Eagle
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Source: British Library Images Online Copyright Copyright 2004 British Library / Used by permission Manuscript description British Library, Royal MS 12 C. xix, Folio 38r


 

Eagle

Latin name: Aquila

Other names: Aigle, Aille, Aisgle, Aygle, ╔gle

A bird with eyes so strong it can look directly into the sun

 

 
General Attributes

When an eagle is old, its eyesight dims and its feathers and wings become heavy. To rejuvinate itself, the eagle flies up to the region of the sun, which burns away the mist over its eyes and burns off its old feathers. The eagle then plunges three times into water, and its youth is restored. Also as a result of age, the eagle's beak grows until it can no longer eat; by striking it against a rock, the eagle breaks its beak which then grows back.

The eagle's eyes are very sharp and can see fish when the bird flies over water. The eagle can look directly into the sun. As a test of the worthiness of its young, the eagle holds them up facing the sun. The birds that cannot stare into the sun and turn their eyes away are cast out of the nest.


Allegory/Moral

The eagle received both favorable and unfavorable interpretations.

As the eagle renews its youth, so too can the man with "old clothes and dim eyes", who should seek the spiritual spring and raise the eyes of his mind to God. The rock on which the eagle sharpens its beak is Christ, on which man can sharpen his soul; the eagle also represents Christ, who came from heaven to catch souls, just as the eagle catches fish. The eagle's ability to look directly at the sun represents Christ's ability to look directly at God, and as the eagle lifts its young to the sun, so do angels lift worthy souls to God.

According to the Aberdeen Bestiary, "The word 'eagle' in the Holy Scriptures signifies sometimes evil spirits, ravishers of souls; sometimes the rulers of this world. Sometimes, in contrast, it signifies either the acute understanding of the saints, or the Lord incarnate flying swiftly over the depths then seeking once more the heights. The word 'eagle' represents those who lie in ambush for the spirit. ... The word 'eagle' also symbolises earthly power." The descent of the eagle from the sky to the earth to find food also represents the fall of Adam, who ate what was forbidden.


Sources (chronological order)

Bible (Latin Vulgate, Psalm 102:5): "Renovabitur sicut aquilae iuventus tua" (Your youth will be renewed like the eagles); (NIV, Psalm 103:5) "...my youth is renewed like the eagle's". It is believed that this phrase is the origin of the theme of the eagle renewing its youth, since this idea is not found in ancient literature.

Lucan [1st century CE] (Pharsalia, gook 6, verse 799-800): "...stones / That sound beneath the brooding eagle's wings...". (book 9, verse 1057-1061): So the bird of Jove / Turns his new fledglings to the rising sun / And such as gaze upon the beams of day / With eves unwavering, for the use of heaven / He rears; but such as blink at Phoebus' rays / Casts from the nest."

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 3-6): The eagle is the strongest and most noble bird. There are six kinds of eagles. Only the sea-eagle forces its unfledged young to look at the rays of the sun; if any of them blinks or has watering eyes, those ones are thrown out of the nest. Some kinds of eagles have a stone called the eagle-stone (aŰtites or gagites) built into their nests; this stone can survive fire without loss of virtue, and is useful in many cures. The stone is large and has another stone inside it, which can be heard to rattle when shaken. Eagles drive their young from the nest when they tire of feeding them, and chase them far away so they do not compete for food. Eagles do not die from old age or sickness; when they are old they die of hunger, because their upper beak grows so large and hooked that they cannot open their mouths to feed. Some kinds of eagles do battle with stags; they roll in dust to gather it on their feathers, then perch on the stag's horns and shake the dust into its eyes, and beat the stag's head with their wings until it falls. Eagles also fight with a great serpent which tries to eat their eggs; the serpent can defeat the eagle by wrapping itself around the eagle's wings so that it falls to the ground.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:10-11): The eagle (aquila) has its name from the sharpness (acumen) of its eyes. It can see so well that even when flying high above human sight it sees fish in the water below, and diving down catches them and brings them to shore. It can look into the rays of the sun; to test the worthiness of its chicks it holds them up to the sun, and any that maintain their gaze without moving it keeps, but the others it rejects as degenerate.

Gerald of Wales [12th century CE] (The Journey Through Wales, book 2, chapter 10): According to vulgar tradition, these mountains [of Snowdonia] are frequented by an eagle who, perching on a fatal stone every fifth holiday, in order to satiate her hunger with the carcases of the slain, is said to expect war on that same day, and to have almost perforated the stone by cleaning and sharpening her beak. (from the The Itinerary of Archibishop Baldwin through Wales (London, 1908) Everyman edition)

St Antony of Padua [12-13th century CE] (Sermons): The saints compared to eagles. The eagle is so called from the acuteness of its sight, because she can behold the sun with unflinching eyes. Wherefore it is said concerning it in books of natural history, that she is of very sharp sight, and compels her young ones to look at the sun before they are fully fledged. To this end she strikes them and turns them towards the sun, and, if the eyes of any one of them water, she kills him, and pays attention to the others. It is said also that she lays three eggs and throws out the third. It is asserted, moreover, that she places an amethyst in the nest with her young ones, that by its virtue serpents may be driven away. In the eagle the subtle intelligence of saints and their sublime contemplation is set forth; for they turn towards the aspect of the true Sun, to the light of wisdom, their young, that is, their works, in order that if any thing which becomes not their extraction should be concealed there, it may be brought to light by the splendour of the sun. For all iniquity is made manifest by the light. Whence, if they see that any work of theirs cannot rightly look at the sun, and is confounded by its rays and weeps, they immediately slay it... And note that the three eggs of the eagle are the three kinds of love which exist in a righteous man; the love of God, of his neighbour, and of himself. Which, last love he is bound to expel altogether from the nest of his conscience... And note also, that the amethyst is a principal gem, of a violet colour, which shoots out flames and is marked with golden and purple specks; and it signifies the life of Christ, which was of a violet coloured poverty and humility, and shot forth golden flames in its preaching and in the operation of its miracles, and was marked with purple specks in its Passion. This amethyst the righteous man is bound to place in the nest of his conscience, that serpents, that is, the suggestions of devils, may be repelled from his young ones, that is, from his works. (MediŠval preachers and mediŠval preaching: A series of extracts, translated from the sermons of the middle ages, chronologically arranged; with notes and an introduction (London, 1856) Neale translation)

Guillaume le Clerc [13th century CE] (Bestiaire): The eagle is the king of birds. When it is old it becomes young again in a very strange manner. When its eyes are darkened and its wings are heavy with age, it seeks out a fountain clear and pure, where the water bubbles up and shines in the clear sunlight. Above this fountain it rises high up into the air, and fixes its eyes upon the light of the sun and gazes upon it until the heat thereof sets on fire its eyes and wings. Then it descends down into the fountain where the water is clearest and brightest, and plunges and bathes three times, until it is fresh and renewed and healed of its old age. The eagle has such keen vision, that if it is high up among the clouds, soaring through the air, it sees the fish swimming beneath it, in river or sea; then down it shoots upon the fish and seizes and drags it to the shore. Again, if unknown to the eagle its eggs should be changed and others put into its nest, when the young are grown, before they fly away, it carries them up into the air when the sun is shining its brightest. Those which can look at the rays of the sun, without blinking, it loves and holds dear; those which cannot stand to look at the light, it abandons, as base-born, nor troubles itself henceforth concerning them. (Bestiaries and Lapidaries (London, 1896) Kuhns translation)

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 12): Now it pertaineth to speak ... first of the eagle, which hath principality among fowls. Among all manner kinds of divers fowls, the eagle is the more liberal and free of heart. For the prey that she taketh, but it be for great hunger, she eateth not alone, but putteth it forth in common to fowls that follow her. But first she taketh her own portion and part. And therefore oft other fowls follow the eagle for hope and trust to have some part of her prey. But when the prey that is taken is not sufficient to herself, then as a king that taketh heed to a community, she taketh the bird that is next to her, and giveth it among the others, and serveth them therewith. Austin [Augustine] saith, and Plinius also, that in age the eagle hath darkness and dimness in eyen, and heaviness in wings. And against this disadvantage she is taught by kind to seek a well of springing water, and then she flieth up into the air as far as she may, till she be full hot by heat of the air, and by travail of flight, and so then by heat the pores are opened and the feathers chafed, and she falleth suddenly in to the well, and there the feathers are changed, and the dimness of her eyes is wiped away and purged, and she taketh again her might and strength. The eagle's feathers done and set among feathers of wings of other birds corrupteth and fretteth them. As strings made of wolf-gut done and put into a lute or in an harp among strings made of sheep-gut do destroy, and fret, and corrupt the strings made of sheep-gut, if it so be that they be set among them, as in a lute or in an harp, as Pliny saith. Among all fowls, in the eagle the virtue of sight is most mighty and strong. For in the eagle the spirit of sight is most temperate and most sharp in act and deed of seeing and beholding the sun in the roundness of its circle without blemishing of eyen. And the sharpness of her sight is not rebounded again with clearness of light of the sun, nother disperpled. There is one manner eagle that is full sharp of sight, and she taketh her own birds in her claws, and maketh them to look even on the sun, and that ere their wings be full grown, and except they look stiffly and steadfastly against the sun, she beateth them, and setteth them even tofore the sun. And if any eye of any of her birds watereth in looking on the sun she slayeth him, as though he went out of kind, or else driveth him out of the nest and despiseth him, and setteth not by him. (Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Middle English Bestiary (British Library Arundel MS 292) [13th century]: Kithen I wille the ernes kinde, / Also Ic it o boke rede, / Wu he neweth his guthhede, / Hu he cumeth ut of elde, / Sithen hise limes am unwelde, / Sithen his bec is alto wrong, / Sithen his fligt is al unstrong, / And his egen dimme. / Hereth wu he neweth him: / A welle he seketh that springeth ai / Bothe bi nigt and bi dai; / Therover he flegeth, and up he teth / Til that he the hevene seth, / Thurg skies sexe and sevene / Til he cumeth to hevene. / So rigt so he cunne / He hoveth in the sunne. / The sunne swideth al his fligt, / And oc it maketh his egen brigt. / His fethres fallen for the hete, / And he dun mide to the wete / Falleth in that welle grund / Ther he wurdeth heil and sund, / And cumeth ut al newe, / Ne were his bec untrewe. / His bec is get biforn wrong, / Thog hise limes senden strong; / Ne maig he tilen him non fode / Himself to none gode. / Thanne goth he to a ston, / And he billeth theron, / Billeth til his bec biforn / Haveth the wrengthe forloren; / Sithen with his rigte bile / Taketh mete that he wile. / Al is man, so is tis ern, / Wulde ge nu listen, / Old in hise sinnes dern, / Or he bicumeth Cristen. / And tus he neweth him this man, / Thanne he nimeth to kirke. / Or he it bithenken can / His egen weren mirke. / Forsaket thore Satanas / And ilk sinful dede; / Taketh him to Ihesu Crist, / For he sal ben his mede; / Leveth on ure Loverd Crist, / And lereth prestes lore. / Of hise egen wereth the mist / Wiles he drecceth thore. / His hope is al to Godeward, / And of his luve he lereth: / That is to sunne sikerlike, / Thus his sigte he beteth. / Naked falleth in the funt-fat, / And cumeth ut al newe; / Buten a litel! Wat is tat? / His muth is get untrewe; / His muth is get wel unkuth / With paternoster and crede. / Fare he north er fare he suth, / Leren he sal his nede; / Bidden bone to Gode, / And tus his muth rigten; / Tilen him so the sowles fode / Thurg grace off ure Drigtin.

William Caxton [1481] (Myrrour of the World (Westminster, 1481) Myrrour of the World): The egle of his nature taketh his byrdes by the ungles or clawes wyth his bylle. And hym that holdeth fastest, he loveth beste & kepeth them next by hym. And them that holden but febly, he leteth hem goo and taketh none hede of them. Whan the Egle is moche aged, he fleeth so hye that he passeth the clowdes, and holdeth there his sight so longe ayenst the sonne that he hath al loste it and brende alle his fethers. Thenne he falleth doun on a montaygne in a water that he hath to fore chosen, & in this manere he reneweth his lyf. And whan his bille is overlonge he breketh and bruseth it ayenst an hard stone & sharpeth it. (from the Caxton's Mirrour of the World (London, 1913) Prior edition)


Illustration

The various attributes of the eagle are often illustrated. In some manuscripts, the flight to the sun and the plunge into the pool are depicted separately; in others they are combined into one picture. The testing of the eagle's young is also often illustrated. In many cases, the illustration merely shows a hawk-like bird, not doing anything in particular.


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