A JEWELRY STORE NAMED INDIA
If you hold this
Up to the sky,
It will shine a billion
Painted from the tears
Of the Most High.
Plucked from the lush gardens
Of a yellowish-green paradise,
Look inside this hypnotic gem
And a kaleidoscope of
Sights and colors
Will tease and seduce
Your eyes and mind.
Tell me, sir.
Have you ever heard
A peacock sing?
Hold your ear
To this mystical stone
And you will hear
Sacred hymns flowing
To the vibrations
Of the perfumed
― Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
This beautiful creation by poet Suzy Kassem pulls me back to it time and time again, as does the stunning brilliance of the peacock.
Peafowl, as they are often referred to, are ancient creatures steeped in the lore of nearly every recorded civilization on Earth. That wee detail proved enough for me to begin to notice the presence of peacocks as iconography as I researched the Renaissance for The Woman On The Wall. The discoveries I made sent me down a rabbit hole that refuses to spit me out the other side.
The peacock, it turns out, is a mysterious, subtle presence in an extraordinary amount of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Chinese, Persian, Hindu, and Pagan art throughout the ages. The Renaissance is no exception. If you examine the scenes of nearly any Madonna and child, religious gathering, ascension, angel visitation, even the Sistine Chapel, a peacock is likely to make a subtle, unobtrusive, yet significant appearance.
I posit that the true significance of this magnificent creature is much overshadowed by its reputation in modern culture as a showoff.
In fact, if we dipped back to the Renaissance or earlier periods in our trusty time machine and tried to make a case for the bombastic nature of this bird, most people would banish us back to the 21st century, horrified at such foolishness.
My suspicion is that, at some point, those who feared the deep symbolism and potential powerful hold such an animal might have over humanity made a story up about it so we’d all be like, “You arrogant peacock. I will strive in this pious life of mine to not be like you.”
It’s possible we ought to rethink such conditioning.
The peacock, since time immemorial, is a symbol of immortality and the all-seeing one. Once I found this out, I started to examine the potential connections between them and the oracular Sibyls of the ancient world.
This was a big moment for me because I’d long looked for an anima (not animal) connection to the collective unconscious as it related to the Sibylline. As oracles, their connection to dimensional realities and access to other realms had to have been the strongest out of all. Their connection to the animals who live between the worlds, or could cross over, made sense to me.
Without getting too Wikipedia, the whole immortality piece is said to have come about because the ancients believed that the peacock had flesh that did not decay after death.
It’s definitely oversimplified and vastly underexplored to state that early Christian paintings and mosaics use peacock imagery to denote the value of immortality. They even used peacock feathers can be used during lent as church decorations. Of course, the whole immortality gig is linked directly to Christ in that tradition. So, this makes sense.
However, my limited experience with research has proven that folklore and legend is rarely the sole reason for integrating it into art, and most definitely not the reason for including it in church ritual. Not to mention, the peacock is very much NOT a Christian symbol at its origin. Therefore, associating it as a symbol of Christ without taking the rest of history into consideration is dismissing thousands of years of storytelling and knowledge.
Let’s step way back in time:
The peacock’s origin is, as far as we know, India. Hindu mythology is packed with peacocks, and they were worshiped with exceptional reverence, associated with Sarasvatī.
In Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology, the peacock feathers were considered much like the evil eye. They were all-seeing. It’s no secret that Egyptians, in particular, had a jonze for immortality. Again, though, this leads my seeking mind to wonder where the peacock got its reputation as the immortal oracle.
Pythagoras wrote that the soul of Homer moved into a peacock.
Greek mythology declares the peacock created by Hera out of her watchman, Argus.
Christians call it their own as it was the creature that refused to eat the forbidden fruit at Eden and was granted immortality for such a pious act.
Islamic legend claims it was cast out of paradise. However, Ottoman iconography carries the bird on everything from mosaics to dishes.
In China, the bird was a symbol of the Ming Dynasty. The Chinese equated the peacock with divinity, rank, power, and beauty.
This led me to a fascinating fact that the peacock has the ability to eat poisonous snakes without harm. In India, Persia, and North Africa, this allowed for the title of protector as it became the defender of royal (or any for that matter) households.
It also shows up in 16th-century illuminated manuscripts and in front of the Vatican even today.
The Peacock Stage / Breu
A necklace of Amethyst, peacock feathers and swallow feathers were a talisman to protect its wearer from sorcerers according to Pliny (my personal go-to while exploring the connections between alchemy, science, and the metaphysical). Meanwhile, the peacock’s blood could dispel evil spirits.
Alchemist thought the fan of the peacock (cauda pavonis) is associated with certain texts and images that are useful in turning base metals into gold.
So, as you can see, the peacock may have some cause to be a bit cocky. However, I believe it instead to be the keeper of secrets far deeper than the simple myths that exist surrounding this gorgeous creature.
The peacock plays a primary role in The Woman On The Wall. Stay tuned to learn more, as da Vinci was an enormous fan of the birds who still walk the grounds of Clos Luce today.