אַז די פאַווע קוקט אויף אירע פֿעדערן – קוועלטזי, אָבער אַז זי קוקט אויף אירע דאַרע פֿיס- וויינט זי”
“When the peacock is looking at its feathers she (in Yiddish peacock is always feminine) is happy and when she looks at her scrawny legs she cries”)
The Peacock who discharges water from its beak to perform the ritual ablution is the sixth Peacock that we encounter in al-Jazari’s book; four peacocks in the water clock of the peacocks and another one in the basin of the peacock (in Hebrew). It’s time to talk about peacocks and many thanks to Dr. Shoey Raz that his comment sent me to this journey.
How does it work?
The technical explanation, as always, will be colored in blue, so anyone who is not interested in siphons can skip those bits. The hollow peacock is quite similar to in the Basin of the peacock, which was already explained. It is made from copper large enough to contain the water needed for the ablution washing. Its curved neck is a siphon. A siphon is a tube in an inverted “U” shape, which causes a liquid to flow upward, above the surface of a reservoir, with no pump, but powered by the pull of gravity. I wrote more on siphons here. The peacock is a water container, hollow as far as the beginning of its neck. The tail is divided halfway up by a plate, so that the upper half of the tail forms a separate chamber, while the lower half is connected to the main reservoir. Al-Jazari made a secret plug with an extension which reaches to the top of the peacock’s tail. A siphon would only work when the water in the peacock reservoir reaches the bend of the siphon. Water is poured into the belly of the peacock until it rises to a point beneath the curve. To start the ritual ablutions, a servant puts it down on a handsome pedestal in front of the king, rotates the valve slightly, the valve opens, and the water from the upper chamber flows into the peacock’s belly, and water flows through the siphon into the peacock’s beak and the ablution ceremony begins.
The peacock as a symbol
The Peacock is a native Indian subcontinent and serves as the national bird, but he has a long history in the Middle East. The Greeks discovered the Peacock following the conquest of Alexander the Great. However, they still managed to insert it into the Greek myths:
In one of his attempts to hide his infidelities, Zeus turned his lover, a water nymph named Io to a beautiful white Heifer. Personally, I find it a little insulting although Hera connection to the cow symbol is ancient and has to do with being the goddess of motherhood and fertility. Hera, who suspected (rightfully so!) the Zeus is chasing other women again, begged Zeus to give her the heifer as a present, which, having no reason to refuse, he did. Hera then sent Argus, a giant who had 100 eyes, to watch Io and prevent Zeus from visiting her. Argus’s eyes turned him into the ideal guard – while some slept, others were awake and open. Zeus sent Hermes to distract and eventually slay Argus and Hera transferred all his eyes to the tail of a peacock to thank and honor her loyal servant. The importance of Peacock in legends and myths is understood. The green, deep blue colors, won him the admiration and awe. The “eyes” on the tail were seen as a sign of comprehensive vision and wisdom.
I heard of the Yazidis only because of the horrible genocide by ISIS, but they have an exciting and unusual religion. According to their creation story, God was originally “over the seas,” a notion reminiscent of the Biblical passage: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” playing with a white pearl. The pearl was broken and became the substance from which the Earth and other planets were formed. Then God created Tawûsê Melek (in Kurdish: طاووس ملك) translated to English as Peacock Angel with six other angles known as ‘the Seven Mysteries.’ All seven are part of God and not separated from him, fragments of God’s light, like Rainbow colors, are the light refractions. Tawûsê Melek is associated with the blue color while at the same time is the source of all other colors/angels. When Tawûsê Melek came to earth, the Peacock was(is?) the physical embodiment of the Rainbow. You can read more on the Yazidi religion and the Peacock Angel here [in Hebrew].
In Islam, there is more than one perception of the peacock. Some claim that the beauty of the peacock tail is a proof of Allah capability to create beauty to satisfy men passion for grace, and they rely on the Quran, Surah 35:27:
“Do you not see that Allah sent down water from the sky with which We brought forth fruits of diverse hues? In the mountains, there are white and red, of diverse hues, and pitchy black; and human beings too, and beasts, and cattle? Diverse are their hues. From among His servants, it is only those who know that fear Allah.”
It’s amusing to know that Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, was confused by the beauty of the peacock tail and thought (in error) that this contradicts or at least not support his theory of evolution. In a letter to Asa Gray, an American botanist, he wrote:
“The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”
In the Hadith Bihar al-Anwar, a comprehensive collection of traditions compiled by Shia Muslim scholar Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi I found this beautiful tale:
“Glory be to Allah, the King, the Holy. Glory be to Allah, the Great, the Most High. There is no god except Allah, the Living and Self Subsisting. ” Whenever the Angel would say this tasbih [repetitive utterances of short sentences in the praise and glorification of Allah] all the peacocks that are on the Earth would start to praise Allah and open their wings up in respect (of Allah). Whenever this Angel in the heaven would become quiet, the peacocks on the Earth would become quiet. The Angel in the heaven had green hair and white wings, so white that no one has ever seen anything that white before.”
There is also this sermon from Imam Ali, the cousin, and son-in-law of Muhammad, the last prophet of Sunni Islam and the first rightful successor to Muhammad by Shia Muslims which is strangely similar to the Yiddish motto:
“The peacock walks with vanity and pride, and throws open its tail and wings and laughs admiring the handsomeness of its dress and the hues of its necklace of gems. But when it casts its glance at its legs, it cries loudly with a voice which indicates its call for help and displays its true grief, because its legs are thin like the legs of Indo-Persian cross-bred cocks.”
There’s additional material about the Peacock in Islam and other cultures, but I can’t conclude this section without writing that peacocks from India appear already in the Bible:
“For the king’s ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.” (KJV Chronicles II, Chapter 9, verse 21)
In Hebrew, the text is “Tukii” which in Modern Hebrew means Parrot. However, most translators and commentators believe that the original meaning was peacocks mainly because, in Tamil, the language spoken in Southeast India, Peacock is named Tukii.
Did al-Jazari know the Greek mythology story about Io and Hera? I doubt that very much. Did he know the stories about the Peacock from the Muslim tradition? More likely, but we will never know. Maybe he just liked peacocks? We have only our imagination, and all answers are right.