This week, my inspiration has been the beautiful peacock; sexier and more exotic cousin to our very own pheasant. Like a vibrant sari silk to classic British tweed, this flashy bird puts most in the shade and has inspired art, fashion, myth and religion.
Ever wondered how the peacock came to have those incredible eye-like markings on its tail? Well, according to Ancient Greek mythology, the Goddess Hera had a priestess named Io who had attracted the attentions of Hera's philandering husband Zeus, which, as he was a serial sex pest, basically meant that she was possessed of a pulse. Anyway, Io fell for his charms and although they tried to keep it a secret, the wife, knowing Zeus was more dog than god, soon got suspicious. Zeus, in his ultimate wisdom, transformed Io into a cow so that Hera would not suspect, although frankly, I think I would probably be doubly concerned if my husband spent an inordinate amount of time in bovine company.
To stop any untoward god on cow action taking place, Hera placed Io under the many watchful eyes of Argus. Apparently he had 100 eyes and could sleep without having to close them all which made him a pretty efficient guard, but Zeus was a devious old dog and hatched a plan to enable him full godly rights with poor Io. He enlisted the help of Hermes to lull Argus into a sleep so deep, all his eyes closed and then to ensure that he couldn't hunt him down when he awoke, had Argus killed as he slept. Hera was pretty miffed when she discovered her prize guard dead and took his 100 eyes and placed them on the tail feathers of her favourite bird, a peacock, as a rather gruesome tribute to him.
Now that may sound an unlikely tail (excuse the terrible pun), but having read the scientific explanation, it's a lot more comprehensible. I would try to explain, but my brain exploded somewhere between periodic nano structures and Fabry-Perot interference?! My duffer's interpretation, which may not be entirely accurate, is that, the peacock's feathers are actually pigmented brown, but the tiny structures of each feather reflect the light, causing the amazing colourful pattern that we associate with the bird.
The peacock holds great cultural significance to the people of India and in 1963, the blue peacock was designated as the country's national bird - incidentally, we don't officially have one in the UK, although in typically understated, British style, a poll by the Times in the 1960s declared the European robin as our national avian symbol. In Hindu culture, the peacock carries the god of war Karthikeya on its back, having been generously allowed this honour by the magnanimous deity. Magnanimous because, the peacock had previously been a demon called Surapadman that the god had smote - (gods loved to smite) by cleaving him in two, but had allowed those two parts to live in the form of a peacock and a rooster.
Perhaps this explains why the peacock is such a cantankerous bird...or perhaps it's because, despite being the national bird of India, they are mercilessly hunted across the country for their flesh, their feathers and even their fat which is erroneously thought to help treat arthritis. And, if they're not being hunted down, they're falling out the trees after eating pesticide covered seeds, so it's just as well they are fairly prolific breeders.
Not so fortunate, the green peacock; equally beautiful, indigenous species of South East Asia, also known as the Java peacock. Relentless hunting and a reduction of the quality and extent of their habitat, has left these gorgeous creatures on the endangered species list. Where once, they roamed wild throughout Burma and were seen as a symbol of national identity, their main strongholds now, are limited to a few conservation areas in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Unlike the Indian blue peacock, the female of the green peacock species is as brightly coloured as her male counterpart and it can be hard to distinguish between the two. The name 'peacock' refers solely to the male of the species and the female peahens of the blue peafowl are quite drab by comparison, having fairly plain, brown plumage. One male will generally have two to five females in his personal harem, although green peacocks are thought to be monogamous in the wild. It is also widely believed that peahens of the Indian peafowl, choose their mates on the basis of their tail plumage, favouring those with more 'eye' spots and a larger fan which could imply that sexual selection has determined the development of the peacock's tail, rather than the 100 eyes of Argus.
There is also one other type of peacock, known as the Congo peacock, which is not nearly so glamorous as its Asiatic cousins and therefore often overlooked. It is still a rather stunning bird but lacks the show stopping tail plumage that we associate with peafowl.
Visitors to the Jardin de Plantes in Paris may have been lucky enough to see a white peacock. These birds are quite stunning, although they are essentially an unpigmented or ‘leusistic’ version of the Indian peacock. This mutation hardly ever occurs in the wild, but selective breeding has enlarged their numbers. Although the colours and ‘eye’ circle pattern are the very things that distinguish a peacock, I find this white peacock incredibly beautiful and think a future project will definitely include them, perhaps as a wedding theme…
Now, if I hadn't already loved peacocks, this final snippet would have convinced me - the collective noun for a group of peacocks is a party and family of peacocks is a bevy, so it seems appropriate to depict them on champagne flutes don't you think?