The Dove by Umberto Eco

The first to speak of the dove were, as is only natural, the Egyptians, as early as the most ancient Hieroglyphica of Horapollon, and above its many other qualities, this animal was considered extremely pure, so much so that if there was a pestilence poisoning humans and things, the only ones immune were those who ate nothing but doves... Pliny said that if a dove falls ill, it plucks a bay leaf and is healed. And bay is laurel, and the laurel is Daphne. Enough said.

Christ is presented at the temple

 Left: Sacrificial doves.

But doves, pure as they are, are also a very sly symbol, because they exhaust themselves in their great lust: they spend the day kissing (redoubling their kisses reciprocally to shut each other up) and locking their tongues, which has inspired many lascivious expression such as to make the dove with the lips or exchange columbine kisses, to quote the casuists. And columbining, the poets said, means making love as the doves do, and as often. Nor must we forget that Roberto must have known those verses that go,

open quotesWhen in the bed, the ardent try their arts,
to nurture warm and lively yearning
just like a pair of doves, their hearts lust
and collect such kisses, burning. close quotes


It may be worthy of note, too, that while all other animals have a season for love, there is no time of year in which the male dove does not mount the female.

To begin at the beginning: doves come from Cyprus, island sacred to Venus. Apuleis, but also others before him, tells us that Venus's chariot is drawn by snow-white doves, called in fact the birds of Venus because of their excessive lust. Others recall that the Greeks called the dove περιστερα, because envious Eros changed into a dove the nymph Peristera, much loved by Venus. Peristera had helped defeat Eros in a contest to see who could gather the most flowers. But what does Apuleis mean when he says that Venus "loved" Peristera?

Aelianus says that doves were consecrated to Venus because on Mount Eryx in Sicily a feast was held when the goddess passed over Libya; on that day, in all of Sicily, no doves were seen, because all had crossed the sea to go and make up the goddess's train. But nine days later, from the Libyan shores there arrived in Trinacria a dove red as fire, as Anacreon says (and I beg you to remember this colour); and it was Venus herself, who is also called Purpurea, and behind her came the throng of doves. Aelianus also tells of a girl named Phytia whom the enamoured Jove transformed into a dove.

The Assyrians portrayed Semiramis in the form of a dove, and it was the doves who brought up Semiramis and later changed her into a dove. We all know that she was a woman of less than immaculate behaviour, but so beautiful that Scaurobates, King of the Indians, was seized with love for her. Semiramis, concubine of the King of Assyria, did not let a single day pass without committing adultery, and the historian Juba says that she even fell in love with a horse.

But an amorous symbol is forgiven many things, and it never ceases to attract poets: hence (and we can be sure Roberto knew this) Petrarch asked himself: What grace, what love or what fate - will give me the feathers of a dove? and Bandello wrote:

open quotesThis dove whose ardour equals mine
is ardent Love burning in cruel fire
he goes seeking in every place
his mate, and dies of his desire.close quotes

  the orange dove

Doves, however, are something more and better than any Semiramis, and we fall in love with them because they have this other, most tender characteristic: they weep or moan instead of singing, as if all that sated passion never satisfied them. Idem cantus gemitusque, said an Emblem of Camerarius; Gemitibus Gaudet, said another even more erotically fascinating. And maddening.

And yet the fact that these birds kiss and are so lewd - and here is a fine contradiction that distinguishes the dove - is also proof that they are totally faithful, and hence they are also the symbol of chastity, in the sense of conjugal fidelity. And this, too, Pliny said: Though most amorous, they have a great sense of modesty and do not know adultery. Their conjugal fidelity is asserted both by the pagan Propertius and by Tertullian. It is said, true, that in the rare instances when they suspect adultery, the males become bullies, their voice is full of lament and the blows of their beak are cruel. But immediately thereafter, in reparation, the male woos the female, and flatters her, circling her frequently. And this idea - that mad jealousy foments love and then a renewed fidelity, and then kissing each other to infinity and in every season - seems very beautiful to me and, as we shall see, it seemed beautiful to Roberto as well.

How can you help but love an image that promises you fidelity? Fidelity even after death, because once its companion is gone, this bird never unites with another. The dove was thus chosen as the symbol for chaste widowhood. Ferro recalls the story of a widow who, profoundly saddened by the death of her husband, kept at her side a white dove, and was reproached for it, to which she replied, Dolor non color, it is the sorrow that matters, not the colour.

In short, lascivious or not, their devotion to love leads Origen to say that doves are the symbol of charity. And for this reason, according to Saint Cyprian, the Holy Spirit comes to us in the form of a dove, for not only is the animal without bile, but also its claws do not scratch, nor does it bite. It loves human dwellings naturally, recognises only one home, feeds its young, and spends its life in quiet conversation, living with its mate in the concord - in this case irreproachable - of a kiss. Whence it is seen that kissing can also be the sign of great love of one's neighbour, and the Church has adopted the ritual of the kiss of peace. It was the custom of the Romans to welcome and greet one another with a kiss, also between men and women. Malicious scholiasts say that they did this because women were forbidden to drink wine and kissing them was a way of checking their breath, but the Numidians were considered vulgar because they kissed no one but their children.

Since all people hold air to be the most noble element, they have honoured the dove, which flies higher than the other birds and yet always returns faithfully to its nest. Which, to be sure, the swallow also does, but no one has ever managed to make it a friend of our species and domesticate it, as the dove has been. Saint Basil, for example, reports that dove-vendors sprinkled a dove with aromatic balm, and, attracted by that, the other doves followed the first in a great host. Odore trahit. I do not know if it has much to do with what I said above, but this scented benevolence touches me, this sweet-smelling purity, this seductive chastity.

The dove is not only chaste and faithful, but also simple (columbina simplicitas: Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves, says the Bible), and for this reason it is sometimes the symbol of the life of the convent and the cloister. And how does that fit with all these kisses? Never mind.

Another source of fascination is the trepiditas of the dove: its Greek name, τρήρων, derives certainly from τρέω, I flee, trembling. Homer, Ovid, Virgil all speak of this (Timorous as pigeons during a black storm), and we must remember that doves live always in terror of the eagle or, worse, the hawk. In Valerian we read how, for this very reason, they nest in inaccessible places for protection (hence the device Secura nidificat); and Jeremiah also recalls this, as Psalm 55 cries out, Oh that I had wings live a dove! for them I would fly away, and be at rest.

The Jews said that doves and turtledoves are the most persecuted of birds, and therefore worthy of the altar, for it is better to be the persecuted than the persecutor. But according to Aretino, not meek like the Jews, he who makes himself a dove is eaten by the falcon. But Epiphanius says that the dove never protects itself against traps, and Augustine repeated that not only does the dove put up no opposition to large animals, stronger than it, but it is submissive even toward the sparrow.

A legend goes that in India there is a verdant leafy tree that in Greek is called παραδισιον. On its right side live the doves, who never move from the shade it spreads; if they were to leave the tree, they would fall prey to the dragon, their enemy. But the dragon's enemy is the tree's shade, and when the shade is to the right, he lies in ambush to the left, and vice versa.

Still, trepid as the dove is, it has something of the serpent's cunning, and if on the Island there was a dragon, the Orange Dove would know what to do. It seems a dove always flies over water, for if a hawk attacks, the dove will see the raptor's reflection. In short, does the bird defend itself or not?

With all these various and even extraordinary qualities, the dove has also been made a mystic symbol, and I need not bore the reader with the story of the Flood and the role played by this bird in announcing peace, calm and newly emerging land. But for many sacred authors it is also an emblem of the Mater Dolorosa and of her helpless weeping. And of her it is said Intus et extra, because she is pure outside and inside. Sometimes the dove is portrayed breaking the rope that keeps her prisoner, Effracto libera vinculo, and she becomes the figure of Christ risen from the dead. Further, the dove arrives, it seems certain, at dusk, so as not to be surprised by the night, and therefore not to be arrested by death before having dried the stains of sin. And it is worth mentioning, as we have already indicated, the teaching of John: I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove.

[Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, tr. William Weaver]

ornament no.4 HOME TOP OF PAGE MENU ornament no.4