Birds were trusted, honored and made the symbols of wisdom and power in the old time, and they have not, at least in their emblematical signification, been neglected in modern times. The eagle, in particular, is exalted to a high and potential distinction. On the banner of a hundred States he is displayed as a conquering symbol and floats today over many a fair realm where Rome's imperial standard never penetrated.

The eagle has always been considered a royal bird, and was a favorite with the poets. They called him king of the air and made him bear the thunderbolts of Jove. Euripides tells us that "the birds in general are the messengers of the gods, but the eagle is king, and interpreter of the great deity Jupiter."

The eagle figures in the early legends of all people. When the ancient Aztecs, the mound-builders of the Mississippi Valley, were moving southward under Mexi, their king, their god, Vitziputzli, whose image was borne in a tabernacle made of reeds and placed in the center of the encampment whenever they halted, directed them to settle where they should find an eagle sitting on a fig tree growing out of a rock in a lake. After a series of wanderings and adventures that do not shrink from comparison with the most extravagant legends of the heroic ages of antiquity, they at last beheld perched on a shrub in the midst of the lake of Tenochtitlan a royal eagle with a serpent in his talons and his broad wings opened to the rising sun. They hailed the auspicious omen and laid the foundation of their capital by sinking piles into the shallows. This legend is commemorated by the device of the eagle and the cactus, which forms the arms of the modern Mexican Republic.

A goose, it is said, saved Rome once upon a time, but it was an eagle that directed the selection of the ancient Byzantium — now Constantinople — as the capital of the Eastern Empire. The site of ancient Troy had been settled upon by Constantine, and the engineers were engaged in surveying the plan of the city, when an eagle swooped down, seized the measuring line, flew away with it and dropped it at Byzantium. At any rate, this was the story told to the soldiers and marines, in order to reconcile them to the change of plan, which they might otherwise have deemed an unfavorable omen, though the splendid situation of the new capital and its long prosperity, prove how admirably sagacious was the choice of its founder.


In the reign of Ancus Martius, King of Rome, a wealthy man, whose name was Tarquin, came to that city from one of the Etruscan States.. Sitting beside his wife in his chariot, as he approached the gates of Rome, an eagle, it is said, plucked his cap from his head, flew up in the air, and then, returning, placed it on his head again. Not a few suspect that the eagle was a tame one and had been taught to perform this trick. If so, however, the apparent prodigy lost none of its effect in the popular belief, and Tarquin succeeded Ancus as King of Rome. The eagle's head on the Roman sceptre, and later on its standard, took its origin from this occurrence.

Plutarch, in his life of Theseus, relates that when Cymon was sent by the Athenians to procure the bones of that hero, who had long before been buried in Scyros, to reinter them in his former capital, he found great difficulty in ascertaining the burial place of the ancient monarch. While prosecuting his search, however, he chanced to observe an eagle that had alighted on a small elevation and was trying with his beak and claws to break the sod. Considering this a fortunate omen, they explored the place and discovered the coffin of a man of extraordinary size, with a lance of brass and a sword lying by it. These relics were conveyed to Athens amid great rejoicing, where they found a resting place in the famous temple of Theseus, whose ruins are still in existence.

The old historians state that the Greek poet Aeschylus lost his life through an eagle's mistaking his bald head for a rock and dropping a tortoise upon it in order to break the shell of his amphibious prey, but which broke, instead, the poet's skull. That an eagle, proverbially the keenest-sighted of created things, should mistake a man's head for a stone is absurd beyond the necessity of comment. The story is probably intended for an allegory, showing how stupidity can overwhelm genius, or a dull criticism smash a lively poet.

In A. D. 431 there was war between the Emperor Theodosius II. and Genseric the Vandal, and Marcian, the general of the former, was taken prisoner. The unfortunate captive was doomed to death. At the place of execution an eagle alighted on his head and sat there some time undismayed by the tumult around it. Upon seeing this, and believing that the captive was destined for some exalted fortune, Genseric pardoned him and sent him home. About eighteen years afterwards Theodosius died, and, as his sister had married Marcian, the latter became Emperor of Constantinople.

Continue to Page 2 of 2

Back to September 1900 Contents

Home | Site Introduction | Survival Needs | Bird Identifications
Gallery & Profiles | Habitats of Birds | Bird Migration | Odds & Ends | Resources
Birds and Nature Magazine | Search