Belonging to the heron family, egrets are elegant wading birds who are typically found hunting in shallow waters around the globe. Herons and egrets are not distinct species; many birds belonging to the Egretta or Ardea genera, to which egrets belong, are referred to as “herons.” Thus, this article will include many mentions of herons along with egrets.
The Great Egret (Ardea alba) is the symbol of the National Audubon Society. After nearly perishing entirely in the 1800s in the United States due to demand for its plumage, Great Egrets represent one of the most uplifting success stories in bird conservation. Popular with birders for their beauty, elegance, and relative abundance, egrets of all kinds are ambassadors for the birding hobby and for the appreciation of wetland ecosystems. (1)(2)
Symbolic of grace, tranquility, patience, peace, and precision, the egret is an endless source of inspiration. Read on to learn more about the symbolism associated with this incredible bird!
Egret Symbolism and Meaning
Many species of egret, including the aptly named Cattle Egret, spend their lives following herds of cattle, or other large mammals such as hippos or elephants, and subsisting off of the insects and parasite invertebrates which these large animals attract. In modern times, this behavior has expanded to include following farming equipment. This survival strategy has caused these birds to be beloved by livestock keepers who perceive the egret as reducing instances of parasites. The egret has a reputation as a beneficial bird for agriculture and is one of the “poster children” for symbiotic relationships between birds and large mammals. (3)
For this reason, egrets may be associated with cooperation, healing, and protection.
Egrets nest in great colonies which are often referred to as “rookeries.” Within these colonies, male egrets are known to choose a nest site and defend it fiercely whilst performing elaborate courtship displays. During the breeding season, egrets form monogamous pairs which construct nests together. While egret parents are cooperative and attentive, sibling rivalry amongst nestlings can be brutal and even fatal. (4)(5)
Thus egrets may represent romance, courtship, and community. However, they may also represent rivalry, competition, cruelty, and strained sibling relationships.
Egrets are also used as symbols of patience, acuity, skill, serenity, and grace.
Egret Native American Symbolism
In Native American symbolism, the egret represents peace and diplomacy. (6)
Egret Christianity Symbolism
The dazzlingly white egret is sometimes seen as a symbol of purity. In depictions of idyllic nature scenes, egrets are often included alongside flowing water. In these cases, the egret represents the abundance of nature’s blessings and the beauty of God’s creation.
Egret Celtic Symbolism
In Celtic symbolism, egrets are associated with femininity, the Otherworld, and the many supernatural influences associated with water. Like the aforementioned Cattle Egret, ancient Cletic depictions of egrets often featured sacred bulls.
Egret in Dreams
If the serene egret has been wading through your dreams, then you may be entering a period of introspection. Fortunately, egrets often represent peace. The appearance of an egret in your dream may be a reminder to calm your heart or a sign that a period of tranquility is beginning in your life.
The egret spends its days staring down into water, waiting for the moment to strike and capture its lunch. Dreaming of an egret may be a sign to reflect and examine whether you’re on the correct path. Spending time alone with your own thoughts may not be fun, but it is often the best way to listen to your inner voice. Patience is key.
Egret Encounters and Omens
Encounters with egrets often occur alongside bodies of water. Egrets may surprise you with their stillness as you approach them. An encounter with an egret can be a great reminder of the value of stillness. Choosing to patiently wait for events to unfold before making your move is sometimes the wisest “action” that you can take.
Encountering an egret is also a great opportunity to meditate on the things that are important to you. One of the egret’s many strengths is focus. When your goals are close at hand, focus and discipline are essential tools for grasping opportunities.
Egret in Mythology & Folklore
Egrets and herons are common in folklore around the world. Below are just a few examples of stories and traditions that feature the egret.
Native American Mythology:
The egret is a symbol of peace and tranquility amongst several Native American groups. According to Cherokee legend, the American Egret, called “tskwayi” is a peace emblem whose wings and feathers are worn by athletes. In some legends, the wise and peaceable egret serves as a mediator of conflicts between the animal spirits. (9)
Egrets are ancient symbols that have been important to Celtic cultures since at least 800 BC, when the long tail feathers of egrets were found in archaeological sites. Many Celtic cultures depict the egret alongside the bull, which is the most important animal symbols in the ancient Celtic world.
The Irish god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lir, is said to have stored all of his treasures in a repository known as the “Corrbolg” or “crane bag.” According to legend, Manannan loved a young woman named Aoife. A jealous woman who despised Aoife transformed the girl into a crane. For hundreds of years, Aoife lived with Manannan in this form until her eventual death. When Aoife died, Manannan used her skin to craft the crane bag. It is said that at low tide, Manannan’s treasures can be seen in the sea. Although the bag is supposedly crafted from the skin of a crane, it is said to be guarded by an egret.
Throughout Celtic mythology, egrets appear as guardians of otherworldly portals or objects. The water itself is sometimes thought of as an entry to the Otherworld, so it stands to reason that egrets and other wading birds would be connected with this supernatural place. Egrets are also sometimes thought to be incarnations of the goddess Rhiannon who is associated strongly with queenship, magic, and birds of all kinds. (13)
In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Bennu bird is an extremely important symbol. Resembling an egret or a heron, the Bennu is connected with the sun god, Ra, as well as Atum, the creator, and Osiris. The Bennu is sometimes thought to be one of the early origins of the myth of the phoenix. According to legend, the Bennu existed before all of creation. Bennu contributed to the creation of the universe by breaking the primordial silence with its cry. Contributing to its connection with the phoenix, Bennu is associated with cyclical death and resurrection. The sun god, Ra, whom the Bennu is most firmly associated with, travels across the sly each day in a never-ending cycle of death and rebirth. Furthermore, Osiris is said to have been resurrected by his wife, Isis, after he was murdered by his treacherous brother. All of the pieces of Osiris were gathered together and reconstituted by Isis, but one piece was still lost so Osiris must rule over the land of the dead rather than the living. The Bennu is sometimes depicted as an egret with the headdress of Osiris, further connecting this bird to death and resurrection. (14)
The human soul in Egyptian mythology was believed to consist of three parts: the ka, ba, and akh. The ba is often depicted as a bird, sometimes one with the head of a human. The ba is usually thought of as an egret, an ibis, or another of the wading birds which dwell along the banks of the Nile. The Nile was a hugely influential landmark for ancient Egyptians who subsisted off of this river. It was often thought of as the barrier between the lands of the living and the dead. For this reason, wading birds were often seen as guardians of the gateway between these realms. The ba is said to be the one piece of the human soul which can freely travel between life and death. (15)
In Japan, the “Shirasagi” is a common subject in art, poetry, and storytelling. “Shira” means “white,” while “sagi” refers to egrets and herons. One particular tradition involving the Shirasagi is the “Shirasagi-no Mai,” meaning “Dance of the White Egret.” This ceremonial dance dates as far back as the eighth century and is performed at the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. During this traditional dance, a group of dancers in ornate egret costumes slowly and gracefully dance in a fashion that mimics the movement of egrets. Their procession is flanked by musicians and costumed school children. The confetti thrown by the procession is often collected for good luck. (16)(17)
Often symbolizing patience or grace, egrets appear in many different contexts throughout Japanese folklore. One Japanese “Yokai,” or apparition, is said to be a Black-crowned Night Heron which glows in the dark after obtaining a certain old age. Additionally, egrets are credited as messengers of heroic emperors of old, as symbols of Japan’s breathtaking hot springs, and as artistic motifs representing the winter season. (18)(19)(20)
Herons and egrets are among the birds which appear as messengers of various gods in Greek mythology. Herons and egrets are especially connected with several goddesses, including Aphrodite and Athena, the goddesses of love and wisdom respectively.
In the following passage from the Iliad, the goddess Athena sends a heron to signal her support for the hero Odysseus:
“Athena winged a heron close to their path
and veering right. Neither man could see it,
scanning the dark night, they only heard its cry.
Glad for the lucky sign, Odysseus prayed to Pallas,
“Hear me, daughter of Zeus whose shield is thunder!
Standing by me always, in every combat mission—
no maneuver of mine slips by you—now, again,
give me your best support, Athena, comrade!
Grant our return in glory back to the warships
once we’ve done some feat that brings the Trojans pain!”” (21)
Through its connection with Athena, the egret can be understood to represent wisdom, strategy, femininity, duty, cleverness, and victory.
Aesop’s fables, which are said to originate in Greece, include one tale featuring a proud heron. In this story, the wading bird sees many small fish swimming at his feet, but decides that each is too small to be a fitting meal for a bird so proud and beautiful as himself. After a while, a large fish passes by, but the heron is still unimpressed. Finally, as evening draws near, all of the little fish retreat and the famished heron must eat a snail for dinner or go hungry. The moral of this story is a warning against being too difficult to please. (22)
Egret Spirit Animal
If the egret is your spirit animal then you are most likely to be an ambitious person who is unafraid to seize opportunities which come your way. You are happy to patiently wait for the correct moment, however you never forget your ultimate goal. The egret spirit animal is introverted and prefers to keep its thoughts to itself most of the time. People may be surprised by how much you have to say when you finally do decide to share.
Some shortcomings of the egret spirit animal include pride and competitiveness. People with the egret spirit animal are so focused on their ambitions that they may behave more rudely than they realize.
Egret Totem Animal
The egret totem animal represents wisdom and learning. Intelligence is an innate trait, but wisdom can only be born from experience and observation. People with the egret totem animal are skilled at quietly observing the events that unfold around them. Using their keen perception and constant self-evaluation, the egret totem often develops a talent for choosing the wisest course of action.
Egret Power Animal
The egret power animal confers the incredible power of timing. Luckier than any superstition, the egret’s exceptional timing can influence the outcome of most situations in a way that favors it. Combined with the ambition, wisdom, and laser focus which are characteristics of the egret, timing is an unstoppable weapon that helps the egret to execute its goals flawlessly.
Egret Tattoo Meaning
An egret tattoo may be chosen to represent serenity, peace, meditation, focus, or the natural beauty of wetland ecosystems.
An egret tattoo styled in an Egyptian fashion is certain to represent the human soul and the cycle of rebirth and death embodied by the Bennu.
What wetland scene could possibly be complete without the elegant silhouette of a wading egret? Long, slender, and graceful, these birds are like budding flowers silently navigating the water’s edge. As the official symbol of the National Audubon Society, these birds have become emblems for birdwatching itself, but even without the recognition brought on by this organization, I have to imagine that they would still be beloved by nature-lovers everywhere.