A white eagle with wings splayed, legs apart, head facing to the left with a golden crown, talons and beak adorning a red shield.
This is the Polish Eagle and it’s the centerpiece of the Polish coat of arms and Polish crest.
A coat of arms is a visual design that depicts symbolism of a company, country, family name or organization. The ancient Greeks and Romans were first to use unique designs on shields to identify different military units during battle.
Unlike western Europe, Polish heraldry (the art of designing coats of arms) wasn’t pioneered by knights and heads of state. It originated in local Slavic communities by mercenaries to show who they were currently working for.
Nowadays, this coat of arms can be found on everything – from underwear to Christmas baubles, to car seat covers and oven mitts. Polish Eagle tattoos are not uncommon.
The Poles love their coat of arms, showing it off every opportunity they can.
The law of the Polish Eagle.
Poland has some interesting laws around its symbols and coat of arms, too. The Polish Eagle, the Polish coat of arms and other official insignia are protected against ‘public profanity and insult’.
Use of these symbols in public that may be ‘damaging or insulting’ may be considered a criminal offense.
In recent times, frontman of Polish metal band Behemoth, Adam ‘Nergal’ Darski was formally charged after ‘insulting’ the coat of arms and using it on promotional material for a national tour.
Current legislation about the laws around the coat of arms is unclear at best. The act that protects the emblem contains errors, misinterpretations, and inconsistencies which make use of the logo for artistic interpretation difficult and confusing.
Under the same law, the government ordered that the Polish Eagle be removed from the shirts of the Polish National Football team in 2010. A new shirt was introduced in 2011 – minus the eagle.
After overwhelming pressure from football fans, citizens with some common sense and even the president himself, the eagle-less shirts disappeared seemingly overnight.
Nevertheless, the Polish coat of arms is known all throughout the country as a representation of the country’s strength, solidarity, and courage in the face of adversity.
In fact, the name of the highest order awarded to both military and civilian personnel involves the eagle. The ‘Order of the White Eagle‘ (Order Orła Białego) is awarded to the most distinguished Poles and highest-ranking representatives of foreign countries.
Non-Polish recipients of the award include Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth the 2nd and Emperor Hirohito.
Why the Polish Eagle?
Legend has it that original founder of Poland, Lech, was off hunting with his brothers Czech and Rus. Czech headed to the west in search of prey while Rus headed east while Lech went north. (Similiar to present-day geography).
After heading to pick up a stray arrow, Lech came across a magnificent white eagle. The bird was fierce and incredibly protective of it’s young. The bird stood up tall and spread its wings as a warning to the intruder.
The red of the setting sun behind the animal made its wings glow gold.
It was at that moment that Lech decided to settle at this spot. He named this small outpost Gniezno, not unlike the Polish word for ‘nest’, gniazdo.
In time, Gniezno would become the very first capital of the country of Poland – the nest, or home, of the entire country.
The white eagle stuck in Lech’s mind so much that he made it the national symbol from the very beginning. A national symbol that still stands strong and proud today.
Other national eagle emblems
The eagle itself is a common animal to have as a national representative.
American, Mexico, Austria and many middle eastern countries use the eagle due to its physical characteristics – strong, fierce, noble and brave. The Egyptians worshipped Horus and the Romans used eagle imagery in multiple instances.
During the reign of Bolesław I, the Polish eagle first started to appear on coins. At this time, eagles also appear on Roman currency.
With trade routes between Rome and Poland opening up due to the rising popularity of Polish amber, the two states found themselves sharing the same animal on their different currencies.
The Polish Eagle at war
Later, in the 12th century, the Polish eagle started to appear on shields, ensigns and the seals of dukes and other nobility.
The Polish coat of arms was also flown high during the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 when Poland infamously fought the German Teutonic Knights.
This battle would go down to be the bloodiest and most important battles in the history of Poland and Lithuania – and the Polish Eagle flew high throughout the whole affair.
Later, the Polish coat of arms would also fly into battle 1683. Here, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fought alongside the Holy Roman Empire to ward off the invading Byzantine Empire.
It was in this era that the Polish Hussars were prevalent in nearly all military conflicts. One look at the infamous Hussar armor and one can see elements of the Polish coat of arms trickling through.
In the 18th century, when Poland was ‘partitioned’ (cut up and dealt out to its neighbors), the eagle took on even more meaning. It became motivation for resistance and for standing up against oppression.
The countries that had swallowed Poland up in that period (Germany, Russia, and Austria) coincidentally all had black eagles as their national emblems. It didn’t take long for Poles to realize this and turn the situation into a metaphorical battle of dark vs light.
Between 1918 and 1939, the White Eagle was at the forefront of national pride once again. The Nazi invasion in 1939 made sure that the same coat of arms was to still stand for pride, strength, and sacrifice for both the resistance and the Polish government in exile.
During World War 2, the Polish flag and coat of arms would be a symbol of Polish pride, determination, and sheer grit.
The flag was raised over Monte Cassino after the allied victory over the Nazis in May 1944.
The Polish bird would also bolster pride during the Battle of Tobruk, where Poles and Australians fought alongside each other for the first time in history.
Nowhere was Polish symbolism more important during World War 2 than the Warsaw Uprising. On the first day of the uprising, August 1, 1944, the Polish flag was raised on top of the city’s biggest skyscraper, sending a message to the Nazi occupiers.
As the Warsaw Uprising continued over the 63 days, soldiers of the home army wore red and white armbands as they fought to liberate their city.
Polish symbols during communism
The Polish Eagle has gone through many changes, but none more oppressive than the change once communism took hold.
As a symbol of the country bowing to Soviet influence, it lost the golden crown that it had proudly worn for centuries.
Fun Fact: Poland was the only country in the Eastern block to have no communist symbolism. Images of a red star, ears of wheat, sickle and hammers did not make an appearance on any Polish government symbols like it’s flag or coat of arms.
Protests during the communist era saw heavy use of Polish symbols.
The logo of the Solidarność (Solidary) movement, responsible for starting upheaval of communism was infamously written in red and white.
Once communism fell in 1990, it didn’t take long for the eagle to regain its crown.
The Polish eagle itself.
The animal itself is the White-tailed eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla and a very close cousin to the infamous bald eagle.
With a wingspan of between 1.75 and 2.45 meters, it’s one of the bigger birds of prey out there. It feeds on fish, small mammals and other birds, but gets most of its food through scavenging.
In the late 70s and early 80s, the Polish national emblem faced extinction. At one point, there were less than 50 pairs left in the wild, mostly in southern Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia.
In the late 80s, conservation and reintroduction schemes were implemented in Ireland and Scotland, the bird’s year-round habitat. Numbers began to grow steadily in Norway, Sweden, Poland and the Baltic states.
Ironically, numbers of White Eagles in Poland began to grow alongside the countries democratic prosperity. A fitting contrast – as the Polish Eagle grows and thrives, as does it’s motherland.
When animals of a low population are protected and used to regenerate the population, inbreeding becomes a major problem in conservation efforts. In the regeneration of the white-tailed eagle, this was a major problem.
Studies of DNA in white-tailed eagles from Central Europe have shown that the recovering European population has large amounts of genetic diversity.
The recovery of this formerly endangered species is being hailed as one of the true success stories for nature conservation and preserving the evolutionary potential of the species.
The average lifespan for a white-tailed eagle is 21 years, with the oldest known bird living to the ripe old age of 25.
The White-tailed eagle spoils the party of another beloved Polish bird, the crane.
Another creature that most certainly deserves recognition alongside its avian cousin, the European Bison, or żubr.
The Białowieża Forest in the northeast of the country is the only place left where this animal roams free and protected. The Białowieża Forest is a UNESCO Heritage site, but in recent times both the Bison and the forest have been threatened due to Government logging in the area.
The topic is very sensitive, as both the government and conservationists want to protect the area from an invasive species of beetle. Here is a fantastic article on the topic.
The Bison is another Polish symbol of national pride. It adorns the front of two very famous alcohols.
The second drink is a vodka that has a piece of ‘Bison grass’ in it, the same grass that the Bison itself eats. Zubrowka.
- “Żubrówka was first distilled in the 16th century and became a favorite drink of Polish royalty.
- One of a kind flavor with unique notes of almond, vanilla, coconut and fresh cut grass
- Over the last 50 years, the brand has won over 60 awards at some of the most prestigious competitions and continues to win the hearts of bartenders and consumers around the world today.”
The national emblem of Poland – Conclusion
Poland loves its symbolism. Whether it’s a Polish eagle on the Polish flag or a simple red and white armband, there’s no denying what it represents – and it represents a lot. Poles love their eagle, their Bison and anything else that can represent their country.
As a foreigner that’s been living here a few years now, I must admit that I too now feel a weird sense of pride when I see that flag waving at the top of Rondo Radosława.