This is a painting called ‘Peacock’ (oils on canvas) which I commissioned from a very talented Edinburgh-based Iranian artist, Farnaz Mohsenpour. It is a triptych: the central panel is the image of the peacock itself, in which Farnaz has used a variety of traditional Persian designs), while the two adjacent panels are verses from the Sufi poet Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, in which the vain peacock screeches and squwarks and demands to be let into Paradise.
Of course, the peacock is one of the most culturally significant birds in Iranian culture; it appears in art and poetry from the Medieval period onwards with great regularity. But this got me thinking: was the peacock known in ancient Persian society?
As far as we know, the blue peacock (Pavo cristatus) is Indian in origin, and although (perhaps surprisingly) largely unknown in ancient Near Eastern societies, its introduction into Europe in classical times is both a great success story, as it extended its range across the Roman empire as far as Britain, and a striking journey from exotic pet to luxury foodstuff. The name of the peacock in Greek, tahōs, was an unusual form indicating its distant origin, and the first peacocks found their way to mainland Greece in the fifth century BC, through diplomatic contacts with Persia . Until the second century BC they remained a Greek interest, but the Roman conquest of the East led to their introduction into Italy and the West where they rapidly became well-known for their exotic plumage and weird cry; by the first century BC they had found their way to the dinner table as an ostentatiously expensive food (Pliny NH 10.45). Christians later adopted the symbol of the peacock to represent immortality. This perhaps came from an ancient legend that the flesh of the peacock did not decay and early Christian catacombs and sarcophagi are therefore frequently decorated with peacocks.
The Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 10.22-23) notes that “King Solomon had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram (of Tyre). Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and peacocks. King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.”
Here ‘peacocks’ is a translation of the Hebrew word tukkiyyim, which occurs only in this passage and its exact parallel at 1 Chronicles 9.21. There is no conclusive reading of the word (it might even be translated as ‘baboon’), but the closeness of tukkiyyim to the Tamil word for peacock, tokei, has persuaded most biblical scholars that the peacock is indeed being referred to here. However, the text of 1 Kings in all probability dates to the Persian period, so that Solomon’s glory is modelled on that of an Achaemenid ruler; therefore we need not look to a ‘Solomonic’ date of c. 950 BCE to find peafowl being exported from India via (bizarrely) Phoenicia; an Achaemenid-period date is preferable and fits better and more logically with what we know of the chronological spread of pavoniculture outside of India. Unknown to the Egyptians before the Ptolemaic period, it is possible that peacocks were sent to the Neo-Assyrian kings as, but this is in no way certain.
The birds are attested in Achaemenid Iran however. It is possible that peacocks are found in over 40 of the Fortification tablets from Persepolis in Iran (eg., PF 280, 697-8, 1722-3, 2014); the word used for them is basbas. Here are some examples:
22 male adults, 30 male chicks, 22 female adults, 3 female yearlings, 10 female chicks: total 87 basbas alive, were entrusted to Marryadadda…
124 fowls, (included) in them (being): 2 ippur, 12 basbas, 25 šudaba, 95 kuktukka fowls, supplied by Iršena, were dispensed in behalf of the king.
150 (BAR of) grain, supplied by Parru, Nabbadudu received, and gave (it) to the basbas of the district. 10 basbas for a period of 1 month received 5 BAR of grain. 30 basbas for a period of 6 months received 15 BAR of grain. 22 basbas for a period of 5 months monthly (are) receiving 11 (BAR) of grain. For a period of 12 months.
That peacocks held a place of some importance for the Persians is attested by the fact that the texts relate that they had substantial food rations (males were given higher rations than females), that their keepers also received quality food rations, suggesting they held jobs of status, and that queen Irtaštuna, the wife of Darius I, had her own flock of these elite fowl. Conversely, basbas might best translate as ‘chicken’, clearly another exotic bird for many ancient Near Eastern peoples.