The Peacock in Myth, Legend, and 19th Century History

Peacock and Peacock Butterfly by Archibald Thorburn, 1917.
Peacock and Peacock Butterfly by Archibald Thorburn, 1917.

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.”

Blue Peacock by Pieter Pietersz. Barbiers, (1759 - 1842).
Blue Peacock by Pieter Pietersz. Barbiers, (1759 – 1842).

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.”

Pavo Cristatus by J. Smit after Joseph Wolf, 1872.
Pavo Cristatus by J. Smit after Joseph Wolf, 1872.

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.”

The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, 1486.(National Gallery, London)
The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, 1486.
(National Gallery, London)

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.”

Juno by Joseph Paelinck, 1832.(Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent)
Juno by Joseph Paelinck, 1832.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent)

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.

Pride, The Seven Deadly Sins, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1557.
Pride, The Seven Deadly Sins, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1557.

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.”

The Preening Peacock by Jehan Georges Vibert, (1840-1902).
The Preening Peacock by Jehan Georges Vibert, (1840-1902).

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.”

Peacock in a n Alchemical Flask, 16th century.(Image via Wellcome Library CC By 4.0)
Peacock in an Alchemical Flask, 16th century.
(Image via Wellcome Library CC By 4.0)

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  I don’t have any specific rescue links for peahens or peacocks, but if you would like to help an animal in need, I encourage you to utilize the following links as resources:

The Avian Welfare Coalition (USA)

The Humane Society of the United States (USA)

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (UK)

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Dick, Thomas.  On the Mental Illumination and Moral Improvement of Mankind.  Philadelphia: Key & Biddle, 1836.

Hard, Robin.  The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology.  London: Routledge, 2004.

Jackson, Christine E.  Peacock.  London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

St. John, Percy Bolingbroke.  The Young Naturalist’s Book of Birds: Anecdotes of the Feathered Creation.  London: Joseph Rickerby, 1838.

Webster, Noah.  The History of Animals.  New Haven: Howe & Deforest, 1812.

Webster, Richard.  The Encyclopedia of Superstitions.  Woodbury: Llewellyn Publications, 2012.

Zoological Sketches.  London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1844


Coming November 2017

The Pug Who Bit Napoleon:
Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries

From elaborate Victorian cat funerals to a Regency era pony who took a ride in a hot air balloon, Mimi Matthews shares some of the quirkiest and most poignant animal tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Find out more…

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28 Comments on "The Peacock in Myth, Legend, and 19th Century History"

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Vickie
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We love Peacocks! I did not realize there was so much superstition around them – just thought of them as extremely beautiful! Thank you Mimi for enlightening us.

Mimi Matthews
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You’re very welcome :) I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

travtrails
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there is more to the preening birds

Mimi Matthews
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There absolutely is :)

paper doll
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Another gorgeous , well written fab post! Thank you!

Mimi Matthews
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Thank you :) I’m so glad you liked it!

Dorothy
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A lot of people who live out of town a little ways around here have peacocks. I was rather surprised to see rather dusty peacocks wandering around the back roads of Northern California, but there they are. They are awfully noisy and will pull up plants. My grandma would not have the feathers in the house. She said it was bad luck!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

The superstition about the feathers is definitely still around today!

alice solantania saga
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you are SUCH BRILLIANCE. as soon as i can i will pay for this. love alice

Mimi Matthews
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Thank you, Alice :) I’m so glad you enjoyed the article!

Sarah Waldock
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Another excellent post! I didn’t know there was so much behind the peacock. I’m familiar with them as garden pets in larger gardens, I have friends with a cock and two hens. I find the cry rather more mournrful and disturbing rather than grating [though you can learn to sleep through them after a couple of nights to get used to them yelling their heads off at dawn. Peacocks can be pretty vicious – like geese – but can also become tame enough and lazy enough not to worry people. Taking ten minutes to shoo a dozing peacock off the… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much, Sarah :) I like the idea of peacocks crying out at dawn. It seems so much more exotic than a rooster!

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Not as disturbing either. it’s a mellow if loud wail rather than the insistent sound Mr Rooster makes. Though I can sleep through roosters more or less, or rather, I can go right back to sleep again because I know what it is. Farms and smallholdings can be a bit of a cacophony until you adapt to them. But then so can living near a big road. I sleep through the diesels blowing their horns on the railway viaduct on a level with my bedroom window, and the air brakes of the buses and lorries right outside, and only mutter… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Ha! You’re a much stronger sleeper than I am. Though I envy you being able to have all the country sounds around you like the roosters & peacocks. I live in yuppie suburbia, so the only morning sound to wake me is the gardener blowing leaves off the drive ;)

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Alas I live in blue collar suburbia, with mixed land use, surrounded by trains, lorries and buses, but I am known to visit in the country…. I’m regaining my sleep patterns after having trained myself to wake at any sound while I was looking after mum but now, once I’m off I’m off, though apparently I can conduct a coherent conversation I later remember nothing about. Mind we do have some country noises, The dawn chorus from the woodland opposite is quite something if I can be bothered to wake up, the woodpecker, the occasional scream of the peregrine, wood… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very lucky to have a woodland so near. I wish our neighbors had a pet donkey!

Noirfifre
Guest

The peacock is definitely the most beautiful bird I have seen. It is rather interesting that biblical arguments most times associate the beautiful things with the devil.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Good point! I don’t know why that is, unless beautiful things are seen as being too worldly.

Noirfifre
Guest

Yes, based on my experience from church sometimes when someone makes a fuss for the physical beautiful many eyebrows and a few tongues are raised.

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Adrienne Morris
Guest

I always wanted peacocks but they can live for so long I’d hate to orphan one.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

According to the 19th century peacock books, they can live to be twenty-five years old! I was surprised by that fact myself.

Barb Drummond
Guest

Thanks for a great post. Years ago I climbed a hill on shot day and at the top was a white peacock. thought I was hallucinating. There was also a problem in a church tower somewhere in rural England where they perched and made a lot of noise and droppings during the church services. Have also seen the males strutting their stuff to other female birds who are oblivious to their charms. Just as well.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Barb :) Thanks for your comment! You’re very lucky to have seen a white peacock. They look almost otherworldly in pictures–like peacock ghosts!

Angelyn
Guest

Mixed feelings here about the peacock.

Beauty is: the pagan goddess and the peacock, whose feathers are worked into the local church’s stained glass–as beauty does: keeping their enormous poop off your car.

I’m not kidding.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Ha! Yes, when it comes down to it, they are birds, after all. But poop notwithstanding, they really are beautiful.

Diane Hallett
Guest

The author, Flannery O’Connor raised peacocks, referring to them as peafowl, which confused me no end until the penny dropped.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Ha! Yes between the peacocks, peahens, and peafowl it can be a bit confusing. Most people only recognize the peacock because of its beautiful tail feathers.

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