By Bro... W. J. Chetwode Crawley
The most ornamental, not to say the most ostentatious feature of the Insignia of the Supreme Council, 33° of the Ancient and Accepted [Scottish] Rite, is the double-headed eagle, surmounted by an Imperial Crown. This device seems to have been adopted sometime after 1758 by the grade known as the Emperors of the East and West: a sufficiently pretentious title. This seems to have been its first appearance in connection with Freemasonry, but the history of the High Grades has been subjected such distortion that it is difficult to accept unreservedly any assertion put forward regarding them. From this Imperial grade, or with this Imperial grade, the Two-headed Eagle came to the “Sovereign Prince Masons” of the Rite of Perfection. This Rite of Perfection with its Twenty-five Degrees was amplified in 1801, at Charleston, U.S.A., into the Ancient and Accepted Rite of Thirty-three Degrees, with the Double-headed Eagle for its most distinctive emblem.
When this emblem was first adopted by the High Degrees, it had been in use as a symbol of power for five thousand years, or so. No heraldic bearing, no emblematic device in wear to-day, can boast such antiquity. It was in use a thousand years before the Exodus from Egypt, and more than two thousand years before the Building of King Solomon’s Temple.
The story of our Eagle bas been told by the eminent Assyriologist, M. Thureau Dangin, in the volume of Zeitschriftfür Assyrliologie, 1904. Among the most important discoveries for which we are indebted to the late M. de Sarzec, were two large terra-cotta cylinders, covered with many hundred lines of archaic cuneiform characters. These cylinders were found in the brick mounds of Tello, which has been identified, with certainty, as the City of Lagash, the dominant center of Southern Babylonia, ere Babylon had imposed its name and rule on the country. The cylinders are now in the Louvre, and have been deciphered by M. Thureau-Dangin, who displays to our wondering eyes an emblem of power that was already centuries old when Babylon gave its name to Babylonia.1
The cylinder in question is a Foundation Record, deposited by one Gudea, Ruler of the City of Lagash, to mark the building of a Temple, about the year 3000 B.C., as nearly as the date can be fixed. The Foundation Record was deposited just as our medals, coins, and metallic plates are deposited to-day, when a Corner-stone is laid with Masonic Honors. It must be borne in mind that in this case, the word Corner-stone can be employed only in a conventional sense, for, in Babylonia, all edifices, Temples, Palaces, and Towers alike, were built of brick. But the custom of laying Foundation Deposits was general, whatever the building material might be, and we shall presently see what functions are attributed, by another eminent scholar, to the Foundation Chamber of King Solomon’s Temple.
The contents of the inscription are of the utmost value to the Oriental scholar, but may be briefly dismissed for our present purpose.
Suffice it to say, that the King begins by reciting that a great drought had fallen upon the land. “The waters of the Tigris,” he says, “fell low and the store of provender ran short in this my City,” so that he feared it was a visitation from the Gods, to whom he determined to submit his evil case and that of his people. The reader familiar with the Babylonian methods that pervade the Books of the Captivity, will not be surprised to learn that the King dreamed a dream, in which the will of the Gods was revealed by direct, personal intervention and interlocution. In the dream there came unto the King “a Divine Man, whose stature reached from earth to heaven, and whose head was crowned with the crown of a God surmounted by the Storm Bird that extended its wings over Lagash, and the land thereof.” This Storm Bird, no other than our Double-headed Eagle, was the Totem, as ethnologists and anthropologists are fain to call it, of the mighty Sumerian City of Lagash, and stood proudly forth the visible emblem of its power and dominion.
This Double-headed Eagle of Lagash is the oldest Royal Crest in the world. As time rolled on, it passed from the Sumerians to the men of Akhad, from the men of Akhad to the Hittites, from the denizens of Asia Minor to the Seljukian Sultans, from whom it was brought by Crusaders to the Emperors of the East and West, whose successors to-day are the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs, as well as to the Masonic “Emperors of the East and West,” whose successors to-day are the Supreme Councils, 33°, that have inherited the insignia of the Rite of Perfection.
Such is the accredited account of the successive flights by which the Double-headed Eagle winged its way from the Tigris to the Danube and the Neva. But it is quite possible that when the Mediaeval Warriors brought home the Storm Bird, they brought it to that nest not for the first time. We have said above that Lagash was the center of a Sumerian people in the year 3000 B.C. It has been established that the Sumerians were an Iranian people, quite distinct from the warlike men of Akhad, who were of Semitic descent. Sometime after the year 2800 B.C., the fiery men of Akhad squeezed out the Iranians, and Babylonia became to all intents and purposes a Semitic Kingdom for the time. The Sumerians appear to have followed the Iranian line of migration westwards and, very likely, brought with them the remembrance of their guardian Bird of the olden time. Hence, the Storm Bird from Mesopotamia, with its double-head and outstretched wings, may not have seemed altogether strange to the Slavs, or the Teutons, or the Celts whose dim ancestry may have dwelt beside the Tigris. The emblem may have appealed to some vague sub-conscious inheritance of the kind that latter-day psychologists stigmatize as vestigial retro-reminiscence. Verily, the nomenclature is germane to “that blessed word Mesopotamia.”
Reverting to the text of the inscribed cylinder, we gather that the Master of the Storm Bird was appeased by the King undertaking to build him a Temple, and in response to the King’s petition inspired him and his builders with a Heaven-born plan. A ‘similar celestial origin is ascribed, commonly enough, to the more magnificent Temples of the Ancient East; for instance, to the great Temple of Horus at Edfu, built by the Pharaoh, under direct inspiration of the god Im-Hotep.2
But this particular revelation to Gudea is noteworthy, because the circumstances of the revelation bear a strong family resemblance to those of the disclosure of the dimensions of the Tabernacle to Moses on Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus xxv., et seq. The cuneiform text is opportunely illustrated on this point by the discovery of a fine basalt statue of Gudea, buried for ages in the same mounds of Lagash. He is represented in the sitting posture common to Oriental statues of Great Monarchs, and he holds on his knees what is now plainly seen to be a draughtsman’s tablet, with the design inscribed on it, while hard by are the graver’s tools and scale: for all the world like a Tracing-board, Gauge, Skirret and Pencil of to-day. The mise-en-scène has an indefinable resemblance to the Frontispieces with which the engravers of the eighteenth century were wont to decorate the Pocket Companion and similar books.
The cuneiform inscription goes on to describe the ceremony of laying the cornerstone, with a thousand details of inestimable value to the archaeologist, but in no way bearing on the story of the Double-headed Eagle.
These things came to pass, under the wings of the Storm Bird, in Lagash of the Sumerians, and were there written down, more than a thousand years before Abram, the Hebrew, dwelt in Ur of the Chaldees.
1 Zeitschriftfür Assyriology Strasburg…, 1904: vol.xviii, p. 119; Le Cylindre de Gu-de-a, par Fr. Thureau-Dangin.
2 The old temple at Edfu, built for the worship of Horus, son of Kneph and Athor, was explored by Mariette Bey, and is reputed to contain an inscribed tablet or slab, on which is delineated a geometrical approximation to the ratio of the diameter to the circumference. Scientific readers will understand the ages upon ages that must have intervened between the dawn of geometrical conceptions and the period at which such a constant could begin to appear practicable, or desirable, or even conceivable.
* Orginally published in Ars Quatuor Coronatorum. vol. xxiv (1911) Quatuor Coronati Lodge No. 2076. pp. 21-24.