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The Peacock in Greek Mythology was Ancient Symbol of Royalty, Power

Peacock
Peacocks featured prominently in ancient Greece as the symbol of Hera, the consort of Zeus. Credit: Jatin Sindhu/Jatin SindhuOwn work
CC BY-SA 4.0

The peacock plays a role in ancient Greek mythology as the symbol of the goddess Hera, the consort of Zeus. Originally from India, where they were symbolic of royalty, they were later brought to ancient Babylon by Indian traders many centuries ago.

Like many things, the peacock and its symbolism came to ancient Greece from Babylon — but they took on a Greek provenance when they became a symbol of the goddess Hera, whose chariot they pulled.

Hera, the goddess of the stars and skies, was not only the sister but the wife of the Greek god Zeus, the king of all the gods on Mount Olympus.

Peacocks pulled chariot of Hera, got their “eyes” from Argos

But she had longstanding problems with Zeus as his eye was known to wander, putting it mildly. He soon became interested in a priestess of Hera’s called Io, who was guarded by Hera’s own servant, an enormous giant with one hundred eyes known as Argos Panoptis.

In order to possess the woman, Zeus ordered that Argus be killed; however, before this could happen, Hera immortalized her faithful watchman by turning his one hundred eyes into the spectacular “eyes” on the tail of a peacock.

In the version of the myth told in “Prometheus Bound” Io initially rejected Zeus’ advances, until her father threw her out of his house on the advice of oracles. According to some stories, Zeus then turned Io into a heifer in order to hide her from his wife; others maintain that Hera herself transformed Io.

Many versions of peacock story in Greek mythology

In the version of the story in which Zeus transformed Io, the deception failed, and Hera begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present, which, having no reason to refuse, he did. Hera then sent Argus Panoptis to watch over Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her, so Zeus sent Hermes to distract and eventually slay Argus.

According to the Roman writer Ovid, he did so by first lulling him to sleep by playing the panpipes and telling stories. Zeus freed Io, who was still in the form of a heifer.

The peacock perhaps featured so prominently in story and mythology because it was seen by many cultures as a symbol of immortality; the ancients believed that its flesh did not decay, even after death.

The bird also completely replaced its feathers each year, adding to the concept of renewal and resurrection with which it was associated, to which even early Christians paid homage in their iconography.

Peacock turned into woman who married Adonis in ancient Greek myth of Erinona

The spectacularly beautiful peacock also featured in another Greek myth, involving Athena, Adonis and Artemis, along with Zeus and Hera.

This legend is of the Cypriot girl known as Erinona. Erinona and Adonis were the victims of the rivalry of the gods, who clashed with each other in their continual power plays. The goddesses Athena and Artemis themselves admired the mortal girl Erinona for her wisdom and purity. Aphrodite, angry that the girl did not honor her as well, tried to make Zeus fall in love with her.

Hera, ever jealous of Zeus’ innumerable dalliances, arranged for Adonis to rape the virgin girl, which caused Zeus to lose all interest in her. Now enraged over the subterfuge, Zeus struck and killed Adonis, while Artemis transformed Erinona into a peacock — and then the peacock into a human being.

Aphrodite then begged Zeus to allow a shadow of Adonis to return to the world of the living, guided by Hermes. The resurrected Adonis then married the transformed — and re-transformed — Erinona, and they had a son together, called Taleas or Talos.

In the real world of Hellenic-era Greece, Alexander the Great himself was said to have been so dazzled by the beauty of peacocks that he made it illegal to kill them.

Peacock throne
The Peacock Throne of Shah Jahan. The peacock served as a symbol of royal power in India; peacocks were introduced to Babylon and Greece, playing a part in Greek mythology. Credit: Unknown artist; San Diego Museum of Arts/ Public Domain

India immortalized peacock in opulent “Peacock Throne”

Centuries later, in India, the peacock had remained such a symbol of power that two of the birds were enshrined in bejeweled magnificence in the “Peacock Throne,” which was created in the 17th century for Emperor Shah Jahan. It was used by the subsequent emperors of the Mughal Empire in India.

Said Gilani and his workmen from the imperial goldsmiths’ department were commissioned with the construction of this new throne. It took seven years to complete. Large amounts of solid gold, precious stones and pearls were used, creating a masterful piece of Mughal workmanship that was unsurpassed before or after its creation.

It was an opulent indulgence that could only be seen by a small number of courtiers, aristocrats, and visiting dignitaries. The throne was, even by Golden Age Mughal standards, supremely extravagant, costing twice as much as the construction of the Taj Mahal.

During the Battle of Karnal, on February 13, 1739, upon the defeat of Muhammad Shah, Nadir Shah entered Delhi and sacked the city. When Persian troops left Delhi at the beginning of May in 1739, they took the Peacock Throne with them as a war trophy. The tremendous haul of treasure amounted to an enormous reduction in Mughal wealth and an irreplaceable loss of cultural artifacts.

Among the known precious stones that were looted that are thought to have been part of the Peacock Throne or were owned by the Shah were the Akbar Shah, Great Mughal, Great Table, Koh-i-Noor, and Shah diamonds, as well as the Samarian spinel and the Timur ruby. The Akbar Shah Diamond was said to form one of the eyes of a peacock, as did the Koh-i-Noor.

The Shah diamond was described by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier as being on the side of the throne. Many of these stones ended up becoming part of the Persian crown jewels and, later, the British crown jewels as a result of Great Britain’s colonial expansion into the region.

When Nadir Shah was assassinated by his own officers on June 19, 1747, the throne disappeared, most probably being dismantled or destroyed for its incredible wealth of gems and gold, in the ensuing chaos. The Peacock Throne was used in the West as a byword for the Persian monarchy itself.

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