Lesson #426: The Double-Headed Eagle

If you’ve been reading for a while, it shouldn’t be a surprise how we got here and why this is of particular interest to me.*

The World Cup is on. I love the World Cup. It’s my favourite sporting event. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them is that the popularity of football offers billions more eyes than usual to put politics on a global stage.**

My experience with Albania is limited. I’ve set very tired feet on the ground in Albania, but barely — it was very early in the morning, I had been dozing (at best) on a very uncomfortable overnight bus from Dubrovnik to Skopje (never again), and I literally didn’t know what country I was in until I saw a sign on the side of the road in a language I couldn’t read. But I know about Kosovo, if only because it’s related to the dissolution of Yugoslavia.***

The Shakiri and Xhaka double-headed eagle gestures were a big thing yesterday (and discussions of match bans were on order today), but the politics of that are a separate post. Today, we’re touching on the history of the double-headed eagle.

I had assumed that the double-headed eagle was a Roman thing, but the Romans never used it. Sort of. There’s a fluidity in the Eastern Roman Empire that makes its use sort of Roman, but not really. Anyway, the origins go back to the Hittites, who occupied modern-day Turkey from roughly the 20th to the 7th centuries BCE. Scholars are in agreement that the double-headed eagle took on a later meaning of orthodoxy (in the Orthodox Christian faiths) and dominance (in the Byzantine Empire), but its original meaning has been lost — in part because there’s a two millenia gap in its use after the decline of the Hittites before the Byzantines started using it as a part of their heraldry. The double-headed eagle as heraldry spread into the Arab world and large swaths of Europe — particularly in Southeastern Europe — in the late medieval period (11th and 12th centuries), as a result of the Crusades.

In modern times, Russia’s association with the double-headed eagle is arguably the most recognizable — it’s even in their football crest.**** However, it also shows up on Albania’s flag (thus the ethnic Albanians playing for the Swiss team using it), along with Serbia and Montenegro‘s flags, and if you look at the not-so-distant past, in addition to the Russians, it was used by the Serbian kings, which remains on the Serbian flag; the Habsburg dynasty of Austria-Hungary; the Austrian Empire; the Montenegrin royals;  the German Confederation; and Yugoslavia, generally, up until they exiled their last king after the Second World War.

Fun fact: in this World Cup, five other countries have an (single-headed) eagle in their crests: holders Germany, Mexico, Nigeria, Poland, and Tunisia.

For more on the history of the double-headed eagle, see here and here.

*If you haven’t been, the short version is: the sociopolitics of the Balkans as they’re reflected in football hooliganism. And also history.

**In this regard, it’s a shame the US are not participating.

***Serbia basically spent the 90s being a controlling ex until the rest of the world stepped in and were like, “guy…sit down” — and even then, they didn’t do a great job. I have many feelings on the Dayton Accords and not many of them are good.

****If they’re smart, Xhaka and Shakiri will say, “we were paying tribute to our host country!” Which no one will believe, but at least it’s a feasible explanation.

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