Think of the dove and you instantly think of peace. Its association with that ideal is universal and has been that way for hundreds of years. But has it always been that way, or has the dove been thought of in other respects? Let’s take a look at the way our white-feathered ambassador for peace has been regarded down the ages.
Noah and Biblical references
Unquestionably, the best known story in which dove features is the story of Noah and the Great Flood. According to the Christian Bible, Noah sent a dove out to check whether the Earth was habitable again. Initially he sent a raven, but it failed to return and so the dove was sent in a second attempt. After the dove’s first flight, in which she “found no rest for the sole of her foot’” the dove was sent out again and, this time, returned with an olive branch which, as well as being a sign of dry land,” is widely interpreted as a peace-offering from God. The association with peace is at its strongest here. However, there are further Biblical references to the dove.
In chapters Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each of these disciples reports that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, in the shape of a dove: Luke, 3, v22, says: “And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him.” It’s clear that Christians already viewed the dove as a symbol of love and peace, but where has this association come from or was the Bible the dove’s first foray into representing these higher thoughts?
The dove from above
Parts of the key to understanding just why this bird has come to be the emissary for all things peaceful may well come from the bird itself. Firstly, there is its colour. In a world where animals tend to have blotches or markings, the dove is one of the few creatures to have a pure white, unblemished appearance.
White has always been viewed as a colour that represents the higher self; in the Hindu belief, which predates Christianity by some thousands of years, the Crown Chakra is thought to be a whirling vortex of white energy. This particular chakra is the one that focuses on our higher beings and that through which life force is distributed to the other six chakras. Often, this energy is referred to as the ‘god source’, suggesting that the energy we receive is directed from a higher power. White, being the culmination of all the colours in the spectrum, is seen as the ‘ultimate’ colour; the one that best represents our spirituality and connection with the universe or a deity, depending on the belief system.
A monogamous bird
Secondly, there are the habits of the bird to consider. Doves are well known for their easy-going nature - they are quick to trust and have been kept by bird fanatics throughout the ages. However, they are also monogamous birds, who will mate for life. As part of that ‘agreement’, doves that have paired up have been found to develop their own specific calls, designed for their mate and their mate alone. Garrie Landry, owner of Acadiana Aviaries, has studied the birds for most of his life and says that: “I feel the purpose for this song is mainly recognition, saying “I’m here and all is well. I find it used from male to female or female to male when they are in different parts of the cage or flight.”
He also goes on to say that most doves generally do mate for life. While this is not unheard of in the natural world, it is certainly a rarity. Most creatures remain a couple until breeding time or until the young have been born, before going their separate ways. For our ancestors, this must have struck a chord, giving rise to association with purity and peace.
It seems that the Ancient Greeks may have been responsible for the dove’s first outing as a symbol of love and peace. The dove was used to represent Eriene, the goddess of peace and harmony, while Aphrodite was said to have been borne in a chariot made from doves. Aphrodite’s daughters, the Pleiades, were represented as a flock of doves, further cementing their associations with divinity and purity. Even the Ancient Japanese legends feature doves as a symbol of peace. One story tells of Hackiman, the god of war, who was faced down by a dove with a sword, bringing an end to battle.
Without doubt, the dove represents our peaceful natures and the concept of universal love. Even the carnal pagans saw the dove as something ‘other’; like the Slavs and the Greeks, they pictured the human soul as looking like a dove.
The pagan belief
However, the pagans also observed the dove’s mating habits and used the bird to represent the physical commitment between two lovers. Far from distancing the dove from physical love, they embraced it – even to the point where the dive’s mournful coos were seen to represent both the cries of sexual union and the cries of a mother in childbirth. Many handfasting cakes were decorated with a representation of two doves, as a blessing of fertility. However, the idea also had more romantic undertones; many pagan burial stones are inscribed with pictures of two doves meeting, symbolising two spirits meeting once more, on the spiritual plane.
Native American Indians use nature as inspiration for their spiritual sides and channel the qualities of animals to release their inner potential. Often, these animal totems are used to represent the characteristics that come easily to that person. If they were an animal, it’s the animal they are most likely to be. The dove is used to channel the qualities of peacefulness, maternity, clear-sightedness and prophecy. Once again, the dive’s association is with things of a higher spiritual nature.
It may be because of its pure appearance, its mating habits or its apparent docility and willingness to interact with man, but the dove’s place in symbolism has been assured.