In a similar way that the square and compasses symbol represents universal Freemasonry, the double-headed eagle motif is one of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry’s most recognizable and iconic symbols.
Since the day of its inception, the Scottish Rite has adopted the double-headed eagle as its emblem, and any Mason that sees it immediately associates it with the Scottish Rite, such is its recognisability within Masonic circles.
However, the double-headed symbol is one of the oldest of all time, and it has been widely used in cultures throughout human history. From ancient Egypt and Babylon to the Roman Empire, the symbol has endured throughout history and has been adopted by religious orders, societies, and even whole nations.
This post will delve deeper into the origins of the two-headed eagle and its symbolic significance in Freemasonry today. We will take a look at why the symbol was used in the first place and how it has evolved over time.
The origins of the two-headed eagle symbol
As is the case with many of Freemasonry’s symbols, the two-headed eagle symbol existed long before being used to represent the Masonic Scottish Rite.
Historical sources tell us that the symbol may have existed as far back as Ancient Mesopotamian times when various multi-headed beasts were used to symbolize either heroes or villains in stories of ancient legends and mythologies.
From an archaeological perspective, remnants of ancient Mesopotamian symbolism have been discovered all across Europe. One such example, where the two-headed eagle symbol is present, is on the city gate in Alaca Hoyuk in Turkey. Historians believe that the symbol on the gate dates as far back as the period 1450 – 1180 BCE.
This is one of the earliest known uses of the double-headed eagle symbol, and it continued to be used in different ways throughout ancient history. For example, during the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the symbol was used on imperial flags and was used to represent power and domination over others.
Following on from these periods, the symbol can be seen again in the Medieval era in Europe, particularly in metal-work. This is particularly significant, as many Masonic symbols have been taken from Medieval times, particularly from the stonemasons’ work.
What can we understand about the historical meaning of the symbol?
The symbol’s use across thousands of years in many of the world’s cultures is fascinating and is the cause of much consideration. Over time, the symbol has embodied many layers of meaning, each of which is significant in its own right.
The eagle has long been acknowledged regarding nobility and rulership and can be seen in cultures across the world to represent an office or state of high virtue. The eagle’s large wings represent the protection offered to the common people of a particular land, while the sharp talons are said to punish those who inflict evil deeds upon others.
The eagle’s white head, then, indicates the ruler and embodies strength, foresight, and courage. We only have to think of the eagle’s symbolic significance in American culture today to recognize its symbolic meanings to cultures in the past.
More generically speaking, we know that the eagle was sacred to the sun in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Persia, and perhaps can be attributed to the Masonic fascination with light as an important element of the Masonic teachings.
If we look at the scriptures, the eagle is frequently mentioned. To the Ancient Celts, the eagle was, in fact, the very symbol of their Supreme Being. Much is made of this today in modern Freemasonry, as the eagle has been a significant figure for so many religions and cultures in the past.
The symbol’s early adoption within Freemasonry
History tells us that the double-headed eagle’s first appearance in connection with Freemasonry was sometime in 1758, by a grade known at the time as the Council of Emperors of East and West in Paris, France.
At this time, the council adopted the double-headed eagle to represent the fact that it was a double jurisdiction. One of the heads of the eagle was inclined to the East and was to guard the council from anyone who might approach them from that direction, and the other head was tilted to the West for the same purpose.
At this time, the council adopted a ritual of twenty-five degrees, all of which are now contained in the Ancient and Accepted Rite of modern-day Freemasonry. In addition to these twenty-five rites, eight more have been added since, making thirty-three in total in today’s Scottish Rite.
Some sources tell us that the council received explicit permission to use the emblem from King Frederick of Prussia directly. At the time, this represented an effort to unify the fractured Holy Roman Empire and was a significant gesture on the King’s part.
Although the symbol made its first appearance in Freemasonry in the eighteenth century, as has already been explored, it was already a symbol of significant antiquity, as it had been represented throughout many different periods of human history.
Regarding events of Masonic significance, the double-headed eagle was in use more than two thousand years before the building of King Solomon’s Temple, a remarkable feat when you consider the importance of the Temple in Masonic history.
The Use of the double-headed eagle in Scottish Rite Freemasonry today
Scottish Rite Freemasons are proud to display their affiliation with the exclusive degree of Freemasonry by adorning symbols and other pieces of significance on their clothing and regalia.
In a similar way that the square and compasses are a distinguishing feature of Freemasonry, the double-headed eagle has become a defining symbol of the Scottish Rite in particular.
The double-headed eagle is commonly emblazoned upon rings and hats worn by brothers within the Scottish Rite. In this regard, it is thought of as a symbol of prestige, as the Scottish Rite is a rather exclusive section of Freemasonry.
You can identify the double-headed eagle of the 32nd degree by how the eagle’s wings are arranged. On regalia, the wings are usually pointed downward, although sometimes they are pointed up.
If the wings of the double-headed eagle are pointed up, this is usually a status of a Mason’s status, and in some jurisdictions of Freemasonry, upward-pointing wings are reserved for Masons within the 33rd degree only.
On the whole, as a Scottish Rite Freemason, you live under the symbolic protection offered by the double-headed eagle. All of the strength, courage, and foresight of the eagle manifests itself within the brothers of the Scottish Rite.
Moreover, by spreading its wings, the eagle represents security but also the ability to fly. This can be seen as encouraging Masons to try new things, to be brave, and to take the values and ideals of Freemasonry out into the world.
The directions in which the eagle is looking is also significant. It looks behind you to see where you have been and to learn from the lessons of the past, but at the same time, it is also looking forward in the direction you’re going.
Such symbolism is vital to the Freemasons of the Scottish Rite, and the double-headed eagle is a shining light of virtue that guards Masons through their lives.
The Scottish Rite consists of four separate bodies, each made up of a set of degrees that facilitate a brother’s study of some of the more profound philosophical teachings of Freemasonry. The four different bodies are:
The Lodge of Perfection – the 4th – 14th degrees are known as the Ineffable Degrees
Chapter of Rose Croix – the 15th – 18th degrees are known as the Historical and Religious Degrees
The Council of Kadosh – the 19th – 30th degrees are the philosophical and chivalric degrees
The Consistory – the 31st and 32nd degrees culminate the lessons of the Scottish Rite
Conclusion: the double-headed eagle of the Scottish Rite
As has been explored throughout this post, the double-headed eagle is one of the oldest symbols of Freemasonry and has its origins in many of the ancient civilizations and cultures of the ancient world.
That being said, the eagle as a symbol has long been a symbol of superiority and stature and has been used by Kings, states, and religious bodies to represent their significance in a particular society.
The symbol was first used in Freemasonry in the eighteenth century and has gone on to represent the Scottish Rite in Freemasonry today. It is akin to the white apron as one of the most recognizable Masonic symbols, and many brothers of the Scottish Rite display the emblem on their clothing or jewelry.
As has been discussed, the double-headed eagle is one of the most significant symbols of Freemasonry, and those that understand its significance realize it represents the Scottish Rite.