Turtle doves in culture

Turtle doves have featured in art and culture for thousands of years. Their beauty, song and behaviour inspired Ancient Greeks and Romans, Elizabethan poets, modern musicians, and painters. Perhaps because of their endearing, soothing purr and tender affections when seen perched in pairs, they have long been symbols of love.

A romantic bird

Giuliano de' Medici by Sandro Botticelli [Public domain]
Giuliano de’ Medici by Sandro Botticelli – turtle dove in the bottom left of the painting [Public domain]
On 19 May 2018, the turtle dove enjoyed a moment of cultural recognition in one of the readings at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, watched by millions around the world. The text, taken from the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, describes the bird as a herald of spring.

“The winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land.”

Turtle doves and weddings are a perfect match: these birds have often had romantic associations, and in poetry they’re usually connected with fidelity and trust.

Roman deity Fides was often pictured holding a turtle dove: she was the goddess of good faith (as in the Latin term bona fide). In Greek mythology, the birds pulled the chariot of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules, mentioned “The wedded turtledove with her heart true”.

And Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney wrote:

“Time will work what no man knoweth
Time doth us the subject prove
With time still affection groweth
To the faithful turtledove”

Turtle doves weren’t just thought of as devoted, monogamous partners. If one of a pair died, the other was believed to mourn, and perhaps never bond with another bird again. Co-ruler of Florence, Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered in 1478, aged 25. A posthumous portrait of him by Botticelli includes a perched turtle dove. It’s said that Medici’s partner commissioned the picture, with the bird representing her, in mourning.

William Shakespeare frequently wrote about turtle doves (sometimes calling them “turtles”), sometimes to symbolise love and devotion:

  • King Henry VI: “a pair of loving turtle-doves that could not live asunder day or night”
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: “we’ll teach him to know turtles from jays”
  • The Taming of the Shrew: “O slow-winged turtle, shall a buzzard take thee”
  • Troilus and Cressida: “As sun to day, as turtle to her mate”
  • The Winter’s Tale: “So turtles pair, that never mean to part” and “I, an old turtle, Will wing me to some withered bough and there, My mate, that’s never to be found again, Lament till I am lost.”
  • Spring and Winter (a poem): “When turtles tread, and rooks, and daws, And maidens bleach their summer smocks”
    Shakespeare also wrote “The Phoenix and the Turtle”, a poem which was published in 1601. It’s about the funeral of the phoenix and the turtle dove, who were lovers. The poem has been interpreted as an allegory about the death of ideal love, referencing people of Shakespeare’s time including Elizabeth I, or a cryptic eulogy to Catholic martyrs.

Other writers inspired by turtle doves include Anne Bronte, Carol Ann Duffy and Edgar Allen Poe.

Turtle doves are still a symbol of affection today. Cockney rhyming slang also adopted “turtle dove” to mean love (and also “glove”). And in a touching scene in Home Alone 2, released in 1992, Kevin presents one of his turtle dove ornaments to the Bird Lady, saying that as they have one each, they’ll be friends forever.

Turtle dove tunes

Xavier Romero-Frias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Twelve Days of Christmas: Xavier Romero-Frias [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the most famous musical reference to this bird today is the line in Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which lists the increasingly over the top gifts offered by the singer’s “true love”. The exact origins of the carol are unknown, but even the earliest known written version, from 1780, begins with the “partridge in a pear tree”, then the “two turtle doves”. The birds are portrayed as a pair: a couple who are given as a Christmas present together.

The link between the turtle dove and romance, and the fact that it’s name conveniently rhymes with “love”, has appealed to many artists. Cliff Richard sings about turtle doves in Bachelor Boy. A range of other musicians including Annie Lennox, Barry Manilow, David Gray, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Journey, and Madonna, have all worked these birds into their music.

Turtle doves also feature in the lyrics of “I’d like to teach the world to sing (in perfect harmony)”, a pop song from the 1970s which began life in a Coca-Cola advert. However the “snow white turtle doves” mentioned are probably domesticated white doves!

Turtle doves as food

Turtle doves have been caught for the pot for millennia. Wall reliefs in Egypt from 4,500 years ago show the birds being trapped in nets.

Today, turtle doves are legally hunted in some countries, but it’s clear that numbers are being harvested in excess, and hunting is contributing to the turtle dove’s decline.

Turtle doves on your feet

In 2015, sports clothing brand Adidas collaborated on a range with Kanye West, which included trainers called Yeezy – first released in a “turtle dove” white and grey pattern.

From goddesses to gloves, and Shakespeare to shoes, turtle doves have huge cultural significance – which tells us that once these birds would have been far more numerous.

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