In the beginning there was the ostrich...
Did you know that ostrich eggs were often suspended from the ceilings of Coptic churches in Egypt as well as in European churches in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Several reasons, including how the hatching of ostrich eggs can be related to the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, have been given for this practice. Whatever the justification, what remains obvious is how the ostrich was woven into the religious fabric of different peoples across different continents centuries ago.
However, the ostrich does not only feature in the religious ideals of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The animal's history among humans is dynamic and truly interesting. Through its egg, feather and skin, the ostrich has always contributed to the insatiable and creative human appetite for art and commerce. In fact, if the history of the beginnings of textuality, art and commercialization would be told in the world, it behooves us to acknowledge the place of the ostrich. Archaeologists have suggested that some of the earliest forms of human artistic expression are the paintings discovered on the walls of different caves, and there are also caves that house other significant artifacts such as painted and engraved ostrich eggs.
Some painted and engraved ostrich eggs were discovered by scientists who date them back to the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Even more interestingly, apart from the ostrich eggs found in the Mediterranean during the Bronze and Iron Ages, Archaeologists have also discovered that ostrich eggs were used for art in South Africa at least 60,000 years ago. The eggs in the image below were discovered in "Isis tomb" in Italy, but they did not originate in Europe, they originated in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The difference in the decoration of the two eggs shows that ostrich eggs were decorated in different ways during this time period. The consistent engraving pattern of one of the eggs is telling and it reflects the work of a skillful artist. The decoration of the second egg is a painting. Ostrich eggs were also decorated in other beautiful ways, including adorning them with ivory or precious metals.
These decorated eggs were traded to elites and wealthy people across the world. signifying how exotic these egg artworks were seen by people at the time. (The Isis tomb where these eggs were discovered is said to belong to wealthy people.) Similarly, till today, ostrich eggs are still used for artistic designs and beautiful patterns all over the world. The sheer size and hardness of ostrich eggs make them palatable for this continuous artistic expression, and these artistic expressions have always led to trade.
However, notwithstanding the eggshells' strength and the beautiful artistic expressions they are used for, one is forced to think about what happens to the content of these eggs before humans use them for decoration. In other words, do we discard the ostrich embryos before using the shells for decoration? One provisional answer states that only eggs that are infertile are used for decoration. But the overarching truth of this claim in all contexts where ostrich egg decoration is predominant cannot be ascertained.
But it is not just the ostrich eggs that have significantly contributed to textuality, art and trade for humans, the skin of the ostrich has also done its vital part. The tanned skin of the ostrich is used for leather to bind books, bibles and make leather shoes today. Such books and boots are well sold commercially. The image of the notebook bound with ostrich leather I have used here is captivating. The leather of the notebook has a lovely stylistic pattern of small dots which makes it look like it was quilted.
Like the egg, these beautiful ostrich leather design shows how humans have gotten creative with what we do with things we get from the ostrich. Yet, in this case, one is also forced to think about many ostriches lose their lives in other to sate the human appetite for textuality, creativity and commerce.
Reading the ostrich in literature
Much of the emphasis on the ostrich's contribution to textuality mentioned so far have focused on the way materials from the animals are used. However, beyond its materials, the ostrich itself significantly features in the writings of the early modern period. Notable writers like William Shakespeare and John Milton and other notable figures like William Caxton all mentioned the ostrich in their works. Generally, the ostrich is used in early modern works for the following:
1. To signify the animal itself
2. As an allusion to a common behavior associated with the ostrich.
We have two good examples in the work of William Caxton and William Shakespeare that exemplify the second usage of the ostrich in the early modern period. Both authors were fascinated with the idea that the ostrich can swallow metal objects and they showed this fascination in their work.
- On the part of Caxton, he mentions the ostrich in his 1481 first printed illustrated book titled, Myrrour of Worlde (Mirror of the World). About the ostrich, Caxton writes, “hostryche by his nature eteth well yron” (ostrich by his nature eats iron well).
- William Shakespeare also writes about this same trait of the ostrich in his 1594 play, Henry VI, when he writes, “Ile make thee eate yron like an Astridge (ostrich), and swallow my sword like a great pinne.”
The possibility that the ostrich can swallow metal objects was clearly intriguing to the early modernists, and it formed one of the most commonly held opinions about the animal that was later contested by the subsequent writers of the period.
In fact, so great was the emphasis on the ostrich’s strangeness, especially its ability to digest metals that Thomas Browne dedicates a chapter to refuting the claim about the ostrich’s ability to digest iron in his famous Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Vulgar Errors. In a book Browne dedicated to correcting the commonly held erroneous beliefs of his day, featuring the ostrich is particularly significant, and it establishes how the ostrich was a subject of representation and fascination for both writers and the general public during the Renaissance.
The interest in really knowing if the ostrich can swallow iron has led to various experiments on the animal, some of which have validated that it can swallow metals and some did not.
Whichever the case, what remains certain and incontestable is how much we have taken from the ostrich. For how much we have taken, we should be grateful to our flightless friend who has been a generous and cheerful giver to humanity.
Dreambirds: The Strange History of the Ostrich in Food, Fashion and Fashion by Rob Nixon