Eagles all the Way Down?

Poland, the Habsburgs, Hungary, the Byzantines, Russia, you can’t go anywhere save Bohemia without tripping over an eagle. Bohemia, just to be different, has a two-tailed lion.

The Hungarians claim descent from a steppe princess who was seduced by an eagle and bore five sons. They were the founders of the five major clans that went west and eventually took over the Pannonian Plains. This was recorded in the early Middle Ages, by churchmen, so any influence from Greek mythology… However, given the traditions of totem animals among steppe peoples, I wouldn’t bet against there being some pre-Christian core in the legend.

Others drew on Rome. The eagle is a symbol for kingship and power in many cultures, and Rome adopted it as one of their symbols, putting it on their insignia. The double-headed eagle seems to have come into Europe from Mesopotamia and Anatolia, where the Romans encountered it, then the Byzantines took it up. It could show the East/West joining of the Roman Empire, and Rome’s claims as the successor of older empires (Alexander’s, among others). The double-headed eagle as insignia of the Holy Roman Empire (King of the Germans) appears in the late 1200s.

Otto IV’s insignia. Fair Use from WikiCommons.

It got a little fancier with Charles V.

I’ve seen even more ornate versions with ALL of his different insignia on them.

Poland, being a bit more modest, and caught between three empires, settled for a single eagle.

White eagle of Poland. From Wikimedia.

Eagles look back to Rome. They also nod to other mythologies, Slavic, Germanic, to Christian iconography (St. John the Evangelist is depicted as an eagle). Only monarchs could use eagles as their birds when hunting. The legend of Poland’s eagle goes back to the founder Lech and his attempts to catch a white eagle’s offspring.

Bohemia’s a little different. Lesser Coat of Arms of Bohemia and Moravia (1939-1945); Drawing according to File:ProtectorateLargeCoA.gif. Further details taken from Neubecker: “Flaggenbuch”, 1939

Why the lion has two tails… sources vary. Moravia kept the eagle, but in a red and white checkerboard pattern. No, not on. The eagle is checkerboard.


5 thoughts on “Eagles all the Way Down?

  1. Eagles or lions, most kingdoms, empires, etc. opted for what were considered the most potent and noblest of beasts. Successor or separated states, and clan or family divisions, would carry the same or a similar heraldic beast. After that warning, I’ll protect my eyes and not look at the Moravian eagle.

    I have to ask the obvious straight line: with Charles V, was ANYTHING less ornate or complicated? Crowned eagles are one thing, but halos?

    • Probably not. I spend a class day using him to show how different “countries” and “nations” were in the 1500s. And how smart Grandfather Max was…

  2. Hmm, Bohemian bakeneko are something I need to think about for horrible, horrible mess in progress.

  3. Nice! And the variations are ‘endless’, when you start adding in all the heraldry…

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