The Eagle and The Serpent, Reconsidered

eagle_snake_by_stoffe3337- on deviantart

Several readers of this blog have wondered about the meaning of the battling serpent and eagle, a very dynamic image, especially popular in tattoos.  It turns out there is no simple explanation.  In some cases, it represents a battle of good vs. evil.  In others, a battle of the present vs. the past, or one belief system vs. another.  In others, it is a dynamic combination of opposites that becomes the force that turns the universe.

The Eagle

The eagle is a logical choice for a group’s symbol.  It’s a large, powerful predator.  Like all raptors, it has amazing eyesight, a hooked beak designed to deliver a killing bite and rip flesh off bones, and sharp talons that can pierce and hold prey. An eagle’s wingspan is typically twice the length of its body, allowing it to soar easily.

The eagle stands for admirable, intimidating power, which is why it appears in connection with so many political entities, second only to the sun, moon, and stars in its appearance on official flags and seals.  It might be the black eagle, golden eagle, or bald eagle. It might have one head or two.  In some cases, the two headed eagle represents the combination of secular and religious power.

flag of Russia,_Federal_agency_for_government_communication_and_information,  Flag of Albania

The eagle is sometimes shown with a crown over its head, reinforcing its connection with royal power.  In the same way, the eagle might be holding a royal scepter or orb in its talons.  It often has a shield or emblem on its chest carrying the colors or symbols of the political

eagle -Flag_of_the_President_of_the_United_States_of_America_svgentity.  The United States versions, shown on everything from the official seal of the President of the United States to the dollar bill, feature the eagle carrying a bundle of arrows (a symbol of military might) in one foot, an olive branch (a symbol of peace) in the other.

The Mexican flag carries the image of the golden eagle atop a cactus, grasping a snake, the very image the people had been promised would direct them to the place they would make their new home, Tenochtitlan, now the site of Mexico City.

The eagle is also used as a team name and symbol (e.g. the Philadelphia Eagles), taking the impressive power of the animal and associating it with the sports team, in the same way as the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Falcons, Memphis Grizzlies, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, and many more.

So the eagle symbol seems pretty clear.  It’s powerful, strong, and beautiful.  It demands respect.  It transfers the strength and glory of the eagle to the group, or at least to its leader(s).

The Serpent

Adam and EveThe serpent/snake/dragon is a far more complicated part of the equation.  Many people associate the serpent with evil because of the Bible story in which the snake offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.”   The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say, ’You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”  When she replies that God told them not to eat the fruit or even touch the tree in the center of the Garden for if they did, they would die, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  That’s apparently the selling point, for then Eve, “desirous of gaining wisdom,” takes the fruit, eats it, and gives some to her husband.  (It’s very curious that this image and others portray the fruit as the Amanita muscaria mushroom!)

After that, all the problems of humankind were laid at the feet of the woman – and the snake.

Except that, even in the Bible, the snake is not necessarily evil.  But it is associated with scary power.  When Moses and his brother Aaron go before the Pharaoh to demand he let the Israelites go out of Egypt, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, just as God had promised.  In reply, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers throw down their staffs and each one becomes a snake.  In a final show of power, Aaron’s staff/snake swallows up the other staffs/snakes.  Both sides used snakes as tools of power.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16).

Admittedly, there are lots more negative serpent images than positive ones in the Bible.  Take the deadly Leviathan in the sea, the Apocalyptic red dragon with seven heads bearing seven crowns that throws a third of the heavenly stars to the earth, and “the dragon, that old serpent, which is Satan and the Devil” from the Book of Revelations.

Still, even in the Bible, the snake is not always a symbol of evil.

Caius College, Cambridge UniversitySerpent Power

Curiously, even with the negative press the Bible gives the snake, its symbolic use is fairly common. It shows up on many flags, including one for Gaius College, Cambridge (illustration).

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  It shows a snakeagle join or die flage cut into eight segments, each labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. American colonists adopted the rattlesnake and the eagle as symbols of their new land.

The Gadsden American flag, first created in 1775, eagle Gadsden_flag_svgfeatures a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background, and the words “Don’t tread on me.”  It effectively connected the power of the snake (and the fear it instills in others) with the fledgling American colonies that were facing the much stronger British forces.  It is currently being used by the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.


World Serpents

Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAAIn the rest of the world, serpents have a long history as symbols of fertility and rebirth, as well as spiritual power.  The meditating Buddha was shielded by a multi-headed serpent deity, or naga, named Mucalinda (photo).  In Hindu mythology, Vishnu was said to sleep peacefully while floating on the cosmic waters, supported by the serpent Shesha.  In Dahomey mythology (West Africa) the serpent that supports everything is called Dan.  In Vodun of Benin and Haiti, Ayida Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent, is a symbol of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a wife of Dan, the father of spirits.

In Mesoamerican and North American Indian groups, snakes often served as spirit guides, or Others, during shamanic trances, enabling the shaman to cross over into the spirit realm in order to restore balance between the two worlds. The figure on the right side of the rock art photo has snakes on the left and right side, generally interpreted to be the shaman’s spirit guides.eagle rock art with snakes

The vision serpent curls up from the dish holding a Maya blood offering, allowing the penitent to communicate with the ancestors. In the illustration, the head of the ancestor appears out of the vision serpent’s mouth.Yaxchilan Divine Serpent

In Australian Dreamtime stories, the Rainbow Serpent is the Mother of Life, creator of the waterways and the laws, the humans and the stones.

Then why are Western images of serpents so negative?

Pre-Christian Europeans were animists, believers in spirits that resided in natural elements such as trees, rivers, the sky, and various animals.  Snakes and birds were especially important because they were capable of crossing between worlds: the snake could go above ground or to the Underworld; the bird could be on the earth or part of the sky.  As such, they held special powers. Because they can shed their skins, snakes were associated with the cycle of life and death.   A very old Celtic snake goddess named Corchen was connected with the energy of the earth and rebirth. The Ouroboros, the snake biting its tail, was a symbol of eternity. The Celtic god named Cernunnos was usually portrayed as a man with stag antlers because he could shape-shift into a stag. Typically his legs were snakes, sometimes horned snakes.

Serpent devotion was common in Britain and the continent.  The Druids’ symbol was the snake.

When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church felt it was important to transfer religious power from the Druids to the new religion.  Saint Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but actually there weren’t any snakes in Ireland after the last Ice Age.  The driving out was symbolic, one of many such efforts.  The snakes belonged to the old religion. St. George impaled the dragon on his righteous spear.  St Margaret stabbed a dragon with a cross.

Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_(Paris)_01In the painting by Paulo Uccello (shown), the knight arrives on a white horse just in time to slay the dragon and save the maiden in distress.

Meanwhile, Cernunnos, the god with snake legs and stag horns, was made into a devil figure.

Serpent subdued by eagle Byzantine eagleSo the snake/serpent/dragon came to represent the old, pagan, lesser power now subdued by superior, Christian power, as shown in the mosaic floor from the Imperial Palace in Constantinople (photo).

A combination of Old and New

But the dragon refused to be conquered.  Long a favorite of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen, the dragon continued, even after the advent of Christianity, to be the emblem of the chief.  King Arthur, whose father was Uther Pen-dragon, wore a dragon insignia on his helmet.  Later, the dragon became the symbol of the kings of England, especially those who needed to establish themselves as having a legitimate claim to power.  Henry VII took as his personal symbol the red dragon, which helped to link his family, the Tudors, to the ancient kings.  Later it was used by Henry VIII, Edward V, and Elizabeth I.  (Of course, the imperial dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, as well.)

Book of Kells snake

More often, the old ways simply merged with the new ones.  The Book of Kells, the beautiful illustrated manuscript made in Ireland (c. 800 AD) features many snakes and birds, as well as other animals, plants, and landscapes in the decorative chapter pages and initial letters of sections.  The snake, always a symbol of rebirth, becomes a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection in the book.  So while it appears in a Christian book, it continues its original pagan association.

The Eagle and the Serpent as One Entity

Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles.  It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs.  In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads.  This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers.  It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.

At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).

dragon and phoenix, from Vinnycomb book

This is the same combination as the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged snake goddess Wadjet, and the paired winged, serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth.  This is the force that drives the universe as the celestial bird and the serpent wheel forever, in perfect balance of opposite energies, around the portal of heaven.

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Adam and Eve,” painted wood ceiling at  St. Michael’s church, Hildesheim, Germany, 1192 AD

Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993

“Celtic Gods and Goddesses,”

“Dragon,” The Medieval Bestiary

“Double-headed eagle,” Wikipedia

“Eagle” A-Z Animals.

“Eagle,” The Medieval Bestiary

“Eagle Snake” tattoo design by stoffe3337 on

“Gadsden flag,” Wikipedia

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South.  Richard Townsend (ed.) The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.

Oodgeroo Nunukul. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. First published as Stadbroke Dreamtime.  Angus & Robertson, 1972

Power, Susan C.  Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents & Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, 2004

“Rainbow Serpent, The” (a wonderful blog)

Rock Art images,

“Saint George and the Dragon,” painting by Paulo Uccello (c. 1458), Wikipedia Commons

Saint George and The Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little, Brown, 1984.

“Serpent,” New World Encyclopedia.

“Serpent and Saint Patrick,” I Am An Owl blog, (a very interesting blog)

Saunders, Nicholas. J. Animal Spirits. Little, Brown, 1995

“Serpent (symbolism)” Wikipedia

“Snake,” The Medieval Bestiary (1400 AD)

Taylor, Sea, and Fernando Vilela. The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon.  Frances Lincoln, 2008

The Serpent and The Celestial Bird Become The Dragon

The dragon, the winged serpent, is the most widespread mythological beast in the world. Dragons appear in Old World myths from Europe, India, the Middle East, Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific, as well in the New World in the form of the feathered serpent from Indian tribes in North America and Olmec, Maya, and Aztec cultures from Mesoamerica. Dragons have been represented on the gates of Babylon, Chinese vases, pictographs above the Mississippi River, and bones carved by Inuit artists in the Arctic.

The oldest versions were snakes, but after the Middle Ages, dragons were often pictured with legs, either stubby reptilian legs or sturdy avian or feline legs, usually two or four. Most have one head, though some have two or even three. Most are associated with bodies of water and rainfall.

Where did this image of the flying snake come from? In The First Fossil Hunters, Adrienne Mayor suggests that fossils of dinosaurs such as Archaeopteryx or skeletons of whales spawned the legend. Others suggest crocodiles, giant goannas (in Australia), or the Komodo lizard (in Japan). Anthropologist David E. Jones suggests that dragons were the sum of ancient people’s fears: snakes, birds of prey, and big cats.
All of those arguments may have some merit, but none explain the universality of the image. I think the people saw the winged serpent in the stars, specifically, in the combination of Ursa Major and Draco.

The Big Dipper

One of the most familiar asterisms in the night sky is the Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major. It’s easy to find because the stars are so bright.

The constellation Ursa Major

The constellation Ursa Major

For many, the seven bright stars look like the outline of a giant ladle or dipper, but other people see the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper as a plough, a wagon drawn by oxen or a carriage drawn by horses, a camel, a skunk, a fisher cat, a salmon net, a butcher’s cleaver, a coffin with three mourners following behind, a saucepan, or a basket. In some places, the seven stars represented people, such as the Seven Sages or Seven Brothers.

Many northern peoples saw the Big Dipper as a giant bear, a mother bear being followed by three cubs, or a bear being chased by three hunters. The bear image itself is subject to debate. Some see the Big Dipper as fitting in the bear’s back while others make the handle of the Dipper into a very long tail, which is strange since bears have such stumpy little tails, though the problem is often explained away with a story.
Let’s look at it a different way: take the Big Dipper as the body and wing of a great bird instead. Add the other wing from the bright stars already included as part of the Great Bear constellation that you can see in the illustration. Then you’ll have the body and both wings of the bird. The tail comes out at the bottom of the bird’s body, and the head comes from stars not included in the constellation grouping.

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Ursa Major as part of the Great Bear

Always Circling the Center

The Big Dipper is a circumpolar asterism, meaning it rotates around the unmoving center of the night sky, which we now call Polaris, or the Pole Star, in the course of the night. It also marks the seasons, in that it rises in different positions at twilight during winter, spring, summer, and fall. It would be easy for ancient people to tell what time it was at night by the position of the Dipper, and to know the seasons from the Dipper’s position at dusk.
When you consider all the seasonal positions of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, you get a whirling pattern like the one in the diagram.

Big Dipper and North Star

Dipper around pole

Draco the Dragon

The other half of the dragon is Draco, the constellation that snakes around between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. While Polaris is currently the closest star to true North in the night sky, 5,000 years ago it was Thuban, one of the stars in Draco. Farther back yet, it was the dark space between the stars referred to as the Cave of Creation.

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco, with Thuban marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

Constellation Draco with major stars marked

In North America, many images of the whirling logs or swastika design appear to incorporate the movements of the Dipper. Some include both the winged figure and the serpent.

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

American Indian artifact at least 800 years old, showing the movement of the Big Dipper

Whirling winged serpents

Whirling winged serpents

This piece shows the whirling pattern incorporating both horned rattlesnakes and winged figures with feline heads, combining forces of the earth and sky. As far back as 1901, Zelia Nuttall recognized the role of the Big Dipper in the whirling logs or swastika design so common in American Indian artifacts. The review of her article “The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations” from the Archaeological and Ethnological Papers of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, notes that Ms. Nuttall suggested that the swastika symbol was “believed to have originated in the revolution of the stars of Ursa Major about Polaris….” In fact, she suggests that the swastika itself is merely a representation of the Big Dipper at all four seasons.
If indeed, the Big Dipper is part of a great Celestial Bird, the Bird and the Serpent together wheel around the Portal of Heaven, the Cave of Creation. Their power as opposites is combined into the force that moves the heavens. They become the Winged Serpent, the Feathered Serpent, the place where earth and sky, male and female join to generate the force that moves the heavens.

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

My drawing of the Big Dipper as a bird and Draco as the serpent

This is the image I use for the Misfits and Heroes series of ancient adventure novels. It’s my own drawing based on the current positions of the stars in Ursa Major and Draco, designed to be a symbol of the dynamic opposites so important to the ancients, especially in Mesoamerica. It’s a dragon, or at least its parts, momentarily and somewhat artificially suspended in time and motion in its endless circle around the Portal of Creation.