Since the dawn of human history, eagles have been revered, worshipped, featured in origin stories, myths and folklore, hunted, prized, raised as hunters, and had their feathers worn as status symbols by community leaders from Scotland to indigenous North America.
Today, the eagle remains a symbol of freedom, courage, strength and wisdom, foresight, godliness, and more. In this ultimate guide to the meaning of eagles in world religions and culture, we’ll take you on a journey through eagles as animals, as deific messengers, and as very important symbols. Let’s get started!
An Introduction to Eagles
The term ‘eagle’ is actually a bit misleading. In reality, it can be applied to almost any large bird of prey which is able to catch, kill, and carry large, heavy vertebrate prey. All in all, there are 60 species of eagle, the vast majority of which can be found in Europe and Eurasia, though with at least 1 or 2 species found on every settled continent on earth.
Eagles exist at the top of the food chain – they have no natural predators, and only face population decline due to the hunting and habitat destruction imposed upon them by humans. It is largely thanks to their status as ‘king of the birds’ (i.e. being top of the food chain), that so many cultures throughout history have revered them.
Eagles are categorized into four groups:
- Fish eagles
- Booted eagles
- Snake eagles
- Harpy eagles
Booted eagles have feathered legs, hence the name, and are known also as ‘true eagles’. They include the booted eagle, Ayres’s hawk-eagle and the charmingly-monikered little eagle.
As the name suggests, snake eagles predominantly hunt snakes, serpents, and other reptiles for their food. The snake eagle group contains such handsome creatures as the black-chested snake eagle, brown snake eagle, and the fasciated snake eagle.
Generally speaking the largest of all eagles are those belonging to the fearsomely-named group, the Harpy eagles. These eagles are most often found in the canopies of rainforests, hence their other name: ‘giant forest eagles’. There are only about 6 species of eagle found in this group, including (not surprisingly) the harpy eagle, crested eagle and Chaco eagle.
Eagles are distinct in appearance. Large birds, they have sturdy, often-scaly feet with massive, powerful talons which they attack their prey with. Their bodies are robust, and their wings broad, allowing for fast, direct flight high up in the sky (higher than most other birds will ever fly.
Most notably, eagle beaks are hooked, heavy and extremely sharp, which they employ to shred and rip the flesh from the bones of their prey. Eagles also have very large eyes which provide them with excellent eyesight. For example, the martial eagle has eyes twice the size of a human’s, giving it visual acuity (accuracy of eyesight) about eight times better than ours.
So well adapted are eagles to their role as apex predator, they can be found in almost every environment on earth, from desert and tundra, to mountain and sea.
The Meaning of Eagles in Mythology and Folklore
Eagles are found all over the world, and were present long before humans first burst onto the scene. When we began to tell our origin stories – the mythologies and folklore which give our life meaning and purpose – we almost always included eagles as a symbol of strength and nobility. We incorporated eagles into our tattoos and our art, even making gods out of them.
Ancient Mesopotamian Eagles
In Ancient Sumeria, their was a mythical figure called Etana. A king of the Sumerian people, his legacy (fictional or not) had a huge impact on the unfolding of one of the most bountiful, wealthy and influential empires of the ancient world. And it was all thanks to an eagle that he fathered a son. Consulting an eagle in his garden (perhaps the majestic greater spotted eagle?), she flew the king up to the heavens to consult with the gods. When the king returned, his queen was finally able to get pregnant and beget him an heir.
Ancient Egyptian Eagles
The Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death. I mean, they literally wrote the book on it, right? They studied birds of prey like vultures and eagles excessively, and in time made gods of them. They believed their god Nekhbet, who was patron and protector of Upper Egypt (and in time one of two protectors of unified Ancient Egypt) was a griffon vulture, just as many of their other gods were also represented by powerful birds and animals. This animal, among other eagles, has been depicted in Ancient Egyptian art and in temples since around 3,000BCE (or around 5,000 years ago).
Ancient Germanic and Norse Eagles
Eagles are most at home when in Europe, where the majority of their 60 species reside natively. As such, it should come as no surprise that they feature heavily in ancient Germanic and Old Norse mythologies and cultures. The ferocity of the eagle, as well as their majesty, lent them the characteristics of power animals to these proto-Europeans.
The eagle, to these early tribes, was representative of Woden, or Odin, and – like his ravens Muninn and Huginn – flew all over the world observing and judging the actions of those down on earth. Similarly, the world tree of Norse mythology – Yggdrasil – is said to have an eagle (perhaps a Golden Eagle) perched atop it alongside a hawk companion.
Surely a bird chosen to sit atop the universe is a bird deemed exceptionally powerful and important by these Iron Age and Dark Age tribes?
Ancient Greek Eagles
In Greek mythology, no god is higher nor mightier than Zeus, who controls all nature including thunder and lightning. For the Ancient Greeks, Zeus was represented by an eagle as eagles were messengers to the gods.
Interestingly, you’ll find this motif (divine messenger, thunder bird) expressed time and time again by disparate peoples all around the world. The reason is most likely to do with the facts that not only do eagles fly higher than most other birds (and thus closer to ‘heaven’, with a higher perspective than any other creature), but they also fly during thunderstorms, using the air pressure and currents to fly.
Ancient Roman Eagles
Eagle symbolism in ancient Europe perhaps reaches its peak with the Romans, whose god Jupiter (a literal replica of Zeus) was also represented by and contactable through an eagle. Roman historian Pliny plainly stated that the eagle was “the most honorable and strongest of all birds”.
At the height of the Roman Empire, which stretched from North Africa and the Middle East to southern Scotland, the feared Roman army adopted the eagle, or aquila, as their mascot. It became common practice to carry an eagle standard into battle: a symbol of valour and encouragement around which the troops could gather whenever necessary.
The importance to the Ancient Romans of protecting their eagle in battle cannot be understated.
Ancient Celtic Eagles
In Britain, the golden eagle and white-tailed eagle were once much more common and widespread than they are now. As such, the Ancient Celts – druidic peoples who often spoke strange, non-Indo European languages – worshipped eagles and treated the eagle feather with great respect.
To the Celts, eagles were an emblem of the deep and ancient power of nature, believed to have been around since the mountains towered among the stars. In graves in Orkney, Scotland, white-tailed eagle feathers have been discovered, whilst hearing the call of the majestic golden eagle was traditionally believed in Wales to signify the approach of some great event, such as the birth of a hero.
The Aztecs were the rulers of medieval Mexico, and the warriors who put up such a brave fight against the terrifying Spanish conquistadores with their shiny metal guns and horses. The seat of much of their power, and today the capital of Mexico – Ciudad de México (Mexico City) – was originally called Tenochtitlan, and was founded by the Mexica people around 1325.
But the story of how the site of Mexico City was chosen returns, once again, to the eagle.
According to legend, Huitzilopochtli the Mexica (later Aztec) god of the sun and war (who was themselves represented by an eagle) told the Mexica’s priest that their wandering down out of the mountains would come to an end where they found an eagle perched atop a cactus, eating a snake.
The Mexica found this omen at Lake Texcoco, and so they stopped and began to build a village, which would in time become the giant metropolis of Mexico City. The Mexican flag today retains the image of a snake eagle feasting atop a cactus.
Eagles are viewed time and time again as some of the oldest, wisest and strongest animals in existence. For the Zulu people of sub-Saharan Africa, the Bateleur eagle (which they call “Ingonghulu”) is a sacred being. When the Zulu creator planted the Tree of Life, the first animal to emerge from it was Ingonghulu who announced his arrival with a squawk. Ever since, the Bateleur eagle (along with the black-chested eagle) has been viewed by the Zulu as a symbol of creation and God.
Aboriginal Australian Eagles
To Aboriginal Australians, whose unique Dreamtime worldview and religious culture was able to form separate from the rest of humanity for almost 10,000 years before the Colonial Era, one eagle in particular (a wedge-tailed eagle) is symbolic of their deity Bunjil.
Bunjil is key to the philosophies of several Aboriginal tribes, especially in central Victoria. According to legend, he created the mountains, rivers, flora and fauna, as well as the laws for humans to live by.
When humans neglected to follow Bunjil’s laws, neglecting also their care for the land and crops, they angered the seas, which rose to flood the country and swallow them up. When they pleaded to Bunjil for help, he agreed on the condition that they stopped their in-fighting and instead returned their focus to care for the land.
‘Bunjil’s Shelter‘ is a small cave impression in the rock face in which Bunjil was believed to have slept during the Dreamtime. To this day it is one of the most symbolic and sacred places in all of Aboriginal Australia.
Eagles in Islam
Giant, powerful, mythical eagles appear in much Arabic folklore: beasts such as the Roc, so big it could carry an elephant in its talons. Interestingly, some eagles (especially harpy eagles) have been observed killing and carrying prey many times their body weight.
Eagles in Christianity
The Bible mentions eagles a good few times, including in the Book of Revelation where the four animals which flank God’s throne are listed as the lion, ox, human and eagle.
The eagle is known by all world cultures who have studied it as a being able to soar to heights inaccessible to all other animals. Early Christians perhaps saw this as a symbol of prophet Jesus’ enlightenment above the enlightenment of other people.
Eagles in Hinduism and Buddhism
Eagles appear throughout Hinduism and Buddhism as divine and all-powerful beings. Most notably, the holy mount (or Vahana) of Lord Vishnu, a principal deity among Hindus, was an eagle being called Garuda. To Hindus, Garuda symbolises power and courage.
Native American Eagles
Perhaps no other system of religious beliefs or cultures with eagles at the fore has been more widely studied than that of the pre-Columbian Native Americans. Many Native American tribes, including but not limited to the Caddo, Haida, Tsimshian, Zuni, Hopi, Osage, Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Pueblo, and Chippewa have Eagle clans devoted to the organisation of the family.
To many Native Americans, eagles are an important totem. Totems are spirit beings and emblems symbolic of specific peoples. Totem poles are the Pacific Northwest tribal expression of spiritual connection to the animal world, and often feature depictions of eagle totems.
The eagle is a divine creature in much North American indigenous mythology, with eagle dances being celebrated by the Pueblo and Hopi, and the Zuni viewed eagles as protectors of the sky. Eagle feathers are viewed by the majority of Native Americans as sacred, and headdresses made from eagle feathers a sign of an individual’s bravery and wisdom.
The Eagle as National Symbol: United States of America, Holy Roman Empire, Nazi Germany
Last but not least, we must touch upon the fact that the eagle has been used throughout history as a national symbol. Whether on flags, badges, in propaganda or as an integral part of that country’s government insignia, an eagle is always chosen by those who want their country to be seen by the rest of the world as strong, independent and free.
Historically, the eagle has been used in insignia by all manner of different regimes. From the Holy Roman Empire and modern-day Austria’s double-headed eagle, to the Nazis appropriation of the eagle as a sign of Germanic valour and racial ‘purity’.
Perhaps most famously, of course, is the United States of America’s decision to use the bald eagle as the symbol of the newly formed nation in 1789.
Whilst Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers, argued for the turkey instead, it was eventually decided that the bald eagle was a better choice given that it was both native to the New World, and a symbol of the freedom to fly however and wherever one so chose.
I’m not sure, but I might go so far as to say that there are more myths and stories involving, and more people worshipping, the eagle than there is that sort of reverence and respect for any other single class of animals in the world. The influence of eagles on world history cannot be understated. From the founding of independent USA to Nazi Germanic tyranny; from Ancient Greek mythology and Native American spirituality to the formation of modern monotheisms such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the eagle has always been there, right at the heart of people.