Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Ostrich in Biblical Symbolism

These 65,000-year decorated ostrich eggshells 
demonstrate common patterns among Paleolithic peoples in Africa.

Alice C. Linsley

The ostrich egg fragments shown above were found at rock shelters in South Africa. They date to between 52,000-100,000 years ago. Pierre-Jean Texier (University of Bordeaux) and his colleagues identified at least five decorative motifs.

Ostriches were prevalent in the ancient world and ostrich shells have been found at Middle and Upper Paleolithic sites throughout the world. Ostrich shells were used as flasks in South Africa 85,000 years ago (Texier et al. 2010, 2013).

Decorated ostrich eggs have been found in tombs and graves, especially those of rulers and children. They appear to symbolize the hope of resurrection or immortality. Likely, this connection was due to the observation that the ostrich begins laying its eggs after the Winter Soltstice when the hours of daylight increase.

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. The early Hebrew sages would have been most familiar with the Northern Hemisphere cycle, that will be the subject of this analysis.

The early Hebrew sages were royal priests. They 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 increase, 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 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 archaeological 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), the oldest known site of Horite Hebrew worship. 

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.

The ostrich is the focus of Job 39:13-18, part of the Divine Speech of YHWH. This is found in a lengthy discourse (Job 32-39) which 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 the hope for immortality. 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.


  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.

  2. Saw interview on rerun of Johnny Carson with actor Tony Randall. Randall spoke about myths associated with the common ostrich, one which spoke about them staring at their eggs and being able to successfully hatching it. In today's world that seems impossible. But if it indeed would would be considered a miracle! The birth of Christ is considered miraculous by many faithful followers. So to this end the image/shape/symbol of ostrich eggs have been prevalent in many Christian art and architectural works.

  3. It is not the birth of Jesus that is miraculous. It is his virginal conception by divine overshadowing (Luke 1). This is as the ancient Horite Hebrew expected concerning the Righteous Ruler to be born of their ruler-priest lines. He would die and overcome death and lead his people to immortality. His archetype among the Horites was Horus, called "son" of God. Horus was conceived by Hathor by divine overshadowing.This is why Hathor is shown in ancient images wearing the crown of cow horns with the sun cradled therein.


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