One of the most important archetypal bird symbols, the prominence of the eagle is a worldwide phenomenon. The eagle is the "King of the Birds" and the "Lion of the Skies," and its use as a symbol is clear. It resembles power, authority, nobility, and truth, it is the ultimate solar symbol. In Greek, the name of the eagle shares the same stem as aigle, meaning "ray of light."
Over the years in Christian iconography, the eagle has represented a special messenger from Heaven, the spirit of prophecy, a prayer rising swiftly to God, and even the Ascension of Christ. St. John the Evangelist is identified with the eagle. Here, the eagle represents divine inspiration.
Psalms 103:5, "so that thy youth is renewed like an eagle's"; and Isaiah 40:31, "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles," both allude to the old Hebrew belief that the eagle had the ability to plunge into the sea and regenerate itself every 10 years.
The saying "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" also applies here, because the bird is reputedly the natural enemy of snakes, and the eagle has been regarded as on the "side" of God ever since the Devil was symbolized as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Adam and Eve away from the straight and narrow path of good towards the twisting and corrupting path of evil.
However, the eagle and the snake seen together symbolize the opposing concepts of matter and spirit, Earth and Heaven, instinct and intellect, the mundane and the sublime, and therefore the unity of the cosmos. In Norse mythology, the eagle sits in the great World Tree, Yggdrasil, counterbalanced by the serpent that twines about the tree's roots.
The eagle's reputation as a symbol of truth comes from its sharp sightedness; the eyesight of the eagle is at least four times superior to that of human beings, and combined with its high-flying abilities it means that the bird can see the bigger picture, quite literally. Therefore, it is meant to be able to discern truth from falsehood.
Because it flies so high, often appearing to be heading straight for the Sun, people believed that the eagle was the only creature in the world able to gaze directly into the brightness of the Sun without hurting its eyes. Therefore, the bird also symbolizes mental and spiritual enlightenment and the aspiration of a pure heart, able to look into the face of God with no fear.
Shamans believe that the eagle communicated their gifts directly from God, the bird acting as intermediary. Because the eagle could appear to fly so close to the sun, the Medicine priests of all the tribes regarded the large bird as a very special messenger of the Great Mystery. They believe that the first shaman was conceived after an eagle impregnated a woman, another symbol of the bird as a divine spirit or winged messenger. This has parallels with another winged creature, the Angel Gabriel, who told Mary of her impending condition. In both cases, the resulting child is a sort of spiritual hybrid, able to connect God and Man.
In the old days, eagle feathers were used whenever possible on Native American war bonnets, rattles, shields, pipes, baskets, prayer sticks, and all kinds of ceremonial costumes. The very style in which the feathers were clipped, colored, and arranged on a chief's or warrior's clothing would reveal his rank in the tribe and the deeds that he had accomplished to earn that rank. Today, of course, with the eagle on the endangered species list, psuedo-eagle feathers are created from crow, chicken, and turkey feathers.
For native Americans, the power of the eagle is such that possession of one of its feathers is the ultimate accolade, a sacred symbol of the mightiness of the bird and of its special place within the Native American pantheon. The eagle is the "father" of the people, a God, and illicit possession of a feather by anyone who does not have the right to have it is punishable by hefty fines.
The origin of placing such high esteem on eagle feathers was told in an old Native American folktale that recounts how all the birds met one day to decide once and for all which could fly the highest. Some flew up very swiftly, but soon became tired, but the eagle flew beyond them all and was about to calim the victory when the crafty gray linnet suddenly emerged from its hiding place on the eagle's back and, fresh and rested, succeeded in flying the highest.
When the birds came back to alight on the Earth Mother, the great council of fowls still voted to award the prize to the eagle, for not only had it flown closer to the sun than the other birds, it had done so with the linnet on its back. Hence, from that day forward, the feathers of the eagle were esteemed the most honorable adornment for the warrior, as it is not only the bravest bird, but it is also endowed with the strength to soar the highest.
The eagle feather is not only sacred to Native Americans, but to Hindus, too, where the eagle brought a food called Soma to humankind from the Gods. In India, the Vedic tradition portrays the eagle as a messenger of divinity and as the bearer of soma, the favorite drink of the Vedi gods, from Indra.
For the Aztecs, the eagle was not associated with the lion but with the jaguar, and the throne of the Aztec emperor was decorated with eagle feathers and jaguar skin to symbolize his association with these powerful creatures. The eagle "told" the people where Mexico City should be built, duly appearing perched on a cactus growing out of a rock, as decreed by an ancient legend.
An old Aztec folktale tells of the ciuapipiltin, spirits of women who died in childbirth, who returned to the earth to snare the children of living mothers. These entities could appear in the form of ghostly women or as an eagle, swooping down from the sky.
Among ancient Mediterranean people, the eagle was associated with the sun god, fire, and lightning. Zeus, the father of the classical gods, took the form of an eagle when he carried his young lover Ganymede to Mt. Olympus. This was often interpreted as a symbol of the father-god's reception of men's souls when they were initiated into the solar Mysteries.
For the Romans, the eagle became a symbol of the soverignty of its emperors, and the image was carried before the Empire's legions as they set about conquering the known world. As the royal bird of Rome, and the embodiment of deified emperors, the eagle was worshipped by Roman legionaries. Each legion had its sacred eagles, carried into battle like banners. If a legion should lose its eagles, the disgrace was unbearable; another whole expedition might be mounted to recover them.
The Roman imperial emblem was inherited by the Germanic "Holy Roman Empire" and its Kaisers, derived from Caesars. Thus the eagle became a Teutonic symbol of soverignty.
The eagle has always been the emblem par excellence of emperors and empires, even prior to its presence on the imperial standard of the Caesars and it's latter-day use as the symbol of the United States, where the altogether more humble dove balances its grandiose power. The death of an emperor was heralded by the release of eagles into the skies, symbolic of the soul ascending to the Heavens.
The eagle became a popular symbol of power among the Germanic people because the great bird was representative of Wodan, the ruler of the gods. As with the Romans before them with their Caesars the eagle's mastery of the heavens came to symbolize the sovereignty of the German kaisers. However, more sinisterly, the symbolic power and attributes of the eagle were appropriated by the Nazis to bolster their own image. This is an instance where a powerful symbol can be abuse, something that also happened to another ancient solar symbol, the swastika, whose implicit benevolent meaning is unfortunately still tainted because of its use by the Nazis.
The Greeks, too, accorded the eagle with the power to indicate a sacred site, and Delphi, the site of the Omphalos (the "navel" or the spiritual center of the world) was established at the spot where two eagles, released from the ends of the earth by Zeus, crossed in the sky.
The eagle shares much of the same symbolism as the phoenix - that of the Sun that never dies. The eagle was often identified with the fire bird, who underwent a baptism of the fire that "burns all sins" and was reborn from his own ashes. The eagle also stood for the soul of Heracles, who passed through fire into heaven at seasonal festivals of Tarsus, and inspired St. Paul's belief in the virtue of giving one's body do be burned (1 Corinthians 13:3). The eagle was the totemic form of Prometheus, who "stole" fire from heaven, like the eastern fire-lightning-sun hero, man, or angel embodied in the Garuda bird. Garuda flew to the mountain of paradise to steal the gods' secret of immortality. Later, he assumed the golden body of the sun. American Indians had a similar hero, the thunderbird or lightning bird.
Classic soul-bird, symbol of apotheosis the eagle is associated with the sun god, fire, and lightning. Greeks thought eagles so closely akin to the lightning spirit that they nailed eagles to the peaks of temples to serve as magic lightning rods. Hence the name aetoi, "eagles," for the pediments of Greek temples. These were ancient forerunners of the "weather-vanes" on the rooftree of a barn or house.
The eagle was connected with rites of calling down "fire from heaven," probably with a burning-glass, to consume sacrifices on the altar. Such "fire from heaven" came down from Yahweh to consume the sons of Aaron (Leviticus 10:2), who died like sacrificial victims to the solar gods of Tyre. Such victims "passed through the fire" as offerings, and rose to heaven in the form of eagles.
Cults of fire and sun made the eagel a bearer of kingly spirit: the god's soul returning to heaven after a period of earthly incarnation as the king. It was the Roman custom to release an eagle above the funeral pyre of each emperor, just as an Egyptian pharoah rose to heaven on the wings of the solar hawk.
From: Element Encyclopedia of Signs and Symbols and Spirit Lodge