The Eagle Displayed, that is, with extended wings, as if in the act of flying, has always, from the majestic character of the bird, been deemed an emblem of imperial power. Marius, the consul, first consecrated the eagle, about eight years before the Christian era, to be the sole Roman standard at the head of every legion, and hence it became the standard of the Roman Empire ever afterward. As the single-headed Eagle was thus adopted as the symbol of imperial power, the double-headed Eagle naturally became the representative of a double empire; and on the division of the Roman dominions into the eastern and western empire, which were afterward consolidated by the Carlovingian race into what was ever after called the Holy Roman Empire, the double-headed Eagle was assumed as the emblem of this double empire; one head looking, as it were, to the West, or Rome, and the other to the East, or Byzantium. Hence the escutcheons of many persons now living, the descendants of the princes and counts of the Holy Roman Empire, are placed upon the breast of a double-headed Eagle Upon the dissolution of that empire, the emperors of Germany, who claimed their empire to be the representative of ancient Rome, assumed the double-headed Eagle as their symbol, and placed it in their arms, which were blazoned thus: Or, an Eagle displayed sable, having two heads, each enclosed within an amulet, or beaked and armed gules, holding in his right claw a sword and scepter or, and in his left the imperial mound. Russia also bears the double-headed eagle, having added, says Brewer1, that of Poland to her own, and thus denoting a double empire. It is, however, probable that the double-headed eagle of Russia is to be traced to some assumed representation of the Holy Roman Empire based upon the claim of Russia to Byzantium; for Constantine, the Byzantine emperor, is said to have been the first who assumed this device to intimate the division of the empire into East and West.
Commenting on this suggestion by Doctor Mackey,2 Brother David E. W. Williamson writes that:
There is no historical question whatever as to the time and occasion of the adoption of the double-headed eagle by Russia. It was taken as his device by Ivan III on his marriage with Zoe Palaeologa (Sophia), daughter of Thomas of Morea, claimant to the imperial throne of Byzantium, and the date was 1469. It was probably because he claimed to be the successor of the Eastern Emperors. As to the adoption of the device in the West, I have no original authorities, but it is stated that it is first seen in the Holy Roman arms in 1345 and it is a fact that it first appears on the seals of the Holy Roman Empire in 1414. The legend of how it came to be adopted by the Emperors at Constantinople may or may not be true, but it is certainly not correct to say that the Seljuk Turks adopted it from the ruins of Euyuk, for Tatar coins antedating the occupation of the Asia Minor country by the Seljuks have been found. As to the device at Euyuk, it is not the most ancient representation of the double-headed eagle by any means if the figure of a comb, No. 10, plate XXIX, in Petrie's Prehistoric Egypt be, as I think it is, an attempt to carve it.
The statement of Millington (Heraldry in History, Poetry, and Romance, page 290) is doubtful that "the double-headed eagle of the Austrian and Russian empires was first assumed during the Second Crusade and typified the great alliance formed by the Christian sovereigns of Greece and Germany against the enemy of their common faith, and it is retained by Russia and Austria as representations of those empires." The theory is more probable as well as more generally accepted which connects the symbol with the eastern and western empires of Rome. It is, however, agreed by all that while the single-headed eagle denotes imperial dignity the extension and multiplication of that dignity is symbolized by the two heads.
The double-headed eagle was probably first introduced as a symbol into Freemasonry in the year 1758. In that year the Body calling itself the Council of Emperors of the East and West was established in Paris. The double-headed eagle as likely to have been assumed by this Council in reference to the double Jurisdiction which it claimed, and which is represented so distinctly in its title. The jewel of the Thirty-third Degree, or Sovereign Grand Inspector-General of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite, is a double-headed eagle (which was originally black, but is now generally of silver), a golden crown resting on both heady wings displayed, beak and claws of gold, his talons grasping a wavy sword, the emblem of cherubic fire, the hilt held by one talon, the blade by the other. The banner of the Order is also a double-headed eagle crowned.
A captivating account of the curious progress of the double-headed eagle from a remote antiquity was prepared by Brother W. J. Chetwode Crawley (Transactions, Quatuor Coronati Lodge, pages 21-4, volume xxiv, 1911). This essay in part runs as follows:
The most ornamental, not to say the most ostentatious feature of the insignia of the Supreme Council, 33°, of the Ancient and Accepted (Scottish) Rite, is the double-headed eagle, surmounted by an imperial crown. This device seems to have been adopted some time after 175S by the grade known as the Emperors of the East and West; a sufficiently pretentious title. This seems to have been its first appearance in connection with Freemasonry, but history of the high grades has been subjected to such distortion that it is difficult to accept unreservedly any assertion put forward regarding them. From this imperial grade, the double-headed eagle came to the "Sovereign Prince Masons" of the Rite of Perfection. The Rite of Perfection with its twenty-five Degrees was amplified in 1801, at Charleston, United States of America, into the Ancient and Accepted Rite of 33°, with the double-headed eagle for its most distinctive emblem. When this emblem was first adopted by the high grades it had been in use as a symbol of power for 5000 years, or so. No heraldic bearing, no emblematic device anywhere today can boast such antiquity. It was in use a thousand years before the Exodus from Egypt, and more than 2000 years before the building of King Solomon's Temple.
The story of our Eagle has been told by the eminent Assyriologist, M. Thureau Dangin, in the volume of Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, 1904. Among the most important discoveries for which we are indebted to the late M. de Sarzec, were two large terra cotta cylinders covered with many hundred lines of archaic cuneiform characters These cylinders were found in the brick mounds of Tello, which has been identified with certainty as the City of Lagash, the dominant center of Southern Babylonian ere Babylon had imposed its name and rule on the country.
The cylinders are now in the Louvre and have been deciphered by M. Thureau Dangin, who displays to our wondering eyes the emblem of power that was already centuries old when Babylon gave its name to Babylonia. The cylinder in question is a foundation record deposited by one Gudea, Ruler of the City of Lagash, to mark the building of the temple, about the year 3000 B.C., as nearly as the date could be fixed. The foundation record was deposited just as our medals, coins and metallic plates are deposited today, when the corner stone is laid with Masonic honors. It must be born in mind that in this case, the word cornerstone may be employed only in a conventional sense, for in Babylonia all edifices, temples, palaces, and towers alike, were built of brick. But the custom of laying foundation deposits was general, whatever the building material might be, and we shall presently see what functions are attributed, by another eminent scholar, to the foundation chamber of King Solomon's Temple.
The contents of this inscription are of the utmost value to the oriental scholar, but may be briefly dismissed for our present purpose. Suffice it to say, that the King begins by reciting that a great drought had fallen upon the land. "The waters of the Tigris," he says, "fell low and the store of provender ran short in this my city," saying that he feared it was a visitation from the gods, to whom he determined to submit his evil ease and that of his people. The reader familiar with Babylonian methods that pervade the Books of the Captivity, will not be surprised to learn that the King dreamed a dream, in which the will of the gods was revealed by direct personal intervention and interlocution. In the dream there came unto the King "a Divine Man, whose stature reached from earth to heaven, and whose head was crowned with the crown of a god, surmounted by the Storm Bird that extended its wings over Lazash, the land thereof." This Storm Bird, no other than our double-headed eagle, was the totem as ethnologists and anthropologists are fain to call it, of the mighty Sumerian City of Lagash, and stood proudly forth the visible emblem of its power and domination. This double-headed eagle of Lagash is the oldest Royal Crest in the world. As time rolled on, it passed from the Sumerians to the men of Akhad. From the men of Akhad to the Hittites , from the denizens of Asia Minor to the Seliukian Sultans, from whom it was brought by Crusaders to the Emperors of the East and West, whose successors today are the Hapsburgs and Romanoffs, as well as to the Masonic Emperors of the East and West, whose successors today are the Supreme Council, 33°, that have inherited the insignia of the Site of Perfection.
1.The Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, E. Cobham Brewer (1810-1897). Newark, 1898.
2.Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, Albert G. Mackey. p. 299-301.