One of the familiar images of the winter holidays is the peace dove. Take this example, from the UNICEF catalog – a festive image of a plump red dove holding an olive branch, painted on a ceramic mug by Mexican artist Eufrosia Pantaleon. On the opposite side of the mug is the word “Peace.” It’s both cheery and hopeful. I liked it so much I ordered one. On the Christmas card featuring the same image, the words “Peace on Earth” appear under the dove. Inside, it reads, “Let the world welcome this season of peace.”
In the same catalog, another dove image shows up, but this one is green, has no olive branch, and sits atop a tree filled with “peace” in other languages, a map of the world, a tree symbol, and circle designs. The message inside is, “A season of goodness and peace to you.”
A different card features yet another dove – a red, green and white one surrounded by “peace” in different languages.
A “herald of peace” card presents a light blue dove on a white background with gold star accents. The sentiment inside the card is “Peace to you and to our world.”
Finally, a folk art dove with an olive branch decorates a tree ornament with the message “Peace – in every heart, to every home, for all the world.”
Clearly, the dove, usually presented in profile, facing to the right, with or without the olive branch, is associated with peace. Why?
Perhaps the question should really be broken into two:
Why is the olive branch a symbol of peace?
Why is the dove a symbol of peace?
The Olive Tree
Let’s start with the olive branch, which might be the older part of the image. Fossilized remains of olive trees indicate the trees were growing around the Mediterranean basin as early as 30,000 years ago. (Some sources offer a date twice that old.) It probably originated in what is now Turkey, Iran, and Syria and spread with traders. It’s one of the oldest known cultivated trees in the world.
The olive tree can live 300 – 600 years, though a few are said to be 3,000 years old. Many people felt its longevity and fecundity were signs of spiritual power. An ancient Egyptian panel now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows the pharaoh Akhenaton offering the sun god an olive branch (right). The ancient Greeks held the olive tree in such high esteem that the punishment for felling one was execution. Through Greek and Phoenician traders, olive oil and the planting of olive trees spread to settlements around the Mediterranean.
According to Greek legends, the goddess Athena planted the first olive tree. (Silver coin featuring Athena, an owl, and an olive branch, right) So brides wore olive wreaths in her honor.
Yet Mars, the god of war, also had a role. In his personification as the god of peace, known as Mars Pacifier, he carried an olive branch, which he extended to the foe. If accepted, it was a sign of compromise/victory that brought the end of war. In other words, peace. But peace built on power. That balance of threat of war and promise of peace was the heart of the Pax Romana, which lasted over two hundred years. The coin pictured, with the words “Pax Augusti,” shows the figure holding up an olive branch, indicating the desire to end conflict. But everyone knew there was a sword in his other hand, even if it wasn’t visible.
The same balance shows up in the great seal of the United States, with the eagle holding a handful of arrows on one side and an olive branch on the other. The eagle is looking toward the olive branch, but the arrows are still there.
The first explanation many sources provide for the white dove as a peace symbol is that the dove is cute and sweet and therefore admirable. Turtledoves are famous as lovebirds, often pairing for life. They show up in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” gift list as the second day’s offering.
But actually doves can be as aggressive as other birds, they’re scientifically equivalent to pigeons (The rock dove is a pigeon.), and they’re not naturally white. The white ones are specially bred as pets and as symbols of purity that can be released at weddings and other ceremonies.
So – why doves?. Aren’t loons cute too – especially the babies? And what about bluebirds – or robins? Don’t they need some love?
The most common reason for the dove as a peace symbol is the bible story about Noah and the ark (Genesis 8:11). After floating on the waters for over a year, Noah sent out a dove and it came back with an olive leaf, signaling land nearby. Actually, according to the story, Noah sent out a raven first, but it only flew back and forth. Many ancient seafarers kept captive birds to release when out of sight of land. A land-roosting bird would head for land, and the sailors could follow it. If it came back, it meant the bird couldn’t find land. The dove, when released, also could not find land, so it returned to the ark. A week later, Noah released the dove again. (Apparently the raven was not given a second chance.) This time the dove returned with an olive leaf in its beak. A week later, Noah tried again, and the bird never returned, a sign that land was available. It’s not clear how the olive leaf survived the flood.
(It’s interesting that in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian equivalent of Noah in the flood story, releases a dove and a raven to find land, but in this case, it’s the dove that just circles and returns. The raven, when sent out, does not return, indicating it found land. The version in the Quran does not mention either dove or raven.)
In the bible story, when God told Noah to leave the ark and release the captive animals, Noah kept some of the “clean” birds to sacrifice to God. One of the most common sacrificial animals for the ancient Jews was the dove, so it’s reasonable to assume that a dove was one of those offered to God.
God found the sacrifice pleasing and promised Noah that he would never again destroy all living creatures through flood, but the symbol of that promise was the rainbow – not the dove.
So that doesn’t really explain the dove’s significance as a peace symbol. More likely, the dove’s connection to peace comes from its use as a sacrificial animal. In giving its life, it helped to restore God’s blessing.
The Dove representing the Holy Spirit
The other answer to why the white dove is a symbol of peace is that it represents the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Christian Holy Trinity, along with the God the Father and God the Son, Jesus. It’s interesting that if you Google the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit, you will find many of the same images of the dove as you’d find if you searched for the symbol of peace. A few include the dove head down (pictured), or with wings spread, or with a halo around the head, but many look exactly the same. Some even hold the olive branch.
As it turns out, the dove was a common Christian symbol, especially during the early years, along with the fish, the Chi-Ro, the anchor, the phoenix, the peacock, and the grape vine. It wasn’t until the 5th century AD that the cross became the most popular symbol for Christians.
Several carvings of doves attributed to early Christians have been found in the Roman catacombs. One has the word “peace” near it. However, it’s not clear whether these images referred to the Holy Spirit, to personal or general peace, to victory over death, or to martyrs interred there as sacrifices (doves), or if they had a completely different personal or communal meaning. Before the advent of Christianity, Roman catacombs were known as columbaria, from the Latin word columba (dove/pigeon). The little compartments used to store funerary remains were similar to housing designed for captive birds. And doves, especially white doves, were often sacrificed to the Roman goddess Venus. So it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact meaning of the dove carving.
The dove as symbol of the Holy Spirit first appears at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. “And lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he was the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon him.” (Mathew 3:16)
“And the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22)
For many Christians, these passages are the main reason the dove is considered a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
The Dove Goddess
Here’s where it gets interesting – and controversial. In the original Aramaic, the word for spirit is “rukha,” which is feminine. The Hebrew word for the Holy Spirit is “Ruach Ha Kadosh,” with a feminine modifier. Thus the pronoun used to describe the Holy Spirit in the early versions was she. It wasn’t until the gospels were translated into Greek that the masculine pronoun – he – was substituted to refer to the Holy Spirit. Seeing the dove/Holy Spirit as feminine seems like a radical idea but it has many precedents in the culture of the time.
In the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean world, the dove was the symbol of several powerful goddesses. For the Sumerians, it was Ishtar. For the Canaanites, Asherah. For the Phoenicians, it was Astarte and Tanit. For the Greeks, Aphrodite (pictured with doves drawing her chariot). For the Romans, Venus. All were pictured with or represented by doves.
In Minoan belief, doves could be seen as the embodiment of a divinity, a goddess in bird form, or as a particular manifestation of a deity.
The Divine Feminine
Skekinah, the manifestation of the Divine Presence, or the light or spark of the Divine in each person, is recognized in Jewish and Christian mythology. In Kabbalism, it is seen as a divine feminine aspect.
Some see the Holy Spirit dove as the missing female element in the Trinity: Father, Mother, and Son. While this would be a satisfying continuation of the female divinity so common in the eastern Mediterranean region, the argument loses ground when you consider the other personification of the Holy Spirit: the tongue of fire, a very different image. Still, the dove possibilities, especially in comparison to the goddesses like Astarte, Ishtar, Tanit, and Asherah, are fascinating.
Pablo Picasso and the dove symbol
The final and most important piece of the peace dove puzzle was provided by Pablo Picasso. Deeply moved by the bloodshed of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso painted “Guernica” in 1937, a visual description of the pain and terror following the bombing of the Basque village of Guernica. Previously apolitical, he became an outspoken Communist, anti-fascist, and peace activist.
The dove image that began the famous series of paintings and lithographs was actually a drawing of Henri Matisse’s bird. The former rivals became good friends as they got older. When Matisse had to get rid of his birds and plants in order to work on his final project, Picasso took them in and used them as models.
After the end of World War II, his “Dove” lithograph was used as the symbol of the Paris Peace Conference of 1949 (pictured, right).
From that first image, Picasso moved to simpler line drawings of doves, most of which carried the olive branch (pictured above). Those images were copied and spread worldwide as symbols of peace that represented a wish for a better future, not just a cessation of war.
Today, that peace dove is part of the general symbolic lexicon. While it certainly has roots in spiritual beliefs both pre-Christian and Christian, the symbol as it appears now is not overtly religious. That’s why all people, regardless of specific beliefs, can share its message of peace.
Over time, Picasso made many variations on the dove theme. The most popular feature the loose line drawing of the dove with either colored flowers or the suggestion of the olive branch. But there are others as well, including several drawings of the dove incorporated into the head of a female, as if it’s a continuation of the face (pictured above), as well as the woman’s face incorporated into the body of the dove. These haunting images seem to reflect a far older concept, of a goddess represented by the dove. It’s an interesting possibility, at least.
Sources and interesting reading:
“Ancient Greek Marble Relief of a Girl with Doves,” Metropolitan Museum of Art,www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art/viewOne.asp?dep=13&vie…
Boven, Jos P. V. “Female Holy Spirit in the Bible,” paper shared on Academia.edu, Academia.edu/19899990/FEMALE_HOLY_SPIRIT_IN_THE_BIBLE
Chou, Peter Y, “Dove Symbolism in Art, Myth, and Religion,” Wisdom Portal, https://www.wisdomportal.com/Columba/DoveSymbolismNotes.html
“Columbarium,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/columbarium
“Doves as symbols,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doves_as_symbols
“Dove of Peace, 1949” (Original title “La Colombe”) lithograph, 1949, The Tate, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/picasso-dove-p11366
“Dove of Peace, 1949 by Pablo Picasso,” image courtesy of pablopicasso.org
“Dove Symbolism,” Pure Spirit, www.pure-spirit.com/more-animal-symbolism/602-dove-symbolism
“Dove with Olive Branch as a Symbol of Peace,” Great Seal.com, www.greatseal.com/peace/dove.html
Ferber, Michael, “The Story of the Olive Branch,” 25 January 2017, https://www.ferbers.com/blog/olive-branch-history
Holy Bible: New International Version, Zondervan Bible Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988.
Klimczak, Natalia, “A Symbol of Peace, Victory, and Abundance: The Millennia-Old History of the Olive Tree,” Ancient Origins, 16 January 2017, https://www.ancient-origins.net/history/symbol-peace-victory-and-abundance-millenia-old-history-olive-tree-007379
Lewis, Richard, “The Dove: Picasso and Matisse,” Lewis Art Café, 9 March 2014, lewisartcafe.com/the-dove-picasso-and-matisse/
Miller, Iona, “Dove Goddess Sophia, Shekinah,” Ancestor and Archetypes, 2017, https://ancestorsandarchetypes.weebly.com/dove-goddess.html
“Oldest Olive Tree in the world located in Crete, Its age is estimated over 3,000 years old, Greece High Definition, 5 February 2019, https://www.greecehighdefinition.com/blog/2019/2/5/olest-olive-tree-in-the-world-located-in-crete-its-age-is-estimated-over-3000-years-old
“Olive Branch,” Wikipedia, https://wn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olive_branch
Patane, Dhanashree, “This is the Story of Why the Dove is a Symbol of Peace and Love,” Spiritual Ray, 23 February 2018, https://spiritualray.com/why-is-dove-symbol-of-peace-love
Santini, Steve, “The Pauline Usage of the Feminine Holy Spirit in Romans Chapter One: Addendum of The Feminine Gender of the Holy Spirit,” February 2018, https://www.musterion8.com/theiotes.html
“Shekinah,” definition, US Dictionary, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/shekinah
“The Story of the Olive Branch,” Ferbers Blog, 25 January 2017, https://www.ferbers.com/blog/olive-branch-history
Images of cards and mugs from the UNICEF catalog, Fall Collection 2019, unicefmarket.org
Wilson, Ralph F. “Early Christian Symbols in the Catacombs,” Early Christian Symbols, http://www.jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols/
Great Seal of the US by Andrew B. Graham – from illustration facing page 400 of The Eagle and the Shield by Richard Patterson and Richardson Dougall, 1978., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5816290
Dove tomb carving: By Dnalor 01 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32603350
Dove silver piece – Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2008-04-04, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=828051
Silver piece with Athena, owl and olive branch source; By Exekias – Flickr: An Exceptional and Important Greek Silver Tetradrachm of Athens (Attica), Among the Finest Known Late Archaic Athenian Tetradrachms, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15942192