Due to their beautiful-looking feathers and habits, peacocks are associated with different symbolic meanings. They are seen as a powerful and mystical symbol and are considered sacred in many cultural and religious groups across the world.
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.
Peacock and Peacock Butterfly, painting by Archibald Thorburn (
Peacock in ancient cultures
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 favourite 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.
Symbolism of peacock
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.
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.
However in India the peacock is considered to be a bird of protection and safe guarding. As peacock is identified with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, Indian people keep peacock feathers at home, believing that they will bring wealth and prosperity into the house. It is also believed that peacock feathers keep the house free from flies and other insects.
Peacocks have been a favourite ornamental motif for millennia. Their images could be found in early Christian tomb art, and were a popular motif in ancient Rome and Byzantium. Apart from adorning the walls and floors of mosaics in churches, medieval Christian manuscripts were often decorated with beautiful illustration of varies birds including peacocks with meticulous detail.
A column capital of VII c. Christian church with Caucasian Albainan letters found during excavations in Mingechaur, Azerbaijan
Peacocks were also portrayed on decorative pieces such as pottery and ceramic plates. They are only a handful of examples of magnificent Ottoman dishes from Iznik that illustrate the handsome qualities of the peacock. These plates were produced in western Anatolia (in Iznik) between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Iznik, Ottoman dish with peacocks and flowers, c.1575
Peacocks and peacock imagery appeared in Western European design near the end of the 1800’s.
Peacock in Feng Shui
Peacock is considered as the manifestation of the celestial Phoenix bird, and its feather is often recommended in Feng Shui as a love cure.