The Double-Headed Eagle: An Everlasting Symbol of Power
The double-headed eagle has been a popular symbol associated with the concept of a powerful Empire. Most contemporary uses of the symbol are exclusively associated with its use by the Byzantine Empire and the Greek Orthodox Church. However, the double-headed eagle has been in use for thousands of years – way before the Greeks identify it with the Byzantine Empire and Orthodox religion – while its original meaning is debated among scholars.
The eagle was a common symbol representing power in ancient Greek city-states. In Greek mythology, there was an implication of a "dual-eagle" concept in the tale that Zeus let two eagles fly East and West from the ends of the world with them eventually meeting in Delphi thus proving it to be the center of the earth. According to many historians, however, the two-headed eagle appears to be of Hittite origin. Early examples of the symbol come from the Hittite empire in central Anatolia, where two-headed eagles can be found on seals and also on sculptures. Interestingly, some of those sculptures also have other beasts in their claws and appear to be the symbol of the ruler standing on it. Thus, the two-headed eagle could have been the symbol of the tribe of the ruler but also of the ruler himself. After the Hittite two-headed eagles there is a gap of almost two millennia to be filled. In the meantime, the emblem of the supreme commander in the Hellenistic world was a monstrous head, being the head of the army personified by Medusa or Nike (Goddess of Victory).
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A variety of eagle insignias from different empires. Top: Heraldic double-headed displayed eagle. Bottom: Heraldic displayed eagle. ( CC BY 3.0 )
1. Eagle from Spanish Empire, 2. Eagle from Spanish Empire, 3. Eagle from Holy Roman Empire, 4. Eagle from Holy Roman Empire, 5. Eagle from Russian Empire. 6. Eagle of Saladin, 7. Eagle from New Kingdom of Granada, 8. Eagle from New Kingdom of Granada, 9. Eagle from German Empire, 10. Eagle from Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
The famous symbol re-appears again thousands of years later, during the Early Middle Ages, around the 10 th century, where it was mainly used as the absolute symbol of the Byzantine Empire. It is suggested that the early Byzantine Empire inherited the Roman eagle as an imperial symbol. During his reign, Emperor Isaac I Comnenus (1057–1059) modified it as double-headed, influenced by traditions about such a beast in his native Paphlagonia in Asia Minor. After the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261, two crowns were added (one over each head) representing the newly recaptured capital and the intermediate "capital" of the empire of Nicaea.
In the following two centuries (11 th and 12 th), representations of the symbol were also found in Islamic Spain, France and Bulgaria, while from the 13th century onward it becomes more and more widespread. In the meantime the two-headed eagle was adopted by the Islamic world as well, especially after the fall of the Seljuq Empire and the restoration of the temporal power of the Caliphate of Bagdad in 1157. This is testified mainly by coins bearing a two-headed eagle and from the vassals of the Caliphate.
Islamic Coin post Seljuk. Nasir al-Din Mahmud, 1200-1222 AD. With double-headed eagle displayed on ornamental base. ( CC BY-NA 2.5 )
The Eagle in India
Even more impressively, the two-headed bird is also found in Indian culture. Known as “Gandhabherunda” in India, the symbol has the same Hittite origin as the two-headed eagle in the West. A myth says that Vishnu assumed the form of a two-headed eagle to annihilate Sarabha, a form taken by Shiva to destroy Narasimha (an avatar of Vishnu) again, a sectarian device to humble a rival creed. Such a bird appears at Sirkap Stupa which usually is dated at about the beginning of the Christian era. It is depicted there sitting and turned to the dexter and this seems to have been the common attitude for centuries. It can also be found on a fresco in Brihadiswara Temple, consecrated 1010, and much later on a 16th century Vijayanagar coin.
Double-headed eagle representation at Sirkap Stupa, the Indo-Greek archaeological site, Pakistan (1 st century BC to 1 st century AD) ( Public Domain )