The Enduring Symbolism of Doves

From ancient icon to Biblical mainstay

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on October 1, 2013. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

In addition to its symbolism for the Holy Spirit, the dove was a popular Christian symbol before the cross rose to prominence in the fourth century. The dove continued to be used for various church implements throughout the Byzantine and medieval period, including the form of oil lamps and this 13th-century altar piece for holding the Eucharistic bread. Credit: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Few symbols have a tradition as long and as rich as the dove. A particular favorite in art and iconography, the dove often represents some aspect of the divine, and its use has been shared, adapted and reinterpreted across cultures and millennia to suit changing belief systems. From the ancient world to modern times, this simple bird developed layer upon layer of meaning and interpretive significance, making it a complex and powerful addition to religious texts and visual representations.

In the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, the dove became an iconic symbol of the mother goddess. Small clay shrines from the Iron Age Levant depict doves perched atop the doorways of these mini-temples. On one example from Cyprus, the entire exterior of the goddess’s shrine is covered with dovecotes. The doves represented feminine fertility and procreation, and came to be well-recognized symbols of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and her counterpart Astarte, as well as her Phoenician and later Punic embodiment, Tanit. First-century B.C. coins from Ashkelon bore a dove, which represented both the goddess Tyche-Astarte and the city mint. In Rome and throughout the Empire, goddesses such as Venus and Fortunata could be seen depicted in statues with a dove resting in their hand or on their head.

There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah was the consort of their god Yahweh. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the heirs of this Israelite religion incorporated the “feminine” symbol of the dove to represent the spirit of God (the word for “spirit,” ruach, is a feminine word in Hebrew). The Babylonian Talmud likens the hovering of God’s spirit in Genesis 1:2 to the hovering of a dove. Indeed, this same “hovering” language is used to describe God’s spirit in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as the New Testament.


A dove and two bird-like female figures perch atop this Iron Age house shrine to symbolize Asherah and her counterparts Astarte and Tanit. Credit: Ardon Bar Hama.

Dovecotes, or niches for doves, dot the exterior of this small clay house shrine from Cyprus, while the goddess beckons to devotees from within. Credit: Erich Lessing.


 

 
In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.
 

 
But that is not the only allusion to a dove in the Hebrew Bible. The best-known example comes from the flood story of Genesis 6—9. In Genesis 8:8—12, after the ark has landed on the mountains of Ararat, Noah sends out a dove three times to see how far the flood waters have receded. The first time it found nothing and returned to the ark. The second time it brought back an olive leaf, so Noah could see that God’s punishment was over and life had begun again on the earth. (The image of a dove holding an olive branch continues to be a symbol of peace to this day.) The third time, the dove did not return, and Noah knew that it was safe to leave the ark. A similar flood story is told in parallel passages in the ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. There, too, the hero (Utnapishtim) sends out a dove, which returns to the ship unable to find a perch. In fact, from Ancient Near Eastern records to nautical practices as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. So, while Noah made use of an ancient sailor’s trick, the dove came to represent a sign from God.

A white dove represents the spirit of God in Genesis 1:2 in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Nuovo in Monreale, Italy. Credit: Casa Editrice Mistretta, Palermo, Italy.

Dove imagery is also utilized in several of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. The low, cooing sound of a dove served as mournful imagery to evoke the suffering of the people of Judah (see Isaiah 38:14, 59:11; Ezekiel 7:16 and others).


A dove returns to Noah’s ark with an olive branch in its beak, a sign that life had returned to the earth after the great flood. Sailors throughout history have used birds to guide them to dry land. Credit: Victoria & Albert Picture Library.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian narrative that has several parallels in the early chapters of Genesis, tells the story of Utnapishtim, who (much like Noah) survived a flood that destroyed the earth and sent out a dove to try and find dry land. Credit: The British Museum.

But doves were more than just a soundtrack for a people who had fallen away from God; they were also an instrument of atonement. Several passages of the Torah (especially Leviticus) specify occasions that require the sacrifice of two doves (or young pigeons)—either as a guilt offering or to purify oneself after a period of ritual impurity (including the birth of a child). Several columbaria, or dovecotes, have been excavated in the City of David and the Jerusalem environs. These towers were undoubtedly used to raise doves for sacrificial offerings, as well as for the meat and fertilizer they provided—a popular practice in the Hellenistic and Roman periods that continued into the modern period.

Columbaria, or dovecotes, have been discovered in archaeological excavations in Jerusalem and throughout the Holy Land. The scarce remains of the tower on the left show a few rows of niches still standing in the City of David, whereas the underground dovecotes such as the one on the right, from Luzit, have been remarkably well preserved. Doves and pigeons were raised for their meat, and their droppings were collected for fertilizer, but they also played an important role in Temple sacrifice. Credit: Boaz Zissu.

The atoning quality of doves led to comparisons in the Talmud and the Targums with Isaac and Israel. According to these extra-Biblical sources, just as a dove stretches out its neck, so too did Isaac prepare to be sacrificed to God, and later Israel took on this stance to atone for the sins of other nations.

Thus, by the time of Jesus, the dove was already rich with symbolism and many interpretations—as a representation of Israel, atoning sacrifice, suffering, a sign from God, fertility and the spirit of God. All these meanings and more were incorporated into the Christian use of dove iconography.

Doves appear in the New Testament at scenes associated with Jesus’ birth, baptism and just before his death. The Gospel of Luke says that Mary and Joseph sacrificed two doves at the Temple following the birth of Jesus, as was prescribed in the law mentioned above (Luke 2:24). Yet in the Gospel of John, Jesus angrily drives out all of the merchants from the Temple, including “those who sold doves” to worshipers there (John 2:16).


During Benjamin Mazar’s excavations at the southwest corner of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, he recovered a stone bowl that bore the inscription korban (“sacrifice”), as well as finely scratched drawings of two upside-down (dead) birds. The bowl was probably intended for devout Jews to bring their offering of two doves or pigeons to the Temple for sacrifice, as commanded in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. Credit: Erich Lessing.

The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, as shown in a 14th-century Byzantine mosaic from the Baptistery in the Church of San Marco in Venice. Credit: Alinari/Art Resource, NY.

But perhaps the most familiar dove imagery from the New Testament is recounted in all four of the Gospels (though in varying forms) at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. After Jesus came up out of the water, the [Holy] Spirit [of God] came from heaven and descended on him “like a dove” (see Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32). The baptism story built on the pre-existing symbol of the dove as God’s spirit (and its many other meanings) and firmly entrenched it as the preferred representation of the Holy Spirit—especially in later artistic depictions of the Trinity.
 


 
Learn about the use of pagan imagery in Christian art in “Borrowing from the Neighbors” in Bible History Daily.
 

 
In Renaissance art, a dove became a standard element in the formulaic Annunciation scene, representing the Holy Spirit about to merge with the Virgin Mary. Doves were also shown flying into the mouths of prophets in Christian art as a sign of God’s spirit and divine authority. Even contemporary pop artist Andy Warhol used a (much more commercial) image of a Dove to represent the Holy Spirit in his, The Last Supper (Dove).


“The Word” enters Mary via rays of light emanating from a dove (representing the Holy Spirit) in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation scene. Credit: National Gallery, London.

This strange juxtaposition of modern brand labels and a classic Last Supper scene in Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper (Dove) nonetheless has hidden religious meaning. The dove hovers over Jesus’ head, representing the Holy Spirit, while the GE logo represents God the Father by recalling their famous slogan, “We bring good things to light.” Credit: © 1996 The Andy Warhol Foundation, Inc./Artists Rights Society, NY.

Another source associates a dove with the beginning of Jesus’ life. According to the second-century Protoevangelium of James, when the Temple priests were trying to choose a husband for Mary, a dove flew out of Joseph’s rod and landed on his head, marking him as the one selected by God. In fairytales throughout the world, birds have often been used to signify the “chosen one,” the true king or even the divine.

Before the cross gained prominence in the fourth century, the second-century church father Clement of Alexandria urged early Christians to use the dove or a fish as a symbol to identify themselves and each other as followers of Jesus. Archaeologists have recovered oil lamps and Eucharistic vessels in the shape of doves from Christian churches throughout the Holy Land.

Since ancient times the dove was used to identify and represent the divine. It then helped countless peoples to envision and understand the many aspects of a God who could not be embodied by an idol or statue. It continues to be a favorite way to show the hand and presence of God in the world and remains one of our most enduring symbols.
 


 
Dorothy D. Resig was the Managing Editor of Biblical Archaeology Review.
 

 

Related reading in the BAS Library:

This Place Is for the Birds, BAR 35:03, May/Jun 2009
By Boaz Zissu

A Temple Built for Two, BAR 34:02, Mar/Apr 2008
By William G. Dever

Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, BAR 33:02, Mar/Apr 2007

The Spade Hits Sussita, BAR 32:03, May/Jun 2006
By Michael Eisenberg and Arthur Segal

The Untouchables: Scholars Fear to Publish Ancient House Shrine, BAR 31:06, Nov/Dec 2005

Sister Wendy’s Top Twenty Biblical Paintings, BR 21:01, Feb 2005
By Sister Wendy Beckett

George Smith’s Other Find: The Babylonian Flood Tablet, BR 21:01, Feb 2005

Where John Baptized, BAR 31:01, Jan/Feb 2005

Past Perfect: Among the Vulgarians, AO 6:05, Sep/Oct 2003

“How Can This Be?”, BR 18:06, Dec 2002
By David R. Cartlidge

Seven Luminous Days, BR 18:04, Aug 2002
By Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt

The Favored One, BR 17:03, Jun 2001
By David R. Cartlidge and Ronald F. Hock

Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel, BAR 27:03, May/Jun 2001
By Ephraim Stern

Gallery, BR 14:04, Aug 1998
By Oscar Wilde

Posted in Daily Life and Practice.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Add Your Comments

39 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Gnarlodious says

    You forgot to mention that the dove is a bird that nourishes its young with milk (bird milk), which must have been interpreted as a divine attribute of maternity. It could even be argued that the maternal aspects of doves (hovering, kiving milk) and its connection to spirituality is a remnant of a long lost vision of God as female.

    Some say that the “manna from heaven” was in fact bird milk extracted from doves, as the Israel region is known to host vast flocks migrating between Europe and Africa. “Manna” may have been used as a euphemism for the bird itself. The ease of catching them on the ground and the name of מָנָה=portion can refer to the one-meal size of the bird. The bird is kosher, and the migrating bird would be muscular enough to satisfy a hungry Israelite.

  2. Francis says

    Hi,
    Thanks for the article you wrote about the
    The Enduring Symbolism of Doves. I am the editor of a magazine called “Il-Presepju” issued by the Maltese Friends of the Crib-Malta and I would like to translate it in Maltese and publish it. I would like your permission to do so. I really appreciate it if it is in the affermative. I would list from where I got the article.
    Thanks
    Frans Chircop

  3. robert says

    I think a mention by Jesus that his followers were to be as harmless as doves would be fitting…since today most churches bless their males who go off to wars and be anything but dove-like.

  4. Alfredo says

    In Hebrew, yônâh (yo-naw’) is dove. It probably comes from the same root as yayin (yah’-yin) = “from an unused root meaning to effervesce; wine (as fermented); by implication intoxication: – banqueting, wine, wine [-bibber].” Thus, in Acts they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) making them act as if they were mestoō (mes-to’-o), greek for intoxicated (Acts 2:13)

  5. aa says

    See also : Ziffer, Irit. 1998 “O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock. The dove allegory in antiquity”. Exibition catalogue by Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

  6. Rose says

    There are a lot of doves in the engravings from the works of Jacob Boehme (1682).

    http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/jpg/Weg_zu_Christ.jpeg

    http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/jpg/Send-Briefe.jpeg

    http://www.esoteric.msu.edu/jpg/De_Testamentis_Christi.jpeg

  7. michael says

    hi
    it’s worth remebering that the association of doves with gods and goddesses extends deeply in to the Greek world, as well as the Holy Land – refer to Roman coins that show the snctuary of Aphrodite in Cyprus that clearly show doves flanking the alter. Equally usage of doves as ritual offerings reach in to other Semitic settings in the classical period – there is a well known, but so far undated, columbarium at Petra! And many, including me, believe that the “grooves” along side the main facade of the Khazneh in Petra are dovecotes, and thus associated in some way with whatever ritual took place in, or outside, that building.

  8. JAllan says

    One of the ideas promoted in the Bible is the presence of Divine Power and majesty disguised in “ordinary” or “unimpressive” people, things and circumstances: God with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt; God with Naomi and her daughters-in-law in Edom, all three widowed; and of course Jesus, divinity incarnate in a lowly peasant baby, and later as a rebel peasant dying the most painful and degraded death.

    I see an analogy with doves and pigeons. Even outside of the Judeo-Christian community, doves are considered noble and beautiful, while their wild pigeon cousins are despised, and sometimes called “flying rats” because of their overpopulation in urban environments. So, the pigeon perceived by divine inspiration as a dove is like the perception of the divine and majestic in the lowliest and most common people and things.

  9. D says

    An amazing use of the dove to represent the soul or spirit comes toward the end of the classic science fiction movie, Blade Runner, based loosely on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? A replicant (android hard to distinguish from human) named Roy Batty is about to be turned off (die?). When he shuts down, a dove he is holding flies away. Was he human after all, and are the replicants perhaps morally superior?

    I don’t know if the director (Ridley Scott) or someone else involved with the movie got this idea from the original novel, as I can’t find it there. Dick was a strange, strange man, but also a devoted Anglo-Catholic after his own fashion. The poignant tension brought out so forcefully in the movie is, who is human, or who is not? The dove, representing the soul, may provide the answer.

  10. HANS PETER says

    The dove appears also prominently on the Phaistos Disk as a symbol for the mother goddess and is there already associated with the “initiation” of the ray-haired head that represents the sun god. The ancient initiation ceremony was a forerunner of baptism, and the presence of the dove in this “initiation” context confirms the continuity of this symbolism. For details, see http://phaistosgame.com/Phaistos38.htm

  11. andrew says

    is it real or fake (not real)

  12. http://www.momonokai.com says

    Thanks to my father who informed me about this web site, this webpage
    is in fact amazing.

  13. Sonobie says

    Hi
    Thank you for this wonderful information, it was quite helpful. Long story short … I was out on my morning walk, and was taking this quiet moment to pray and talk to God about some issues me and my family are facing. Upon me returning home I was praising God and thanking him, because I know my heart is fixed, trusting in his word. I looked in front of me was a dove, just crossing my path. I knew it was a sign from God. His promise.

  14. Kim says

    Very enjoyable article. Thank you.

  15. 専営店 says

    I quite like looking through an article that will make
    men and women think. Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

  16. 検査合格 says

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this post plus the
    rest of the website is also really good.

  17. アウトレット says

    Hello There. I discovered your weblog the usage of msn. This is a very smartly
    written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read extra of your useful info.

    Thank you for the post. I will definitely return.

  18. Kathy says

    You said: “There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that many ancient Israelites believed the goddess Asherah was the consort of their god Yahweh.” Where would I be able to find evidence that supports this idea? Thanks.

  19. Barbara says

    Ionnes, meaning ‘the dove’, was the Greek word for the constellations Aquarius, the Water bearer and associated constellation Aquila the Eagle. According to 5th century astronomer Manilius, the twelve signs of the zodiac each belonged to one of the twelve gods of Olympus, and Aquarius belonged to the queen of the gods, the Greek Hera, or Roman Juno. So, yes, the dove was the symbol of the mother goddess, or queen of the gods.

    As for the above interesting entry from Alfredo,
    In Hebrew, yônâh (yo-naw’) is dove. It probably comes from the same root as yayin (yah’-yin) = “from an unused root meaning to effervesce; wine (as fermented); by implication intoxication: – banqueting, wine, wine [-bibber].” Thus, in Acts they were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) making them act as if they were mestoō (mes-to’-o), greek for intoxicated (Acts 2:13)

    This would make good sense. Greek Ionnes = Hebrew yonah, since i,j, and y are the same letter in ancient Hebrew. And since Aquarius is famously holding a cup, and is the cup bearer for the gods in legend, yes, banqueting, wine and fermentation would be all associated with this.

  20. Carmen says

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes
    which will make the greatest changes. Thanks a lot
    for sharing!

  21. henry says

    Rumour has it that the dove has 9 main feathers on its wings ,similarly 9 fruits of the Spirit and 9 gifts of the Spirit and 5 main feathers in the tail ,similarly 5 types of pastors ,apostles ,prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers Ephesians 4:11

  22. Felix says

    Doves were the offerings of the poorest people of Israel,maybe symbolizes the Holy Spirit and the predilection and alliance of the God’s people.

  23. Jennifer says

    I was laying in my hammock the other day, while reading “God came near” And I just felt son peaceful and happy. My eyes grew heavy and I decided to rest them for a moment but I was still awake. Suddenly as I closed my eyes I saw a dove. It was a flash, but it reminded me of the dove from Noah’s Ark, with the olive branch. I felt such a sweet peace and I know that it was from God as I am so very close to him and seeking him wholheartedly. But Id love to hear if anyone else has had such an experience.

  24. Linda says

    Today is July 25, 2014. Last month, June 23rd, a couple of mourning doves appeared on the ledge of my patio. Now, my living room is facing my patio so I can sit on my sofa and watch them. From day one they worked together, he flying away bringing back whatever she needed to build a nest. She, Angel, I call her, would sit there just mending things together (so beautifully), and stare at me. I don’t know quite what day the eggs hatched, but around July 15, a beautiful green beetle; that has been following me ever since the birds moved in, flew up to my bedroom window buzzing so loud my left ear starting hurting. I went to look at my little angels and daddy dove, Adam, I call him, was sitting on the nest and then two little heads popped up. OMG! They were so big within the next coupe of days, that they were spreading their wings. On July 22nd, I went out and they were gone. But not far, on the 23rd while walking my dog, two little doves were just walking in front of me,(I knew it was them) I said something and they flew upon a gate but stayed around on the mailbox roof. Later the parent doves were flying with one of them and chased him on me ledge, where he stayed for a little while. Today one flew from tree and in front on me. I keep finding feathers from them and other birds. I hope they stay around forever. Now this darn Beetle is another story! lol

  25. Linda says

    Oh and I love your link and the post! Thank you for having it and thanks for letting me post! Many Blessings to all!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. literaryloudmouth linked to this post on September 1, 2013

    [...] symbolism, the dove was a feminine symbol often associated with fertility and the spirit of God (Biblical Archaeology). I found this gem of information most interesting as the fifteenth chapter of Genesis is all about [...]

  2. Day 3 | The Cypress Scroll linked to this post on December 7, 2013

    [...] “Dove” Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… [...]

  3. Why was God described as being “like a dove” in Mark? | There's no such thing as a stupid question linked to this post on February 1, 2014

    [...] end of God baptizing the world with water to destroy the evil in it. According to Jewish tradition, the sacrifice of two doves was done either as a guilt offering or to purify oneself after a period ….  This ritual would make the association of purifying oneself with the dove and baptism is also a [...]

  4. Motre on the Noah Flood in its context | Makes You Wonder Resources linked to this post on February 2, 2014

    [...] of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is [...]

  5. The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet | newsantiques.com linked to this post on February 18, 2014

    [...] as a building of an ark, a fixation of animals in a ark, a alighting of a ark on a mountain, and a sending onward of birds to see either a waters had receded prove utterly clearly that a Genesis inundate story is closely [...]

  6. 9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah – The Gospel Coalition Blog linked to this post on March 27, 2014

    […] as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves, ravens, and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. A raven will fly directly toward land, so it's line of flight can be used as a guide. Doves have a […]

  7. 9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah | My Blog linked to this post on March 28, 2014

    […] as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves, ravens, and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. A raven will fly directly toward land, so it’s line of flight can be used as a guide. Doves […]

  8. 9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah – The Gospel Coalition Blog | The Peanut Gallery linked to this post on March 28, 2014

    […] as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves, ravens, and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. A raven will fly directly toward land, so it’s line of flight can be used as a guide. Doves […]

  9. 9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah | A disciple's study linked to this post on March 31, 2014

    […] as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves, ravens, and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. A raven will fly directly toward land, so it’s line of flight can be used as a guide. Doves […]

  10. 9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah | Istorie Evanghelica linked to this post on April 1, 2014

    […] as recent as the 19th century, sailors the world over used doves, ravens, and other birds to help them find and navigate toward land. A raven will fly directly toward land, so it’s line of flight can be used as a guide. Doves […]

  11. The Dove and The Raven | savannaclaudia linked to this post on September 1, 2014

    […] to Dorothy Willette, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-enduring-symbo…, “There is strong evidence in the Hebrew Bible, as well as the archaeological record, that […]

  12. Greece in the news: Platonic sculpture in Paris! | The Library of Antiquity linked to this post on October 22, 2014

    […] A very brief interview with the sculptor only sort-of clears things up. He refers to the sculptures’ embodiment of “Plato’s transcendental doctrine: kindness, truth, beauty.” I’m not sure what Plato he read, but I always thought that was Keats. And to symbolize it with a dove, rather than the Athenian owl, seems a bit Christianizing (or maybe just Near Eastern?). […]

  13. » Blog Archive » Dove Beauty Campaign Slogan linked to this post on October 31, 2014

    […] The Enduring Symbolism of Doves – Biblical Archaeology … – In addition to its symbolism for the Holy Spirit, the dove was a popular Christian symbol before the cross rose to prominence in the fourth century…. […]


Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.


Enter Your Log In Credentials

Change Password

×