In Greek mythology, Hera was Zeus’s wife. In some versions of the myths she was also his older sister, but let that go. You will remember that Zeus was not exactly faithful to Hera. In fact, he seduced or raped anyone, mortal or immortal, who caught his eye.
Displeased with his philandering, Hera often caught him at it. Zeus was always attempting to fool her by turning his paramours into various animals.
So it was with Io. Just before Hera caught him in the act, he turned himself into a cloud and the beautiful Io into a cow. Hera was no dummy; she saw through his cloud disguise, suspected the cow was really a beautiful maiden, and demanded that Zeus give her the cow as a present. With no handy way of refusing, Zeus did so.
Hera promptly turned the cow over to Argus, her trusted watchman, to keep an eye on the heifer. Argus, depending on which version of the myth you choose, had either four eyes or 100 eyes. We’re going with the 100-eyed version. Argus always had several eyes wide awake with which to keep watch. He rotated which eyes slept.
Zeus wanted Io back; so he sent Hermes, one of his sons, to get her. Hermes accomplished the task by playing his pipes and telling such boring stories that Argus fell completely asleep, all 100 eyes of him. Hermes beheaded him and ran off with the cow. Zeus turned the cow back into a beautiful maiden. Who knows what he did after that, but you can guess.
“What’s all this got to do with birds?” you ask.
When Hera discovered her trusted watchman dead, she took all 100 of his eyes and put them on the tail of a peacock.
Peacocks are, of course, male peafowls. The national bird of India, they live in semi-arid forests and grasslands, eating seeds, fruits, insects and small animals and reptiles. The Phoenicians took them on their trading routes which is how they ended up in Egypt and the Middle East. King Solomon brought them to Jerusalem. (Kings 10:22, 2 Chron. 9:21)
In Egypt they told a different story about Argus who kidnapped Queen Isis, hid her in his castle, and announced that he was the new king of Egypt. Osiris, the rightful king and husband of Isis, put a curse on Argus, turning him into a peacock and making all Argus’s spies eyes on Argus’s tail; thereby creating the children’s game, “I spy a . . . .”
In Islam, peacocks were thought to stand guard at the gates of Paradise. A Kurdish sect believed they were messengers from God. Ancient Christians thought the bird symbolized the mother church. St. Augustine conflated peacocks with the mythical phoenix, holding that peacock flesh did not decay and was incorruptible. It became a symbol of resurrection. “By the peacock” was an oath of truth-telling for Christians, who often placed the bird in scenes depicting the manger of Jesus’ birth.
In Europe, the peacock’s scream was an evil omen, but Marie Antoinette didn’t care; she wore peacock feathers in her hair. Until she lost it.
In their native land of India, peacocks played many mythical roles. Indra sits on a peacock throne. A peacock was the bird of Krishna who wore peacock feathers in his hair. More successfully than Marie Antoinette. (Peacocks molt annually so acquiring their feathers is not difficult nor fatal to the bird.) Skanda, the son of Shiva and brother of Ganesha, and his friend the god Murugan rode peacocks as did Sarasvati, goddess of music, poetry and wisdom. Smoked peacock feathers were used to cure snake bites. (We don’t recommend that actually. Better to go to the hospital.)
In China, peacocks were fertility symbols and young women could become pregnant by merely looking at one. Later they — the peacocks — became the symbol of the Ming Dynasty.
And we’re still not finished. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere you can see the constellation Pavo in your night sky. Pavo means “peacock.” It is one of the twelve southern constellations named by Dutch navigators in the 16th century. The brightest star in the constellation is Alpha Pavonis which is another way of saying it is the alpha peacock. The asterism within the constellation shaped like a saucer will lead you to the south if you can’t find the Southern Cross. (One of us once went on a “barefoot cruise.” It was my first time far enough south to see the Southern Cross. So I asked the captain to point it out. He did so. A few minutes later one of the crewmen came up to me and told me the captain had it wrong and pointed to the true Southern Cross. The crewman was right; the captain wrong. It’s a good thing that captain used GPS navigation, otherwise I might still be wandering around the southern oceans and unable to tell you all about peacock mythology.)
That would be a bad thing, wouldn’t it?
Don’t answer that.
The top photo of a peacock was taken by BS Thurner Hof.