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Dædalus and Icarus by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1620 (Art Gallery of Ontario)

As a subject matter, doves are very complex, biologically and otherwise. First, they are subspecies in the large family of columbidae and “subspecies” of the domestic pigeon (Columba livia domestica), known by scientists as the rock dove. (See Columbidae, Wikipedia.)

The pigeon, endowed with an innate homing ability and “selectively bred for its ability to find its way home over extremely long distances,” is derived from the rock pigeon. (See Homing pigeon, Wikipedia.)

In Britannica,[1] we read that

Although ‘dove’ usually refers to the smaller, long-tailed members of the pigeon family, there are exceptions: the domestic pigeon, a rather typical pigeon, is frequently called the rock dove and is the bird called the ‘dove of peace.’

Picasso being the creator of Guernica (1937), an anti-war painting, he was asked to produce an image that would represent peace. He designed a dove, and his design was chosen as a symbol of peace during the First International Peace Conference, held in Paris (1949).

The rock pigeon or rock dove is not necessarily white. White doves are bred to be white. But Picasso, the creator of the “dove of peace” coloured his dove the colour white, white itself constituting a symbol: purity and innocence mainly.

But Picasso went further. He rolled away millenia by putting an olive branch in the beak of his dove, le pigeon (masculine). The olive branch symbolises peace, or the cessation of hostilities. Those who surrender carry a white flag. The white flag might help explain the otherwise contradictory juxtaposition of military and pacifist groups. Wars, a constant plight, have often been fought against cruel invaders and demented dictators.


The Dove of Peace by Picasso, 1949 (Photo credit: www.pablopicasso.org)

The Military

Let us begin with the military.

The rock dove is, due to its relation to the homing pigeon and thus communications, the main image in the crest of the Tactical Communications Wing, a body within the Royal Air Force. Below the crest is the wing’s motto, ‘Ubique Loquimur,’ or ‘We Speak Everywhere’ (see Doves as Symbols, Wikipedia).

During World War I, a “homing pigeon, Cher Ami [Dear Friend], was awarded the French Croix de guerre for her heroic service in delivering 12 important messages, despite having been very badly injured.”

Cher Ami (masculine), may have been a female fighting with the boys, but she was a Joan of Arc among homing pigeons, or rock doves, and fully deserved her Croix de guerre.

[I]n World War II, hundreds of homing pigeons with the Confidential Pigeon Service were airdropped into northwest Europe to serve as intelligence vectors for local resistance agents. Birds played a vital part in the Invasion of Normandy as radios could not be used for fear of vital information being intercepted by the enemy.

Hence the motto engraved on the crest of the Tactical Communications Wing, of the Royal Air Force: Ubique Loquimur“We speak everywhere.”


Crewman with homing pigeons carried in bombers as a means of communications in the event of a crash, ditching, or radio failure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Speech is associated with homing pigeons or the rock dove because they are messengers. They have been messengers since the story of the flood and Noah’s Ark, perhaps earlier. God nearly destroyed the world He created, but humanity survived and there followed a series of covenants, or talks: Ubique Loquimur. For the purpose of this post, we need only tell that a dove was the first creature who brought a sign. It brought Noah a sign, as in semiotics, indicating that life on earth had been preserved. For the purposes of this post, we need only tell that a dove was the first creature who brought Noah a sign indicating that life on earth had been preserved.

The Dove of Peace & the Olive Branch

As noted above, Picasso‘s first depiction of his Dove of Peace showed a white dove carrying an olive branch, the olive branch being another symbol of peace. In Picasso’s subsequent portrayals of the Dove of Peace, his dove is whiter but it still carries an olive branch. Picasso thereby rooted his symbol of peace in one of the world’s most powerful etiological texts, the Book of Genesis, which contains the story of Noah’s Ark.

Etiological texts explain origins and causes. I have noted elsewhere that children’s literature is a rich source of pourquoi stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Yet, the Bible, the Book of Genesis in particular, is a pourquoi (why) story.

Man has always sought an explanation to the human condition, his mortality, giving himself a past, a process called anamnesis, which, at times, may be his only sustenance.


The Return of the Dove to the Ark by John Everett Millais, 1851 (WikiArt)

Genesis: Noah’s Ark

  • Genesis: Noah’s Ark
  • the Raven and the Dove
  • the Olive branch

“The Noah’s Ark narrative is repeated, with variations, in the Quran, where the ark appears as Safina Nūḥ (Arabic: سفينة نوح‎ ‘Noah’s boat’).” (See Noah’s Ark, Wikipedia.) As for the flood, it appears in several etiological texts or myths.

In Judaism (Genesis 8:11), the first Abrahamic religion, there was once a competition that opposed a raven and a dove. During the flood, Noah’s Ark sheltered every animal, a male and a female of each species. When the water receded, Noah dispatched a raven to ascertain whether the flood was over and the land dry. The raven, a scavenger, did not return, which may have cost several crows, such as the crow in the Crow and Fox, their reputation. Noah then entrusted a dove to seek dry land.

[A]nd the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so, Noah knew that the waters had receded from the earth.
(Genesis 8:11)

In the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE or earlier), “Utnapishtim releases a dove and a raven to find land; the dove merely circles and returns. Only then does Utnapishtim send forth the raven, which does not return, and Utnapishtim concludes the raven has found land.” (See Doves as Symbols, Wikipedia.)

Doves, or the homing pigeon, have therefore been messengers since Noah’s Ark, if not earlier. God nearly destroyed what He had created, but humanity survived and entered into a series of covenants. For our purpose, however, we need only tell that a dove, who may have been white, was the first animal to bring Noah a sign indicating that life had been preserved. This dove was a messenger.

There are conflicting versions of this account, i.e. Noah’s Ark. One features two doves, but I have chosen the one-dove account. In Judaism, the first Abrahamic religion, and Christianity, the second Abrahamic religion, a dove, carrying an olive branch, brought Noah, a fine message: life had been preserved. The Ark is a sign of survival. The sacred text of the third Abrahamic religion, Islam, is the Quran, and it contains a Noah’s Ark narrative. A flood is a central event in many mythologies.

The Dove of Peace & the Olive Branch

As noted above, Picasso‘s Dove of Peace is white and carries an olive leaf or branch in its beak.

Picasso’s first depiction of his Dove of Peace showed a dove carrying an olive branch. In Picasso’s subsequent portrayals of the Dove of Peace, his dove is whiter and surrounded by olive leaves that one could mistake for flowers. Picasso thereby rooted his symbol in one of the world’s most powerful etiological texts, the Book of Genesis.

Etiological texts explain origins and causes. I have noted elsewhere that children’s literature is a rich source of pourquoi stories such as Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Yet, the Bible, the Book of Genesis in particular, is a pourquoi (why) story. Man has always sought an explanation to the human condition, his mortality.


The Holy Spirit as a dove in the “Heavenly Trinity” joined to the  “Earthly Trinity” through the Incarnation of the Son, by Murillo, c. 1677 (The Yorck Project [2002])

Doves in Christianity and the Release Dove

In Christianity, a white dove represents the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, where he is one of the person of God. Christianity is a monotheistic religion, as are all three Abrahamic religions, but the Christian God consists of three consubstantial (hypostasis) persons,  “each person itself being God.” (See The Holy Spirit in Christianity, Wikipedia.) The Christian dove is white, as are angels, mythical winged creatures, and the Unicorn, who can only be tamed by a virgin.

Doves are also used in ceremonials. These doves are called release doves. During Pope John Paul II‘s 1984 visit to Montreal, white doves were released and a sixteen-year old Céline Dion sang Une Colombe. Release doves have an innate homing instinct.

Junge_Frau_mit_Taubenpost (1)

Young lady in oriental clothing with a homing pigeon (19th century painting) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Doves, as the Symbol of Love and “Language”

Aphrodite, Venus in Roman mythology, is “the ancient Greek goddess of love, beautypleasure, and procreation.” Love’s symbology consists of myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows, and swans. (See also Aphrodite, Britannica.)

As messengers, doves have spoken since time immemorial. Homing pigeons, or rock doves, carry a message, but doves roucoulent or coo. It is a rather muted sound. They may therefore be telling the ineffable, speaking a private language, as understood by Ludwig Wittgenstein. A private language “must be in principle incapable of translation into an ordinary language.” (See Private Language Argument, Wikipedia.)

They may also be speaking Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin‘s (27 January  1826 – 10 May 1889) aesopian, a term first used to describe a language unclear to outsiders, thereby allowing authors to say what they please with relative impunity. In La Fontaine‘s fables, many of which are retellings of Æsop‘s fables, animals are as eloquent as they are silent. Louis XIV punished La Fontaine, who asked that Nicolas Fouquet be spared too harsh a punishment. La Fontaine was not elected to the Académie française until 1682, when he was more than 60 years old.


Lovers are indeed at a loss for words. In love as in war, humans need a camouflaged language. Music may, in fact, be a lover’s main recourse, be it opera or the humble song. We had trouvères (langue d’oc) in southern France and troubadours (langue d’oïlin northern France. In medieval German-speaking lands, the Minnesang was a love song performed by Minnesänger. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Marie: the Words to a Love Song (29 June 2015) is an example of the power of music and poetry. Other examples, in the French language, are Les Feuilles Mortes, performed by Yves Montand and Jacques Brel‘s poignant Ne me quitte pas. 


White Doves by Henry Ryland, 1891 (Courtesy Leighton Fine Art Galery)


I have also discussed mankind’s wish for wings or his need to have wings. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the god Helios. His wings being attached to his body with wax, the wax melted and he fell into the sea. Yet humankind has since built sophisticated aircrafts, and messages may be forwarded in a matter of seconds.

Ubique Loquimur

Love to everyone 


Sources and Resources


[1] https://www.britannica.com/animal/dove-bird

Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Symphony No 6, 2nd movement



A homing pigeon on a path outside (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

© Micheline Walker
1st July 2018

Céline Dion chante Une Colombe, 1984