The peacock: A symbol of royalty
A peacock dominates an eighteenth century Japanese screen by Nagasawa Rosetsu.
The peacock is native to India and further east, but the bird has a long history in the Middle East, perhaps originally brought by early Indian traders to ancient Babylon. The male peacock’s plumage of shimmering blues and greens fascinate even as its raucous cries seem so at variance with such beauty.
The Greeks learned of the peacock only after Alexander the Great’s conquest - Aristotle called it a Persian bird. They quickly added the bird to their pantheon of deities. For example, in the Hellenistic period, peacocks pulled the chariot of the Greek goddess Hera. Since Hera was considered the goddess of the sky and stars, the gold circles and blue background fit naturally. According to one myth, Zeus became interested in a woman named Io and Hera had her hundred-eyed servant, Argus, guard Io. Zeus had Argus killed in order to free Io. According to the Roman author Ovid, Hera rewarded her watchman Argus by turning his hundred eyes into the eye-like images on the tail of the peacock. In fact, these eyes were at times rather like the so-called evil eye in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology that could see everything.
The Romans seem to have particularly liked the peacock, but not just because of the male bird’s splendid tail. Both the meat and the tongue were a favorite delicacy on the tables of the wealthy. This gastronomical interest
seems to have lasted into the Middle Ages in Europe with the bird skinned and roasted before the skin with feathers still intact would be reattached and served in all its glory. The Romans also used the peacock as decoration in their mosaics and frescos.
The peacock as symbol
The peacock was a symbol of immortality because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock, perhaps reflecting on the importance of the centuries-old popularity of the Greek poet. While continuing to keep its association with wealth, the bird, which replaces its feathers every year, also became a symbol of renewal and resurrection in early Christian and Byzantine culture. Peacock imagery appears in early Christian tomb paintings and mosaics, especially concerning the resurrection.
In the original home of the peacock, India, peacocks symbolized royalty and power. One of the most important symbols of this was the so-called Peacock Throne, which was built the early 17th century for Şah Jahan. The name was taken from two peacocks covered in gold and jewels that were part of the throne. Unfortunately, the original was captured and taken to Persia by Nadır Şah in 1739 and was never seen again, although future thrones were generally known by the same name in Persia. A far inferior gold and bejeweled throne that was presented to an Ottoman sultan by a Persian ruler is sometimes erroneously referred to in the same way.
Some cultures believe that keeping peacock feathers indoors is bad luck; for instance, the daughters of the house may never get married. But it’s okay to have them outside.
Peacocks and Islam
There are mixed tales told about peacocks in popular Islam. According to one story, God created a peacock which sat on a tree and prayed for 70,000 years using prayer beads. Then God put a mirror in front of the peacock, who was so pleased at its own beauty that it prostrated itself to God five times. So the tradition of five prayers a day arose among the Muslims.
A rather less engaging popular story is told in al-Kisai’s “Qisas” (ca. 1100). The peacock is seduced by the promise of Satan that if he would help the latter enter Paradise, he would teach him three words that would save him from illness, old age and death. So the peacock enlists the aid of the serpent and helps Satan enter Paradise, where the latter seduces Eve. The peacock which until then had been the beautiful bird of Paradise with the most beautiful voice is cast out of heaven along with the serpent and Satan and loses his voice.
Peacocks in Middle Eastern art
Somewhat surprisingly, there are few examples of peacocks in the various arts of the Middle East. A 17th century miniature painting of a peacock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (not pictured here) shows a poem in Ottoman Turkish written around the inside of the peacock’s fan. It is composed of blessings for an unnamed Ottoman sultan and reads: “Beautiful as a houri, of angelic character, of auspicious omen, envy of the perfect ones, parrot of sweet tongue and sweet speech, peacock of the garden of .... the lofty decree, sultan of the sultans of the world, fortunate and august, khan of the shahs, Darius of the time, Faridun of the age, hero of the world, [text reverses direction] champion of earth and time, sultans of the sultan of the family of ‘Uthman ibn Sultan Ghazi Khan ... may God extend the days of his [happiness] to the day of [judgment?].”
A mid-sixteenth century Iznik dish that is currently in the Musée de Louvre is typical of the beautiful ceramic pieces produced in that Anatolian town at the height of the Ottoman Empire. It contains various vegetal forms such as leaves, flowers and buds. In the middle of it all is a lone peacock but not with its tail opened in full splendor. The scarcity of such images in pottery is somewhat surprising, especially since the peacock was taken to represent royalty.
A type of Caucasian carpet from the Baluchistan region has been dubbed “peacock” rugs because of the stylized bird form reproduced on them. Some experts have refuted the notion that these birds are peacocks, preferring to give them the mythical name of Akstafa instead.
Peacocks occur from time to time in Ottoman poetry both for their elegant plumage and also for the beautiful voice the bird possessed before it fell from grace and was cast out of Paradise (Ahmed Paşa).
It has also been suggested that the eyes in the peacock’s plumage should be used to observe the beauty of the beloved (Nabi). On the other hand Şeyh Galib takes up the story from Mevlana about the fox that fell in a dye pit and fancied himself as beautiful as a peacock until his fellow animals deflated his pretensions by asking him to fly.