In heraldry and vexillology, the double-headed eagle is a charge associated with the concept of Empire. Most modern uses of the symbol are directly or indirectly associated with its use by the Roman/Byzantine Empire, whose use of it represented the Empire's dominion over the Near East and the West. The symbol is much older, and its original meaning is debated among scholars. The eagle has long been a symbol of power and dominion.
The double-headed eagle or double-eagle is a motif that appears in Mycenaean Greece and in the Ancient Near East, especially in Hittite iconography. It re-appeared during the High Middle Ages, from circa the 10th or 11th century, and was notably used by the East Roman Empire, but 11th or 12th century representations have also been found originating from Islamic Spain, France and the Serbian principality of Raška. From the 13th century onward, it became even more widespread, and was used by the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum and the Mamluk Sultanate within the Islamic world, and by the Holy Roman Empire, Serbia, several medieval Albanian noble families and Russia within the Christian world.
Used in the Eastern Roman Empire as a dynastic emblem of the Palaiologoi, it was adopted during the Late Medieval to Early Modern period in the Holy Roman Empire on the one hand, and in Orthodox principalities on the other, representing an augmentation of the eagle or Aquila associated with the Roman Empire. In a few places, among them the Holy Roman Empire and Russia, the motif was further augmented to create the less prominent triple-headed eagle.
Ancient Near Easts are very frequent in the Bronze Age to Iron Age pictorial legacy of the Ancient Near East, especially in the Assyrian sphere, and thence adopted by the Hittites. Use of the double-headed eagle in Hittite imagery has been interpreted as "royal insignia". A monumental Hittite relief of a double-headed eagle grasping two hares is found at the eastern pier of the Sphinx Gate at Alaca Hüyük.
Mycenaean GreeceIn Mycenaean Greece, evidence of the double-eagle motif was discovered in Grave Circle A, an elite Mycenaean cemetery; the motif was part of a series of gold jewelry, possibly a necklace with a repeating design.Bronze Age collapse, there is a gap of more than two millennia before the re-appearance of the double-headed eagle motif. The earliest occurrence in the context of the East Roman Empire appears to be on a silk brocade dated to the 10th century, which was, however, likely manufactured in Islamic Spain; similarly early examples, from the 10th or 11th century, are from Bulgaria and from France.
East Roman EmpireThe early East Roman Empire continued to use the imperial eagle motif. The double-headed eagle appears only in the medieval period, by about the 10th century in East Roman art, but as an imperial emblem only much later, during the final century of the Palaiologos dynasty. In Western European sources, it appears as an East Roman state emblem since at least the 15th century.
A modern theory, forwarded by Zapheiriou, connected the introduction of the motif to Roman Emperor Isaac I Komnenos, whose family originated in Paphlagonia. Zapheiriou supposed that the Hittite motif of the double-headed bird, associated with the Paphlagonian city of Gangra might have been brought to East Roman Empire by the Komnenoi.
Adoption in the Muslim worldThe double-headed eagle motif was adopted in the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm and the Turkic beyliks of medieval Anatolia in the early 13th century. A royal association of the motif is suggested by its appearance on the keystone of an arch of the citadel built at Konya under Kayqubad I. The motif appears on Turkomen coins of this era, notably on coins minted under Artuqid ruler Nasir al-Din Mahmud of Hasankeyf. It is also found on some stone reliefs on the towers of Diyarbakır Fortress.
Later in the 13th century, the motif was also adopted in Mamluk Egypt; it is notably found on the pierced-globe handwarmer made for Mamluk amir Badr al-Din Baysari, and in a stone relief on the walls of the Cairo Citadel.
Adoption in Christian EuropeAdoption of the double-headed eagle in Albania, Serbia, Russia and in the Holy Roman Empire begins still in the medieval period, possibly as early as the 12th century, but widespread use begins after the fall of Constantinople, in the late 15th century.
The oldest preserved depiction of a double-headed eagle in Serbia is the one found in the donor portrait of Miroslav of Hum in the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bijelo Polje, dating to 1190. The double-headed eagle in the Serbian royal coat of arms is well attested in the 13th and 14th centuries.
An exceptional medieval depiction of a double-headed eagle in the West, attributed to Otto IV, is found in a copy of the Chronica Majora of Matthew of Paris.
Early Modern use
SerbiaIn Serbia, the Nemanjić dynasty adopted a double-headed eagle by the 14th century. The double-headed eagle was used in several coats of arms found in the Illyrian Armorials, compiled in the early modern period. The white double-headed eagle on a red shield was used for the Nemanjić dynasty, and the Despot Stefan Lazarević. A "Nemanjić eagle" was used at the crest of the Hrebeljanović, while a half-white half-red eagle was used at the crest of the Mrnjavčević. Use of the white eagle was continued by the modern Karađorđević, Obrenović and Petrović-Njegoš ruling houses.
RussiaAfter the fall of Constantinople, the use of two-headed eagle symbols spread to Grand Duchy of Moscow after Ivan III's second marriage to Zoe Palaiologina, The last prince of Tver, Mikhail III of Tver, was stamping his coins with two-headed eagle symbol. The double-headed eagle remained an important motif in the heraldry of the imperial families of Russia.
The double-headed eagle was a main element of the coat of arms of the Russian Empire, modified in various ways from the reign of Ivan III onwards, with the shape of the eagle getting its definite Russian form during the reign of Peter the Great. It continued in Russian use until abolished with the Russian Revolution in 1917; it was restored in 1993 after that year's constitutional crisis and remains in use up to the present, although the eagle charge on the present coat of arms is golden rather than the traditional, imperial black.
Holy Roman EmpireUse of a double-headed Imperial Eagle, improved from the single-headed Imperial Eagle used in the high medieval period, became current in the 15th to 16th centuries. The double-headed Reichsadler was in the coats of arms of many German cities and aristocratic families in the early modern period. A distinguishing feature of the Holy Roman eagle was that it was often depicted with haloes.
After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the double-headed eagle was retained by the Austrian Empire, and served also as the coat of arms of the German Confederation. The German states of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Schwarzburg-Sondershausen continued to use the double-headed eagle as well until they were abolished shortly after the First World War, and so did the Free City of Lübeck until it was abolished by the Nazi government in 1937. Austria, which switched to a single-headed eagle after the end of the monarchy, briefly used a double-headed eagle – with haloes – once again when it was a one-party state 1934–1938; this, too, was ended by the Nazi government. Since then, Germany and Austria, and their respective states, have not used double-headed eagles.
MysoreThe Gandabherunda is a bicephalous bird, not necessarily an eagle but very similar in design to the double-headed eagle used in Western heraldry, used as a symbol by the Wadiyar dynasty of the Kingdom of Mysore from the 16th century. Coins from the rule of Achyuta Deva Raya are thought to be the first to use the Gandabherunda on currency. An early instance of the design is found on a sculpture on the roof of the Rameshwara temple in the temple town of Keladi in Shivamogga. The symbol was in continued use by the Maharaja of Mysore into the modern period, and was adopted as the state symbol of the State of Mysore after Indian independence.
AlbaniaThe Kastrioti family in Albania had a double-headed eagle as their emblem in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some members of the Dukagjini family and the Arianiti family also used double-headed eagles, and a coalition of Albanian states in the 15th century, later called the League of Lezhe, also used the Kastrioti eagle as its flag. The current flag of Albania does feature a black two-headed eagle with a crimson background. During John Hunyadi's campaign in Niš in 1443, Skanderbeg and a few hundred Albanians defected from the Turkish ranks; for twenty-five years he scored remarkable victories against the Ottomans. He adopted the Byzantine double-headed eagle flag, and his spectacular victories brought him the papal title Athleta Christi. The eagle was used for heraldic purposes in the Middle Ages by a number of noble families in Albania and became the symbol of the Albanians. The Kastrioti's coat of arms, depicting a black double-headed eagle on a red field, became famous when he led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire resulting in the independence of Albania from 1443 to 1479. This was the flag of the League of Lezhë, which was the first unified Albanian state in the Middle Ages and the oldest Parliament with extant records.
Modern use, Serbia, Montenegro and Russia have a double-headed eagle in their coat of arms. In 1912, Ismail Qemali raised a similar version of that flag. The flag has gone through many alterations, until 1992 when the current flag of Albania was introduced. The double-headed eagle is now used as an emblem by a number of Orthodox Christian churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. In modern Greece, it appears in official use in the Hellenic Army and the Hellenic Army XVI Infantry Division,
The two-headed eagle appears, often as a supporter, on the modern and historical arms and flags of Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Austria, Albania, Armenia, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, Serbia. It was also used as a charge on the Greek coat of arms for a brief period in 1925–1926. It is also used in the municipal arms of a number of cities in Germany, Netherlands and Serbia, the arms and flag of the city and Province of Toledo, Spain, and the arms of the town of Velletri, Italy.
An English heraldic tradition, apparently going back to the 17th century, attributes coats of arms with double-headed eagles to the Anglo-Saxon earls of Mercia, Leofwine and Leofric. The design was introduced in a number of British municipal coats of arms in the 20th century, such as the Municipal Borough of Wimbledon in London, the supporters in the coat of arms of the city and burgh of Perth, and hence in that of the district of Perth and Kinross. The motif is also found in a number of British family coats of arms. In Turkey, General Directorate of Security and the municipality of Diyarbakır have a double-headed eagle in their coat of arms. The Double-Headed Eagle of Lagash is used as an emblem by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. It was introduced in France in the early 1760s as the emblem of the Kadosh degree.