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.”

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.

Vesica Piscis

Vesica Piscis

The shape of this symbol will be most familiar to most Christians, as it will encapsulate either Jesus or the virgin Mary inside. In Christian Iconography it is termed as a Aureole or Mandorla, when the aura or halo covers an entire figure. An explanation for this is ‘the mandorla tends to be used for particular manifestations of God’s power, such as the Transfiguaration, Ascension, or Second Coming’. Richard Taylor explains in his Book ‘How to Read a Church’. This does not help us in understanding why it is shaped as it is or for that matter its actual pagan history as a sacred sign. Books like Taylor’s are heavily biased in presenting only favourable Christian symbols and deliberately leaving out the pagan origins. I have a lot of beef with How to Read a Church, mainly because it doesn’t do its job properly. Its audience will be largely Christian, but that should not stop the book resulting in wish-washy portrayal of some of the most fascinating symbols that Christianity endorses. It’s almost as bad as Raymond Buckland’s Signs and Symbols. Its one of the worst books you could ever get on symbolism. It explains nothing, nothing!

Vesica piscis is Latin for ‘fish bladder’, or the ‘passage of the fish’. AS part of its shape makes the Christian symbol of the fish. Fish in Greek translates as ‘ichthys’ which is an acronym for Jesus Christ.

Ichthys, the initials for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savoir

The shape of the two overlapping circles to create the almond shape. Taylor explains this as ‘Almonds are also associated with the Virgin Mary, because of their symbolism of divine flavour, the pure white of their blossom, and the womb-like shape of the almond’s nut’. And that ladies and gentlemen is as far as Taylor will go in explaining the pagan and sexual symbolism of this shape. The almond shape represents the vulva, it is a yonic symbol. (yoni is the female equivalent for phallus). The vesica piscis represents the birth passage of Mary and the divine feminine. It is associated with the waxing and the waning moon phases, the moon being a strong feminine element. Its link to the almond is its white blossom is the purity and holiness of this colour.

Virgin Mary in Vesica Piscis

Sacred geometry plays a significant feature here as well. The two circles overlapping can be used to create a hexagram and several equilateral triangles. The triangles have a divine aspect to them already, as they represent the perfection of God, the hexagram also has that sacred element to it, as the seventh space is located within the hexagon of the hexagram. Seven is a divine number. There are many other geometric anomalies that the vesica piscis has that I don’t have space for here.

Hexagram in Vesica Piscis

The link between the Virgin Mary and fish is an interesting one, besides the link between Jesus as a fish. Catholics have been known to eat fish on a Friday, ‘Friday’ comes from Freya/Frigg’s day from Norse mythology. It was common custom to eat fish on Fridays in honour of Freya, who was a Norse goddess of love. Fish are symbolic of the sea, and water is a feminine element. Think of the goddess Venus, who is depicted naked coming out of giant shellfish. Water-nymphs, selkies, mermaids and sirens are all commonly depicted as female water creatures. That have a strong female element to them, particularly a sexual one. They are half-fish and half-human.

The divine female passage that gives birth to life itself is flooded with light, a halo. This light represents the divine female wisdom, and gives the vulva a sense of sacredness and purity. It is also a fountain of youth in a sense, as this is were “water” is deposited (sperm) and comes forth a baby through the fountain, before the child passages through the “fish” the waters must break. Also urine passes out of the vulva, hence why it is a fountain and also a ‘fish bladder’. The ‘fons vitae’ is the fountain of life, or the fountain of youth. often linked to ‘aqua vitiae’, the water of life.

Fons Vitae – Fountain of life

The sexual symbolism behind this reveals that the two come together to produce life, the mystical journey in search of the fountain of youth is often carried out by knights or hero’s in search of its life giving properties. Now we can understand it in a completely different light. The vesica piscis is the passage for youth, and holy waters. I can give two interpretations of the meaning behind what the water is. Either the water is sperm to pregnant the female/fountain, or urine. Urine was a common medical cure among monastic monks during the middle ages. It is still being hailed as a medical cure today.

Medieval Urine Chart

A fascinating link between Christianity, urine therapy and the Vesica Piscis is when Jesus says in Proverbs 5:15, ‘Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well‘. I simply love the next few lines in Proverbs, 5:16-19, when he mentions ‘thy fountain’. I will leave you to ponder the meaning of Proverbs 5:18-19.

Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.

Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love.