Eagles and Hawks

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EAGLES AND HAWKS . The terms eagle and hawk can be taken to refer generally to birds of prey, although there is much confusion as to the particular species (eagle, hawk, falcon, vulture, osprey, etc.) in bird symbolism and its description. Eagles and hawks seem to gather their symbolic value from their swiftness, soaring ability, and fierceness; through these qualities they are equated and associated with various religious principles and with deities of all kinds.

The sacred roles of the eagle and hawk in many religions derive from their association with the life-giving and life-sustaining powers of various deities who represent the forces of nature. The Aztec god of sun and war, Huitzilopochtli, is symbolized by an eagle. The sun's efforts to regain the sky from its daily rising in the east symbolize the struggle between the principles of the celestial, or spiritual, spheres and those of the lower world. The sun gods Re and Horus of ancient Egypt, who share similar attributes, are depicted as hawks or hawk-headed men.

A myth of the Iroquois describes how Oshadage, the Big Eagle of the Dew, bears a lake of dew on his back, which brings water and life to the earth after forces of fire have parched all plant life. Assyro-Babylonian religion provides a similar example: the divine lion-headed eagle Imdugud spread his wings after a drought, shrouding the skies in rain-bearing clouds. An Olmec deity, the dragon monster, is a composite of caiman, eagle, jaguar, serpent, and human, a figure that fuses sun, water, earth, and fertility symbolism.

Eagle and hawk symbolism is also associated with death, for the birds often act as the bearers of souls "heavenward." This is true of the hawk in California Indian religions as well as in the religious system of ancient Egypt, where the hawk was itself the emblem of the soul. In ancient Rome an eagle was released from an emperor's funeral pyre to signify the soul departing for the afterlife.

Because of their swiftness, eagles and hawks are the messengers and bearers of the gods. The Iliad and Odyssey of ancient Greek culture make reference to the gods' use of eagles as messengers. In Eddic mythology, both Freyja and Odin possessed a hawk's plumage that gave them the capacity for swift flight. The swiftness of the eagle Garua is noted in the Hindu Mahābhārata. It was Garua who stole the soma for Viu and so became Viu's mount. In Christianity the swiftness of the eagle's flight associates the bird with prayer rising to the Lord and with his grace descending to man.

As birds of prey, the eagle and hawk are often identified with gods of war and with supernatural malice in general. The eagle was the weapon bearer of the Roman gods and was often shown clutching a thunderbolt in its talons. According to the Mahābhārata, hawks are unlucky omens except when they precede a warrior into battle. As Jupiter's bird in Roman religion, the eagle was also a "storm bird," just as the hawk was among the ancient Greeks; both were identified with violent winds associated with the earth's malignant forces.

Eagles and hawks represent divine majesty, the superiority of the intellect over the physical and of the spiritual over the material. Thus the opposition of eagle (or hawk) and serpent represents the domination of baser forces by higher spiritual forces; so also, more generally, does the symbolic equation of eagle and thunderbolt. This principle is found also in such mythical creatures as the Christian griffin, the Olmec jaguar-monster deities, and the Assyro-Babylonian god Imdugud; in Greek imagery depicting a hawk ripping apart a hare; and, similarly, in Hindu imagery of the eagle Garua and a serpent.


An early work comparing themes and symbols that are found repeatedly in the myths and practices of many religions worldwide is Ellen R. Emerson's Indian Myths, or Legends, Traditions and Symbols of the Aborigines of America Compared with Those of Other Countries, Including Hindostan, Egypt, Persia, Assyria, and China (1884; Minneapolis, 1965). A more detailed study of Semitic symbolism is to be found in Maurice H. Farbridge's Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism (New York, 1970). This is a rich historical discussion of Semitic religious and cultural symbols, including a brief but interesting discussion of the use of animal imagery. A very useful collection (with index) of myths representing cultures and religious traditions worldwide can be found in The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols., edited by Louis H. Gray (Boston, 19161932). E. Washburn Hopkins's Epic Mythology (1915; New York, 1969) and William J. Wilkins's Hindu Mythology: Vedic and Puranic, 2d ed. (London, 1973), offer extensive discussions of the Hindu epics, with detailed accounts of the various roles played by eagles and hawks. An authoritative discussion of the use of animal imagery in religious and cultural contexts is Jocelyn Toynbee's Animals in Roman Life and Art (London, 1973). This work makes extensive use of historical accounts and of the described behavior of animals in explaining their symbolic roles.

New Sources

Baird, Merrily. "Birds and Insects." In Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New York, 2001.

Taylor, Pamela York. Beasts, Birds, and Blossoms in Thai Art. New York, 1996.

Vogel, Dan. "Ambiguities of the Eagle." Jewish Bible Quarterly 26 (June 1988): 8592.

S. J. M. Gray (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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