The famous white eagle of Poland, Orzeł Biały, one of the best known symbols of Poland, stares outwards to the right in search of truth, whilst its wings are spread out as widely as possible to protect all Poles and people of Polish descent, wherever they may live.
The legend of the Polish eagle is entwined with that of Lech, Poland’s mythical founder. One day, many centuries ago when Lech was travelling across the area now known as Greater Poland, he stumbled upon a nest containing a white eagle and her two eaglets. Lech decided to steal one of the eaglets and raise it for his own. The mother eagle rose in defense, spreading out her great white wings across the red light of the setting sun. She was wounded by Lech’s sword and her red blood began to stain her white feathers. She was clearly prepared to fight to the death to protect her young. Lech was so moved by the eagle’s courage and dedication to her young that he abandoned his attempts to capture an eaglet. In recognition of the eagle’s bravery Lech established the first Polish city of Gniezno, meaning nest at the site and adopted the white eagle as the symbol of the new land. The eagle was assimilated onto the Polish flag where the red background of represents both the red of the sun setting over the Polish plains and the blood and sacrifice suffered by Poles over the years.
The Polish eagle made its historical debut on Polish coins during the reign of King Bolesław I (992-1025). Its use extended in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when it began to appear on emblems, shields and flags. It would have represented the Poles charging into battle against the German Teutonic Knights in 1410 and at Vienna against the Turks in 1683.
When Poland was torn apart in the eighteenth century, the eagle became a call to arms to unite Poles in the battle for their independence. Ironically, the empires that conquered Poland—Russia, Prussia and Austria—all had black eagles as their symbols. The Polish white eagle, represented hope that their nation’s light would not be extinguished by the darkness of the invaders.
Poland again adopted the white eagle as its official coat-of-arms, on regaining independence in 1918. German invasion and occupation during World War II meant the eagle came once more a call to arms and a sign of hope to represent courage and sacrifice both to the Polish resistance and the government-in-exile, both of which retained the flag.
When Poland fell under Soviet control after World War II, the white eagle suffered one of its worst humiliations—it lost the golden crown that it had worn for centuries. The bare-headed white eagle represented a Poland subservient to the ruling Soviet regime.
After communism fell, the Polish eagle regained its crown in 1990 and was adopted as Poland’s official symbol.
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