The dove is one of those birds whose imagery seems universal. It is a symbol of hope, purity, and faith, but many people would never think to look any deeper into its complex and ancient past. While researching for my book, The Healing Wisdom of Birds, I poured through a vast pile of mythologies, goddess images, and religious associations centered upon birds and found a history of the dove much more intriguing than the modern day archetype.
If we cast an eye back toward the civilizations of ancient Crete, Egypt, and Greece, we can see the dove predominate as a cultural icon, harmonizing the apparent duality of sexuality and spiritual love. Although revered as a symbol of peace in many places, the dove was usually seen as the embodiment of the Goddess and her divine powers. In Mycenaean iconography, the dove and goddess motif appeared as early as the 16th century BCE. This icon later spread throughout Greece, eventually evolving into the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the world’s favorite deity of amour. Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman pantheon) had the dove as her primary bird companion—not as a symbol of hope or faith, but as the profound essence of fertility that springs from sexual and emotional love.
In the ancient Minoan pantheon, the goddess who overruled fertility and procreation had the dove as her sacred bird. The dove personifies the idea of union with the source of life that sexual energy and spirituality both strive to fulfill. It is an enduring symbol of the soul but at the same time reveals the connection between earthly love and the human need to reunite with the divine. Doves, like the goddesses they adorned, have brought together the fundamentals of the human experience in mythologies, art, and many religions, unifying divine love with erotic love into one spiritual experience. This reveals to us the undeniable relationship between the two aspects of human nature.
But later cultures downplayed the dove’s role as the sacred image of sexuality and, as time passed, alienated the dove from its primal symbolic foundations. The dove remains a lingering presence in the modern world, adorning holiday cards and church paintings, but the dove carries such a complex wisdom that is long-cherished and universally celebrated. As the epiphany of Aphrodite, the dove was a potent force of fertility and higher love. Later, this bird came to be the sacred bird of Bacchus, the Roman god of fertility, wine, and ecstasy. Many of these associations are distant today, and frowned upon by more "conservative" organizations and religious belief systems.
But why the dove? How does a quiet, ground-feeding little bird come to evoke such potent imagery from culture to culture?
It is not a high-flying predator like the hawk, or an entertainer like the blue jay, or a graceful swimmer like the swan. And yet its mythologies abound and its presence celebrated for its quiet, humble, and unrivaled purity. The dove mates for life, expressing that old-fashioned ideal of loyalty and true love. They are affectionate and amorous birds, and demonstrate unconditional love toward their companions and their young. The dove reminds the universal mind of the contentment and joys of domestic bliss.
But it seems to signal something higher and more esoteric than just domestic simplicity. It is a purpose to be found, an ideal to pursue, and a gentle nudge toward the light of something more divine than ourselves. There are, of course, many such birds that inspire the human heart to inner exploration, but the dove carries a unique place in the grand sphere of bird symbolism. In the Tarot, the dove is seen nesting in the goblet on the ace of cups card, gracefully depicting the everlasting life of the spirit and the quest for the Holy Grail. When we look at history’s spiritual avatars, like Buddha, Christ, Mother Mary, and many powerful deities in comparison, like Zeus, Inanna, Venus, and Hachiman, we find the dove perching nearby as a loyal companion and sometimes, an alternate form.
Many stories of divine visitations include a radiant white dove as a symbol of God, or alternately, the spirit of God. In the Bible, John the Baptist commented how the spirit of God descended upon him like a dove (Matthew 3:16), and most people know of the dove’s role on Noah’s ark, signaling dry land after the flood. Many cultures, even today, have symbolically released doves as a gesture of freedom, hope, and most predominantly the release of the spirit from the confines of physicality after death. A more contemporary ceremony involves the releasing of doves at weddings to signal the promise of fidelity, love, and a peaceful home (although this is not a practice that holds the doves' best interests in mind).
Although the dove has such an extensive symbolic past, the bird’s fame, particularly as the symbol of peace, was solidified in 1949 by Pablo Picasso, when the World Peace Congress in Paris chose his lithograph, La Colombe ("The Dove") as its emblem. From that point, the dove became the symbol of the peace movement, and has remained such an integral part of the human psyche ever since. Many people in the busy modern world walk by such birds, indeed all birds, with very little thought as to what they once stood for. Researching over forty birds for The Healing Wisdom of Birds, I was cast back in time when everything had some kind of otherworldly meaning, when each individual bird was once a god or goddess, or carried a powerful message to the human spirit.
I hope the distant past of bird symbolism finds a new light in the world. As they inch closer and closer to environmental disaster, birds need a voice in the desolate wilderness of civilization. So the next time you wander outdoors, cast an eye upward to see what wise and ancient creature may be watching you from its perch—it may just be a god in feathered guise.