Christina here. As some of you will have seen from our last newsletter, Wench Nicola and I recently visited Newark Park, a lovely Tudor hunting lodge in the wilds of Gloucestershire. It had a beautiful, sprawling garden, and apart from the amazing views, one of the best things about it were the resident peacocks. Those majestic birds always look like they own a place, strutting around and uttering their mournful cries every so often. It occurred to me that when describing a historical setting in a book, adding peacocks to the background immediately conveys a sense of luxury and decadence. They are not really useful birds (although perhaps they can be – more about that in a moment), just decorative and therefore an indulgence. If an author wants to demonstrate the fact that the hero/heroine is very rich, dotting their lawns with peacocks would be a good way to go about it. And who wouldn’t want some? They are truly stunning.
I’ve never been able to resist peacock feathers, with their gorgeous iridescent blue and green colours. And the bird they come from is equally fascinating. I didn’t know much about peacocks, so I looked them up and went down a bit of a research rabbit hole … The term ‘peacock’ when applied to all of them is actually wrong, as that is only the male of the species – we should really be calling them ‘peafowl’. The females are ‘peahens’ and unfortunately for them they are much less impressive, being smaller and mostly white and brown. (Although obviously that’s good from a camouflage point of view when they are raising peachicks/baby peafowl). There are three types, but the one we usually mean is the Indian Peafowl, which is most common. In fact, it is the national bird of India, and they are native to India and Sri Lanka.
If you’ve ever seen a male peacock spreading out his incredible tail feathers and shake them at you, you’ll know how impressive they can be. The rustling, almost whirring, noise is unique. And although it’s mostly for visual effect, apparently it also creates some sort of vibration or sound in the air that can’t be felt or heard by humans, only the females they are trying to attract. The courtship ritual isn’t aimed at us humans of course, but I think one of the males we met at Newark Park did it to scare us off so perhaps it’s also a warning signal? We were clearly trespassing on his territory.
It takes three years to grow that impressive tail, and luckily for us if we want one of those beautiful feathers, they all fall off after the mating season. The plumage grows out again for the following year.
The first time I saw a peacock feather in a shop and wanted to buy it, I remember being told that it was considered unlucky for some reason. But why? It turns out that they are only unlucky if you’re superstitious and a Westerner. Here, having peacock feathers in the house was thought to bring bad luck and to mean that any unmarried women living there would remain spinsters for the rest of their lives. I also read that it’s supposed to be bad to use peacock feathers in a theatre as part of a prop for a play or in a costume. That would give rise to any number of accidents. Sounds a bit strange to me!
Where did these ideas come from? One theory is that they originated in the Mediterranean where some people believed in a female demon or she-devil called Lilith who had the “evil eye”. Clearly, the pattern on a peacock’s tail feathers reminded them of that, so having them in the house was the same as bringing the devil in to harm your family. Another suggestion is that it came from Europeans being scared of Mongol warriors, who were said to wear peacock feathers when they went into battle.
It could simply be the fact that “being a peacock” means being vain and a bit arrogant, someone who wants to draw attention to themselves, which is not a nice trait. I guess we’ll never know, but the overall superstition against them remained. It’s a bit like being scared of Friday the 13th – most people don’t remember why that particular date is feared, it just stuck. (I’ve read that it has to do with the fact that the Knights Templar order was dissolved on Friday the 13th October 1307, when most of them were rounded up and jailed – the date made a horrible impression.)
In the Far East, beliefs about peacock feathers are the complete opposite – there they are considered good luck, possibly even sacred. For Indian people, these birds symbolise all the best traits such as patience and compassion, sometimes associated with the goddess of good fortune, Lakshmi. To a Buddhist they reflect purity and for them, nirvana is also symbolised by white peacocks. (These are not albinos, but exist as a result of special breeding and a genetic mutation called leucism which makes the feathers lose their pigment.) Rather than being scared of the ‘eyes’ on a peacock’s tail, people in India, China and Japan see them as extra sets of eyes that can keep them safe. I think I like that version much better!
- Peacocks were probably first introduced to the UK by the Romans who, according to what I’ve read, ate them! (Although by all accounts they don’t taste very good and the meat is tough).
- Greeks did too and when the bird had been cooked, the feathers were glued back on it with some kind of honey mixture before serving so they would look good.
- They may have disappeared from the UK after the end of the Roman period and were later reintroduced by Sir John de Foxley in the 14th century.
- Peafowl eat all sorts of things, including plants, insects and small mammals.
- They are often used in art – who wouldn’t want that stunning pattern as decoration?
- Peacocks can kill snakes using their sharp claws or grabbing the snake behind the head so they can’t bite – then they eat them! So they can be useful after all.
- Because they are able to do this, some people believed that drinking their blood would be a snake venom antidote.
- A peacock in the wild lives for about 20-25 years, but in captivity that can increase to up to 50!
- Harmony and peace of mind are associated with peacocks.
- There are those who believe that peacocks can forecast rain and if they cry more than usual, they are said to be predicting the death of someone in the owner’s family – I’m guessing that superstition has more to do with the eerie noise they make.
- Peafowl can fly, even the males with those enormous tail feathers – they can’t go very far though.
- They like to stay in a group and I found differing opinions as to what the collective noun for them is – a bevy, a party, an ostentation, a pride or a muster?
- Peacock feathers are extra sparkly because they have some sort of minute crystal-like things that reflect the light, making them seem fluorescent.
That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about these gorgeous birds! I will definitely consider having some in my next novel, although as I’m writing about the Romans, I’ll have to make sure they don’t end up on the table!
Have you read any stories that feature stunning gardens with peacocks strutting around the lawns? Or books with the word peacock in the title? The only one I can think of is Victoria Holt’s The Pride of the Peacock which, if memory serves, had more to do with opals than birds.