The God of War rides a Peacock

That’s right, Kartikeya, the Hindu God of War, rides a peacock into battle.  The story tells that he went to war once against a demon giant named Surapadman who he defeated handily.  Rather than be killed, Surapadman requested that he become Kartikeya’s mount, and he was split in two.  One half became the peacock (which represents the death of Kartikeya’s ego) and the other half became a rooster that was borne on the standard of Kartikeya’s army.

Believe it or not, the colorful bird that now decorates zoos and wineries across the world has been a deeply religious symbol for thousands of years.  Largely based on the belief that peacock meat would never decay, the Greeks saw peacocks as some sort of mystical vessel of purity.  Because peacocks could eat poisonous plants and were said to devour venomous snakes without issue, people believed them immune to all poison.  The story was so well known that St.Augustine wrote about the merits of peacock flesh in his book, “City of God”.  He tells a story about a slab of peafowl that he was eating that he set aside one day.  Within weeks, nothing had happened to the meat, it did not decay or stink.  By the time a year rolled around, the only thing he could say was that the flesh was drier and more shriveled.  His book also mentioned the ability of the flesh to cure poisons, lauding their “antiseptic properties”.

Before Augustine, the Greeks had a mythology behind peacocks as well.  According to Greek stories, when Hera found out that Zeus was interested in a Nymph woman named Io, she turned the young lady into a cow.  In order to keep Zeus from meddling with the cow Io, Hera sent the 100 eyed giant Argus Panoptes to look after her.  Zeus sent Hermes to take Io back, and Argus was killed in the process (put him to sleep with charms, wacked him in the head with a rock when he was asleep.  First blood of the post-Titan Greeks goes to Hermes).  Hera was said to honor Argus by placing his hundred eyes on the tail of the peacock (Hera’s chariot was driven by peacocks, but they didn’t have fancy tails until Argus’ eyes were placed into them).

In the Middle Ages, peacock was considered a delicacy.  While poor people ate chicken and quail, the royalty needed their fowl to be a little more fancy in order to bespeak their importance.  Royal feasts would have cooked peacock for both a table decoration and a meal.  At the time, peacock was exceptionally difficult to purchase because of the relative rarity of the bird in Europe (they’re native to Persia).  As for why they have the fancy colors; the reasoning is less impressive than dead giants, Godly gifts, or manifestations of purity.  What science believes is that peacocks are the ultimate representation of sexually selected traits.  Peahens began to take a liking to their male counterparts over the years when they had more colorful, large and ostentatious displays.  Over the years, the males with the bigger and brighter tails would succeed in passing genes while the ones with sad dilapidated rudders would dry up out of the gene pool.  The creature that struts about now is the result of hundreds of generations of picky females with particular wants.  Natural Selection at its finest..


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