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Sunday, March 22, 2020

Peacock-thoughts for a Pandemic Sunday

Peacock by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Charis in the World of Wonders
Ignatius Press, 26 March 2020

It's quiet in the village today. My amaryllis is silently, slowly opening. Though we're near the hospital, there is little traffic going by, and a good many Sunday villagers are or have been or will be snug in a comfy chair, watching the streaming services of their local church... or not, as they choose. 

At top, see a Clive Hicks-Jenkins peacock with its tail furled, one of the chapter division images for Charis in the World of Wonders. Peacocks have been a natural for symbolic bird since ancient times and for many cultures. Those eyes. The splendor of the shaking, unfurling fan. The rich, glitter of color. The piercing cry.

The early Christians adopted a belief of the ancient Greeks that the peacock was connected to immortality. Aristotle believed that the flesh of the peacock did not become corrupt after death. Perhaps ancient Greeks never let peacock leftovers last long enough to find out! But many years later, St. Augustine made experiment of the meat and agreed with Aristotle, finding that the flesh became only a little drier over time. Curiouser and curiouser!

Our modern image of a medieval royal table probably includes all sorts of weird, fantastic platters of food, including swans in plumage and peacocks with the great fan attached and spread. Desiring to have your own medieval feast, you might follow this advice:

A pecoke

Cut hym yn necke and skald hym 
cut of þe fete & hede 
cast hym on a spete 
bake hym well 
the sauce ys gynger.

That's a recipe from fifteenth-century England (Pepys MS 1047), by way of godecookery. The site also suggests that you not eat a peacock because it is tough and stringy. For myself, I would recommend that you not eat peacock because the peacock is beautiful and will give you a great deal more pleasure when rustling its tail of stars.

Nevertheless, godecookery offers a fourteenth-century sauce for your inedible peacock: poivre jaunet, from the 14th century Le Viandier de Taillevent. Grind up ginger, long pepper, saffron, an optional bit of cloves with verjuice, all toasted and then infused in vinegar or verjuice. Verjuice (Middle French "green juice") is a juice to pucker your mouth. Press some sour fruits like crabapples or grapes not yet ripe, and maybe even add some lemon or sorrel juice. 

Now you have it; take your scalded and spitted and stringy peacock and slather him in a sharp yellow pepper sauce. Tada! Here is the immortal flesh, preserved in acid and spice!

Paintings or mosaic work with peacocks appears as early as the third century A. D. in Roman catacombs. Part of this seems to be bound to the earlier idea that the flesh of the bird does not decay and holds some sort of immortality; that thought becomes a symbol wandering into regions of eternal life and resurrection. Part must be bound to the idea of leaving the earthly body and receiving a glorified body and soul, for the peacock in his fully revealed green and bronze and cobalt pomp and magnificence is an image of radiance and splendor. This sumptuousness finds its culmination in the peacock as symbol of Christ, who did not decay in the tomb and is transfigured and glorified.

 The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius by Carlo Crivelli, 1486
National Gallery.jpg (
Public domain Wikipedia)
I see a kind of triangle between the source of God-radiance in the sky,
the figure of Mary at prayer, and the peacock with its tail pointing toward Mary.

Flannery O'Connor was child-famous at the age of five for her backwards-walking chicken, a buff-colored Cochin Bantam, and later for her writing and her love of peacocks, kept on the farm at Andalusia. And given O'Connor's Catholic faith and the great fan of symbolic meanings associated with the peacock, that's not surprising. Her "Living with a Peacock" is a marvelous thing, and you should go and read it right now. The dressing ("A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a white piqué coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back.") and addressing of chickens, the aloof habits of peacocks, and much more are delightful. Her first peacock arrives with no tail but "carried himself as if he not only had a train behind him but a retinue to attend it." Here, go! And if you need a nibble to entice, here is one:
When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing haloed suns. This is the moment when most people are silent.
“Amen! Amen!” an old Negro woman once cried when this happened and I have heard many similar remarks at this moment that show the inade­quacy of human speech. Some people whistle; a few, for once, are silent. A truck driver who was driving up with a load of hay and found a peacock turn­ing before him in the middle of our road shouted, “Get a load of that bas­tard!” and braked his truck to a shat­tering halt. I have never known a strut­ting peacock to budge a fraction of an inch for truck or tractor or automobile. It is up to the vehicle to get out of the way. No peafowl of mine has ever been run over, though one year one of them lost a foot in the mowing machine.
And doesn't this sound like an O'Connor encounter with strange grace from her stories?
An old man and five or six white-haired, barefooted children were piling out the back of the automobile as the bird approached. Catching sight of him, the children stopped in their tracks and stared, plainly hacked to find this superior figure blocking their path. There was silence as the bird re­garded them, his head drawn back at its most majestic angle, his folded train glittering behind him in the sunlight.
“Whut is thet thang?” one of the small boys asked finally in a sullen voice.
The old man had got out of the car and was gazing at the peacock with an astounded look of recognition. “I ain’t seen one of them since my grand­daddy’s day,” he said, respectfully re­moving his hat. “Folks used to have ’em, but they don’t no more.”
“Whut is it?” the child asked again in the same tone he had used before.
“Churren,” the old man said, “that’s the king of the birds!”
The children received this informa­tion in silence. After a minute they climbed back into the car and con­tinued from there to stare at the pea­cock, their expressions annoyed, as if they disliked catching the old man in the truth. 
What stops so many is that galaxy of eyes in the shivering fan of feathers. O'Connor's people, black and white, instinctively grasp what a medieval man or woman felt about the peacock. Awe in the presence of the utterly strange and beautiful knocks at their doors. Symbolically for the medieval Christian, the spread feathers expresses the overwhelming, beatific vision of God. For them, the feathers made an analogue to God's glory.

Further, the eyes suggested the all-knowing nature of God, who sees and fathoms both the depths of all things and even what we may regard as things of the surface and small like the death of a sparrow or the number of hairs currently residing on your head. Interestingly, the peacock is also the vanquisher of serpents in medieval bestiaries, and also a bird immune to poisons. That means that the peacock stands in relation to the serpent as Christ stands in relation to the devious snake in Eden's garden.

I found this shot of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (San Francisco)
on Pinterest, and can't seem to find the photographer...

The peacock still lingers in our world as a resplendent symbol of majesty, particularly in the Orthodox church. The rich double peacock image above shows the part of an Orthodox church called the Beautiful Gate, used by clergy, with its deacon doors or angel doors on each side. As is usual, Christ is on the right and the Theotokos on the left of the gate and doors.

I'll end with a poet who reached for the effulgence of the peacock and the preternatural nature of its cry. Here's a snip from a poem:
 And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.
 The colors of their tails
 Were like the leaves themselves
 Turning in the wind,
 In the twilight wind.
 They swept over the room,
 Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
 Down to the ground.
 I heard them cry—the peacocks.
 Was it a cry against the twilight
 Or against the leaves themselves
 Turning in the wind,
 Turning as the flames
 Turned in the fire,
 Turning as the tails of the peacocks
 Turned in the loud fire,
 Loud as the hemlocks
 Full of the cry of the peacocks?
 Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?
In "Domination of Black," Wallace Stevens sweeps together darkness and autumn, deathly hemlocks, the gathering planets (so like the unfurling galaxy-tail of the peacock), and the idea of turning... all set against the memory of the preternatural cry of the peacocks. The otherworldliness of that stands opposed to dark and year's end, autumn and the hemlock, long associated (via funereal plantings and by the hemlock--not really the same hemlock as ours!--drink of Socrates) with death in the West. And this turning of autumn leaves in the wind, of flames in fire, of feathers in firelight is, not so surprisingly, a motion familiar to the peacock, who turns as he shivers his fantastical milky way of eyes.

And here's an image mixing peacock and leaves--
could not find peacocks in hemlocks!
Peacock in the Woods - 1907  (Public domain Wikipedia)
by Abbott Handerson Thayer (August 12, 1849 – May 29, 1921)


  1. I once saw a "lost peacock" poster in Wheaton, Maryland. My guess was that the peacock was not lost but gone, victim of a neighbor who didn't care for the aubade.

    It is interesting to see the term "hacked" used that way so long ago. I'd have thought it a newer usage.

    1. Where is the OED when you need it?

      Aubade, haha! The house we bought in South Carolina was owned by a lawyer who once bought a crate of chicks that turned out to be roosters. She released them into an in-city gulley (both Greenville and Spartanburg have these strange rifts in the city) in the historic district. For years these roosters screamed everybody awake... until dogs or foxes took the last one.

  2. Had I missed something? Had I used "preternatural" for decades without knowing what it truly meant? I checked and found "beyond what is normal or natural". Surely that qualifies as an understatement (a figure of speech which, disappointingly, doesn't encompass one of those five-dollar synonyms like "litotes" or "bathos"); a bit like saying "Adolf Hitler's behaviour tended to be anti-social".

    In Clissold Park, North-east London, peacocks strode about freely in the mid-sixties. Yes they were beautiful but it was that type of beauty that comes perilously close to stupidity. Certainly they were vain, certainly self-regarding. But all that show and all those feathers were undermined by THAT CALL. Issued in impromptu fashion and for no good reason it was hard to believe it arrived from an organic source. Rather one expected some mechanical device, cheaply surfaced in brass plate. Ugly beyond comprehension. Might the word peacock have originally been p-cock with the p standing for paradoxical.

    I wouldn't have ever been tempted to eat one. The noise could well have been infectious.

    1. Woke up to new snow, just when we had early aconite and snowdrops. Weather doom.

      RR, somehow this has made me keep hearing the sound of peacocks in my noggin. Perhaps ugly feet and strident, uncanny cry were intended to ballast all that excessive luster and richness... I think O"Connor would have enjoyed your account of the call.

      Ugly feet and harsh call made me think of the way many quilters used to put an error deliberately into the design of a quilt to keep it from perfection and flying off into heaven. Of course, what quilter ever thought her (or occasionally his) hand-stitched quilt completed perfection? But it was a symbolic thing, as piecing together a broken world out of quilt scraps was meant to heal and rejoin and warm.... so maybe it was a reminder that the world still remains broken, no matter how much we try to apply quilting. Or kintsugi. Or just glue.

  3. Thank you for lighting the way for me ... I’ve been stumbling in darkness here .... my pilgrimage can now resume ...

    1. Best wishes to you, Tim! Stay home, stay well--in the light!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.