The symbolism of no other animal is quite so simple and unambiguous as that of the eagle. The majestic bird is associated with the sun and, largely by implication, with monarchs. Eagles have remarkable eyesight and appear able to gaze directly into the sun.
Contrary to their reputation, they are not exceptionally high flyers as compared with other birds, but they are extremely powerful and are often able to lift large prey such as sheep or monkeys. Perhaps their remoteness also contributed to an exalted reputation, since they prefer rocky cliffs or tall trees for their nests. Though eagles may be majestic, we should remember that royalty has never been universally beloved.
This symbolism of the eagle was already clearly established in the ancient Mesopotamian poem about Etana, possibly the first ruler ever to have his story written down. The epic of Etana begins with an eagle and a serpent swearing an oath of friendship to each other before Shamash, the god of the sun. The eagle lived in the top of a tree and the serpent at its base, and for a time they and their young shared every kill. One day the eagle ate the young of the serpent, who then burrowed in the carcass of a bull. As soon as the eagle approached to eat, the serpent bit it, cut its wings, and threw the bird into a pit to die of hunger and thirst. Shamash sent the hero Etana to rescue and nurse the eagle, which became his guide. Etana mounted on the back of the eagle to fly up to the heavens to ask Ishtar, a goddess of fertility, for the plant of birth so that he might have a son. The last sections of the manuscript are fragmentary, but Etana apparently did attain his goal and founded the first Sumerian dynasty.
The ascent of Etana is depicted on many seals, and the story seems to have had a wide influence. The Greeks later retold the episode of the two quarreling animals as an Aesopian fable called “The Eagle and the Fox.” The eagle violated a friendship by eating the young of the fox, which then set fire to the eagle’s tree in revenge. The motif of a tree with an eagle at the top and a hostile serpent at the base, however, has often been found in myth and legend, and an example is Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life. The story of Etana may well have influenced the Greek myth of Ganymede, a young man who was abducted by Zeus, in the form of an eagle, so that he might serve on Olympus as cupbearer of the gods. Eagles are, however, entirely capable of carrying off an infant or small child, and perhaps the story goes back to such a tragic incident.