I have always been drawn to the majestic peacock, with its bright feathers, but there is much more to the peacock than its dazzling plumage. It has a rich and unique history and is associated with much interesting lore.
At times throughout history and in various cultures, the peacock has served as a symbol of good and evil, death and resurrection, and of sinful pride and excessive vanity. Much like its avian brethren, the crow and the raven, the peacock is heavily featured in folktales and fables, as well as in countless superstitions that still exist today.
First originating in India, peacocks can trace their history back to biblical times. They are mentioned in the Bible as being part of the treasure taken to the court of King Solomon. Some folktales assert that peacocks were actually in the Garden of Eden—and not in a good way. In the 1838 Young Naturalist’s Book of Birds, author Percy St. John states that there was a belief that peacocks were a “bird of ill omen.” There are two reasons for this, the first of which, as he explains, was that the peacock had been the cause of the “entrance of the devil into paradise” leading to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. The second reason was that it was believed that “the devil watered the vine” with the blood of the peacock as well as with that of the ape, the lion, and the hog.
Peacocks were an important symbol in Roman times, most commonly representing funerals, death, and resurrection. People began to notice that peacock feathers did not fade or lose their shiny luster, which was seen as a sign of immortality or resurrection. Early Christians decorated the walls of catacombs with pictures of peacocks and peacock feathers to illustrate their faith in resurrection. This link with resurrection was carried over into artwork of the period which often depicted peacocks in relation to the Eucharist and the Annunciation. It was common to see artwork featuring two peacocks flanking the cup holding the wine. Further, paintings of the Annunciation included a peacock to signify Christ’s eventual rising from the dead. In scenes of the Nativity of Christ, peacocks were painted near the figure of the child to symbolize the Resurrection.
This was all very different from early folktales which portrayed peacocks as being responsible for the fall of man. Because of the belief that peacocks could destroy, they were also depicted flanking the Tree of Knowledge.
In Greek Mythology, the peacock was believed to have sprung from the blood of Argos Panoptes, the hundred-eyed giant. Later accounts state that it was Hera who, upon the death of Argos, placed his eyes in the peacock’s tail herself or—alternately—turned Argos into a peacock.
In addition to being seen as symbols of immortality and resurrection, peacocks figured into more mundane superstitions as well. It has been said that if a peacock calls more than usual, it foretells the death of the person to whom the peacock belongs. It has also been said that the cry of a peacock predicts the coming of wet weather. The presence of peacock feathers in an unmarried woman’s home was said to cause the woman to remain unmarried. Peacock feathers were also believed to bring bad luck in a theater, either by initiating disaster among the props and the actors or by causing the play to fail.
Perhaps what Peacocks are best known for, in terms of historical association, is their long connection with the sins of pride and vanity. This arises not only from their great beauty but also from their tendency to strut when displaying their magnificent plumage. In Renaissance art, for example, the peacock can often be found representing the sin of Pride in depictions of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The Victorians continued this association, with many 19th century publications reiterating that the peacock had nothing at all to recommend it but its spectacular beauty. In the History of Animals, Noah Webster calls the peacock’s voice “loud and unharmonious,” quoting the Italian saying that the peacock “has the voice of a devil, but the plumage of an angel.” This variety of skin-deep beauty coupled with excess pride, made the peacock a perfect 19th-century moral teaching tool, especially for young people.
By the 19th century, peacocks served mainly as fashionable lawn ornaments at fine country houses. The 1844 Book of Zoological Sketches calls the peacock “more ornamental than useful,” stating that “his form is so elegant, and his plumage so fine, that he is generally kept with great care in the grounds of his owners in the country, for the sake of his beauty; and there he may often be seen, walking with firm and slow steps along the gravel walks, or perched upon some parapet, or on the branch of a lofty tree, while he holds up his head and spreads his richly-coloured train, as if waiting to be admired.”
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