Ancient people admired the power of the great beasts, especially the apex predators like lions, wolves, eagles, and bears. To many people, these creatures were more than dangerous; they were the perfect embodiment of power, demanding respect from every creature they met. That power suffused every part of the animal. An eagle feather, a bear claw, a lion skin transferred to the person who possessed it a special quality that went beyond simple adornment or status symbol. It gave to the wearer the qualities so admired in the beasts: speed, strength, courage, intelligence, but most of all, fearsome power.
This desire to share the power of the great predators isn’t limited to the people of the past. A casual look at today’s sports teams will reveal lots of eagles, tigers, wolves, panthers, wildcats, lions, and hawks. Why not killer bees? They’re fierce and terrifying. So are fire ants. What about rats? They’re smart and adaptable, and pretty scary in their own way. The problem is they don’t have that historic association, that echo of thousands of years of people seeing these animals as fabulously and unreachably powerful. Before man pushed these beasts to the edge of extinction, he saw them as representatives of the gods.
And that power is what people wanted to share, any way they could.
The ancient Romans reserved the eagle, the symbol of invincibility and power, for the most revered people. At left is a diagram of a Roman Empire legion banner. The image of the perched eagle and laurel branch circle became widespread later on. Germans adopted the golden eagle as their symbol during Charlemagne’s time (742 – 814 AD), but it was later replaced by the black eagle. Kaiser Joseph II’s coat of arms (pictured on the left) showed the doubled-headed black eagle holding a sword and the imperial orb, and wearing the crown. The shield bears the same double-headed eagle. In this case, the eagle and the Kaiser have merged into a person/eagle wielding ultimate power.
The eagle becomes more than an eagle when it wears a crown, or holds arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other, as it does on the US seal, visible on the back of the half-dollar. We don’t use bows and arrows much anymore, and olive trees are not native to the US, but we know what these things mean because they carry the weight of the past with them.
It shouldn’t seem strange, then, that some of the earliest art in the Americas features combinations of humans and birds. A cave painting at Oxtotitlan, Mexico shows
an Olmec lord wearing a bird suit. In X-ray fashion, the ruler’s face and arms are visible underneath the costume. Kent Reilly, an expert on Olmec art, has argued that the lord is also a shaman, shown transformed and flying out of the cave.
This idea of the birdman-shaman is also common in the Mound settlements in North America as well as rock art in the southwest, though it has been argued that in some cases the man pictured in the art is actually a woman. Curiously, there is also a double-headed falcon copper plate from Missouri, dated to 1200 that is eerily similar to the Austria-Hungary double-eagle and German double-headed eagle that appeared much later under very different circumstances.
The Eagle and The Snake
Another animal image seems to be embedded in our minds: the eagle and the snake. It shows up frequently as the graphic representation of a battle of opposites: the ruler
of the sky against the creature that can go down holes into the Underworld. This pairing is strangely common today in tattoos. I’d like to suggest that it comes from a very deep-seated mythic image. That’s why the two creatures are so often combined. The Asian dragon is a winged serpent. So is the European dragon. The Feathered Serpent is a common image in Mesoamerican art, from the Olmec right up to the conquest by the Spanish. In North America, winged rattlesnakes whirl around the Wheel of Life.
It seems, at first, to be an odd pair to combine. There are many other combinations of animals and species, like the Sphinx, the griffon, and the lion-headed human figure, one of the oldest pieces of portable art found in Europe. But the raptor and the snake?
Perhaps one answer lies in the stars.
Look up next time you have a clear night. Find the Big Dipper and imagine it not as a
dipper but as the belly and wing of a great bird. As you look, you’ll see the other wing, not quite as bright but definitely there. Above the body and wings there is a line of stars that could be the neck and open beak of the bird. In the same area, right next to the bird’s beak, you’ll find the long, snaking line of stars that make up Draco the Dragon. Together, the two great beasts whirl around the unmoving center of the sky, which is now identified as Polaris, or the North Star. However, long ago, the pole was between stars.
Many ancient people believed that the universe was born out of a great cave in the center of the sky. The eagle and the snake, therefore, always turned around the center of the sky, the perpetual guardians of the mythic portal. As the seasons passed, the
bird/serpent would change positions in the sky.
This sense of motion within a circle of time is often represented in art of the New World. The drawing shown here, from Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Art of the Ancient Midwest and South, shows four winged rattlesnakes circling a center circle marked with a cross. The carved shell carrying this design was found in Oklahoma and dated to 1200 AD. Many other representations of the same kind, often called whirling logs, have the pattern we call a swastika, which was forever tainted by Hitler’s use of the image for the Third Reich. However, it is a very, very old symbol, and it appears all over the world, from ancient India to Persia to Africa to the Americas. On an elemental level, it traces the movement of the sun from its birth on one side of the world to the height of the heavens, to its death on the other side of the world, and its passage through the underworld, from where it emerges the following day. On a deeper level, it has to do with the passing of the seasons and of individual life. Hitler simply combined two very powerful symbols: the eagle and the swastika, (seen in the photo) taking with them the sense of power, dominance, and control over time itself. Now, however, the wheel turns once again, and his use of the symbol becomes just another part of its history.
The past clings to us like our shadow, always coloring our perception of the present. Our medical center has the caduceus symbol on the wall: the twin snakes curling around the staff that is topped by wings. The cub scout dreams of one day having the Eagle pin afixed to his uniform with great ceremony. The eagle holding the arrows and olive branch on our coins, and the one at the top of our flagpole, bear witness to the fact that we are children of the past even as we live in the present.