I’ve been on a peacock spree, jewelry-wise, lately, so I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about what I know about peacocks. Before my brain explodes, I’m data-dumping everything on you, dear readers.
I’ve actually lived with a muster of peacocks and have a giant vase filled with glorious peacock feathers to prove it.
My first encounter with a peacock was probably in the first grade while on a field trip to China Town when I lived in California. Up to that point, I’d never even seen a peacock, heard of a peacock, nor conceived of such a critter. As we single filed into some monstrosity with a fake pagoda opening, we passed a single male and I stopped, gobsmacked. The class trudged on without me. The monster and I gazed at each other until, assured I wasn’t in any danger, I approached and sat on the filthy square pavement about 5-6 feet from the amazing creature I was now certain had stepped out of a fairytale. It shook its feathers, rattled its glorious tail feathers, and clacked its bill at me, but was otherwise unperturbed by the curly haired imp plopped in its path. Ten minutes later I was scooped up by one of the teachers and whisked away for a stern lecture about wandering away from the class. I don’t remember anything else about that field trip.
Although I saw plenty of peacocks between that episode and the next encounter I’ll relate, they were all very unexciting.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I was in Florida to vacation and visit with my folks. It was the first time I’d visited them in their newest home, so I was not familiar with the surrounding area. Having arrived late Sunday evening, I was sleeping in late on Monday and my folks were at work, planning to be home in the afternoon.
I was abruptly awakened around 9 a.m. by the sound of somebody on the roof; somebody very loud. Although I was very nervous and knew my parents would have told me if they had someone coming over to do work on the house, I got dressed and went out the front door to see what was going on. Which was nothing. No cars, no vans, no workmen. However, the racket was still going on when I went back into the house, so I went out into the pool area in the back and there were to buggers: about 30 peacocks trudging around on the back side of the roof, slipping and sliding down the solar panels, thumping and bumping into each other, trying to get to one corner of the roof where they would jump off, land clumsily and indignantly before making a dash for the wire fence at the back of my parent’s lot. I laughed myself silly!
As I was to learn later when I lived with my parents when I moved to Florida and while I was looking for a home of my own, peacocks are not very smart.
This particular muster of peacocks was (as far as the law was concerned) owned by the gentleman farmer who owned and lived on the land behind my parent’s house. He had been a stock broker in New York and had retired to his considerable piece of Florida scrub land, where he kept a few chickens, a cow and a donkey, a wife and the free-ranging peacocks. He was a contented, pleasant old man who loved to tinker and wasn’t fancy. The fencing he used was old woven wire where the squares were about a foot big. A peacock could have walked through any of the squares, but that apparently took the fun out of life. The fence was about waist high, so a peacock also could have just flown over it; but that, too, was apparently not the point of a fence to a peacock.
Every evening at dusk, the muster would rally on the other side of the fence and, one at a time, each peacock would ungracefully flap its way to the top of the wire fence, check the ground on our side carefully (to ensure no predators were sitting below with hungry jaws agape no doubt, having not thought to just look through the nearly invisible fence first), then plunge onto the grass in our yard, all the while calling and talking in peacock.
A word about the language of the peacock. It. Is. Hideous. It will also scare the piss right out of you if you are up to no good and it catches you at it. This is why they were often kept, by those who could afford them, in lieu of guard dogs. Unlike dogs, which had to be kenneled, fed and trained, peacocks feed themselves, train themselves, and have their own ideas about where to sleep, as we shall see next.
Once everybody in on the new side of the fence, they begin their assault on the next hurdle: Getting to the roof of my parent’s house. You had to know that, right? What came down must have gone up. It takes some a couple of tries. And you would think they would have figured out those solar panels by now and walk around them, but I think they rather like sliding down them half-way up the roof and having to start over. Eventually they all make it to the apex of the roof on the other side of the house, where there is a short leaf pine growing about 25 feet away. This is what a mature short leaf pine tree looks like:
I guess you can understand why they use the house as a launching pad! I’ve never actually seen the leap, because getting to the launch point takes so long that it’s full dark by that time, and I’ve never figured out how 30 or so full grown peacocks all fit themselves into the canopy of our single tree, but they do and they use the same tree every night. Or at least they did until a few years ago when the old man died and a developer turned his lovely farm into a housing development. There were a few pieces of “greenbelt” they had to leave untouched and the peacocks braved it out for a few months and then disappeared. We don’t know what happened to them, and I really miss them. They are lovely birds to have around for their own sake, they’re natural comediennes, and after awhile you tune out their voices and their daily treks back and forth across the roof. In other words, they were family. I wish I’d taken some pictures.
Here are some bits and pieces about peacocks that I picked up here and there for use in my peacock eye jewelry descriptions.
“Little peacock, dear peacock! What seest thou, what hearest thou? Comes who? Who comes? Is it a little Prince? Is he handsome and neat? Canst thou see that with thy many blue eyes? (She lifts one of his feathers and looks earnestly into its eyes.)
“Shalt thou have thy eyes on us, thou nasty Argus? Shalt thou see into the hearts of two young people so that they do not beat too loudly—thou foolish jack! See, I pull the curtain. (She pulls a curtain, which hides the peacock but not the landscape outside…).”
The Dai women of China like to embroider peacocks on their costumes. In addition to there being a tradition passed on from their ancestors, Dai people believe that peacocks bring luck.
A long Dai poem describes the story of a beautiful peacock princess who flies into a lake one day to bathe. A prince who was deeply in love with her stole her peacock dress, hoping that this would mean the peacock princess would be his. Later they fell in love, and were married and lived happily.
The peacock king was angry at this, and sent his troops. The prince led soldiers to meet the attack, but the prince’s father decided it would be better to kill the peacock princess.
Requesting one last dance in her peacock dress before her death, the princess took her chance to fly away. The prince crossed mountains, rivers and oceans to be reunited with his princess.
In commemoration of this fairytale couple, Dai people wear peacock clothes during festival days or embroider the peacock pattern on their costumes. People dance together to pray for happiness.
In the “Story of the Princess Rosetta,” the faeries are unwilling at first to divulge the fortune of the beautiful princess to her parents. When they learn she may bring misfortune or even cause the death of her brothers, they locked her away in a tower.
When the parents die, the brother releases her at the age of 15. Never having seen a peacock before and learning that people sometimes eat them, she declares that she will wed no one but the King of the Peacocks so that none shall ever eat another one of the gorgeous birds.
When her brother the King finds the King of the Peacocks and they agree to a betrothal, the princess sets sail with her old nurse and the nurse’s ugly daughter. The nurse tosses the princess, her little dog and her mattress overboard and presents her own daughter to the King of the Peacocks, but the daughter is rude and belligerent. Feeling betrayed the Peacock King throws the Rosetta’s brother and his wife into the dungeon.
Rosetta and her dog float on her mattress until they are discovered and taken home by a friendly fisherman. The Princess has the dog raid the Peacock King’s kitchen several times, until the King finally follows the dog to the fisherman’s shack and orders its inhabitants taken prisoner.
The true identity of Rosetta is discovered, her brother released, the nurse and her daughter banished to scull in the kitchens forever, the fisherman and dog amply rewarded, and the Princess becomes the Queen of Peacocks.
From Robert Merry’s Museum, Vol. XIII, 1847.
Some cultures think peacock tail feathers have all-seeing evil eyes, but Victorians thought them lucky and protective, as they do in India, the land where the birds originated.
The industrial revolution created the middle class, where before there were just two classes: the very rich (who had lots of leisure time) and everybody else (who had no leisure time). With the development of the middle class came a completely new set of conventions and pastimes as well as a completely new set of freedoms and restrictions, a result of not only a shift in wealth, but also a shift in leisure time.
The industrial revolution also sparked an interest in nature as a hobby in the middle class during the Victorian era. Trapped in suddenly sprawling cities filled with smoke and refuse, they looked back upon country living with bucolic longing. We see this in the elaborate language of flowers developed during this time, as well as the move from the unstructured cottage flower garden to the highly structured formal flower gardens that France and England still enjoy today. We also see the introduction of activities such as bird watching and the keeping of birds as pets. The favored indoor bird was the native goldfinch, cherished for its voice, while the peacock was favored out of doors, in whose plumage much delight existed as well as guarding and warning abilities.
Victorians paid special attention to order within the home, especially the ornamental aspects of home care. Typical Victorian homes had areas for daily private use and separate rooms for public entertaining (often referred to as the “parlor”). One element of Victoriana found in many parlors was the feathered bouquet. Artfully constructed, they contained items like peacock eye feathers and other natural elements such as cherry boughs.
Contrary to popular belief, the people referred to as “gypsies” (who are actually a nomadic culture of people living mostly in Europe who trace their origins to South Asia and are known as the Romani) did not cast the “evil eye” on people. In truth, they believed elemental spirits had the power to cast the evil eye upon them and so they had many charms and spells to prevent or remove the evil eye.
An animal companion of Janguli, the Golden Tantric Snake goddess of India, peacocks are sacred and its feathers burned to cure snakebite under her watchful eye.
Lakshmi, wife of the Hindu god, Vishnu, is sometimes depicted with armbands in the form of peacocks. The birds are sacred to her since their cries are associated with the rainy season and, hence, fertility.
The peacock’s beautiful color is a gift from the Hindu god, Indra. One day, Indra, the King of Gods, was doing battle with Ravana, The Demon King. The peacock, which in those days resembled his plain brown hen, took pity on Indra and raised its tail to form a screen behind which Indra could hide. As a reward for this act of compassion, Indra gifted the peacock with the jewel-like blue-green plumage that it bears to this day.