White House

White House Wednesday | Peacock Feathers: Mere decoration or the Evil Eye?

By Robert Hancock
Senior Curator and Director of Collections

The superstition that peacock feathers are bad luck has a couple of different origins. Some believe it began in the Mediterranean region where the ends of the feathers represented the “evil eye” of the female demon Lilith, who is the harbinger of misfortune, illness, and death. In Eastern Europe, peacock feathers are traditionally a symbol of bad luck because they were once worn by the invading Mongols in the 13th century. By contrast, peacocks were royal symbols for the kings of India. In ancient Rome, peacocks provided a showy dish for the dinner table, the feathers reattached to the bird after roasting using a honey-based glue. In other cultures the iridescent feathers are a symbol of immortality and the birds are considered sacred.

For the Victorians, peacock feathers represented the majestic bird often associated with kings and emperors. The birds freely roamed the gardens of the great estates of Europe and America. When fresh-cut flowers were not available, brightly colored peacock feathers made a fine substitute, flowing from a vase on a mantle or side table.