Saturday, March 12, 2011

Pigeons and Doves - Symbolism

Venus with a Dove
The pigeons which perch on window ledges and line roof ridges of downtown buildings are the subject of many opinions by the humans with whom they share their environment. Many of those opinions are negative, often rabidly so. These pigeons, officially Rock Pigeons, are feral birds. They may be many, many generations removed from their domestic ancestors, but they are still tamed birds which have returned to the wild.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Rock Pigeons were the first bird to be domesticated, and may have been one of the first animals to have been domesticated. As humans lived closely with the pigeon, they also became intimately familiar with its habits and characteristics, and this in turn led to a rich and diverse symbolism being associated with the pigeon. The pigeon, or dove, often became a part of religious ritual and rites of passage.

While less prevalent today, the dove is still a part of ritual for some people in our modern society. At weddings, white doves are occasionally released. These white doves are Rock Pigeons which have been selectively bred to produce all white plumage. A website on doves explains the reason: “White Dove Releases have been recognized for centuries as a symbolic ritual for couples to insure a strong, pure, peaceful, chaste and loving marriage. Because Doves are devoted and dedicated to their mates, couples wish that the love of the dove be bestowed upon them as the dove is released with its mate. From this age-old tradition, comes the Dove Releases of today.”

Given the chance, pigeons do seem to form long term bonds with their mate, and they are fertile and productive, raising multiple broods each year. They feed their hatchlings for several days with “pigeon milk” or “crop milk,” a liquid that is rich in fat and protein. The chick puts its head inside the adult’s open mouth, causing the adult to produce the crop milk, and allowing the chick to feed.

Aphrodite with a Dove
Such characteristics resulted in the dove being associated with the Mother Goddess, or Great Mother, or Queen of Heaven. Throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean, the fertility goddess, the mother and nourisher, was accompanied by doves. The dove was revered by the Semitic fertility goddess Astarte; it symbolized the Babylonian goddess, Semiramis. The Cyprian fertility goddess (later associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love) rose from the sea as she was born from an egg brooded by a dove. The Greeks saw Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, as a dove. Romans sacrificed doves to Venus Columba - Venus the Dove - goddess of love and fertility. Poets like Ovid described Venus riding in a dove-drawn chariot.

There are exceptions, however. From the early Vedic literature of India, Rudra was the god of storms and prince of demons, but also a divine physician and lord of cattle. I recently saw a representation of this terrible (but curiously benevolent god) with doves perched atop his encircling wheel. I have not yet been able to trace this symbolic association. In ancient Japan the dove was sacred to Hackiman the god of war, but it was a dove with a sword which announced the end to war.

The more familiar Judeo-Christian tradition generally has less fertility and erotic elements associated with the dove, though not entirely. In the Song of Solomon, the great erotic poetry of the Jewish scriptures, the dove is frequently used as a term of endearment: “How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil.”

More common in Judaism, however, is the dove as a symbol of the divine love. Noah sends out a dove to search for land (a common practice by mariners until the recent advent of modern navigational equipment); it finally returned with an olive leaf, so Noah knew the waters of the flood were subsiding. Thus the dove is a symbol of deliverance and forgiveness. As such, the white dove was the acceptable “poor man’s sacrifice” at the temple in Jerusalem, used especially as an offering for purification.

Holy Spirit as a Dove - Jesus Baptism
In Christianity, the dove is most often a symbol of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended “as a dove upon him.” By extension then, when artists portrayed the Annunciation of Mary, the spirit is represented by a white dove, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

The symbolism associated with the dove is fluid and often has to be determined by the context. Doves may be hovering near saints, such as Thomas Aquinas, Gregory the Great, or Dustan, as a sign that their inspiration comes from the spirit. When Giotto painted Francis feeding the birds in the fresco in Assisi, the birds are pigeons and doves. A hovering white dove suggests the presence of the spirit’s inspiration in the life of Francis, but the larger flock suggests a peace and unity between the saint and the greater natural order.

The dove, often carrying an olive branch, is universally recognized as a symbol of peace. The peace symbol of the war protest movement forty years ago, is a stylized dove, and pro-war and anti-war factions are still divided into the hawks and the doves.

Jesus exhorted his disciples to be “wary as serpents, innocent as doves.” In most cultures, and in some form, the dove is associated with innocence, tenderness, and purity. It is the symbol of the longing for peace and rest, as for example, in the words of the Hebrew psalmist: “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.”

Doves are released at weddings. They are also released at funerals where they symbolize hope, the flight of the soul upward, release from the cares and concerns of this life. In western artistic tradition, a dove with a palm branch is a symbol of victory over death. A white dove may be a saved soul, opposed to a black raven caught by sin.

Pigeons - Catacombs, 3rd cen
The earliest Christian symbolism is found in the catacombs, the underground tombs of the Christians. There the dove is not a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but a symbol of the peace and happiness of the soul. The deceased were placed in niches called “columbaria,” from the Latin, columba, dove. Doves commonly decorate these niches. Often these paintings accurately represent Rock Pigeons, the feral birds of the city of Rome whose descendants still fly, feed, and breed freely among the remains of the ancient, medieval, renaissance, and modern city. The shape, stance, and plumage coloration is exactly that of our familiar street pigeon.

Holy Spirit as a Dove - Annunciation
The Rock Pigeon (long known as the Rock Dove) has been domesticated for millennium. It is so familiar in human society that it has accrued meaning and associations that are as diverse as society itself: from fertility goddess, to erotic goddess, to war god ... from the spirit, and the saint’s inspiration, to a banner for street protest ... from fidelity and chastity in marriage to the hope of the soul in eternity. I can think of no other creature which has inspired such a range of symbolism.

Information on Illustrations:
Venus a la Columba (Venus with a Dove) by Leon Bazile Perrault, 1902.
Aphrodite with a dove - Greek vase, Apulian red figure, 374-350 BC. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, NYC.
Detail from Annunciation by Antoniazzo Romano, Basilicas di S. Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome

Jesus Baptism, Dome mosaic, Arian Baptistry, Ravenna, 6th cen.
Rock Pigeons decorate the arch above a burial niche in Roman Catacombs, mid 3rd century.

Detail from Annunciation by Antoniazzo Romano, Basilicas di S. Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome


David said...

As a breeder of white pigeons for wedding & funeral services in Los Angeles I am some times overwhelmed with the response of a white dove being released, the beauty of a white dove in flight can bring a crowd to cheers of joy at wedding & special events to tears of sorrow at funerals & memorials. White doves so beautiful & so symbolic.

Christine Okon said...

the problem with releasing doves at weddings, funerals and other occasions is that these birds are often left behind like used confetti. many of these doves are actually King Pigeons who cannot fly well and who can't survive on their own wander lost and too often meet horrible deaths. please visit to learn more ..

Anonymous said...


I am a 3rd year Ballet Education student at the Royal Academy of Dance in the UK, and though this may seem like an odd request, but do you happen to have the references from where you obtained the information for this piece of writing?
I am currently writing a Dissertation about the use of Symbolism in a ballet called The Two Pigeons, and this writing really informs part of my second Chapter.

Any help would be greatly appreciated!

Kind regards,

Jessica Whitehead

Anonymous said...

That's not true. People who do releases use the white homer pigeons. They always find there way home. That would be something to see to have 20 white king pigeons released at a wedding and watch them do a few circles and then start landing in trees and on the ground and on people's cars. White doves will fly and get lost. That's why they use homer pigeons.

Pigeon Removal NJ said...

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