Of the peacock The peacock gets its name, pavo, from the sound of its cry. Its flesh is so hard that it hardly decays and it cannot easily be cooked. A certain poet said of it: ‘You are lost in admiration, whenever it spreads its jewelled wings; can you consign it, hard-hearted woman, to the unfeeling cook?’ (Martial, Epigrams, xiii, 70) ‘Solomon’s fleet went to Tharsis once every three years and brought from there gold and silver, elephants’ teeth and apes, and peacocks’ (see 2 Chronicles, 10: 21).
Tharsis we take to mean the search for joy. There is the joy of this world and the joy of the world to come. The joy of this life is limited. But the joy of the life to come is wholly unlimited. Pain and sadness each follow the joy of this life. But neither pain nor sadness follows the life to come. Joy in this world consists of being elevated by honours, enjoying to the full and for the moment things which are transitory, enjoying a wide circle of relations and taking pleasure in their company. But when you are deprived of your honours or robbed of your possessions, when one of your friends dies, then grief follows. Joy in this world, therefore, is always mingled with sadness.
Once every three years the fleet of Solomon is sent across the sea to Tharsis. Solomon’s fleet is the virtue of confession. In this fleet we are transported across the sea of this world, that we might not be drowned in it. The fleet is sent to Tharsis, therefore, from where it is said to bring back gold, silver, elephants’ tusks, apes and peacocks. There is said to be gold and silver in Tharsis, that is, men eminent in their wisdom, skilled in their oratory. When they earnestly desire the joy of this world, they gain knowledge of themselves; and when they come with Solomon’s fleet to Jerusalem, there in the peace of the Church they become purer through confession.
From this purest of gold, King Solomon made golden shields. The shields of gold are those who live chastely and defend others from the attacks of the Devil. In addition, from the silver mentioned above, silver trumpets were made, that is, the teachers of the Church. The fleet also brought apes and peacocks, that is, the mockers and the effete, so that those who had been, in Tharsis, scoffers and pleasure-seekers might live with humility in the peace of conversion. Solomon’s fleet also brought back elephants’ tusks, that is, the proud with their disparaging words. For when the proud speak disparagingly of the good works of ordinary people, it is as if they gnawed with their teeth on these people’s bones. Note that the tusks of elephants are of ivory. And from ivory the the throne of Solomon was made. For those who had been accustomed to live by preying on others, by submitting themselves to Solomon, thereafter furnished a seat for others to sit on.
Once every three years Solomon’s fleet used to go to Tharsis. In moral terms, the first year is meditation; the second, discourse; the third, action. When confession treats of all three stages together, it is as if a voyage is made by Solomon’s servants to Tharsis once every three years. But, as history relates, ‘Jehosaphat, king of Judah, built sea-going fleets, that they might sail to Ophir for gold; and they could not, for they were wrecked at Asiongaber’ (see 1 Kings, 22:48). Jehosaphat we take to mean ‘judging’; Judah, ‘confession’. Jehosaphat is called ‘king of Judah’ because judgement governs confession. For when a sinner judges himself in confession, then it is as if King Jehosaphat ruled in Judah. But Ophir is taken to mean ‘grassland’. We call ground which has not been cultivated ‘grassland’. It is deep in grass, producing a sense of pleasure. The effete sit on the grass, and the indolent lie on it. They sit endlessly, they lie wantonly. This stretch of grass is the world, barren and infertile. Jehosaphat’s fleet, therefore, seeks to go to Ophir for gold, as we might seek purity of mind, waiting for the destruction of the world. But while they were at Asion Gaber, Jehosaphat’s fleet is said to have been wrecked. Gaber, as Jerome says, means ‘young’ or ‘strong’. It is not surprising, therefore, if the rashness of youth wrecks the fleet of confession. Since we have said a great deal by way of introduction, it remains for us Next to discuss the peacock, the subject we intended to deal with.
The peacock, as Isidore says, gets its name from the sound of its cry. For when it starts, unexpectedly, to give its cry, it produces sudden fear in its hearers. The peacock is called pavo, therefore, from pavor, fear, since its cry produces fear in those who hear it. When the peacock lives it Tharsis, it signifies the effete. But when it is brought by the fleet to Jerusalem, it represents learned teachers. The peacock has hard flesh, resistant to decay, which can only with difficulty be cooked over a fire by a cook, or can scarcely be digested in the stomach, because of the heat of its liver. Such are the minds of teachers; they neither burn with the flame of desire, nor are they set alight by the heat of lust. The peacock has a fearful voice, an unaffected walk, a serpent’s head and a sapphire breast. It also has on its wings feathers tinged with red. In addition, it has a long tail, covered with what I might call ‘eyes’. The peacock has a fearful voice, as does a preacher when he threatens sinners with the unquenchable fire of Gehenna. It walks in an unaffected way, in the sense that the preacher does not overstep the bounds of humility in his behaviour. It has a serpent’s head, as the preacher’s mind is held in check by wise circumspection. But the sapphire colour of its breast signifies that the preacher longs in his mind for heaven. The red colour in the the peacock’s feathers signifies his love of contemplation. The length of the tail indicates the length of the life to come. The fact the peacock seems to have eyes in its tail, is a reference to every teacher’s capacity to foresee the danger that threatens each of us at the end. The colour green, [on the peacock’s serpent-like head], is also present in the tail, that the end might match the beginning. The diversity of the peacock’s colouring, therefore, signifies the diversity of the virtues. Note also that the peacock, when it is praised, raises its tail, in the same way that any churchman gets ideas above his station out of vainglory at the praise of flatterers.
The peacock sets out its feathers in an orderly fashion; in the same way, a teacher believes that no matter he does, he has done it in an orderly way. But when the peacock lifts its tail, it exposes its rear, in the same way that whatever is praised in the conduct of the teacher is derided when he succumbs to pride. The peacock, therefore, should keep its tail down, just as what a teacher does, he should do with humility.