Girish Mahajan (Editor)

Double headed eagle

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Double-headed eagle

In heraldry and vexillology, the double-headed eagle is a charge associated with the concept of Empire.


The double-headed eagle motif appears to have its ultimate origin in the Ancient Near East, especially in Hittite iconography. It re-appears in the High Middle Ages, from ca. the 10th or 11th century, and was notably used in the Byzantine Empire, but 11th or 12th century representations are also known from Islamic Spain, France and Bulgaria, and from the 13th century onward it becomes more widespread, and is used in the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, Mamluk Egypt in the Islamic sphere, and in the Holy Roman Empire, Serbia and Russia in the Christian sphere.

Used in the late Byzantine Empire as dynastic emblem of the Palaiologoi, it was adopted during the late medieval to early modern period in the Holy Roman Empire on one hand, and in Orthodox principalities Serbia and Russia on the other, representing an augmentation of the (single-headed) eagle or Aquila associated with the Roman Empire.

In a few places, among them the Holy Roman Empire and Russia, the motif was further augmented to create the less prominent triple-headed eagle.

Ancient Near East

Polycephalous mythological beasts are very frequent in the Bronze Age to Iron Age pictorial legacy of the Ancient Near East, especially in the Assyrian sphere, and thence adopted by the Hittites. Use of the double-headed eagle in Hittite imagery has been interpreted as "royal insignia". A monumental Hittite relief of a double-headed eagle grasping two hares is found at the eastern pier of the Sphinx Gate at Alaca Hüyük.

Middle Ages

After the Bronze Age collapse, there is a gap of more than two millennia before the re-appearance of the double-headed eagle motif. The earliest occurrence in the context of the Byzantine Empire appears to be on a silk brocade dated to the 10th century, which was, however, likely manufactured in Islamic Spain; similarly early examples, from the 10th or 11th century, are from Bulgaria and from France.

Byzantine Empire

The early Byzantine Empire continued to use the (single-headed) imperial eagle motif. The double-headed eagle appears only in the medieval period, by about the 10th century in Byzantine art, but as an imperial emblem only much later, during the final century of the Palaiologos dynasty.

A modern theory, forwarded by Zapheiriou (1947), connected the introduction of the motif to Emperor Isaac I Komnenos (1057–1059), whose family originated in Paphlagonia. Zapheiriou supposed that the Hittite motif of the double-headed bird, associated with the Paphlagonian city of Gangra (where it was known as Haga, Χάγκα) might have been brought to Byzantium by the Komnenoi.

Seljuk-era Anatolia

The double-headed eagle motif was adopted in the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm and the Turkic beyliks of medieval Anatolia in the early 13th century. A royal association of the motif is suggested by its appearance on the keystone of an arch of the citadel built at Ikonion (Konya) under Kayqubad I (r. 1220–1237). The motif also appears on Turkomen coins of this era, notably on coins minted under Artuqid ruler Nasir al-Din Mahmud of Hasankeyf (r. 1200–1222).

Later in the 13th century, the motif was also adopted in Mamluk Egypt; it is notably found on the pierced-globe handwarmer made for Mamluk amir Badr al-Din Baysari (c. 1270), and in a stone relief on the walls of the Cairo Citadel.

Adoption in Christian Europe

Adoption of the double-headed eagle in Serbia, Russia and in the Holy Roman empire begins still in the medieval period, possibly as early as the 12th century, but widespread use begins after the fall of Constantinople, in the late 15th century.

The oldest preserved depiction of a double-headed eagle in Serbia is the one found in the donor portrait of Miroslav of Hum in the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Bijelo Polje, dating to 1190. The double-headed eagle in the Serbian royal coat of arms is well attested in the 13th and 14th centuries.

An exceptional medieval depiction of a double headed eagle in the west, attributed to Otto IV, is found in a copy of the Chronica Majora of Matthew of Paris (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Parker MS 16 fol. 18, 13th century).

In Russian principalities, the two-headed eagle symbol is known since time of Jani Beg khan of the Golden Horde (1342–1357), who was actively participating in internal politics of Russian principalities, and was stamping his coins with symbol of two-headed eagle.


In Serbia, the Nemanjić dynasty adopted a double-headed eagle by the 14th century (recorded by Angelino Dulcert 1339). The double-headed eagle was used in several coats of arms found in the Illyrian Armorials, compiled in the early modern period. The white double-headed eagle on a red shield was used for the Nemanjić dynasty, and the Despot Stefan Lazarević. A "Nemanjić eagle" was used at the crest of the Hrebeljanović (Lazarević dynasty), while a half-white half-red eagle was used at the crest of the Mrnjavčević. Use of the white eagle was continued by the modern Karađorđević, Obrenović and Petrović-Njegoš ruling houses.


After the fall of Byzantium the use of two-headed eagle symbols spread to Grand Duchy of Moscow after Ivan III's second marriage (1472) to Zoe Palaiologina (a niece of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who reigned 1449-1453), The last prince of Tver, Mikhail III of Tver (1453–1505), was stamping his coins with two-headed eagle symbol. The double-headed eagle remained an important motif in the heraldry of the imperial families of Russia (the House of Romanov (1613-1762).

The double-headed eagle was a main element of the coat of arms of the Russian Empire (1721-1917), modified in various ways from the reign of Ivan III (1462–1505) onwards, with the shape of the eagle getting its definite Russian form during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725). It continued in Russian use until abolished (being identified with Tsarist rule) with the Russian Revolution in 1917; it was restored in 1993 after that year's constitutional crisis and remains in use up to the present, although the eagle charge on the present coat of arms is golden rather than the traditional, imperial black.

Holy Roman Empire

Use of a double-headed Imperial Eagle, improved from the single-headed Imperial Eagle used in the high medieval period, becomes current in the 15th to 16th centuries. The double-headed Reichsadler was in the coats of arms of many German cities and aristocratic families in the early modern period. A distinguishing feature of the Holy Roman eagle was that it was often depicted with haloes.

After the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the double-headed eagle was retained by the Austrian Empire, and served also as the coat of arms of the German Confederation. The German states of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt and Schwarzburg-Sondershausen continued to use the double-headed eagle as well until they were abolished shortly after the First World War, and so did the Free City of Lübeck until it was abolished by the Nazi government in 1937. Austria, which switched to a single-headed eagle after the end of the monarchy, briefly used a double-headed eagle – with haloes – once again when it was a one-party state 1934–1938; this, too, was ended by the Nazi government. Since then, Germany and Austria, and their respective states, have not used double-headed eagles.


The Gandaberunda is a bicephalous bird, not necessarily an eagle but very similar in design to the double-headed eagle used in Western heraldry, used as a symbol by the Wadiyar dynasty of the Kingdom of Mysore from the 16th century. Coins (gold pagoda or gadyana) from the rule of Achyuta Deva Raya (reigned 1529–1542) are thought to be the first to use the Gandaberunda on currency. An early instance of the design is found on a sculpture on the roof of the Rameshwara temple in the temple town of Keladi in Shivamogga. The symbol was in continued use by the Maharaja of Mysore into the modern period, and was adopted as the state symbol of the State of Mysore (now Karnataka) after Indian independence.


The Kastrioti family in Albania had a double-headed eagle as their emblem in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some members of the Dukagjini family also used double-headed eagles, and a coalition of Albanian states in the 15th century, later called the League of Lezhe, also used the Kastrioti eagle as its flag.

Modern use

Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Russia have a double headed eagle in their coat of arms. In 1912, Ismail Qemali, raised a similar version of that flag. The flag has gone through a lot of alternations until 1992 when the current flag of Albania was introduced. The double headed eagle is now used as an emblem by a number of Orthodox Christian churches, including the Greek Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. In modern Greece it appears in official use in the Hellenic Army (Coat of Arms of Hellenic Army General Staff) and the Hellenic Army XVI Infantry Division,

The two-headed eagle appears, often as a supporter, on the modern and historical arms and flags of, Austria-Hungary, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Austria (1934–1938), Albania, Armenia, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, Serbia. It was also used as a charge on the Greek coat of arms for a brief period in 1925–1926. It is also used in the municipal arms of a number of cities in Germany, Netherlands and Serbia, the arms and flag of the city and Province of Toledo, Spain, and the arms of the town of Velletri, Italy.

An English heraldic tradition, apparently going back to the 17th century, attributes coats of arms with double-headed eagles to the Anglo-Saxon earls of Mercia, Leofwine and Leofric. The design was introduced in a number of British municipal coats of arms in the 20th century, such as the Municipal Borough of Wimbledon in London, the supporters in the coat of arms of the city and burgh of Perth, and hence in that of the district of Perth and Kinross (1975). The motif is also found in a number of British family coats of arms. In Turkey, General Directorate of Security and the municipality of Diyarbakır have a double-headed eagle in their coat of arms. The Double-Headed Eagle of Lagash is used as an emblem by the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. It was introduced in France in the early 1760s as the emblem of the Kadosh degree.

Sports clubs insignia

Several sports clubs, mainly Greek and Turkish, have the double-headed eagle in their insignia. Some of them are: two football clubs of Turkey, Erzurumspor and Konyaspor and the Greek sport clubs AEK (Athletic Union of Constantinople) and (since 1929) P.A.O.K.. The Greek clubs use this symbol since both were founded by Greek refugees who fled to Greece from Constantinople in the 1920s. It is also the emblem of the Dutch clubs NEC and Vitesse Arnhem, the English League Two football club AFC Wimbledon and Scottish Premier League side Saint Johnstone FC.


Double-headed eagle Wikipedia