In his 1836 book On the Mental Illumination and Moral Improvement of Mankind, Reverend Thomas Dick calls the peacock “the most beautiful bird in the world.” There are few that would dispute this description; however, throughout history, there has always been more to the peacock than its dazzling plumage. At various times and in various cultures, it has served as a symbol of good and evil, death and resurrection, and of sinful pride and overweening vanity. And much like its avian brethren, the crow and the raven, the peacock has figured heavily 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. They are also associated with Alexander the Great. In his 1812 book The History of Animals, author Noah Webster writes:
“As early as the days of Solomon, these elegant fowls were imported into Palestine. When Alexander was in India, he found them in vast numbers on the banks of the river Hyarotis, and was so struck with their beauty, that he forbid any person to kill or disturb them.”
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 relates the Arab 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. Which is why, as St. John writes:
“…a wine-bibber is at first elated and struts like a peacock; then begins to dance, play, and make grimaces like an ape; he then rages like a lion; and, lastly, lays down on any dunghill like a hog.”
Peacocks were an important symbol in Roman times, most commonly representing funerals, death, and resurrection. In the Encyclopedia of Superstition, author Richard Webster explains:
“This came about when people noticed that peacocks’ feathers did not fade or lose their shiny lustre. This was seen as a sign of immortality or resurrection.”
Because of this belief, Webster states that early Christians “decorated the walls of the 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. According to author Christine Jackson in her 2006 book Peacock:
“In typical scenes of art of the period, the peacock was closely linked to the Eucharist by two birds flanking the cup holding the wine…[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. In fact, rather than depicting them as the devil’s assistants, Jackson reports that in art of this period:
“Owing to their ability to destroy serpents, peacocks 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. Because of this connection, the Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology explains that the peacock was the “special bird of Hera.”
In addition to being seen as symbols of immortality and resurrection, peacocks figured into more mundane superstitions as well. Jackson reports that, according to the 15th century Swiss physician Paracelsus:
“…if a Peacock cries more than usuall, or out of his time, it foretels the death of some in that family to whom it doth belong.”
But peacocks did more than foretell death. Their cry was believed to predict the coming of wet weather, while their presence—or that of their feathers—inside a house might well lead the unmarried ladies in residence to end up old maids. 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.” Reverend Dick echoes this sentiment in his book, describing the peacock’s cry as “harsh and disgusting.” But it was not only the peacock’s voice that was objectionable. The peacock’s unpleasant personality was also the subject of criticism. Reverend Dick writes:
“It is so wicked that it will scarcely live with any other bird, except the pigeon; and it tears and spoils every thing it gets a hold of with its bill.”
This variety of skin-deep beauty coupled with excess pride, made the peacock a perfect 19th century moral teaching tool, especially for young people. As Reverend Dick tells his readers:
“Little boys and girls, be not like the peacock, proud and vain, on account of your beauty and your fine clothes; humility and goodness are always to be preferred to beauty.”
By the 19th century, peacocks served mainly as fashionable lawn ornaments at fine country houses. St. John refers to them as “the royal section of the feathered race.” While the 1844 book of Zoological Sketches calls the peacock “more ornamental than useful,” stating:
“…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.”
Though peacocks could frequently be seen in the country, in 19th century London they were still relatively uncommon. So uncommon, in fact, that according to St. John, the peacock was “allowed a place” in London’s Zoological Gardens. It was kept amongst the “foreign birds,” where:
“…but for the wires and cages, one might almost imagine it still in a forest glade, on the romantic banks of the Jumna.”
Top image: Peacock and Peacock Butterfly by Archibald Thorburn, 1917.
This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.com and is reprinted here with permission.
More from BUST
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty (Pen and Sword Books, July 2018). Her articles on nineteenth-century history have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web and the Journal of Victorian Culture. When not writing historical non-fiction, Mimi authors exquisitely proper historical romance novels. Her debut Victorian romance The Lost Letter can be ordered at Amazon. To learn more, please visit www.MimiMatthews.com.