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 http://www.bible-history.com/isbe/D/DOVE/. 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.”

Peace symbol

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Peace symbol

There is a great irony behind the peace symbol. Its history is one of conflict and bloodshed. The modern use of this symbol was used by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958. It was commissioned by Bertrand Russell and designed by Gerald Holtom. According to Wikipedia ( or inaccuratedia ) It consisted of the semaphore sign for ‘N’ and ‘D’. Its popularity caught on in the 1960s with the hippie movement and has remained popular ever since.

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Semaphore ‘N’ and ‘D’

The cross as we know it today is at least 2000 years old. It’s numerous names are the Teutonic cross, Nero’s cross and St Peters cross (the latter has been used to symbolise Satanism in recent years). The peace symbol is based on the broken arms of a crucifix. when a fire destroyed Rome in 64 AD, (the official account of this can be found in Tacitus’s The Annals of Imperial Rome). At the time there was speculation that Nero caused the fire, which lead Nero to blame the Christians as the scapegoat for the fire. Nero used the peace symbol on his coins, with a eagle. The result of this persecution lead to many Christians being tortured, I suspect mainly with crucifixion.

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Nero’s cross on his coin

It is interesting to note that the Pythagorean’s used the reverse of this symbol as a sign of life. It has also been used as a Teutonic rune to mean death. The death rune can be seen to mirror that of the life rune. The life rune looking like that of a tree branching out. While the death rune is like the roots of a tree with no branches. This could be interpreted as the dualities between life and death, death the underworld where the roots of the tree of life (kabbalha) are kept.

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Kabbalah tree of life

Perhaps this is a combination of heaven (father sky) and the underworld (mother earth). And perhaps humanity is the bridge between these two worlds, as this is also often protrayed in symbolic forms of the kabbalah.

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Humanity – the bridge between heaven and the underworld

The teutonic runes of life and death make sense as a symbol of a tree when we take into account Yggdrasil, the world tree in Norse mythology. ‘This ash tree’s trunk reached up to the heavens, and its boughs spread out over all the countries of the Earth. Its roots reached down into the Underworld’ (http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/forest/mythfolk/ash.html).

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Yggdrasil – the branches of heaven, the roots of the underworld

In this light we are able to understand the symbolic significance of trees used to depict life and death in runes, but more importantly we can understand why the Peace symbol is one that has a history linked with death.