A History of Birds. Peacock
Despite its origins thousands of miles away on the Indian subcontinent, the peacock was known to the Anglo-Saxons, who called it the po or pauo , a word derived from the bird’s Roman name, pavo. Technically, the word ‘peacock’ describes the male of the species only, the female being the ‘peahen’, and together they are termed ‘peafowl’. However, in modern popular usage the word ‘peacock’ is often taken to encompass both sexes. Only the male has the resplendent tail for which this bird is so famous and it is not surprising that such a beautiful creature has become the national bird of India.
The peacock was familiar to the ancient Greeks, but the Romans particularly seemed to favour the bird. One of the most famous myths about the peacock comes from the Greco-Roman world. Zeus, the king of the gods, was in love with a nymph named Io but he turned her into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera. The queen knew what was going on, and was not fooled, so she ordered a remarkable being named Argus to guard the animal. Argus had 100 eyes and could keep watch around the clock. In order to rescue his lover, Zeus instructed the god Hermes to lull Argus to sleep with music and then kill him.When Hera returned, she was so upset by the death of the loyal Argus that she transformed his eyes into the beautiful jewels of the peacock’s tail so that no one would forget his faithfulness.
Roman mosaic with peacock at Sabratha, Libya.
The peacock has been a symbol of wealth, beauty and power across a surprisingly wide geography.At least one Viking warrior is known to have been buried with a peacock: the bird’s bones were unearthed in a ship burial dated to about AD 900 at Gokstad in Norway. Peacock feathers have long been used as adornments for hats and jewellery, and medieval knights even decorated their helmets with them.The Mughal emperors of Delhi had a peacock throne studded with jewels, which was later stolen by the Persians, and ‘Mad’ King Ludwig of Bavaria also had a peacock throne at Linderhof Castle. The bird has adorned the currencies of many nations – ancient Rome, India, Sri Lanka, Macedonia, Myanmar, and even Eire.
Peacocks were difficult and costly to obtain in medieval England, so a consummate display of flamboyance was to go to the expense of obtaining these beautiful birds simply to eat them. The receipts for the coronation of Richard III in 1483, for example, reveal that forty-eight peacocks were bought for the royal banquet. The cooked birds were decorated with their handsome feathers to create a magnificent spectacle for the diners. Peacocks were still being eaten by British monarchs as late as the reign of George III.
In former times, there were some odd beliefs about the flesh of the peacock – in particular, that it never decayed. St Augustine of Hippo wrote in the fifth century:
For who but God the Creator of all things has given to the flesh of the peacock its antiseptic property? This property, when I first heard of it, seemed to me incredible; but it happened at Carthage that a bird of this kind was cooked and served up to me, and, taking a suitable slice of flesh from its breast, I ordered it to be kept, and when it had been kept as many days as make any other flesh stinking, it was produced and set before me, and emitted no offensive smell. And after it had been laid by for thirty days and more, it was still in the same state; and a year after, the same still, except that it was a little more shrivelled, and drier.
This curious tale led to the peacock becoming symbolic of immortality and it appears in Renaissance paintings to symbolise resurrection and eternal life. Another odd belief concerned the peacock’s feet – a story that was used by Christians to provide moral instruction about pride and humility. In the thirteenth century, the monk Bartholomew Anglicus described how the peacock disliked its own ugly feet, which contrasted so sharply with its beautiful feathers that they greatly upset the bird:
The peacock hath an unsteadfast and evil-shapen head, as it were the head of a serpent, and with a crest. And he hath a simple pace, and small neck, raised up, and a blue breast, and a tail full of beauty, distinguished on high with wonderful fairness. And he hath foulest feet and wrinkled. And he wondereth of the fairness of his feathers, and raises them up, as it were in a circle about his head, and then he looketh to his feet, and seeth the foulness of his feet, and like as he were ashamed, he letteth his feathers fall suddenly: and all the tail downward, as though he took no heed of the fairness of his feathers. And he hath an horrible voice. As one sayeth: he hath a voice of a fiend, head of a serpent, pace of a thief.
An eighteenth-century version of Bartholomew’s concluding adage observes that the peacock had the plumage of an angel, the voice of a demon, and the stomach of a thief. On the latter point, peacocks certainly seem to have a habit of eating almost anything thrown to them.
Mayura Rashka mask.
The peacock has other religious connections outside Christianity. On the Indian subcontinent, many Hindu gods have links with the peacock: Krishna often sports a peacock feather in his headband, and the war god Kartikeya even rides a peacock. In Sri Lanka, the peacock demon, Mayura Raksha, brings peace and prosperity. In Tibetan Buddhism the peacock is believed to be able to ingest poison and transmute it into beauty, which has become an allegory for wisdom: dealing with life’s difficulties in order to follow the Buddhist path. In the Jewish Torah , the wealth of King Solomon is illustrated by the fact that he could import ‘gold and silver, ivory and monkeys, and peacocks’.
Portrayals of the peacock for artistic purposes have long been popular. The bird often appears in Roman mosaics and paintings, for example, where its eye-catching beauty helped to enliven a floor or wall in the house of the wealthy. However, Renaissance and Baroque painters frequently included the bird in their compositions because of its symbolic association with immortality. Hence, Biblical scenes or depictions of saints often include a peacock lurking somewhere in the picture. From the eighteenth century onwards, the peacock might be included in general studies of birds or in portraits to illustrate the wealth of the sitter since they were commonly kept in menageries or as garden ornaments. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the peacock had become a popular motif for the Aesthetic Movement, and James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room , painted in Kensington in 1876–77, is one of the most famous surviving Aesthetic interiors. The peacock captured perfectly the elegant and stylish ethos of Art Nouveau and seemed to become the movement’s unofficial emblem, as it was constantly represented in items as diverse as magazine and book covers, jewellery, clothing, table lamps, ceramics, and advertising posters amongst much else.
Art Nouveau era cover of a French magazine with peacock(1903)
The beauty of the peacock has led to it becoming a synonym for vanity, pride or ostentation. We talk of someone ‘strutting like a peacock’. Images dating back to at least the sixteenth century commonly show the deadly sin of pride as a woman wearing peacock plumes or standing next to a peacock. In the seventeenth century, there was a proverb: ‘Men who make peacocks of their wives make woodcocks of themselves.’ The woodcock is a remarkably dull bird in comparison with the peacock.
One of the more notable people in recent history to make use of the bird was Elvis Presley, who famously wore a white jumpsuit emblazoned with a blue and gold peacock design during his 1974 tours.It cost him $10,000, the most he ever paid for an item of clothing. He also kept live peacocks in the grounds of his home, Gracelands, and the living room there features a huge stained-glass doorway with a peacock design. For Elvis, the peacock represented, perhaps, flamboyance, fun, and a sense of achievement. In more modern times, the peacock has often been used in advertising to convey luxury or privilege.
The peacock has been widely used in advertising from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries to indicate luxury or ‘the best’. This advert is from 1889
A History of Birds by Simon Wills
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