The Eagle

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls.
And like the thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

  From Chicomoztoc, the House of Seven Caves, the ancient Aztecs came forth. From the dispersal point they came and were led by wise beings to Tamoanchan. They were shown the way to Teotihuacan, where sacrifices were made and the pyramids of the sun and moon constructed. They dispersed again and yet again: to Colhuacan and Mimixcoua, the land of the Cloud Serpent, where they took the name 'Mexica'; to Cuextecatlichocayan, 'where the Huastec weep', and Tollan, the Middle Place of the World. They rested from their vast migrations but awhile and soon in lonely lands wandered again until they came, at last, to the site of Tenochtitlan. It is said that as the tribes halted by the waters of Tezcuco, they beheld a great eagle perched on a cactus growing from a wave-washed rock. While they gazed, the mighty bird arose and, with a serpent clutched in its talons, ascended to the rising sun. Standing in silent awe, they watched it disappear into the fiery orb. They regarded it as a divine augury and built upon the spot the great capital of the Aztec world.

  Flying so high into the sun, to the Aztecs and to many other people of the world, the eagle has been closely identified with the solar spirit. After the founding of Tenochtitlan, sacrifices to the deity were presided over by high priests adorned with eagle feathers. They wore them radiating like haloes around their heads in imitation of the sun's rays, a fashion traceable to great warriors and holy men in more northerly tribes. So valuable were these feathers that amongst the Hidatsa twelve of them were worth the price of one horse. An old chief, Hunts-Enemy, noticing the catch of a promising younger man, once said: "I see you have some golden eagle feathers. I want you to adopt an Assiniboin child whom I know. He is good and true and will bring with him many horses. For this I will make you a sacred pipe and war-bonnet. I will put twelve golden feathers on it; six in front, six in back. I will put nine of the white-headed eagle feathers on either side; thirty feathers in all. On the sacred pipe I will put six white-headed eagle feathers. I will make this properly for you, for I have that privilege in this child ceremony." Adoptions such as this gave new life, and indeed, the eagle itself has been widely believed to have the power to bring back life. Its feathers carrying the radiant spirit of the sun, the eagle flies as a moving breath of its essence. In the Hako ceremony of the Pawnee a bit of white eagle down was placed on the fontanelle of a young child where the skull is still open and one can see it breathing. The down was taken from under the wings of the eagle where it grew close to the heart and moved as the eagle breathed. Thus was the child connected to its father, the Sun, and thus was the link with immortal life-breath forged.

  The emblem of the eagle as spirit of the sun was common in the civilizations of Sumeria and Babylonia. A Palmyrene altar shows the sun-god Malak-Bel in his youth, supported by an eagle, and elsewhere the eagle itself is the deity with outstretched wings, embracing the masculine and feminine attributes of the Morning and Evening Star. In the Mithraic tradition the eagle is joined by the hawk as an emblem of the solar god, a close relationship that shifts to an emphasis on the hawk in the worship of Horus in Egyptian religion. But in most of the Old and New Worlds the eagle predominated and the hawk was usually seen as a secondary expression of the solar spirit.

  Living in the full light of the sun, the eagle was believed to share the elements of air and fire. Thus, it has been identified with lightning and thunder and the thunderbolt associated with war. Flying higher than any other bird, it is also associated with ascension, with the ability to conduct souls to immortality, which is why Beatrice, who guided Dante into the Empyrean, was called "eagle-sighted". Flying so high, the eagle has easily been identified with victory and the power to prevail. In the hands of a god like Zeus, it is the wielder of the thunderbolt used to punish the insolent presumptions of mortals. But in the hands of mortals, it is the emblem of authority and dominion even at sacred precincts such as Delphi, where the images of eagles proclaimed the supremacy of the oracle.

  In the twenty-thousand-foot fastness of the remote Tien Shan, Mountains of the Gods, the Kirghiz tend their shaggy yaks, struggling like tiny ants across the sparse alpine meadows. In this precipitous and stark landscape, the wind-swept mountains overshadow the Old Silk Road and the Issyk-Kul, a lake which borders it for many miles. It is said that here, pudna, the sacred lotus, grows, bearing the legendary seeds of forgetfulness that stole the memory of Penelope from Odysseus. And here along the overbrooding heights soars the berkut, largest and fiercest of the species of golden eagle, which was called by Shakespeare and other poets the Bird of Jove. Believed to have thunderbolts in their talons, these were the hunters of Jenghiz Khan, Saladin and the tsars. No other man was allowed to fly them under pain of death, and even now few of the Kirghiz can control their awesome power. They can attack and kill wolves, antelopes and young bears, and pairs of them will even fly against the leopard or tiger as it stalks in the grass around Issyk-Kul.

Nay, if thou be that princely eagle's bird,
Show thy descent by gazing 'gainst the sun.

Henry VI

  Of great antiquity is the belief that the eagle is able to fly up to the sun and gaze unwaveringly upon it. Pliny faithfully recorded this assertion in his natural history tracts, explaining that "as touching the eagle, she only, before her little ones be feathered, will beat and strike them to look straight against the sun's beams: now if she see any one of them to wink, or their eyes turn to water at the rays of the sun, she turns it with head forward out of the nest, as a bastard and not right, and none of hers, but bringeth up and cherisheth that whose whole eye will abide the light of the sun, as she looks directly upon him". Pliny was not the only writer who recorded this belief. Many, like Shakespeare, used it as a literary symbol referring to a test of one's spiritual and ancestral credentials. The ability to gaze fully into the sun has, therefore, a much deeper significance which transcends the question of whether or not Pliny was correct. 'Gazing into' implies identifying with and suggests something beyond a physical use of the eyes.

  The visual abilities of the eagle are so great that, quite apart from this ancient belief, one is still deeply impressed with how the great bird uses its eyes. It is thought that eagles probably see the same colours as we do but they are able to see details very much more clearly. Their eye is about fifty times larger in relation to their body size as ours is in relation to our body size. Equivalent eyes in human beings would be the size of large oranges. As its eyes are fairly stationary in their sockets, the eagle must move its head around and even upside down to see objects otherwise out of its line of vision. It can do this with enormous speed and ease, thus completely achieving three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vision with far greater economy than can a human. Keenness of vision is due to the structure of the retina, the sensitive surface on the back of the eyeball on which the image of the object seen is cast. The amount of detail perceived by the retina depends on the number of rods and cones, which are very dense there and still denser in the two foveas. The eagle's eye has a temporal forward fovea and a lateral fovea to the side. Binocular vision is obtained in the temporal fovea and can be considerably enhanced by lateral adjustments through a few degrees of the eyeball. Working together they provide unusually good distance perception so that the eagle cannot only see its prey clearly but also judge its distance accurately. Authorities hold that these foveas provide a resolving power seven or eight times greater than that of the human eye. The ancient Buddhists must have understood something of this remarkable capability, for they identified the eagle as an attribute of Amoghasiddhi Buddha, whose name itself means 'infallibly hitting the mark'.

  The eagle is a bird of prophecy and omen. Christians merely continued the beliefs of pagans in this regard, absorbing notions from Romans and Greeks and the peoples of the Levant. The old Celts spoke with hushed tones of Caer Eryri, 'the Camp of the Eagles', in Wales. Here the great birds nested and soared in considerable numbers. It was believed that if they circled, it augured victory; if they flew low, defeat. When they perched like lonely sentinels upon the utmost crags, the enemy was at hand. Many other of their habits and movements were read as omens of weal or woe as well as portents of thunderous weather changes. An old Welsh folk-tale tells of a great meeting of eagles once held at Caer Eryri (Snowdon), where visitors came from Cader Idris and Plynlimmon in order to join the debate. When finished, they all rose with such a flapping that a disastrous storm was caused, and to this day when bad weather comes thereabout, people say "the eagles are breeding whirlwinds at Snowdon".

  Amongst the Mycenaean Greeks the eagle was considered an omen of Zeus, bringing a decisive indication of the god's will. The god, unable to resist the desire to possess him, bore away the beautiful Ganymede to Olympus by sending his eagle to fetch the lad as he tended his father's flocks on Mount Ida. At Olympus he succeeded Hebe as cup-bearer to the gods and was often depicted by the old Greeks sitting on the back of a flying eagle. It was a pair of eagles that Zeus sent out when he wished to find the centre of the world. Moving with total control and sameness of speed, they flew in opposite directions to meet, finally, at Pytho. A pair of eagles also was seen by the Achaeans as they embarked to do battle with Troy. In the play Agamemnon, Aeschylus describes them devouring a hare and the commanders took it as a sign that they would vanquish Priam's noble city before returning home.

  Eagles can augur ill, often by their absence. The Romans considered them a sign of victory, and soldiers lavished meat upon them to encourage them to accompany a military drive. After Julius Caesar's murder, the forces of Brutus and Mark Antony moved to confront one another in battle. Plutarch described how at one point when the army of Brutus had raised its camp, "there came two eagles, that flying with marvellous force, lighted on two of the foremost ensigns and always followed the soldiers, who gave them meat and fed them, until they came near the city of Philippi; and there one day only before the battle, they both flew away". Shakespeare, in his play, continued the saga: "And in their stead do ravens, crows and kites fly o'er our heads, and downward look upon us, as we were sickly prey: their shadows seem a canopy most fatal, under which our army lies, ready to give up the ghost." And indeed they did perish: Brutus and Cassius and most of their men . . . routed all at Philippi.

  To the Romans the eagle on a pillar was the emblem of sol invictus, the solar god's victory over darkness. They and many others saw in its form the rhythm of heroic nobility associated with the gods of power, dominion and righteous war. From Asia to Europe eagle standards were held aloft by armies convinced that they could augur naught but victory. Under Caius Marius, the wolf, Minotaur, horse and wild boar standards of the Roman legions were left behind in camp. Thereafter, only the eagle banners were carried into battle. The experience of victory under their protection was common to Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies of Egypt, kings of Babylon, Persia, Seleucus and almost every great leader in history. The French under the Empire called it le coq gaulois, and the newly formed United States could scarcely resist adopting it as its emblem, notwithstanding Dr. Franklin's claims on behalf of the native turkey.

  The double-headed eagle symbolizes solar omniscience, embracing the past and future like a two-headed Janus looking down from a lofty threshold dividing the two. These heads are also emblematic of a double empire or a single empire with two rulers, spiritual and temporal. In its association with war, the eagle signifies the seizing of victory and the conquest of darkness. Whereas the raven is the scourge of the battlefield, the eagle strikes and flies aloft, tarrying less amongst the doomed and dying. Both, however, are solar birds associated with the deepest mysteries of life and death. King Arthur was called the Raven King in Celtic legend, whose epiphanies sometimes took the form of a raven, but who lingered at a mountain cave guarded by eagles. Ravens were always more predominant amongst the Celts, and such references may be an allusion to the subordination of their older culture by an Eastern tradition in which the eagle was pre-eminent. With the Romans and Christians it came to mark a new order, a new authority and dominion.

  Swooping down on its prey, the eagle will not miss, for, besides its remarkable vision, the eagle possesses utter mastery of the air. Effortlessly gliding, it can, like a lightning flash, dive, twist and turn and suddenly stop. Its wings are long and broad, perfectly adapted for soaring. The emarginated tip feathers, or primaries, act as wing slots capable of reducing turbulence by minute increments. They bend during flight and lie at different planes (one above the other), the foremost long primary being the most bent while increasing by degrees the lift at the wing-tip. This wing structure gives the eagle great stability in flight, even in powerful winds. The spreading primaries open or close a little every second as minute automatic adjustments to the air currents are made. There is no sudden fluctuation or up draught that can upset this masterly control, no rogue wind that can knock the laser-eyed hunter off his course.

  There are about fifty-nine species of eagles in the world. Broadly, they fall into categories of sea eagles, serpent eaters, those with bare tarsi and true or booted eagles. A formidable bare tarsi type who lives in the rain forest is the harpie eagle, so called because it strangely resembles ancient Greek depictions of those fearful winged monsters whose name means 'the snatchers'. It can attain a weight of twenty pounds and has tarsi as thick as a child's wrist, ending in a foot spanning nine inches, which is equipped with huge talons more than an inch and a half long. Such an eagle could kill a monkey or even a deer almost in an instant. The great Steller's sea eagle ranging over the Kamchatka Peninsula can also reach twenty pounds but, owing to the vast open spaces of its environment, has a greater wing-spread, extending to as much as eight feet. Each species has adapted to a particular environment so that some, like the bateleur eagle of Africa, will fly many hours each day, covering up to three hundred miles or more. Others, like the golden eagle, have been clocked at over one hundred miles per hour in speed, which, in a day, would carry them very far indeed, if such a tremendous exertion could be sustained.

  Most eagles, however, have a home range of about eighteen thousand acres or so. They live in pairs as mates for life and use long-established nests which may be two or three miles apart. A breeding site, or eyrie, may be occupied for a century or so by succeeding pairs of birds, and as they are used, they are added onto until some become quite large. Though most nests are built on cliffs, there is a tree nest in Scotland measuring seventeen feet in depth, and even cliff nests have been found with turret-like walls eight feet in height. They tend to spread laterally, the cup of the nest being made in different places over the years. Both male and female parents incubate the eggs in shifts for about forty-five days, and seventy or eighty days later the fledglings attempt their first solo flight. Born in May, they usually separate from their parents in October and eventually go off to establish their own range, where they will exercise daily their innate and spectacular talents of survival, living perhaps for twenty, thirty or forty years, though one early record claims a longevity of ninety-five years.

  When an adult, the eagle's talons are formidable. The longer talon on the back toe is used like a dagger, whilst the three forward talons clutch the prey against it. The assertion has been made that "the force with which a large eagle can grip cannot be understood until one has experienced it, say on one's own fist". If the bird gets a good grip on one arm, there is no way it can be pulled off by the other. It will relinquish its iron hold only when diverted with a freshly cut piece of meat. Some have identified the eagle clutching its prey in its inescapable grip as a symbol for the sacrifice of lower beings, forces and instincts to the higher nature. One is reminded of the Cheyenne story of the Jumping Mouse, who, giving up his worldly eyes and trusting only in the great vision he had beheld, waited in fearful but determined faith at the very top of the mountain he had sacrificed so much in order to scale. Crouching there, he sensed the awesome approach of the eagle, felt the cold chill when its shadow obliterated the sun. Suddenly, with terrifying swiftness, the great talons sank into his shoulders and he was carried aloft. The whole world opened up below him. He saw its far-distant curved horizon and all the details of the closer mountain top. He saw with the eyes of the eagle and, looking at his body, realized that this is what he had become.

  The eagle is a raptorial bird, the name signifying one who preys upon other birds and mammals. Such are especially adapted for seizing their prey, as the etymology of the name clearly indicates. Coming from the Latin term raptor ('plunder'), the word is closely related to 'rapt', which means 'to be snatched or carried away bodily or in spirit from the earth, from life and consciousness, or from ordinary thoughts and perceptions' (L. raptus). From this we take our word 'rapture', with all its connotations of mental transport and ecstasy. The zoological term for eagle is the Latin aquila, which comes from the Greek 'αιεϑως', which refers to the bird, the standard and also to the pediment of a temple in architectural designation, being the triangular face crowning the front of a building over the portico. The ancient saying, 'αÎτ?ς În νÎøÎλαισι, referred to the synthesizing idea lying behind these three usages of the term, meaning 'of a thing quite out of reach'.

 If one imagines the eagle rising up out of reach while firmly seizing its prey, the portentous event witnessed by the Aztecs at the site of Tenochtitlan replays itself in one's mind. The theme is, however, not unique but, as a symbolic pattern, reoccurs in myths of many cultures where the triumph of celestial over chthonic powers is indicated. The ancient Rig Veda alludes to the eagle-snake conflict in relation to lightning and thunder bringing rain to the earth. The eagle, as an aspect of Indra, explosively releases the rain from the bonds of the serpent, a dramatic theme which might well have inspired the inaugural lines in "The Revolt of Islam":

The Snake and the Eagle meet -
The world's foundations tremble!

Percy Bysshe Shelley

  In Nordic mythology the eagle symbolizes wisdom perched in the boughs of the Yggdrasil tree in conflict with the serpent of darkness, whilst in other traditions the serpent is shown ever attempting to devour the eagle's eggs when the nest is left unguarded for a brief moment. The serpent awaits its chance to devour the coming generation of eagles, knowing it cannot conquer the full-grown bird. And so the struggle between the celestial and terrestrial goes on, each being sacrificed to the other in successive cycles. In the Mexican cosmogony the earth goddess was Coatlicue, mother of Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. She was depicted wearing a serpent skirt, and it was widely believed that she was the first victim offered in sacrifice to the sun through the interception of the eagle.

 This raising up of the lower by the higher was forcefully suggested in Ezekiel's great vision, where, in the midst of the whirlwind, he beheld a wheel with four seraphim reflected as a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. At the cosmic level these represent the four Maharajas who are the protectors of humanity. At the macro-microcosmic level they are symbolic of the four elements and the four lower principles in man. Thus, in the diagram of the Adonai, the human face of Enoch is in the centre, whilst the ox and the lion are beneath. The eagle rises, crowned, above the human head, completing the apex of the upward-pointing triangle. Suggested here is the solar power of the noetic will as it draws skyward the more limited identity of the persona as it experiences itself in manifest nature. There is a generally complex astrological significance to this diagram, but the eagle itself is related to Aquarius and was, in ancient Middle Eastern astronomy, located just above the water carrier, who followed the bird's movements so closely that he seemed to be drawn after it as though by invisible bonds. This is the basis for the association of Aquarius with Ganymede and with the fact that "even the gods themselves need the water of the Uranian forces of life". As Indra needed and sought after soma, so Zeus sent his eagle to gather in the Aquarian draught.

  In the Sumero-Babylonian myth of Etana, the king by that name sought the "plant of birth available only in Anu's highest heaven". Unbeknownst to him, his only possible means of ascension (the eagle) was engaged in a terrible contest with his erstwhile friend, the serpent. In the beginning, the eagle and serpent had sworn to be friends in an oath to the god Shamash. But when the eaglets of the great bird had grown strong, the latter fell on the serpent's young and devoured them. Wailing to Shamash, the betrayed serpent prayed for revenge, which was accomplished when the eagle was imprisoned in a pit with its wings cut. The god Shamash heard the wild prayers of the repentant eagle, who, begging for release, promised to do any service asked of him. Whereupon Shamash sent King Etana thence to release the bird in return for his flight to heaven. Up they flew to the gates of Anu, Enlil and Ea. Etana looked down and was mightily afraid. Further they ascended to the place of Anu and Ishtar, and Etana begged the eagle to return to earth. With his fearful request, the eagle's clipped wings faltered and he came back down to earth so rapidly that the king fell and was killed. The ascension failed because the eagle did not attempt to raise up and alchemize the lower nature represented by the serpent, and the spirit's ability to function as an uplifting power was maimed. Had the king placed full faith in the spirit, the eagle's wings could have overcome this injury and completed the ascension, but his fears lent reality to the wounds and, for him, the eagle fell.

  To achieve his goal, Etana would have had to possess the courage and steadfastness to look to the solar source without blinking, to gaze in unflinching acceptance upon the glory of God. He would have had to abandon himself without reservation to the rapture of blissful union with the source of light and life. To do this one must become like the eagle, to have the intuitive inspiration to proclaim, like Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, "I am eagle!" One must be willing to sacrifice one's worldly vision and stand trustingly, like the Jumping Mouse, on the brink of the unknown. This is not a journey for timid souls, but one requiring immense training and an unconditional single-eyed focus of the higher will. One who desires to make this ascension will have to develop wings with hyper-sensitive and responsive emarginated tip feathers which can perfectly adjust one's flight through any kind of turbulence. Like a fledgling, one's initial flights would culminate in a nearby tree, but with time and tireless practice, a thorough mastery of the air can be achieved.

  The eagle, despite its aerial mastery, is still linked to the earth, and so it is with man who desires to fly heavenward. There is yet the lower nature which, in life, may not be abandoned, and to know how to draw it up requires the keenness of the eagle's sight and the sureness of his grasp. The eagle gazes into the sun but it also watches the minutest movement upon the earth. It can invert or turn round its head to achieve instantaneously a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree vision as though to incorporate the above and the below in one lightning sweep. This is what the human aspirant must be able to do if he is to become a living self-conscious link between the godhead and its manifestation in the world. Like the eagle, such a one must come to see things clearly and also accurately judge their depth in order to imitate the Amoghasiddhi Buddha, who infallibly hits the mark. Turning his glance on the lower nature, his eyes illumined by solar light, he will perceive precisely what can be weeded out and alchemized as it is drawn up into more rarefied realms.

  His ability to judge depth accurately lends him a constant sense of proportionality so essential to the tiny adjustments to be made in flight and while connecting with the complex aspects of one's nature. Seizing the point of things, he will hit the mark above and below, weaving again and again an ever stronger link between heaven and earth. Higher than any bird, he will fly and fulminate. To rise and dominate is his fulfilment as he soars ever closer to a perfect union of spirit and matter. Living in the full light of the sun, like the eagle, he will become luminous, and those below, standing on the site of any future City of Man, will raise their heads and be dazzled by his swiftly shining power.

Like the unwavering eye of the sun,
I feel your gaze upon me.
I sense your rhythmic wings,
Your twist and lightning dive.

Tightly I shut my eyes,
Your shadow flashes o'er me.
I am delivered in your grasp,
Borne up out of this world.

Bird of God! I become thee,
Great hunter, I join thee.
With the spirit of your wing I soar,
With your eagle eye I see.