Animal totems are a New Age practice based on the Native American belief in "animal medicine." In animal medicine, the particular characteristics of an animal are believed to impart lessons to those who wish to learn from them; ants may signify determination while a owl can signify wisdom. While ostriches are not part of Native American traditions, they can easily be incorporated into the logic of the belief system and used as an animal totem. In fact, ostriches do have a sacred significance in several cultures of Africa, where they are found in the wild.
The Feather of Truth
The ostrich feather was a sacred object in ancient Egypt, as the symbol for the goddess Ma'at. As the representation of divine truth, which included justice and cosmic order, Ma'at helped decide the fate of souls after death. The dead person's heart was weighed on a scale against her ostrich feather, the feather of truth, and if the heart outweighed the feather -- meaning that the human's life had not measured up -- the soul would be destroyed. Those who passed the test, by having a heart that weighed less or equal to the feather, got to pass on to heaven. The ostrich feather thus is seen as a powerful symbol of truth and purity, and taking on the ostrich as an animal totem can be a way to focus one's energies on living a just life.
The Egg of Fertility
In Djenne, the oldest city in sub-Saharan Africa, there is also evidence that the ostrich was considered a sacred animal. Spires of its great mosque, one of the most elaborate mud structures in the world, are capped by ostrich eggs. The ostrich egg, the largest on land, symbolizes fertility. These sacred objects oversee a huge festival every springtime, the "crepissage." Mixing work, play and ritual, this annual event involves hundreds of young men and women slinging tons of mud while restoring the mosque to the accompaniment of live music. For those who choose the ostrich as a totem animal, its huge egg can be used as a symbol of fertility and regeneration, similarly to the origin of the Easter egg hunt of European springtime tradition.
The Circle of Life
For the indigenous people of Africa, the ostrich was an important source of food, so the animal had a sacred connotation. The bushmen, for example, saw in the life cycle of the giant bird and its egg a metaphor for the cycle of birth and death, or birth and resurrection. According to folklore, when the bushmen killed and ate an ostrich they would take some of its feathers and place them in the bushes, believing that a new ostrich would be born from the feathers themselves. This offering was believed to insure the continuation of life on Earth. For those who take on the ostrich totem, the animal can serve as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of life and that death and birth are interdependent.
Wealth and Abundance
Ostrich eggs, along with other precious objects such as peacock feathers, were traded among cultures of the Mediterranean, including between the Christian and Muslim empires in the middle ages. The sacred associations from times earlier, including death/resurrection and divine purity, were still intact, but these objects also became symbols of the abundance of nature, as the large size of ostriches and their eggs are a testament to nature's bounty. For those who claim the ostrich as a totem, this aspect of the animal -- its size and large eggs -- can serve as a reminder of the natural wealth of our world.
- Dr. Loretta Stanley: Native American Animal Medicine
- Encyclopedia Mythica: Ma'at
- Sacred Sites: Djenne, Mali
- Sacred Texts: Specimens of Bushman Folklore, by W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd
- Al-Masaq: Journal of the Medieval Mediterranean: Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam
- Anup Shah/Digital Vision/Getty Images