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."
The Power of Eagle Feathers
At one time a party of Delawares were driven by the Pawnees to the summit of a high hill in their hunting grounds. Here the chief warrior, driven almost to despair, sacrificed his horse to the tutelar spirit. Suddenly an eagle, rushing clown from the sky, bore off the victim in his talons, and mounting into the air, dropped a feather from his wing. The chief caught it up with joy, and leading his followers down the hill, cut through the enemy without any one of his party receiving a wound.
---Rushton Dorman, The Origin of Primitive Superstitions, 1881
Eagle feathers are considered by many cultures to be incredibly powerful, valuable possessions. The Cheyenne people tell the following story to explain the history behind this belief.
This version is based on one related by Kathleen Dugan in The Vision Quest of the Plains Indians (1985):
A Cheyenne man who lived long ago, before people had learned to use eagle feathers for ceremonial purposes, went on a vision quest. High into the mountains he climbed and, finding an appropriate spot, fasted and prayed for five days. He prayed that a powerful being would come to him and help him to find a cure for his troubles. He seemed to hear a voice telling him to be brave, no matter what he might see. Then seven eagles appeared, and one of them spoke to him. "Look at my feathers and see how they can be used to help you and your people." The eagle showed him how to make head dresses and ornaments from feathers and told the man that if his people used only eagle feathers, it would help them win the war. Then the eagles shook themselves and out fell feathers, which the man gathered and took home. His people made him a great leader for bringing them this gift.
Eagle feathers were important not only in war ceremonials and objects, but also in many healing rituals. They also played central roles in the eagle dance, and were used along with eagle-bone whistles in the sun dance. Several methods were used to obtain eagle feathers for ceremonial purposes. Some Central and south American peoples kept captive harpy eagles to supply them with feathers as they needed them. The Hopi people of the American Southwest sent special expeditions, directed by their religious leaders, to remove young golden eagles from the nest. The eaglets, after being carried to the village in cradle boards, then had their heads washed and were given presents. They were fed and taken care of until after the Niman ceremony, when they were "sent home" by being smothered. After the birds were skinned, prayer smoke was blown over their bodies. Then the corpses were sprinkled with cornmeal and buried in a special burial ground preserved for hawks and eagles.
Another method of gathering eagle feathers is described by George Laycock in Autumn of the Eagle 1973):
The Cheyenne brave killed the eagle for its feathers but did so only with strict attention to ancient ceremonial details, which included a formal apology to the spirit of the bird. The ritual was lengthy and demanding. The brave went into his lodge alone and through the long, dark night sang the sacred tribal chants reserved for the occasion. The following morning he emerged from his lodge to go into the plains and select the place for capturing the eagle, a place readily seen by the eagle in the sky. There he dug a hole in which to crouch and wait, but he dug with great care, working only when there were no eagles in sight, and carrying the earth away to avoid discovery of his plans by the sharp eyes of the eagle. Then he gathered long grass to lay over the pit as a roof.
On the day of the capture the warrior would bathe, then cover his body with oils to mask the man odor. Before the first yellow light of dawn he slipped off silently to crouch hidden in the pit beneath the brown grass. Above him, he placed a dead rabbit or other fresh bait, lashed down securely to prevent the eagle from swooping in and carrying it away.
At last the eagle would circle the blue morning sky, then come steadily and swiftly closer on its wide-spread wings. It would settle on the meat, begin tearing at it, and become so driven by its hunger that it would not see the brown hands reaching slowly up through the grass below it. Then the eagle would be dragged struggling and flapping down into the pit. There, according to Cheyenne custom, it could be killed in only one manner, by strangulation with a noose. Having taken eagles with his bare hands, the brave could walk with great pride among his people. He also gained a practical advantage, as the barter value of the feathers was high. Twenty eagle feathers might pay for a horse.
Today in the United States and Canada, eagle feathers may be obtained for ceremonial purposes only by special permit. Eagles and eagle parts from dead birds that have been found or confiscated are distributed through government agencies to the native peoples. They are then allotted by the elders of each group according to need. In 1994, the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, gave away 870 eagles and filled 28,000 requests for feathers.
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