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History > General History > Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium.

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submitted by Greek Iconology on 04.11.2006

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium.

Double Headed Eagle and Greek Iconology. Overview from Wikepedia

It may seem surprising that one of the most recognizable (other than the cross) and beloved Greek symbols, the double-headed eagle, is not a part of the modern Greek flag or coat of arms (although it is officially used by the Greek Army, by the church of Greece, and was incorporated in the Greek coat of arms between 1925 and 1926). One suggested explanation is that, upon independence, an effort was made for political - and international relations - reasons to limit expressions implying efforts to recreate the Byzantine empire. Yet another theory is that this symbol was only connected with a particular period of Greek history (Byzantine) and a particular form of rule (imperial). More recent research has justified this view, connecting this symbol only to personal and dynastic emblems of Byzantine Emperors.

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium. - Byzantine Double-Headed Eagle Flag

Greek scholars have tried to make links with ancient symbols: the eagle was a common design representing power in ancient city-states, while there was an implication of a "dual-eagle" concept in the tale that Zeus left two eagles fly East and West from the ends of the world, eventually meeting in Delphi thus proving it to be the center of the earth. However, there is virtually no doubt that its origin is a blend of Roman and Eastern influences. Indeed, the early Byzantine Empire inherited the Roman eagle (extended wings, head facing right) 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 (in turn reflecting possibly much older local myths). Many modifications followed in flag details, often combined with the cross. The eagle was soon made to "hold" in its feet symbols of the dual sovereignty (secular and religious) of the Emperor - also represented by its two heads -, such as a sword and a globe with cross. After the recapture of Constantinople by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261, two crowns were added (over each head) representing - according to the most prevalent theory - the newly recaptured capital and the intermediate "capital" of the empire of Nicaea. There has been some confusion about the exact use of this symbol by the Byzantines; it is quite certain that it was a "dynasty" and not a "state" symbol (a term not fully applicable at the time, anyway), and for this reason, the colors connected with it were clearly the colors of "imperial power", i.e., red and gold.

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople nonetheless, the double-headed eagle became a strong "national" symbol of reference for the Greeks (much less, though, than the cross), featured in several flag designs, especially during uprisings and revolts. Most characteristically, the church of Greece kept, and is to this date still using Byzantine flags with the eagle, usually black on yellow/gold background. But after the Ottoman conquest this symbol also found its way to a "new Constantinople" (or Third Rome), i.e. Moscow. Russia, deeply influenced by the Byzantine Empire, saw herself as its heir and adopted the double-headed eagle as its imperial symbol. It was also adopted by the Serbs, the Montenegrins, the Albanians and a number of Western rulers, most notably in Germany and Austria.


Double headed eagles have been present in imagery for many centuries. A representation of a two-headed woman dating from 6000 BC was discovered in Çatalhöyük (Turkey) one of the oldest cities in the world. Therefore, the apparition of the two-headed eagle is very old, because it can be found in archeologic remains of the Hittite civilization dating from a period that goes between the 20th century BC and the 13th century BC.

First, cylindric seals discovered in Bogazkoy, nowday (Turkey), an old Hittite capital, represents clearly a two-headed eagle with spread wings. The esthetic of this symmetric position explains in part the birth of this religious figure. It probably dates from the 18th century BC, and was used in a tradesman background.

This symbol can also be seen in the same region in two monumental realisations : in Alacahöyük (around 1400 BC) and in Yazilikaya (Turkey). (before 1250 BC). Here the context looks different and totally religious. The eagle becomes divinity's symbol. The two-headed eagle slowly disappears during the last Hittite period, from the 9th century BC to the 7th century BC and totally disappears after the end of the empire

Byzantine Empire

Constantinople was the successor of Rome, and the Byzantines continued the use of the old imperial 'single-headed' eagle motif. Although the roots of the transformation to double-headed are almost certainly connected with old depictions in Asia Minor, the details of its adoption are uncertain. Beyond any doubt, it was used in the wider area during the first centuries AD and certainly before the 10th century AD, as it appears in Persian and Armenian art. According to the most prevalent theory, the imperial Roman single-headed eagle was modified to double-headed by emperor Isaakios Komnenos being influenced from local traditions about such a beast (the haga) in his native Paphlagonia in Asia Minor. Local legends talked about this giant eagle with two heads that could easily hold a bull in its claws; the haga was seen as a representation of power, and people would often "call" it for protection. Isaakios Komnenos, deeply influenced by these beliefs, had already used it as a family emblem (N. Zapheiriou, "the Greek Flag from Antiquity to present", Athens, 1947). As there has been reference to "stone representations" of the eagle that were the inspiration for its picture, it is reasonable to assume that Hittite carvings may have been the sources of the myths themselves, but other relevant artwork cannot be excluded as such a source. Whether the eagle became an "imperial" symbol or remained purely a personal symbol for Komnenos, is not clear.

After the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, it was used by the successor states of Epirus and Nicaea. The first mention of a double-headed eagle in the West dates from 1250 in a roll of arms of Matthew of Paris for Emperor Friedrich II. Theodore II Laskaris chose it for his symbol as Emperor (Empire of Nicaea), taking it to symbolize his state's claims to all the Byzantine Empire's former domains, both European (West) and Asian (East). An alternative (and probably more correct) interpretation is that the eagle symbolized the Emperor's double temporal and spiritual sovereignty. After the recapture of Constantinople and the restoration of the Byzantine Empire, the symbol was used as an emblem of the imperial family, but it is uncertain whether it was the official emblem of the Empire. More recent research has suggested that it was not, its usage being limited to imperial seals and other personal or dynasty symbols such as imperial robes, although there has been no depiction of any Emperor wearing it. The role of "state" symbols was most probably played by flags with the cross. In Byzantine usage, the eagle was almost always connected with colors of imperial power (gold and red). A black eagle on golden background was used outside the imperial family, denoting the subordinate position (the eagle was black as being the 'shadow' of the Emperor's golden eagle) of their bearers.

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium. - Example of the use of the double-headed eagle on imperial vestments, from a chrysobull of Alexios III of Trebizond, mid-14th century

Use by the Turks

The double-headed eagle reappears in the same region, but after 2000 years. The double-headed eagle became the standard of the Seljuk Turks with the crowning of Toghrül (meaning "Eagle") Beg at Mosul in 1058 as "King of the East and the West" and was much used afterwards. The Sultans of Rum, Ala ad-Din Kay Qubadh I (1220-1237) and his son Kay Khusrau II (1237-1246) used the bicephalous eagle in their standards, and the motif was also found on tissues, cut stones, mural squares, and Koran holders.

Turcomans who ruled in Anatolia during the 13th century, inherited it from the Seljuk Turks. Islamic coins from the reign of Khalif Nasreddin Mahmoud bin Mohammad, following Turkish influence, sport a double-headed eagle on one side and the Star of David on the other as early as year 1200. The use of the symbol by the Turks has two possible explanations. First is the propagandist explanation: the eagle was a sign of grandeour and magnificance and it was to support the claim of Turkish rulers over the Roman imperial inheritance. Another explanation can be found in pre-Islamic Turkic shamanism, in which the eagle (one-headed) was the creature that would guide spirits to the afterlife.

Today, there is a double-headed eagle in the insignia of the Turkish Police.

Use by other countries

From Byzantium, two-headed eagles spread to Russia after Ivan III's marriage to Zoe Palaeologina, and to Montferrat, where a cadet branch of the Palaeologi ruled. The Serbian Nemanjić dynasty adopted a white version as their own to signify their own independence of, and indeed, claim to the imperial throne of Constantinople. George Kastriotis (Skanderbeg) adopted a similar flag in his struggle against the Ottomans, consisting of a black eagle on red background, which has been resurrected in the current Flag of Albania. After the fall of Constantinople, the black eagle also became the symbol of the Austrian Empire and thence passed into several families of the German aristocracy.

During the next centuries, the eagle was made to hold a sword and/or a sceptre and an orb with a cross, symbols of the aforementioned double sovereignty. Its usage also survived as a decorative element in the Greek Orthodox Church, which was the inheritor of the Byzantine legacy during the Ottoman Empire, while it remained a popular symbol among Greeks. In modern Greece various variations of the two-headed eagles are used in Church flags (based on Byzantine flag patterns) and, officially, by the Greek Army; the bird found its way into the Greek coat of arms for a brief period in 1925-1926.

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium. - Two-headed eagle emblem of the Byzantine Empire. Relief from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople Istanbul

Photograph: Stained glass window in St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida, USA

General History

The double headed eagle is a common symbol in heraldry and vexillology. Several Eastern European nations use this symbol today, having adopted this symbol from the Byzantine Empire. In Byzantine heraldry, the heads represent the dual sovereignty of the Emperor (secular and religious) and/or dominance of the Roman Emperors over both East and West. The Russian tsars adopted the symbol both to position themselves as successors to the Byzantine state and to likewise symbolize their dominion over the west (Europe) and the east (Asia).

The two-headed eagle appears on the coat of arms of the following countries:

Austria-Hungary (historical)
Bosnia and Herzegovina:
Republika Srpska
Byzantine Empire (historical)
Russian Federation
Russian Empire (historical)
Serbia and Montenegro (historical)
Pre-WWII Yugoslavia (historical)

It also appears on the following flags:

Flag of Albania
Flag of Montenegro
Flag of Serbia
The flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
The flag of Mount Athos

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium. - Stained glass window in St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida

Photograph. Two-headed eagle emblem of the Byzantine Empire. Relief from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople Istanbul

Double Headed Eagle iconology of Byzantium. - Flag of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaeologian dynasty and today the flag of Mount Athos.

Flag of the Byzantine Empire under the Palaeologian dynasty and today the flag of Mount Athos.

The development of the use of the double-headed eagle in Russia

Page on the use of heraldry in the Byzantine Empire

Graphics of various flags & Coat of Arms

It is also an important motif in heraldry of imperial families of Russia (the House of Romanov) and Austria-Hungary (the House of Habsburg), as well as the royal family of Montenegro (the House of Petrovic).

Use in Masonry

The Double-Headed Eagle of Lagash is used as emblem by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. While there are many meanings attached to this symbol, the famed Masonic author M. P. Hall declares it an alchemical symbol of union between the masculine and feminine principles in the individual.

Use in fiction

In the world of Warhammer 40,000, the double-headed eagle forms the crest of the Imperium of Man, earning it considerable religious and cultural significance. For this reason, it is not too uncommon to create actual double-headed eagles through surgery, mechanical proxy or genetic manipulation. When these are used to aid the abilities of a psyker, they are known as psyber-eagles. In Namco's game, Tales of Symphonia, Aska, a golden, twin-headed bird who is one of the two Summon Spirits of Light is thought to have been inspired by the two-headed eagle.In Ragnarok Online the double-headed eagle appears ins many flags and buildings of the city of Prontera.

In The Mouse that Roared and its sequels, the Double-headed eagle is on the national flag of Grand Fenwick.

Use in sports

The double-headed eagle is the emblem of the Greek sport clubs AEK (black eagle on yellow background) and PAOK (black eagle on white background). It is a symbol of the clubs' origins, since both clubs were founded by Greeks who fled to Greece from Constantinople in 1922-23. It is also the emblem of the Turkish Konyaspor.

See also

The Eagle in Heraldry

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