the "holy land" - quarterly published by the franciscan custody of the holy land

1999 - online version

The Dove

By Norman A. Rubin
Afula, Israel

The Dove was, by far, one of the most important birds in the Bible. For it was the poor man’s sacrifice and widely kept as a domestic bird. Various cultures and religions conceived of birds, the denizens of the heavens, as divine revelations, and the bearers of heavenly messages of guidance. The bird was man’s soul or spirit as it was released from the body in ecstasy or in death. It was seen as the embodiment of liberty and the transcendence of the soul, the victory spirit over matter. Thus, birds were often associated with godliness, immortality, power, victory, and kingship. (The affinity between birds and sacred places is seen to this day, as is evidence in the large numbers of cooing pigeons at mosques throughout the Levant and North Africa.)

In the Ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman world, birds ... mainly doves (1) ... were charged with complex symbolic significance as manifestations of the Godhead. In the Ancient Near East, the dove was a symbol of a female deity of love and fecundity: Ishtar, Astarte, Tanit, Anat, ‘Ata, and Atargis. To the Ancient Greeks, the dove was perceived as Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, and thus also invested with erotic connotations. As an attribute of the fertility goddess, the dove became a symbol of love between human beings, and between the deity and the worshipers. The Cyprians believed that Aphrodite (Anadomyne) rose from the sea, as she was born from an egg, brooded by a dove, and finally pushed ashore by a fish.

White doves were well regarded during the Roman period, and were depicted in various forms of mosaics. The Romans sacrificed doves to Venus, the goddess of love and fertility. Ovid and others wrote about riding in a dove-drawn chariot. Roman worship of Venus was, to a large extent, derived from the Phoenician sanctuary Eryx, where the dove was revered by the goddess Astarte. The dove was also considered sacred to Adonis and Bacchus as the "First Begotten of Love." In later history, Giovana de Medici adopted two caged turtle-doves as her symbol to represent conjugal fidelity.

In ancient Levant, doves were sacred to all great Mothers and Queens, and of Heaven, the mother of all, who nourished the earth. "In the heavens I take my place and send rain, on the earth I take my place and cause the green to spring forth." From Mesopotamia to the Greco-Roman world, the Great Mother was seen as the symbol of fertility, the renewal of life for both man and the fruits of the earth. Babylon was the city of the dove. There, the goddess Semiramis was symbolized as a dove ... the form she was supposed to have assumed on leaving the earth.

The dove, like other birds with religious associations, came to be regarded as oracular. The poet Virgil tells how two doves guided the god Aeneas (the Trojan warrior) to the gloomy vale in whose depths the Golden Bough grew on a holm oak(also known as the "holly oak"): The doves alighted upon the tree "whence shone a flickering gleam of gold ..." At Dadona in Greece, poetic oracles were listened for in the oak groves and prophetic trances initiated by the "Black-Dove" priestess. It was the dove that whispered in the ear of the prophet Mohammed and was his oracle.

In Judaism, the dive signified the love of God for His Chosen People, the Israelites. White doves, signs of purity, were sacrificial offerings offered for purification at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Old Testament symbolized the dove in various forms. The dove was frequently used in the "Song of Songs," largely to convey terms of endearment: in their behavior, the doves paired for a long time. "Oh how beautiful, your eyes are like doves ..." (Songs 1: 15). "Oh that I had wings of a dove to fly away and be at rest ..." (Psalm 55: 6).

The Hebrew word for dove is Yonah (2), coming from the root meaning of a moaning sound, "I moan like a dove" (Is 38: 14). This would explain the call of many species of doves. The turtle-dove (Tor in Hebrew) (3) is by far the most common of the dove species. In April, the shepherds of ancient Israel noted their passage in their annual migration. "And the turtle-dove, swift and crane, keep the time of coming ..." (Jer. 8:7). (In late April and May, the turtle-dove, along with other birds, fly from Africa to Europe via Israel, and in the late Fall, they make their return to Africa.)

"My dove, that hides in holes in the cliff or in crannies on the high ledges" (Songs 2: 14) is a confirmation of their nesting habits. Doves make nests of twigs and scraps of debris, sometimes on rocks or in holes in cliffs, but mostly in trees and bushes. Jeremiah’s simile in the "Judgment of Moab," telling the people "to be like a ‘dove’ that makes its nest inside the hole’s mouth," confirms the nesting habit of the bird in ancient times.

In Christian lore and tradition (4), the dove is usually the symbol of the Holy Spirit or "heavenly messenger," particularly found in portrayals of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. It is also seen denoting the Holy Spirit descending on Christ at His Baptism: "He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove to alight upon Him ..." (Matt. 3: 16-17). Later on, in Matt. 10: 16, "be wary as serpents, innocent as doves," seems to imply the meaning of gentleness.

Christian art depicts the dove as hovering over the Virgin Mary’s head, symbolizing Mary’s submissive innocence. Numerous saints have also been depicted with hovering doves (sign of Divine inspiration), such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Fabian, St. Gregory the Great, St. Louis, and St. Dustan. In early Christian paintings, the dove’s head is surrounded by a "Golden Nimbus," frequently seen in the form of a corss or of seven rays terminating in seven stars to symbolize the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The dove also became the Christian symbol of "Peace" as seen in the catacombs of Rome. Figured on tombs and sarcophagi, the dove also represented grief and martyrdom.

All such conceptualizations were derived from close observation and familiarity of (pigeons) doves, and from an intimate understanding of its physiological characteristics. The dove was probably the earliest creature to be domesticated by man, for they were easy to raise. From historical records, it was clear that they were domesticated in several, independently different, places in the ancient world. The dove was found in the early Dynasties of ancient Egypt. The first record of its use as a table bird was found in the IV Dynasty (2500 BC). Evidence of an earlier period is seen in the terra cotta dove of Mesopotamia (4500 BC). Some authorities speculated that the dove (pigeon) was first domesticated for food. Leter, it cebame important for sacrificial rites. The Talmud (Commentaries on the Bible) stated that no birds were more persecuted that turtle doves and young pigeons — yet the Bible regarded them as worthy of being offered upon the altar (BK 93A).

Doves (pigeons) were also the only domesticated birds kept in large numbers by the Israelites. It became fashionable, at the time, to build huge dovecotes on the ledges inside the walls. King Herod was referred to as a breeder of doves, as recorded by Josephus the Jewish Historian. During the Roman period, historical references mentioned that these dovecotes sometimes housed as many as 5000 birds. Even large caves were adapted for this purpose. E.g. An example can still be seen in the Judean Hills near Beit Guvrin.

Relationship of doves within the flock, as well as with man, inspired images of love. The representation of lovers clearly was a reflection of the monogamous faithfulness of a dove couple that jointly raised their brood. The homing instincts of doves (pigeons) suggested the image that the bird was a harbinger of good tidings — like the dove in the story of the Flood. "She came back to him towards evening with a newly plucked olive leaf in her beak ..." (Gen. 7: 11).

This characteristic is why pigeons (doves) served both as navigational functions as well as message bearers. The earliest records showed that four doves or pigeons were sent in different directions to mark to coronation of Rameses III in 1204 BC. (It was not suggested that they might have carried messages.) The birds were widely used by the Romans in sending messages. Emperor Nero even used them to send results of the games to his friends.

In Central America, there is an orchid called the dove-plant (or Holy Ghost plant), revered by the pious natives because of its resemblance to a dove with outstretched wings ... the symbol of the Holy Ghost.

The image of the dove in iconography evolved from the cultures of the ancient Near East and spread to western cultures (5). The Dove, with time became a powerful symbol in religious traditions. It was used as a messenger, for sporting purposes, even becoming a well loved pet.


(1) Doves (order of Columbiformes, family of Columbidae) are medium-sized, rather heavy birds with pointed wings and rather long tails. Their plumage varies in color from the olive-brown body, bluish-grey wings of the ‘rock-dove,’ to the speckled brown wing feathers and stripped neck pattern of the ‘turtle-dove’ (genus-Streptopelia). White varieties are known and are presented symbolically.

(2) The Hebrew word ‘Yonah’ is mentioned twenty times in the Scriptures, meaning ‘dove,’ and ten times referring to ‘pigeons.’

(3) "and the turtle-dove’s cooing will ne heard in the land ..." The turtle dove’s mating season begins in early May. Then the male produces a very peculiar sound - "tirrr, tirrr" - which sounds like ‘tor,’ the Hebrew word for turtle. Hence, the English word, turtle dove.

(4) The figure of a dove with a palm branch in its beak is a symbol of victory over death. Christian tradition depicts a white dove as a saved soul, the purified. The black raven, just the opposite, is cast as sin.

(5) To Western tradition, the ‘dove’ symbolizes innocence, a love messenger, gentleness, and a harbinger of peace.

copyright 1999

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