Why are animals used so widely in coats of arms?
Rens Van Der Sluijs
The familiar red dragon of Wales and the double-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg exemplify a widespread and familiar practice to embed animal figures in heraldic devices, both in the Old and New Worlds, but few people dwell on the rationale of such a seemingly absurd practice.
The fantastic nature of a double-headed bird, a unicorn or a dragon alone identifies the realm of mythology as the home of such creatures emblazoned on armorial bearings, but what bearing do mythical beings have on aristocratic pedigrees?
Surprisingly, far from being frivolous ornamental touches, the zoological components of inherited family badges often boast longer pedigrees than the families themselves, reaching back into prehistoric times when many a noble lineage laid claim to have descended from some mythical beast.
The ‘mythogenealogies’ of individual lineages are rooted in the more archaic practice of totemism, which once prevailed on every inhabited continent. On this belief system, every clan, tribe or moiety asserted descent from a ‘totem’ believed to have lived in illo tempore. The overwhelming majority of such totems were animals, identified as the ancestral ‘people’ or ‘gods’ alive during the epoch of creation.
Anthropologists have amassed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of traditional reports that ‘animals’ and ‘people’ were identical at the dawn of time – beings possessing magical powers, typically of giant proportions and able to inhabit the heavens as easily as the earth, who were the active forces in the grand myths of a ‘golden age’, cosmic war and disaster, the formation of the earth’s geological features and the foundation of human culture.
In some cases, the conceptual development from a mythical ancestor to a heraldic feature can be followed through in historical sources. Nations along the Pacific coast of North America have long used their totem poles as genealogical records akin to the arms of European nobles – and to the present day they directly identify the beings stacked up in the poles with legendary forebears, most notably ‘Raven’, and their associated stories.
Even in the Old World it is sometimes possible to trace heraldic animals back to their distant totemic sources. The arms of Hungary’s national army, officially the Hungarian Defense Force, and earlier the principality of Transylvania, featured the mythical falcon Turul as a representation of the Hungarian nobility, usually depicted in black. In Magyar mythology, Turul sired the first dynasty of Hungarian monarchs by impregnating Emese during a dream; her son Álmos (c. 820 – c. 895) became the first Grand Prince of the Magyars. In a second intervention, Turul guided the people towards their eventual homeland, Hungary.
Turul’s own origins take one to the mythology of the axis mundi, or cosmic axis, for this avian progenitor of kings used to perch on the tree of life connecting sky, earth and underworld. In this role, Turul emerges as the Hungarian counterpart to the Egyptian ‘winged disc’ on its pedestal, identified as Horus, Phoenix on his tree or mound, the Zoroastrian griffin Saēna, ‘Raven’ on his totem pole, the Omaha thunderbird on his ‘luminous tree’, the bird Vuqub-Kaqix or ‘Seven-Macaw’ seated on a giant nance tree in Quiché Maya lore, and scores of others. If the blue blood of Magyar princes once coursed through the veins of a bird universally linked to the crest of a conspicuous cosmic pillar, no mythologist should forbear to enquire what sort of bird that could have been.
According to the thesis here defended, global elements in the traditional mythology of creation reflect the memory of extraordinary atmospheric, climatological and geological changes that reshaped the familiar environment of people during the early Holocene period. Enhanced electrical activity in the inner solar system would have transformed near-earth plasmas into a visible column that seemed to tie the ‘sky’ to the horizon like an umbilical cord. This column, along with concomitant figures such as the ‘thunderbird’ at its apex and a dragon around its trunk, would have been shaped by electromagnetic forces acting on dusty plasma in the upper atmosphere.
As the protagonists in this resplendent – and often violent – display came to serve as exemplary deities and kings, leaders worldwide sought to fortify their authority and credibility by extravagant claims of direct descent from these ‘ideal’ prototypes. Therefore, the ultimate origins of the heraldic menagerie are perhaps not to be found in the plasma of blood, but in that of the earth’s ionosphere.