrich which hides its head for a time by lying flat against the ground, and after the Winter Solstice it begins laying its eggs.

Mircea Eliade has shown that ancient cosmological symbolism involves cycles.  Time was regenerated and the cosmogony was repeated on the Winter Solstice, so January (Janus) looks to the past and to the future. The ostrich symbolism is again appropriate. The wild ostrich originated in Africa where this creature produces 90% of its eggs between January and March. In the Church, the egg is both a symbol of new life and the symbol of Christ's resurrection. This is why eggs are decorated and distributed at Pascha/Easter.

The association of new life or rebirth with the ostrich egg has been verified by archeaological finds. Painted or incised ostrich eggs have been found in El-Badari and ancient Kush (Nubia). In the Oriental Museum there are examples of ostrich eggs which have been decorated over their entire surfaces. The largest concentration of ostrich eggs to be discovered in one place in Predynastic Egypt were found at a tomb in Hierakonpolis (Nekhen). In Kush ostrich eggs have been found in the burials of children. In Egypt, ostrich eggs were placed in the graves of the wealthy. At Naqada, a decorated ostrich egg replaced the owner's missing head. This egg is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Where does the ostrich fit among the signs of the Lion (the Summer Solstice), the Bull (the Autumnal Equinox), the Man who was called "Father of Fathers" (the Winter Solstice), and the Eagle or Vulture (the Spring Equinox)?  The ostrich comes after the Bull, and this is verified by the book of Job.

In Elihu's lengthy discourse (Job 32-39), he illustrates God's transcendence by describing the Lion, the Nubian Wild Goat, the Wild Donkey, the Wild Ox (bull or rhinoceros), the Ostrich, and the Raven or Griffin Vulture. The ostrich comes between the Bull (Autumn Equinox) and the Vulture (Spring Equinox). Clearly, the ostrich represents the Winter Solstice and the hope of new life or life after death.

In ancient Egyptian art, the ostrich feather represented and new life. As early as 2600 B.C., the ostrich was associated with Ma’at, who is shown wearing an ostrich feather. Ma'at weighed the hearts of the dead in her scales to determine who would die the "second death" (Rev. 2:11) and who would take on immortality. Excavation of a grave at Kerma (Nubia) uncovered an ostrich feather placed between the horns of a primitive species of sheep.

Among the royal Egyptians and ancient cattle-herding Nubians the cow was a sacred animal. Horus was the calf of God, born to Hathor, whose animal totem was the long horn cow. Both Hathor and Horus are shown with the Sun cradled in their horns. This indicated divine appointment.

Related reading: Abraham's People Had Easter Eggs; The Urheimat of the Canaanite Y


  1. Hi, I'm the "visitor from Media, PA" I just came across this blog as I was seeking the meaning of the ostriches in Sassetta's _Journey of the Magi_, 1435. Thanks for this fascinating answer!

    1. Glad I could provide information that was helpful.


Your comments are welcome. Please stay on topic and provide examples to support your point.