When we consider composite creatures like the Sphinx, Chimera, Pegasus, or Centaur, more or less monstrous beasts assembled from arbitrary parts of animals here and there (WHERE’S THE DAMN FISH TAIL?), of course we’re likely – now – to think, “How inane. How could anyone possibly imagine anything like that? Ridiculous.”
But there are real life composite creatures. The Cameleopard, for example. It is variously described as being humpbacked (the camel) with the spots (the leopard) and horns. This, certainly, is a composite creature, and old name lives on it the Linnean descriptor of its species: Giraffa camelopardalis. AKA the giraffe.
It’s worth keeping in mind that composite creatures are less uncommon than we think if we consider them in a purely external (visual) capacity.
And thus it is that I get to today’s bestiary entry.
Conventional scientific wisdom (about as accurate as conventional historical wisdom) says that the spots on the peacock’s train serve as a mating display and that the more eyes are visible, the better we can predict the male’s success and wooing a lady – a similar but less vociferous example of avian courtship as otherwise exhibited by Birds of Paradise. As with much conventional wisdom, this is not necessarily so – click the picture for a link to a story describing something like “threshold success” with peacock eyes.
According to Greek mythology, Hera placed the hundred eyes of the giant Argus on a peacock’s train after he died. Technically, after Hermes killed him at the behest of Zeus, but what’s a little homicide between friends and adulterous, divine spouses? Given this story, by far the most prominent one I found in the online component of my research, you’d be forgiven for thinking that peafowl are native to Greece, or to the Mediterranean basin, perhaps. You’d be wrong, but forgiven. Nope, the two most prominent species come from South Asia (present day India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar/Burma), and there’s a third, much less display-worthy subspecies, out of the Congo.
Does this mean that the Greek story isn’t worth repeating? Or that the Christian symbology of the peacock as having beatific or omniscient vision is invalid? Nope. The fact that peafowl had to be imported to the Ancient Near East doesn’t even mean that the Hindu stories about them are necessarily the oldest ones. Probably. Almost certainly. But not definitely on this evidence alone. There are Sufi legends about peacocks, Japanese legends, and, if some New Age websites are to be believed, Native American ones as well (though this is more likely a doubled appropriation, in my estimation).
It’s not simply the colors of the peacock’s feathers that are amazing, nor their iridescence alone. They are, quite simply, remarkable birds when considered as a whole.
Now that’s a composite creature.
Depending on the culture, it is a symbol of the sun (perhaps due to its brightness?) or of rain (because of its behavior before storms). Because of its testy disposition, it is seen by other cultures as a guard (of deities or of royalty). It represents pride, love, eternal life, or resurrection.
In other words, it is rather more interesting as a palimpsest – the blank slate on which we write and define our own symbology.
It is also interesting that the female, the peahen, doesn’t seem to merit discussion, symbol-wise.