With its pure white feathers, softly rounded body and gentle demeanor, the dove is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of peace, innocence and purity. On the other hand, the dove’s symbolism is considerably more complex than notions such as these, and in some cases those complexities can prove quite surprising.
Due to its reputation for meekness and gentleness, the dove is often associated with deities that embody these traits, such as Aphrodite and the Virgin Mary. The traditional belief that doves mate for life has given them a strong connection with love, and in Chinese culture a depiction of two doves together is considered a symbol of marital fidelity.
In Judeo-Christian culture, the symbolism of the dove is particularly widespread. The story of Noah sets up a dichotomy between the purity of the dove and the more sinister symbolism of the raven; the raven was the first bird sent out from the Ark in search of dry land but returned unsuccessful, therefore garnering negative associations. The dove, on the other hand, returned clutching an olive branch in its beak, indicating that land had been found. This particular image is perhaps the most famous version of the dove and has become an iconic symbol of peace in its own right. Moving into mainstream Christianity, the dove acquired symbolism on a more esoteric level as a representation of the soul and of the Holy Spirit (a connection often portrayed in painting and sculpture). The legends of King Arthur also make use of such symbolism, where the dove is strongly associated with the Holy Grail. Additionally, doves can represent the numerous gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of The Lord) when shown together in a group of seven.
A number of other cultures have also placed prime symbolic importance on the dove, and some of these associations can be significantly different from the bird’s traditional attributes of gentleness and innocence: in addition to Aphrodite, the Fates and even the Furies, the ancient Greeks associated doves with Dodana, a sacred grove of oak trees said to be an oracular location for the god Zeus; the ancient Egyptians depicted doves within the tree of life and/or carrying its fruit; and in Japan the dove was said to be a messenger of the war god Hachiman. All of this diverse symbolism may seem a little overwhelming for a bird as seemingly gentle as the dove, but it truly speaks to the critical cultural importance that this bird has carried throughout the centuries.
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