Monday 14 July 2014

D is for the Double Headed Eagle

Bird Thou Never Wert:

The Strange Case of the Double Headed Eagle and the Orthodox Church

This flag sporting a rather fierce double headed eagle outlined in black on a gold ground can be found hanging outside Orthodox churches in Greece on the islands and on the mainland.

It is often identified as the flag of the Orthodox Church in Greece. (On a Greek website selling flags it is identified as a Byzantine Flag and is listed   under the heading of Ecclesiastical.) Its ubiquity certainly suggests that this is true but the word you would expect to see – official - is not there.  
In fact the official emblem of the Autonomous National Orthodox Church of Greece and the one used on their website is a bit tamer:

Here the eagle, while retaining the crown is much more benign looking, and has nothing in its talons.

The official Flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul which represents the Orthodox community worldwide looks like this:

It has the cross on the crown, and one talon holding a cross and the other an orb, - less bellicose than picture number one and a little more symbolically informative than number two.

An eagle, a crown, an orb and a sword! All fraught with potential meaning, but I am wondering about that eagle’s trajectory, - how  he flew from the ancient past via the Byzantine empire to land on the flag at my local church here in the Peloponnese.

 Aigeira on a windy day


The eagle as a symbol of leadership is as old as eagles, gods, and ruling dynasties. As an archetype it can represent an all powerful deity, the sun (the same thing in many ancient religions), raw power, dominance, freedom of movement, you name it. It’s only possible peers are the Lion and the Snake.   Their potential is obvious to anyone with a lick of imagination. Symbols are not subtle; symbols work because they are obvious.

  But that doesn’t mean that their meanings are not complex; symbols like this one easily become both culture carriers and 'encapsulators'. Because they exist in time and place they can acquire meanings and, in the process, say quite a lot about the people who use or reuse them. 
The eagle on the American Presidential Seal is a perfect case in point. Add something to the claws, and even more symbolic octane can be achieved. This seal with an olive branch in one talon and arrow in the other is a subject all by itself and proof of the eagle’s appeal even to a modern state: 

The double headed eagle is old too and, along with all of the symbolic associations of the single headed variety, adds one extra dimension. Just what Hittite rulers (the first group known to have used the symbol in the Middle East) intended each head to represent is lost in time. It could have been many things: their power stretching both east and west, the far reaching vision of an all seeing leader, a symbol of union with a neighbouring dynasty, impossible to know exactly. 

Sphinx gate of Alaca Hüyük 14th c. BC
Here the ruler standing on a two-headed eagle catching two rabbits. (1)

Whatever the reason, the double headed eagle subsequently struck a chord in many Middle Eastern countries and traveled through the ages as a symbol of leadership in many tribes and dynasties.

By the time it enters our story the double headed eagle had been adopted in art and banners by the Seljuk Turks: 

As an image, it lends itself to many possible artistic variations. (tulip tailed, broom tailed, stretched wings etc) so each country or tribe borrowing it could make it stylistically their own. He appeared on Seljuk standards after 1058. 
(Wikimedia commons)

It is possible that the double headed eagle adopted by Byzantium’s last ruling dynasty was first seen on their enemy’s standard. The crusaders had been impressed too and imported the symbol to their home countries. (2) (Some scholars also claim that a plain double headed eagle was  used as a standard by the Comnenus dynasty before 1204.)

 The Late Byzantine Period

The Byzantine leaders were late comers to the heraldry and coats of arms so common in the west.  Army units apparently had regimental flags, but each emperor often made do with a religious symbol such as the cross or famous icons when a standard was required to take into battle. The choice was more personal than a matter of state. The most common standard for a Byzantine emperor was this:

The acronym reads: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΩΝ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣΙΝ - "King of Kings ruling over Kings
But when the Palaiologan dynasty managed to wrest Constantinople back in 1261 and the empire was in disarray, the Imperial family must have felt that the use of a unifying symbol with a little more oomph would firmly place their own dynastic stamp on the imperial house.  By then they would have been impressed by the Franks’ use of flags and standards. 

A golden double headed double crowned eagle with the dynastic cypher of the Palaiologoi in the center, a large crown topped by a cross, - all on a purple ground - was the Palaiologan choice:

The heads of the eagle represented the sovereignty of the Byzantine Emperor over east and west, with the left head representing Rome (the West) and the right head representing Constantinople  (the East).  It is ironic that such a symbol was adopted just when this was no longer true. The crown over the eagle’s head was a symbol of the emperor as Christ’s vicar on earth.

This symbol appeared on the clothing of the imperial family, even on the boots of Constantine, the last Byzantine emperor. It was used as an imperial flag in 1438 when the emperor John VIII Palaiologos went to the council of Florence and it is known that, when honours were bestowed by Palaiologan emperors, their double headed eagle appeared on the documents.

The emperor reserved the golden double headed eagle for the imperial family but allowed vassal states to adopt the symbol providing that they did not make their eagle a golden one.(3)

Many vassal states took advantage of this, a fact that goes a long way to explaining the ubiquity of double headed eagles on many Balkan flags today:




This adoption of the double headed eagle, although historically kosher, causes some hostility in Greece today; many believe that the symbol, like the history of Alexander the Great, was stolen by the Serbs and Albanians.  In fact they should be flattered, at least to the extent that they identify the symbol as their own.

It is one of those interesting accidents of history that this symbol adopted so late by the Palaiologoi would in retrospect become synonymous with the empire’s entire thousand year history. And because of the interconnection of the Great Church and the Byzantine state would go on to represent Orthodoxy worldwide, not just in Greece. 

The Double Headed Eagle Goes to Church

During the Ottoman occupation and the millet system under which the Orthodox Church was responsible for the Orthodox population, the church took on many Imperial trappings including the emperor’s wardrobe, so it is not difficult to imagine that this symbol of Byzantine royalty and all it stood for would move into the ecclesiastical arena as well. It was an excellent symbolic ‘fit’ in that it could harken back to better days and yet take on new meanings.

As an emblem of the church, its heads could equally well represent the unity (and implied equality) between the Orthodox Church and the State, a partnership governed by the principle of Synergy, the "symphony" between the civil and the ecclesiastical functions of a Christian society. 

Have a look at the double headed eagle outside of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul today:

He looks just as grand as ever and sits upon two keys –an echo of Christ in the Harrowing of Hell icon where his death is a sign of the resurrection and therefore the key to eternal life The cross and the orb, equal in size, can easily represent the state on the one hand and the church on the other while The olive branch suggests the peace and harmony that such synergy achieves. The crowns on each eagle and the crown centered between their heads remain the same as in Imperial times but now the crown could represent Christ enthroned in Heaven rather than a temporal ruler.

And Yet…

The timing eludes me.  I doubt that the Ottomans would have allowed the Patriarchate to disseminate images of the double headed eagle during the occupation – its associations to the lost empire were too strong, so I am assuming its use as an ecclesiastical symbol became widespread after Greek independence or that it went underground. I would be delighted if anyone could enlighten me on this point. 

And, I have yet to find a widely accepted explanation of how and when the Palaiologan eagle changed his colour to black, moved onto a golden ground and morphed into the flag we see today outside of Greek  churches.

Was the Megali Idea a factor?

As a symbol, the double headed eagle would have also blended in very well with the Megali Idea (the Big idea) that was so dear to the hearts of Greeks after 1830 when many believed that the modern state should expand to cover all of the territories lost by the Byzantine empire and to recapture their Patriarchate as well.  Is that when the eagle that now flies outside churches in Greece got his sword?  His Palaiologan predecessor did not have one.

Am I overemphasizing the sword?  Maybe.  But look at the flag of Byzantium Novum, an organization that, believe it or not, is dedicated to the return of the Byzantine Empire. It has borrowed the same flag and here the context seems definitely bellicose!

Byzantium Novum
The objects in the talons lend themselves to so many possible interpretations.

One Possible Explanation

Diamantis Koutoulas in his book Byzantine Constantinople (alas only in Greek) claims that this sword-bearing flag was used by the exiled empire of Nicaea during the period from 1204 to 1261. I cannot confirm this. It does makes sense  because they exiled emperors would have felt that their cosmos  (the orb) could only be recovered by the sword. If true, the last dynasty, the Palaiologoi, chose not to use it but its resurgence at the time of the Megali Idea would make sense even if its retention in the twenty first century does not...

It is interesting to note that the double headed eagle has never appeared on the Greek national flag except for a brief moment in 1925-6 after the Asia Minor debacle.  It is a symbol which may have become too specifically imperialistic – suggesting a call for territorial expansion that, while secretly appealing, was no longer politically correct.

 I suspect that even for the Patriarchate, this eagle may be a tad too connected to the past and to Byzantium to serve as the sole international symbol of a worldwide church in the twenty first century.  The present Patriarch has often spoken against the idea that many still hold in Greece today that Orthodoxy, because of its history, is something of a Greek preserve. (4) So, while certainly not eschewing the eagle, the symbol seen most often on its website today looks like this:

Of course, the double headed eagle is much too popular, too historically entrenched and carries too many accumulated connotations to ever disappear. In one form or another he proudly flies on the flag of the Greek army, over Mount Athos and over Greek Orthodox Churches in the Diaspora from Canada to Australia, -  and over our local church in Aigeira. 
In Greece this Palaiologan bird has become identified with all institutions and cultural ideas encompassed by the word Byzantine, and its ubiquity suggests a culture that is still to some extent emotionally centered on Constantinople’s former greatness and which still strongly identifies the National Church of Greece with that era.

All well and good - except perhaps for that sword…

The Eagle Inside Churches in Greece

The double headed eagle has definitely landed inside Greek churches where he is very often found centrally placed on the floor of the nave, either with the sword

Agia Marina, Athens

or without:

Agia Dynami, Athens

He is also a popular motif on sculpture and textiles within the church, rugs in particular.  Here he is sporting two swords on the floor of the tiny church within meters of my home:

It almost seems as if any double eagle will do providing it retains the crown above the heads. It is that recognizable!


See for a good article on the double headed eagle and excellent pictures.

(1) An eagle representing a god clutching two animals is another potent archetype, ubiquitous in antiquity but, alas, not related to our topic…

(2) Of course the use of the double headed eagle once adopted by the Byzantines would increase in popularity in the west because of the Byzantine connection.

(3) Russia adopted the double headed eagle, first in silver, but then in the ‘forbidden’ gold  in the 15th century when Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow married Sophia Palaiologina, the daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor. It would help to justify their claim as the "third Rome" after the fall of Constantinople.

Here he is in gold in Saint Petersburg today:


April 8, 2015
Forget the flags and look at the wall paper! The Palaiologan double-headed eagle forms the backdrop to the press conference of Putin and Tsipras. Whether it was lost, stolen, or strayed is a matter of opinion. Did Mr Tsipras even notice? It almost seems prophetic in this context. But of what?

(4) I remember being disconcerted when my mother-in-law chastised my daughter for saying her prayers in English because God spoke only Greek!


  1. Good work, Linda!
    In relation to Tartaria, what do you think?

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