Alerions: What they Are, Aren’t, and Might Be

Snipped from a post I saw on Tumblr about the mythology of birds:

Avalerion

Also known as alerion or the king of the birds

The avalerion is a mythological bird from Indian mythology. At any given time, only two of these birds exist. They lay a pair of eggs every sixty years, which take sixty days to hatch. After they hatch, the parents drown themselves. Other birds care for the newly hatched birds until they can fly.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird. Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

It is said to resemble an eagle, but is larger, has sharp razor-like wings, and is the color of fire.

The rest of the information is interesting, but this part is… well, confused. There may very well be a mythical bird called the avalerion, that is larger than an eagle, the king of birds, colored like fire, etc. but the part about heraldry is pretty inaccurate. And I just can’t resist debunking heraldic inaccuracies. Let’s go step-by-step.

In European heraldry, the avalerion is a heraldic eagle known as the king of the bird.

Well… not really. First, I’ve never seen it referred to as an “avalerion”. That doesn’t make it impossible, of course, but I’m a bit suspicious. Also, the eagle is the undisputed heraldic king of the birds. You could make a case for the phoenix, but that would be more dependent upon mythology rather than its use in heraldry. Kind of like lions and lioncels, the eagle is considered so noble that there can only properly be one in a field; two or more are called eaglets. (With exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions.) Alerions are not eaglets. Or eagles, for that matter.

Avalerions are depicted as having no beak and no legs, or sometimes feathery stumps.

True! Alerions look much like eaglets displayed (spread out), but without the beak or legs. Don’t confuse them with martlets, though- martlets also have no beak or legs, but look more like a dove or sparrow close (wings closed and sitting). Besides, martlets are a much more common charge, at least in English heraldry, due to their use as a mark of cadency. I’ve only ever encountered alerions in arms from a specific region of France.

The traditional (i.e., unsubstantiated but entertaining-to-heraldic-writers) story about the alerion has to do with the coat of arms where it was originally found: that of the Duchy of Lorraine.

The story goes that one of the old Dukes of Lorraine shot and killed three eaglets with one arrow- or said he did, anyway- and he was so proud of the feat that he displayed it on his arms. The story doesn’t explain why they have no beaks or feet, though. No one quite seems to know that.

There is another theory that says that ancient heralds really needed to come up with a way to describe these peculiar birds in the arms of Lorraine, so they anagrammatized the name of the duchy (roughly): LORAINE became ALERION. Some writers who follow this theory use it to classify Lorraine as a kind of canting arms, but I’m not sure. Firstly, it’s just a theory, and secondly, I don’t know if it counts as canting arms if you name the charge after the family rather than using the charge to allude to the family’s name. It’s an interesting, even plausible, theory, but I doubt it’ll ever be  proved one way or the other. It’s just another one of those almost-but-not-quite historical tales that seem to proliferate around heraldry.

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The old Germans thought there was great divinity in a white horse, which had never been bridled or used, but taken from the woods and put into the sacred chariot; and it could by its neighings foretell future events.

From Historical Anecdotes of Heraldry and Chivalry by Susanna Dawson Dobson, p309

Some people assign the origin of fusils being borne in arms to the Crusades, and that they were given to their bearers as a mark of infamy for cowardice. I think, however, there were other reasons. […] Perhaps they were given as the symbols of industry and application.

From Historical Anecdotes of Chivalry and Heraldry by Susannah Dawson Dobson, p100-101