The Dove: a symbol of peace or paganism?

The dove in Christianity is often thought to symbolise hope and peace.

‘And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluck off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.’ Genesis 8:11

As in Genesis, when Noah sends a dove to search for land, when it returns with an olive leaf it has a deep symbolic meaning attached to it. The dove is believed to symbolise a hope of a promised land, but it could easily symbolise catastrophe and death by the flood. That in essence baptises the world, riding it of its sins. The olive leaf in the doves beak is symbolic of the riches of ancient civilisation. Today we don’t think much of olives as a sign of divine prosperity but to the Ancient Greeks it was ambrosia, the food of the gods. With it one could extract olive oil to light lamps, to cook with, and importantly to eat. It also has numerous medical benefits. At one time if someone cut down a olive tree in ancient Greece they would be sentenced to death, hence the valuable importance of this amazing plant. They named the home of their gods Mount Olympus, which means mountain of olives. And their Olympic games were the champion athletes would be crowned with laurel from an olive branch.

Athlete being awarded olive laurels as a reward

The dove brings back a sign of divine prosperity to Noah, but  they also represent the holy spirit. As in so many passages in the bible of doves descending. Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, John 1:32 and Mathew 3:16. The dove is symbolic of the descent of the holy spirit and has close connections with mother goddesses throughout ancient mythology.

Ishtar – Goddess of war, death and love

Ishtar the Mesopotamian goddess of war, death and love was constantly followed by a set of doves. Ishtar in essence became a template for other mother goddesses, such as Venus, Aphrodite and Fortuna, who were all often depicted with a dove. The Mother Mary is no exception to this, as the holy spirit, is Christianity’s way of personifying the mother earth goddess without being explicit. Hence why doves can be seen with Mary, especially during the Annunciation, were Mary is being told about her pregnancy.  As a result turtle doves, the white feathers symbolise purity as white was considered to be a divine colour of unobtainable perfection.

The Annunciation

The Bible not only contains passages of descending doves and olive leafs, it contains bloody sacrifices. Leviticus 1:14, 14:30 and Luke 2:24. The sacrifice has to be a burnt offering, and it must be aflame upon the alter. Who says the Bible isn’t pagan? The importance of these passages is that the burnt offering must be set alight. And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off its head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be drained out on the side of the altar.

This is why a dove is depicted with flames or with a burning light. Fire represents the holy spirit, much like the burning bush. For more interesting on the ritual go here For a Christian website its surprising informed.

The dove being also a common symbol used to depict freedom, and a caged dove imprisonment. This is a common theme in films and can be seen in Burton’s Sleepy hollow. The caged bird represents determinism, while the free bird represents free will, the two diametrically opposed philosophies. Fate verses free will. Interestingly enough doves were considered wild birds and were only caged as pets and more commonly caged for sacrificial use. The dove being symbolic of the spirit.

The fiery spirit of the dove may have allusions to the phoenix, a bird born out of flames once it has perished to ash, symbolising rebirth and the immortality of spirit.

T. S. Elliot depicts the doves dynamic symbolism in this short poem. Here I will leave you to ponder what the dove means to you.

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

The Sign of Silence

As children often make noise, an adult will often tell us in a hushed tone ‘shhhhh’, placing their index finger to their mouth. This hand gesture is a sign of silence. But its origins have an obscurity to them. This gesture can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, with this hieroglyph meaning children or child.

Hieroglyphic Symbol for Child

This gesture of the hand raised to the mouth may indicate a hungry child, or the desire for the child to be fed. Either way this sign was incorporated into a symbol of Horus, who as a child was known to the ancient Greeks as Harpocrates, the child Horus. 

Horus was often used to depict time, and is heavenly connected with the sun. In the fifth Egyptian dynasty, Ra the solar deity merged with Horus to create Re-Horakhty, the sun of the two horizons.


Horizon, the word can be broken down to mean Horus – eye – sun. Horus loses this eye to his evil uncle set. Horus’s eye is symbol of the Sun. Horus is the god of Upper Egypt were the sun will rise, but Horus loses his eye (the sun) to Set who is ruler of Lower Egypt, were the sun sets. Hence the SET-ting sun. Our word for hour is a direct descendent from the word Horus, in Greek it began as ‘Hora’, and eventually became hour in English. As Horus who is a falcon would fly over the sky, as he is a sky god, like the sun he would cross over the sky from horizon to horizon. 

The index finger which in palmistry is known as the Jupiter finger, which is located between his father Saturn (middle finger) and his symbolic mother Venus (thumb) to represent the son/sun of these two figures. As Horus is the child of Osiris and Isis, and is a symbolic representation of the sun. 

The ancient Greeks saw this hand gesture differently, they interpreted as a gesture of silence and secrecy. The reason for this is uncertain, they may have misinterpreted this hand gesture as a way of stopping our lips from moving, or as a potential plug for the mouth. Either way they adopted a new understanding of the hand sign.

The Greeks invented the god Harpocrates due to their understanding of the Egyptians culture. Harpocrates was still connected with the Sun, this is most likely were the phrase ‘Silence is Golden’. Golden like the sun. And as children are often mischievous like Harpocrates they must remain silent like the sun to appease their parents. 

Harpocrates developed wings and become Harpocratic Eros, which in turn become Cupid. Cupid is linked specifically with being a child, and the connection with wings suggests the influence of Horus’s falcon wings, that spanned the sky. representing the young morning sun. 



Lady Luck and her Wheel of Fortune

Lady luck is is a phrase we use without much thought. She is often used with gambling, and decides the fate of those who are willing to risk their money for a fortune. It is incredible to think that so many of the gods from the ancients have disappeared  but for some reason lady luck has prevailed.

To understand its place in modern society we must cast our net of understanding back to the ancient Greeks. Moira is the personification of fate and she is made up of three sisters, collectively known as moirai. Clotho, were we get the word cloth from, spins the thread of life. The thread symbolises the fragile nature of our existence and what small part we play in the universe. As Clotho spins the thread Lachesis measures the length, decides before hand what our destiny is and how long our life is. Atropos would cut the thread, she would decided on the manner of a person death and what time it would come at. Her Roman equivalent is Morta, meaning Death.

The sickle that is used in portrayals of death during the middle ages is used to depict the harvesting of souls, and to cut their ‘thread’ of life.

Another Greek goddess that governed human affairs is Tyche. Her name essentially means ‘luck’, but her role is not always that of good she is equally bad as well. Nothing is left to chance everything is left to luck, and in this case Tyche. The Greeks and the Romans at the time were not particularly in favour of things occurring without side of someone’s or some-things control. The idea of chaos was a worrying thought, especially in stoic philosophy. We must remember that the world of the ancients was conceptually an entirely different place, they found it difficult to imagine a universe not governed by the gods, while for us in the 21st century the idea is commonplace. So the personification of fate seems to have had a very strong beginning, with numerous cults of Tyches springing up in the 4th Century. She retained a position that more of the traditional gods had declined in popularity.

The Moirai sisters became the three fates in Roman mythology, and Tyche became Fortuna.

Interestingly the coin flip we so often  use to make a distinction more than likely originates from the Romans, as their coins had Fortuna on the ‘Tails’ side and an emperors ‘Head’ on the other. The origin of the phrase heads or tails most likely refers to the top and bottom of an animal. In reference to coins the head is at the front, the desirable side and the tail of an animal or of someone’s coat is at the less desirable side. So we have a duality good and bad, and the coin flip is a perfect way for fortuna to decide for you.

Fortuna is often depicted with a wheel. As she spins the wheel ones fate changes, as we are symbolically tied to the wheel.

The four main stages of the wheel have different names. On the left the figure is regnabo (I shall reign), and on top of the wheel is regno (I reign).  On the right regnavi (I have reigned) and the at the bottom, the most unfortunate of all, sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom). The wheel is a popular symbol within world mythology, we have the wheel of Karma, which also turns deciding our fortune, and the solar wheel of Norse mythology which gives us the turning changes of the seasons and our fortunes.

During the Middle ages Rota Fortuna, the wheel of fortune was a very popular concept. One of my favourite depictions of it is in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. He depicts Fortuna and personifies Philosophy, all in all its a great read. It was a standard text in Medieval Universities and incorporated a lot of ideas from Plato and Aristotle. A famous poem from the 13th century depicts the cruel fate which Fortuna has decided form him in ‘O Fortuna’. Carl Orff used the poem in a piece of classical music, which has become so popular and so deeply ingrained into pop culture that it has become instantly recognisable.

Interestingly enough a Catherine wheel was used during the middle ages as a form of torture.The wheel of fortune being the last place were they seal their fate, or for that matter select it.

I am reminded of the role and importance that the wheel has played in technology. Not only does it symbolise one of the greatest and earliest of inventions, its use has played a crucial role in technology. The most notable example in history is the Spinning Jenny, invented in 1764 and kick started the industrial revolution in Britain. As a result the luddites rebelled again the success and replacement of manual labour with machines. The Spinning Jenny was quiet literally a wheel of fortune, it gave profits to the company’s owners and bad luck to the workers who were laid off. The wheel – technology – brings fortune to some and bad luck to others. There is a price to pay with this kind of progress. The Omega man (1971), a film adaptation of Robert Matheson’s ‘I am Legend’. It is set in a post apocalyptic city, in which a prophet rightly named Matthius, blames technology for the worlds disasters, calling the protagonist, a scientist played by Charlton Heston, ‘a user of the wheel’.The film deals with the misuse of technology and how it can be used to do good and bad.

Lady luck has in recent years has been featured in films, novels and in comic strips.She has remained popular and has managed to transform herself throughout time to adapt herself to our own culture. I imagine on of the reasons why she remains so popular is due the fact that everybody questions fate, when good or bad fortune strikes us. Lady luck personifies perhaps one of the greatest and oldest questions in philosophy: Do we have fate or do we have free will? Is everything a result of chance or of order. I’ll let you flip a coin on that one.

Christian Hand signs

We often find in iconography and in stained glass windows in churches, of saints and Jesus using certain hand gestures. There is two in particular that are used a lot.

Both of these have a particular meaning within Christianity, The hand gesture on the right is used for benediction, which translates from Latin to mean ‘speak well’. This is used at the end of church service as a prayer and blessing. I am sure you will have this this hand gesture used to make the symbol of the cross in church services. Pointing up – ‘In the name of the father’ – now pointing down – ‘The son’ – the hand now sweeps from left to right – ‘and the holy spirit, amen’. This hand gesture is known as the hand of Benediction. Unfortunately this is also a disability, in which the index finger and the middle finger are unable to move due to damage of the median nerve.

I would like to draw your attention to the the use of the fingers in the hand of Benediction.In Palmistry the hand is mapped out with each finger assigned a particular planet. In order to understand the symbolic references of the fingers used we need to take into account what the fingers mean.

As we can see in this diagram, the thumb is known as Venus, the index finger – Jupiter, The middle finger – Saturn, the ring finger – Apollo, the little finger – mercury. We can use our understanding of the Roman Gods to understand why Christians use this particular hand gesture. I suppose the irony here is that we are using paganism to explain Christianity, this interpretation is correct if this hand map is older than when Christianity started using the sign of Benediction. Notice the fingers used for this hand gesture, and notice the hand that is being used. The right hand, it is always the right hand. Why? I hear you ask. The ancient Greeks were particularly superstitious of the left hand and generally anything that on the left side. This spread throughout the Roman empire, as the Romans borrowed heavily from the Greeks for their culture. The left hand bias came with this. that is why we ‘w-right’, from left to right, when we are correct we are ‘right’. Our sense of liner time is from the left to the right. The right is in the future, it is part of our cultural heritage as a sign of progress. The left is the past, it is backwards and underdeveloped. This is why The right hand is used and why when giving Benediction it is from left to right with the right hand.

If we look at the hand of benediction we find that three digits are pointing up. They are pointing towards heaven, to God and symbolise the divine trinity. The tallest of the three fingers is the middle one – Saturn. If we understand the Roman Mythology is based on Greek mythology, we know that Chronos (Saturn) is the creator of the Titian’s, the old Greek Gods, who is the father of the second generation of Greek gods. Chronos and Gaia gave birth to Zeus (Jupiter), who is the son of Saturn. Aphrodite, (Venus) symbolises the divine feminine, as she is represented by the thumb. Which is lower down on the hand, and is unlike the other four fingers of the hand. By placing all the clues together we understand the hand of benediction like this; The father Saturn (Middle finger) represent the father, his son Jupiter (Index finger) represents the son. and the holy spirit is Venus, which is the divine female. As two becomes three. And the Child the index finger is in between the Father, the tallest/highest finger, and the mother, the lowest finger of the hand. The Father being father sky and the mother (Venus) being mother earth. And in between them both is their son. Jesus, in this case of the hand of benediction.

This hand represents the name of Jesus Christ. In Greek it is spelt ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, written using the English alphabet we get “ΙΗϹΟΥϹ ΧΡΙϹΤΟϹ”. The first letter and the last letter of each word, from left to right is written as ICXC. This known as a christogram, and is the abbreviated form of Jesus Christ. In the picture above we get each letter symbolised by the each finger. Jupiter (index finger) is pointing up, representing I. The middle finger curved to represent C, Apollo and Venus, (the thumb and ring finger) join together to form an X. This could represent the joining of heaven and earth, the meeting of father sky and mother earth. The little finger, mercury, represents another C. In iconography and in numerous paintings, sculptures and windows, Jesus will use this hand gesture, and basically it means his name, Jesus Christ.