The Essence of Eagles
Eagles and the Sun
The strong link between eagles and the sun can be traced through many cultures. The Aztecs told how during the creation of the present world, the eagle and the jaguar fought over who would have the honor of becoming the sun. The eagle settled the matter by flinging himself into a fire and, thus, becoming the sun. The jaguar, following close behind, settled for becoming the moon, with the spots on his coat showing that he had been only partially burned. In light of this tale, it's easy to see why the Aztec eagle and jaguar warrior societies were considered the most elite of the military orders. The Aztecs also tied the eagle to the sun in another way, comparing the daily journey of the all-important sun to an eagle's flight: rising on the warming air of morning and swooping down out of sight at night in pursuit of prey.
The eagle plays a crucial role in the sun dance of the Plains peoples of North America, and symbolizes the sun in the rites of some of the Southwestern tribes. The Iroquois tell of Keneu, the golden eagle, and of Oshadagea, the giant eagle with a lake of dew on his back who lives in the western sky.
This Iroquois poem, quoted in The Return of the Sea Eagle by John A. Love (1983) appears to tell of Keneu:
I hear the eagle bird
With his great feathers spread,
Pulling the blanket back from the east,
How swiftly be flies,
Bearing the sun to the morning.
On the other side of the Atlantic arose a belief about the eagle and the sun that persisted for many centuries. The eagle was thought to he the only animal capable of looking directly into the sun. Aristotle and Pliny wrote of this and added that the eagle tested its young by facing them to the sun, rejecting any that looked away.
The writers of early bestiaries, such as the twelfth-century Book of Beasts, added to the eagle's mystery by giving it the power of eternal youth: When the eagle grows old and his wings become heavy and his eyes become darkened with a mist, then he goes in search of a fountain, and, over against it, he flies up to the height of heaven, even into the circle of the sun, and there he singes his wings and at the same time evaporates the fog of his eyes in ray of the sun. Then at length taking a header down into the fountain, he dips himself three times in it, and instantly he is renewed with a great vigour of plumage and splendor of vision. (myth)
--Stephen Friar, A Dictionary of Heraldry, quoting the translation of T. H. White
Christians adopted this symbolism, comparing the eagle looking into the sun to Christ looking at His Father, and the renewal of the eagle's youth through its plunge into the fountain to the renewal of the soul through baptism. Even today, an eagle may he spied on the baptismal fonts in some older churches.
Eagles and Death
When the Roman emperor Augustus died in A.D. 14, his body, with appropriately imposing decorations and accompaniments, was carried to the Campus Martius. There a towering pyramidal funeral pyre had been built, and the emperor was placed upon it. As the torch was applied to the base of the pyre, men in the surrounding crowd cast their adornments into the flames. The flames crept upward and an eagle was released from the summit of the burning mound, symbolizing the ascent of Augustus's soul to the gods.
Others also associated eagles with death and the journey of souls. Welsh legend told of how the souls of brave warriors flew to heaven in the form of eagles. In ancient Sumer, the eagle brought new souls (children) to this world and carried departed souls to the underworld. In Syria, the eagle carried souls to its master, the sun. The Hopi in the southwestern United States believed that the dead rose to become clouds drifting in an eagle-ruled sky. In some cases, those who died could be reborn not just as clouds but as eaglets. The Hopi kept captive golden eagles, believing them to be messengers that could take their prayers to the spirits.
Eagles played the role of soul-bearers for many ancient cultures. Others associated them with death, too, but in different ways. The Aztecs identified the eagle with the sun and with one of the main ways of nourishing the sun-human sacrifice. The hearts of sacrificial victims were often placed stone vessel called the cuauhxicalli, which means "eagle gourd vessel." In central Mexico, eagle down became a common symbol of sacrifice.
The Zulus and other peoples of South Africa link bateleur with battles and the ensuing carnage. One of their names for the bateleur translates as "eater of the warriors," which could be more factual than symbolic--one of the bateleur's main food sources is carrion. Other eagles share the same eating habits and reputation. A twelfth-century writer, Giraldus Cambrensis, described and eagle sitting on Mount Snowdon, Wales, as a prophetess of war who fed on the dead and had "almost perforated the stone by cleaning and sharpening her bill."