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What is the meaning of the white and black feather?

What is the meaning of the white and black feather?

The white feather and the black feather both have symbolic meanings and have been used throughout history to convey different messages. The white feather is often associated with cowardice, while the black feather carries connotations of courage and bravery. However, the true meanings behind these feathers are more nuanced. In this article, we will explore the origins and significance of the white feather and the black feather in detail.

The White Feather


The white feather as a symbol of cowardice dates back to the early 1900s in Britain. During World War I, the Order of the White Feather was formed by Admiral Charles Fitzgerald. The organization encouraged women to give white feathers to men who were not enlisted in the military as a way to shame them into enlisting.

The thinking was that any man not in uniform was a coward. The white feather was meant as an accusation that the man was failing to do his patriotic duty. The impact of receiving a white feather was deeply humiliating and emasculating.

Later Usage

While the white feather originated as a symbol specific to wartime Britain, its association with cowardice made it endure over time. Even today, the expression “show the white feather” refers to cowardly behavior or fear in the face of a challenge.

Interestingly, the white feather is also sometimes used in a positive context, representing pacifism or peace. Still, its predominant cultural meaning leans towards the idea of weakness and fear.

The Black Feather

Native American Culture

In many Native American tribes, receiving a black feather meant you were brave. Warriors would receive black feathers or plumes for valor in battle.

For example, in Cherokee culture, black feathers represented battle achievements. In Hopi culture, a single black eagle feather denoted a veteran warrior. Thus, across tribes, the black feather was a prestigious emblem of courage.

Metaphorical Meaning

More broadly, the black feather has been adopted in metaphorical contexts to mean bravery or honor. This likely stems from the Native American warrior symbolism.

Unlike the white feather’s fairly specific cowardice connotation, the black feather as a symbol of courage appears in diverse settings. For instance, it has been incorporated into crests, poems, stories, and songs as an inspirational element representing strength of character.

White Feather vs. Black Feather

In summary, here are the key distinctions between the symbolic meanings of the white and black feather:

White Feather Black Feather
Originated as an accusation of cowardice Originated as a mark of honor for warriors
Tends to maintain cowardice connotation Used more flexibly to represent courage
Linked specifically to military service Appears in diverse cultural contexts

As we can see, the white feather and black feather have quite opposite connotations. The former calls someone’s bravery into question, while the latter affirms courage.

Use in Literature

Given their symbolic potential, both the white feather and the black feather appear in literature. Authors leverage these feathers to quickly convey something about a character or situation based on the established meanings.

White Feather Examples

In Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” the main character Marlow receives a white feather from women at home for exploring Africa. This suggests he is cowardly for leaving civilization.

In D.H. Lawrence’s “The White Feather,” a woman gives a man a white feather, causing him to enlist in World War I to prove his courage. However, he dies in battle, making her regret her accusatory action.

Black Feather Examples

In Alexander Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers,” the musketeers are described as wearing black feathers in their hats, representing their daring and valor.

In Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” the raven’s black feathers are associated with the darkness of sorrow and death.

Symbolism in Religions

The white and black feather also appear as religious symbols with their own unique meanings in these contexts.

White Feather in Religion

In Christianity, the white feather can represent virtue, purity, and the soul rising to heaven. Angels are also sometimes depicted in art as having white feathered wings.

In Hinduism and Buddhism, a white feather symbolizes spiritual growth and serving as the feather’s color is associated with purity.

Black Feather in Religion

In Christianity, the black feather is linked to penance and solemnity. Crows and ravens with black feathers can represent spiritual warfare.

In some Pagan traditions, black feathers denote the wisdom of the Crone or divine feminine, as well as magic and mystery.

Feathers in Dream Interpretation

It’s also worthwhile to examine how white and black feathers are interpreted symbolically in the context of dreams.

White Feathers in Dreams

According to some dream interpretations, seeing a white feather in your dream signals inner wisdom, peace, and purity of spirit. It may relate to your higher self guiding you.

Alternatively, a white feather can indicate disappointment in yourself or others. The cowardice meaning of the white feather may be emerging in your unconscious thoughts.

Black Feathers in Dreams

Spotting a black feather in dreams is often considered a sign of psychological strength and bravery. Your psyche may be summoning the courage to face difficulties or embrace your true power.

Black feathers in dreams can also symbolize your shadow self and fear. They may reflect anxiety about expressing your authentic emotions or embracing the dark and unknown.


In summary, the white and black feather both hold extensive symbolic meaning across cultures and contexts. The white feather speaks to cowardice, while the black feather represents courage. But their interpretations become more nuanced in literature, religion, and dreams.

Ultimately, both feathers reveal something about human attributes like bravery, fear, purity, and wisdom. Their rich symbolism will likely ensure they continue to appear in myths, stories, art, and other creative expressions.