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 )
Identification with Byzantine Empire and Eastern Orthodox Church
However, it was Christianity that ultimately arrogated the symbol. The now widely-recognized yellow with a black crowned double-headed eagle flag, became the symbol of the Palaiologoi family, the last Greek royal family to rule the Byzantine Empire before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. As already mentioned, after Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos recaptured Constantinople from the Crusaders in 1261, he adopted the double-headed eagle which symbolized the dynasty's interests in both Asia and Europe.
During these two centuries of the dynasty’s reign though, the flag became identified not just with the specific family but with the Empire itself. Additionally, in the eyes of the Byzantines the double-headed eagle gradually became the absolute symbol of Orthodoxy, symbolizing the unity between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and State, which was governed by the principle of “Symphonia”, thus the "symphony" between the civil and the ecclesiastical functions of Byzantine Orthodox society.
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Emblem of the Palaiologos Dynasty. The double-headed eagle motif was used as the emblem of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) during the 14th and 15th centuries ( Public Domain )
In addition, the heads of the eagle also represented the dual sovereignty of the Byzantine Emperor, with the left head representing Rome (the Western part) and the right head representing Constantinople – the Hellenistic part of the Empire.
Its Spread in the West and Modern Use
Apparently, when the Holy Crusaders passed through Constantinople on their way to what is now Israel, they most likely first came in contact with the impressive double-headed symbol embroidered in gold on heavy banners of silk, borne aloft by the Seljuk Turks. It was from the Turks and not the Byzantines, as some may falsely think, that the crusaders took this banner to adorn the courts of Charlemagne and hung as a sacred relic in the great cathedrals.
Old Jerusalem, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Greek Orthodox chapel - Prison of Jesus. On the floor, in front of the chapel, is a mosaic figure of a crowned double headed eagle - symbol of the Byzantine empire and the Greek Orthodox church. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Frederick of Prussia is the one to “blame” for popularizing the eagle symbol throughout Western Europe, as he was the one who supplied the emblem during the formative stages of the Rite, even though he or Prussia couldn’t use it exclusively as their own. In England we find it used upon knightly arms. Most notably Robert George Gentleman displayed it upon his shield, with the motto, "Truth, Honour and Courtesy." In France, it became popular by Count de Montamajeur, who associated with the motto, "I shall hold myself erect and not blink,” and in Italy we find it upon the arms of the Duke of Modena in 1628 under the motto "No age can destroy it."
Double-headed eagle on the main entrance gate of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
As for its modern use? It remains the absolute symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church, while it is often seen in the world of sports. Several football (soccer) clubs across Europe, bear the double-headed eagle in their insignia, with the Greek sport club of AEK – Athletic Union of Constantinople – which was founded by Greek refugees who fled to Greece from Constantinople in the 1920s, being the most popular and successful of them.
AEK Athens Football Club insignia. ( bluemaize)
History of the Double-Headed Eagle
Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double-headed_eagle
Mystery of the Ancient Double-Headed Eagle Symbol
Double Headed Eagle and the Greek Church Available at: http://www.kythera-family.net/en/culture/religion/double-headed-eagle-iconology-and-the-greek-church