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.


Lesson #377: Pramen

This comes by way of the fact that while I was back in the motherland, I picked up two bottles of Zlatý Bažant, a Slovak beer I can’t get in America, but really quite like.* As a rule, I’m down with Eastern European lagers, but my selections are somewhat limited here. I was able to find a couple (pricey) bottles of the Croatian beer Karlovačko in the spring, which was a nice treat. And I can get Żywiec and Tyskie — both Polish, the former better than the latter — and a whole slew of Czech beers, including — only very recently — my very favourite beer of all time, Budvar’s dark lager (černé or tmavý ležák, depending on how formal you want to be — the former means black, the latter is what’s on the label and means dark lager). But if I want Slovak or Hungarian lagers, I’m SOL. Which is why I brought a couple bottles of the Bažant back with me.

This led me to a conversation with The Swede about language, the Swedish phonemic pronunciation, and how Zlatan Ibrahimović‘s given name literally means “golden.” He wanted to know how I knew that; I told him to look at the Eastern European beers. Zlatý Bažant translates to “golden pheasant.”** I also mentioned the Czech beer Zlatopramen. And my general knowledge that zlat- is the Slavic root for gold.

But then I realized…I know what zlat- means, but I have no idea what pramen is. This will make more sense to you if you know that Staropramen is a beer that exists (it isn’t my favourite, but I’ll drink it if my options are that and pretty much any American/Canadian/British lager). Now, I know what the root star- means (old), but I’d never thought to look up pramen before. Two beers, different root word, same ending. It obviously means something.

It means spring — of the water variety, not the season. In case you’re ever quizzed on it.

If you were curious, my very favourite Czech word is čtvrtek — which is absurd to pronounce,*** but means Thursday. And yes, that is six consonants in a seven letter word. I also like the word zmrzlina (ice cream).

*If you’re a beer drinker, it’s a bit spicier than your average lager, so it has a bit more flavour, but it’s still crisp and good for outdoor/summer drinking.

**In fact, there’s a golden pheasant on their label and the imported labels have the English translation. We tried to swipe a Bažant glass when we were in Bratislava, but had no luck. In fairness, we didn’t try especially hard. We were only there two nights; the first we bought bottles of beer — Budvar’s standard lager, specifically — sat on the castle walls and drank them (yes, there is photographic evidence) and the other, I went to the opera and accidentally left him at a Greek wedding reception and then we went back to the flat and watched half of a Leafs playoff game on my tablet at 1am. That was, incidentally, also the night I discovered, while looking for the Leafs game on the TV, that my very favourite CanCon (Canadian Content) show, which my cousin in a major Canadian city rightly makes so much fun of me for enjoying because it’s pretty terrible, has actually been successful enough to be dubbed into Slovak…I took video of it for her. Because I’m a good cousin/friend, and I care.

***On the plus side, Czech pronunciation rules are delightfully easy (which I assume is to make up for the ninety million declension rules)…stress is always on the first syllable and every letter is pronounced exactly how it’s written. Phonemically, Czech is as simple as a language can be.

Lesson #24: The Hungarian State Opera

The Hungarian State Opera is one of the most beautiful opera houses I have ever seen. It does well to represent the tradition of stunning eastern European opera houses like those in Prague and Vienna.*

The Opera House was opened in September 1884 and was designed by Hungarian architect Miklos Ybl. The (giant) chandelier in the main hall weighs three tons and the main staircase (my very favourite feature) was clearly designed for women to show off their gowns…it’s this gorgeous, huge stone staircase carpeted in red.**

The theatre itself is gorgeous and gilded and has a proscenium stage that at one-time had a rotating stage. There is a royal box in the centre of the balcony area that’s all sorts of lush and everything is all red and gold.

I managed to talk two of my travel companions (including a friend who I spent months and months trying to convince to come with me to the opera in Prague) into seeing a production of Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus. It was absolutely spectacular, even though it was spoken in Hungarian and sung in German, neither of which are languages we understood. The costumes, the sets, the principal singers, the performance, the atmosphere***…they were all just stellar. I would put it on the top of my opera viewing experiences.

*The State Operas in both those cities are amazing.

**For more about the history of the opera house, see here. For a virtual tour of the building, see here.

***Two things that I really, really appreciated: 1. with the exception of a few people like me and my friends, everyone was dressed up. I was wearing dress pants and a nice-ish shirt and I was seriously underdressed. Had I expected to go to the opera, I would have taken the clothes for it. 2. there was no standing ovation. I hate that the standing ovation has become the norm in the west. Even mediocre performances — and I have seen a lot of truly mediocre performances — are given standing ovations these days.

Lesson #23: Mummified Hands

Eastern Europe has a weird fascination with mummified hands, I’m not going to lie. I first became aware of this when one of my travel companions from the Budapest trip, who I got to know when we lived in Prague, went to visit a mutual friend in Krakow last May and went into a church to discover a mummified hand.* There is also a mummified hand in a church in Prague.**

I don’t know what it is about the Eastern Europeans and mummified hands as religious relics, but there you have it. I had no intention of going looking for Hungary’s mummified hand, but found it anyway when we decided to go check out St. Stephen’s Basilica. Unlike the hand in Prague, which purportedly belonged to a thief, the hand in Budapest belonged to St. Stephen, who was the first Christian King of Hungary (1001-1038). His right hand sits in the reliquary of the church.***

*I’ll have to ask Becky where it was because I can’t find the reference anywhere, but there was definitely a conversation with our Czech landlady (who is our age) about the Eastern Europeans and their love of mummified hands.

**The Church of St. James behind the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn off Old Town Square.

***All this information can be found on pages 22-23, 116-117 of the Eyewitness Travel, Budapest book.