Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Eagle, Lion, and the Owl

The production of grand, lasting symbols is a process mirrored in the creation of great art. In practice it is grubby craftsmanship, messy, arduous, often obsessively mechanical. From this labor arises the new, but the labor itself is inspired by something lofty, already or always present, high above. Today I return to the Eagle—which irked me a while back in one of Dante’s cantos. The focus today is the American Bald Eagle in the Great Seal of the United States of America.

I must confess that heraldry had already gripped me as a child. Its mesmerizing quality merely strengthened later when I encountered phrases like “argent a lion azure with two bends gules athwart,” etc., and if the words “griffon sable” or “chevron between three swords erect” were present, so much the better. My last foray into this subject came in the context of the seal of Budapest, my place of birth. I researched the Roman eagle a few days ago frustrated by dearth of explanations and decent images. Then yesterday Peony, she who is the guarding spirit of the Tang Dynasty, wondered out loud: Was there a link between Minerva and the Eagle? This is the sort of challenge I cannot resist.

It turns out that the Great Seal, quite like the Seal of Budapest, was the work of a committee, a contentious labor extending over a long period. In our own case here three committees labored to generate the seal. The last finally yielded to the decisive action of a single person, that of Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress. He introduced the eagle; it had not appeared in earlier designs. He specified that the bald eagle be used—that oddly-named bird which isn’t bald at all. Curiously, the motivating force behind this selection was exerted by the image of thirteen arrows held by the bird. But that image was probably suggested by a book of emblems supplied by Benjamin Franklin. It had the eagle, the arrows, and the olive branch. At that time the seal of the Dutch Republic also featured a bunch of arrows—the only European state with a representative form government. The Dutch seal, however, depicted a lion holding seven arrows, one for each subdivisions of the state. Neither Rome nor Minerva seemed to play a visible or obvious role in this labor of creation (or, perhaps, appropriation), although—as in all matters of art and spirit—they were there up in the sky. The source (as usually) is Wikipedia. The synthesis, as always, mine.

The eagle or the lion predominate as symbols of sovereignty, and the two combined produce the griffon. The owl belongs, as it were, to a higher order of reality and also to a more ancient dispensation, the ages of the Goddess.

Minerva, in Etruscan and later in Roman times, was the preeminent image of the Goddess and, being All to All, presided over all important things. She was the goddess of war, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, crafts, and magic. She also invented music. The owl was her bird and hence Owl and Wisdom remain forever united.

Here I cannot resist pointing out that Brigid, the Celtic Tripple Goddess, was the Nordic manifestation of the southern Minerva. Her inclusive governance of all things worthy is indicated in this quote from Lady Augusta Gregory, quoted in turn by Wikipedia here: The goddess was, Lady Gregory wrote, “A woman of poetry, and poets worshipped her, for her sway was very great and very noble. And she was a woman of healing along with that, and a woman of smith’s work, and it was she first made the whistle for calling one to another through the night. And the one side of her face was ugly, but the other side was very comely. And the meaning of her name was Breo-saighit, a fiery arrow.” And she honors me by being my Muse and blesses me by being my wife.

* * *

In conclusion, in a whisper, as it were (thinking of a post here titled “Thirteen”), I would point out that the stars above the eagle, the arrows in its claw, the leaves of the olive branch, and the letters in E pluribus unum all number thirteen.
Minerva photo credits: Marble Bas Relief of Minerva With Her Owl at the Library Of Congress John Adams Building (Washington, DC). Originally uploaded by takomabibelot


  1. Hi Arsen,

    This was really interesting... I also read the wikipedia article and found it lacking so went back to the original place where I thought I had read that about Minerva and the eagle. I wonder if you are a fan as well, but I am a huge fan of Dante-specialist Robert Harrison (on my blog, anything related to his work is uploaded in the Our Man in Stanford category). Anyway, he did this fascinating radio program on Virgil some time ago, in which he talked of the eagle on the US dollar bill (as part of his monologue to the show on the dangers of our forgetting our classical heritage).

    I quote: "The eagle is the Roman bird of the auspices; the bird of Jove. In it's talons it's holding the fasces, the Roman symbol of unity; it's right talons gripe a laurel branch, another classical symbol." Harrison believes the US adopted it as our symbol because it was the symbol of Rome (and he makes the point somewhere in is radio programs that while we like to talk about the ancient Athenian democracy, it was in fact the Roman Republic that was taken up more readily as a source of inspiration during the early days of the American experiment).

    Anyway that is as far as I got... and this is not something I can in any way speak with any authority on so I will just end by highly recommending Harrison's Entitled Opinion program (iTunes) if you ever have time... Cheers.

  2. I see the path by which your reached this issue. I've also assumed a conscious mimesis of Rome. The facts on the ground leave us little choice. What intrigued me is the link to Minerva, whom I see as on another level. The early Latins secularized her quite early, alas, taking away her high status and making her, as Athena, jump from the forehead of that second-rater, Zeus...