The coat of arms bird is officially known as the eagle. The eagle is a prominent symbol that has been used in coats of arms for centuries across many cultures. Coats of arms are heraldic symbols that represent individuals, families, institutions or corporations. The use of the eagle in coats of arms is widespread due to its majestic nature and symbolism of power and authority.
History and Symbolism of the Eagle
The eagle has been a revered symbol across many ancient civilizations. In ancient Egypt, the eagle was associated with the sun god Ra. In ancient Greece and Rome, the eagle was seen as a symbol of Zeus/Jupiter. The eagle was believed to be the only creature that could look at the sun without getting blinded. This contributed to its association with divinity, power and authority.
In heraldry, the use of the eagle dates back to the early 12th century in the Holy Roman Empire. The double-headed eagle became associated with the concept of Empire. This iconic symbol would come to represent the Holy Roman Empire and subsequent empires including Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Russian and Austrian empires. The eagle was seen as a fitting symbol to represent imperial power and authority.
The eagle is commonly displayed with its wings spread out and often grasping symbols in its talons. This aggressive stance exudes dominance and power. The sharp vision of the eagle also symbolizes intelligence and perception. For this reason, the eagle is sometimes depicted with a halo or crown to further emphasize its divine authority.
Eagle Variations in Heraldry
While the basic default form is a golden eagle with its wings spread, there are some variations in how the eagle is depicted in coats of arms:
Single Headed vs Double Headed: The single headed eagle is more common. However, the double headed eagle was popularized by the Byzantine Empire and then adopted in other European empires. The two heads were said to symbolize control over lands in both the West and East.
Displayed vs Inverted: Typically, eagles are displayed with their heads up and wings spread outward. However, in rare cases, the eagle is shown inverted with its head looking downwards and wings pointing down. This inverted style was sometimes used in Germany.
Crowned: Eagle heads are sometimes crowned to represent imperial authority. The halo crowns emphasize divinity and royal sovereignty.
Charges on Shield: The eagle may grasp different objects like arrows, banners or swords in its talons. These are called charges and reinforce qualities like military strength and preparedness.
Color Variations: Though usually golden, the eagle can be colored or stylized in silver, black or other tinctures. The heads may also be a different color from the body.
Notable Examples of Eagles in Coats of Arms
Here are some noteworthy uses of the eagle in coats of arms over the centuries:
Holy Roman Empire: A black eagle on a golden background was used in the Imperial coat of arms starting in the 12th century. It represented the Holy Roman Empire for hundreds of years.
Russia: Russia’s coat of arms features a double-headed eagle in gold against a red background. This was first introduced in 1472 after the fall of Constantinople and marriage of Ivan III to the Byzantine princess Sophia. The second head came to symbolize Russia’s new role as successor to the Eastern Roman Empire.
United States: The Great Seal of the United States has a bald eagle displayed with wings spread. The eagle grasps an olive branch and arrows in its talons. It has been a core symbol of American government and democracy since 1782.
Germany: The Nazi Party co-opted Germany’s traditional eagle insignia by replacing the traditional imperial eagle with a more aggressive looking eagle. This Eagle atop the swastika came to represent the ruthless power of the Nazi regime.
Albania: Albania’s national emblem features a black two-headed eagle on a red background. It is said to symbolize the links between Albanians living on both sides of the Adriatic Sea. The design dates back to medieval times under leadership of the Topia family.
Egypt: The Eagle of Saladin is Egypt’s current coat of arms. It shows a golden eagle displaying on an escutcheon. This golden eagle design replaced the hawk emblem that represented the monarchy of Egypt from 1952-1984.
Eagles in Modern Heraldry and Vexillology
The eagle remains a popular symbol in contemporary heraldry and vexillology, which are the studies of coats of arms and flags respectively. Here are some ways the eagle is still used in modern symbols:
- National coats of arms including Albania, Austria, Germany, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Serbia and United States.
- Flags of countries like Egypt, Montenegro and Zambia feature eagles.
- Sports teams such as the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Eagles use the eagle motif.
- Educational institutions like Boston College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University employ the eagle in seals and logos.
- Corporations including American Eagle, US Eagle Federal Credit Union, Anheuser-Busch and Boeing use eagle designs.
- Fraternal organizations like the Fraternal Order of Eagles and Phi Delta Theta fraternity employ the eagle in insignia.
The enduring popularity of the eagle stems from its universally recognized association with attributes like courage, vision, strength, independence and nobility. No other heraldic creature evokes such a strong sense of power and authority.
To summarize, the coat of arms bird is officially called the heraldic eagle. It has been employed extensively in coats of arms for centuries across different civilizations and empires. The eagle’s association with divine power, control over land and air as well as attributes like vision and bravery make it a fitting symbol to convey prestige and dominance. Whether single or double-headed, displayed or inverted, the heraldic eagle evokes tremendous gravitas and majesty in any coat of arms. With its widespread global recognition, the eagle continues to feature prominently in contemporary national emblems and organizational insignia.