The Double-Headed Eagle of Lagash
By Brother Mark van Dijk
Presented on 19 January 2017 at Lodge De Goede Verwachting
As a fan (if not a student) of the visual arts, my eye is often drawn to the decorations of our Goede Hoop Temple – from the five magnificent statues to the carefully crafted glasswork in the East. One small piece that’s often overlooked is the double-headed eagle in our foyer.
I say “overlooked”, because for my fellow Blue Lodge Brethren, that eagle holds no special meaning. Its significance is only revealed in the “side degrees” of the Ancient and Accepted Rite.
Nevertheless, that “Double-Headed Eagle of Lagash” should hold some interest for the uninitiated and the profane. If you’re Russian, you’ll recognise it from your national coat of arms. If you’re Albanian, you’ll know if from your national flag. You’ll recognise it if you’re of the Greek Orthodox faith, or if you’re a supporter of any number of European football teams.
So why this symbol? Why Lagash? Why two heads? And why an eagle?
Lagash is explained in the framed note alongside the statue: “The city of Lagash in Sumer in Southern Babylonia between the Tigris and Euphrates and near the modern city of Shatra in Iraq, was a centre of art, literature, military and political power 5000 years before Christ.”
Indeed, the double-headed eagle is an ancient heraldic symbol, first seen in the Hittite civilisation of the Ancient Near East. In Anatolia, in central Turkey, you’ll find this symbol in a relief on the Sphinx Gate of the ancient settlement at Alaca Höyük, where a two-headed eagle holds two rabbits in each foot. This eagle dates to about 1400 BCE.
Centuries later, the Seljuks of medieval Anatolia adopted the double-headed eagle as their royal symbol – and from there it was picked up by the Crusaders during their adventures in Constantinople, Byzantium and the Holy Land. The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne used this Imperial Eagle (or “Reichsadler”) to symbolise the unity of that double empire: one head looking to Rome in the West; the other to Byzantium in the East.
Albert Mackey’s 1914 Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry notes that: “The double-headed eagle was probably first introduced as a symbol into Masonry in the year 1758. In that year the body calling itself the Council of Emperors of the East and West was established in Paris. The double-headed eagle was likely to have been assumed by this Council in reference to the double jurisdiction which it claimed, and which is represented so distinctly in its title.”
As the note accompanying our own statue explains, “The two heads, one facing East and the other facing West, and the outstretched wings, symbolise the universality of the Scottish Rite.” There’s an Alchemic significance to this as well: the two heads representing the reconciliation of matter and spirit, achieved in these highest degrees.
Finally, why an eagle? Again, Mackey’s Encyclopaedia explains: “In [ancient] Egypt, Greece, and Persia, this bird was sacred to the sun […] signifying the same thing among birds as the lion does among quadrupeds […] the most swift, strong, laborious, generous and bold of all birds. For this reason it has been made, both by ancients and moderns, the symbol of majesty.”
The statue we have in our Temple was carved out of a block of Rhodesian/Zimbabwean soapstone, and is, I believe, one of the more eye-catching ornaments in our beautiful Temple. It’s also a useful reminder to those of us in the Blue Lodge, that there’s more to our Craft than merely our Three Degrees!