Ostrich darkness and light
Autruche Struthio Camelus (Photograph by Gerard Lacz | Source: fineartamerica.com)

Creative Commons License D. CATHERINE | 2018
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In the origin myth of the African Kikuyu people, their ancestral ‘first man’ Gĩkũyũ (meaning ‘Great Sycamore-fig Tree’) first appeared under a sycamore-fig tree (mũkũyũ) at the foot of Mount Kenya, which was known to the Kikuyu as Kĩrĩ Nyaga—the ‘Mountain of the Ostrich’. The term ‘ostrich’ here alludes to the variegated black-and-white or light-and-shade as specifically seen in the patches of white snow against the dark rock on the mountain. This place of origin under the Great Sycamore-fig Tree at the foot of Mount Kenya, as well as the immediate lands to the south-west, was considered a type of paradise to the Kikuyu people.

Mount Kenya and Mwene Nyaga ‘Lord Ostrich’

Historically, Mount Kenya was also considered sacred to the southern Oromo tribes who made “periodical pilgrimage to the mountain, making offerings as to their mother.”[1] In much the same way that Kaphiri-Ntiwa in east-central Malawi is the mount of origin for the Maravi-Chewa people and the seat of their god Chiuta, and much like Mangochi (Mulanje?) in southern Malawi is the mount of origin for the Yao people and the seat of their god Mtanga (elsewhere Mulungu), we likewise find that Mount Kĩrĩ Nyaga is considered the seat of the Kikuyu deity Ngai (elsewhere Murungu), especially in his aspect as Mwene Nyaga—‘Lord Ostrich’. It could be argued that the ostrich here alludes not merely to the patches of white snow against the dark rock on the mountain, but likely symbolically extends to the cosmological ‘World Mountain’ and the primordial elements of darkness and light, which Ngai, as Mwene ‘Lord’, would surely preside over.

From a paleo-semiotic perspective, it is worth briefly examining the typology of this deified ostrich. Besides meaning ‘ostrich’, the Kikuyu nyaga has various meanings which seemingly originate in that which is variegated, spotted, mottled, patched (e.g. snow patches) or two-toned. The Maasai term keri ‘variegated, speckled, striped’ (compare the Pan-African lexeme #keri ‘to split, cut, break’,[2] and thus perhaps ‘to separate’), associated with Mount Kenya (called by the Maasai Ol Donyo Keri), likewise alludes to the contrasting light-and-dark patches of snow-and-rock as seen on the mountain.[3] Considering that nyaga is also said to mean ‘brightness’, this connotation might be in reference to light as distinguished from shade or darkness, or similarly the whiteness of snow as distinguished from (or in contrast to) the mountain’s darker rock surfaces. Either way, it basically suggests that which is variegated, spotted, two-toned, or one aspect/attribute/quality as a complementary opposite of (or in contradistinction to) another.

To extrapolate: In general, the ostrich with black-and-white feathers likely became a symbol not only of the patched mountain, but also of the underlying duality in the cosmos—especially as pertains to the primordial elements of darkness and light. In relation to the deity Mwene Nyaga “Lord/Possessor (of the) Ostrich (Two-Toned)”, the deified ostrich in this context likely represents the revered source from which the ‘firstborn’ or first-created elements of darkness and light originated, and occasionally depicted in mythos as ‘twins’. Compare also the Ancient Egyptian māʿaty ‘two truths’ in the context of the light-and-shade that was typologically associated with the ostrich shūt-feather  and as such was assigned as an ideographic determinative of māʿat  ‘truth, law, balance, equilibrium, order, justice’.

One could speculate that this variegation, two-tonedness, duality, primordial complementarity or mythical ‘twinning’ was first perceived in either the dawning light (upon the horizon ‘mount’ of the east[4]) that ‘separated’ from the dark of night (compare the Pan-African lexeme #keri ‘to split, cut, break’). Alternatively it may have originated in the perpetual alternation of day and night as perceived to be moving across the skies above or ‘over the mount of the earth’—and elsewhere symbolised by e.g. the hawk or falcon of light/day and e.g. the serpent or jackal, wolf, raven, bat, black vulture of darkness/night, or perhaps even the double-headed bird that we know from extant symbolism.

However, this perpetual alternation of darkness and light or night and day was balanced according to the daily cycles as viewed from the equator (i.e. 12 hours by 12 hours), as well as harmonised in their equilibrium, equipoise or ‘reconciliation’ at dawn and dusk. Later it was harmonised in the seasonal equinox. Note that the equatorial region is always equinoctial, and that Mount Kenya is situated almost exactly on the equator. This is likely the typological foundation for the use of the ostrich feather as a symbol of equilibrium, balance, equality or justice in Egyptian symbolism, as Horapollo would later inform us in a slightly garbled account: “When they would symbolise a man who distributes justice [māʿat] impartially to all, they depict the feather of an ostrich [shūt]; for this bird, unlike others, has the feathers of its wings equal on every side.”[5]


[1] C. Juxon Barton, ‘The Origins of the Galla and Somali Tribes’, Journal of The East Africa and Uganda Natural History Society, Nairobi: The East Africa Natural History Society, 1924, p.6.
[2] Roger M. Blench, ‘The problem of pan-African roots’, in John D. Bengtson (ed.), In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory: Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropology, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2008, pp.193–194.
[3] Sultan H. Somjee, ‘Oral Traditions and Material Culture: An East Africa Experience’, Research in African Literatures 31.4, 2000, pp.97–103.
[4] André Dollinger writes: “The Egyptians were aware of the remarkable early morning behaviour of these flightless birds [ostriches] when they run around flapping their wings. Ahmose I was described in a stela as being ‘like Atem in the east of the sky when the ostriches dance in the valleys’ (Stela 34001, Cairo Museum).” http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/bestiary/ostrich.htm (Retrieved 2018-01-17)
[5] The Hieroglyphica of Horapollo II.118. The twins of darkness and light upon the orb of the moon were also (in part) the reason why, in Egypt, the black-and-white Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) was symbolically assigned to the lunar deity Thoth. One wonders if the American crow as Keeper of Sacred Law (compare the Egyptian Māʿat) in the Native American teachings had its origin in ancient symbolism first associated with the African pied crow or its ancestral species? Incidentally, note also the black raven or crow (Akkadian garibu, Arabic ghurab, Hebrew ʿorev) as a natural choice of zoötype symbol for evening/sunset (Akkadian erebu, Hebrew ʿerev, Greek erebos) as the dark one/half of the mythical twins or Two Truths as the inherent duality or complementary opposites in the cosmos (in some instances the e.g. white dove is assigned as a zoötype symbol of daylight as the light one/half of the Two Truths). Keep in mind, however, that Māʿaty as the ‘Two Truths’ is not confined to darkness and light only, but may also be apparent in e.g. wet/dry, hot/cold, subtle/concrete, above/below, blood/breath, body/soul, etc.

Left: The Sacred Ibis (Credit: By Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons) | Right: The moon god Thoth and his wife, Māʿat (Credit: aras.org)

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