Peafowl: In History & Culture

King of the Birds series, part 2 of 3

Globally acclaimed as “the king of the birds,” the peacock is one of the most recognizable avian species with its famous iridescent train of feathers. Throughout history, peafowl have been symbolic motifs, spanning cultures such as Hindus, Greek and Roman philosophers, and Medieval Christian Europe. In art and literature, the peacock’s representation was shared and changed as its influence spread worldwide. From being the patron bird of gods and goddesses, the exotic iconography of kings and rulers to being kept as humble pets by modern-day bird lovers, such as Flannery O’Connor, the peacock remains a prominent figure in many cultures.

Peacock Line Drawing (Stock Image)

The Indian peafowl is the oldest ornamental bird recorded in history, dating back to the 10th-century B.C.E. Often argued who first exported the peafowl from their native lands of Asia, King Soloman of Israel and Judah during 1000B.C.E is among the first to own these exotic birds. Peafowl were transported to temples and palaces across the Mediterranean by Phoenician traders, including to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.[1] When the peafowl arrived in Greece, they were viewed as curiosities and initially kept in a private zoo on Samos island. By the 4th century B.C.E., owning peafowl was a common luxury in Greece and Rome, used for decoration and meat among the ruling class.

The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was familiar with and recorded much about their behaviors. Domesticated peafowl were found across Europe in the 14th century, but were mainly the property of the royals and wealthy class. The introduction of domestic poultry meat, such as turkeys, from Mexico in the 16th century meant that the peafowl became decorative pieces to have wandering opulent palace grounds.[2] The Indian peafowl was the species with the highest success in domestication and therefore allowed to be free-range within the walls of palaces or zoos. Today the peafowl can be found on many farms, zoos, and palace grounds across the world. Even wild peafowl in India or southeast Asia live close to populated areas such as villages and farms. The Green peafowl is known for its flighty and sometimes savage behavior towards people. Peafowl have gained a poor reputation in urban areas for their voracious appetites, which target flower gardens, as well as for their bad habit of defecating wherever they please and for their loud, obnoxious calls.[3] Despite this, peafowl remain an object of fascination and adoration to many cultures and people throughout history.

Peacock Gate, City Palace of Jaipur (Stock Image)

            The Indian peacock appears in many religions, literature, and folklore throughout history and across the world. As a species native to the Indian subcontinent, the peacock is a recurring symbol throughout the region’s mythology and folklore. In Hindu religion, Lord Krishna wears the peacock feathers, and the bird appears as the mount of the god of war, Lord Kartikeya. An old Hindu proverb states that the peacock has the feathers of an angel, the voice of the devil, and the walk of a thief. The cries of the peacock warned many villages of danger from leopards, tigers and, “for this reason, as well as its habit of foretelling rain by its dancing and cries of delight, it has from time immemorial been held in the East as a bird of magic, or the embodiment of some god of the forest whose beneficence is well worth supplication, and whose resentment might bring disaster. Hence it was ever protected, not by law, but from a feeling of veneration.”[4] Due to the peacock’s symbology in both religion and traditions, the peacock became India’s national bird in 1963.[5]

Greeks also took the peacock as a religious symbol in mythology as the bird of Hera, Queen of the gods. One of the most famous greek myths involving the peacock is Hera and her hundred-eyed guard. When Hermes killed the loyal guard, Hera is said to have given his eyes to the peacock’s tail of feathers. Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, alludes to the bird’s vain reputation, saying, “some animals are jealous and vain, like the peacock.”[6] After conquering the Greeks, the Romans adopted much of their culture, including their gods and mythology. However, the peacock’s symbology changed, representing funerals, death, and resurrection. Christians, upon seeing how the peacock molted its tail, replacing the old feathers with new ones, also used the peacock as a symbol of immortality and resurrection. Christianity also used the unique peacock feather “eye” to represent the church’s many eyes watching over the people. Nearly every major religion uses the peacock as a symbol, passed back and forth between empires and civilizations, with varying interpretations.

The Peacock’s Complaint (Stock Image)

Outside of religion, the peacock appears in fables and literature told throughout history. The most famous of the peacock-centered fables is that told by the famous Greek storyteller, Aesop. These fables and lessons usually revolve around the peacock’s supposed vanity and pride of its tail feathers. The phrase “proud as a peacock” originates from the peacock stories, either boasting of its beauty or being blind to it, envying another animal’s characteristics. In Aesop’s famous fable, “The Peacock’s Complaint,” the famed bird comes to Juno, the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Hera. In his complaint, the peacock asks why the nightingale has a beautiful voice, and he does not. Juno responds, “envious bird that you are, I am sure you have no cause to complain. On your neck shine all the colors of the rainbow, and your extended tail gleams like a mass of glittering gems… cease then to complain, or the gifts you have shall be taken away.”[7]

Many paintings portray the bird looking back at its tail in a symbol of vanity. Acclaimed for its beauty, although, mundane superstitions would have people believe that peafowl are bad luck, associating the “eyes” on the feathers with evil. Christine Jackson’s book, Peacock, states that according to 15th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, “…if a Peacock cries more than usual, or out of his time, it foretells the death of some in that family to whom it doth belong.”[8] Negative suspicions aside, the peacock’s image persists through literature and arts today.

[1] Ragupathy Kannan and Douglas A. James, “Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus).” Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

[2] Victoria Varga, “Peafowl: Plumage and Personality.”

[3] R. Kannan and D. A. James, “Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus).” Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

[4] Ernest Ingersoll, Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore, (University of Michigan, Michigan, 1923), 143.

[5] R. Kannan and D. A. James, “Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus).” Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

[6] John M’Clintok and James Strong, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, (New York, Armo Press, 1969), VII, 854.

[7] Aesop, Aesop’s Illustrated Fables, (New York, Barns and Noble, 2011), 16

[8] Christine E. Jackson, Peacock, (London, Reaktion Books, 2006)

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