The Mythical Phoenix Bird
The mythical phoenix bird‘s popularity has endured throughout the ages as a symbol of rebirth, immortality and renewal. A fabulous and graceful bird resplendent in it’s shining plumage of red, gold and purple. Ezekiel the Dramatist claimed that it had red legs and striking yellow eyes. Voltaire went on further to say it’s eyes were mild and tender and not fierce and threatening like the eagle’s. When it came to the end of it’s life span of 500 years or more it fashioned a nest of aromatic boughs and spices, set it on fire with a single flap of it’s wings and was consumed. From out of the ashes arose a young Phoenix. Many, however, may not realize that there is not just one kind of phoenix but many with different descriptions, associations and stories.
The Phoenix Bird of Egypt – The Bennu Bird
The Phoenix Bird of Egypt was a deity symbolizing the sun, creation and rebirth. It was a self-created being said to have played a role in the creation of the world. As an aspect of Atum (god of creation) it flew over the waters of Nun that existed before creation and landed on a rock. It cried out with intent and the very nature of creation was determined from that time on.
It was usually depicted as a grey heron with a long beak and a two-feathered crest. Other times it had the appearance of an eagle like bird, a yellow wagtail or a golden hawk with a heron’s head. Due to it’s connection with Osiris, the ruler of the underworld, it is sometimes depicted wearing an atef crown. It was also associated with the rising sun and the Gods Ra and Atum and is mentioned in the Book of the Dead.
Egyptians in Heliopolis esteemed the solar bird. It was exalted with titles like “He Who Came Into Being by Himself” and “Lord of Jubilees.” It was linked to the Temple of the Sun God at Heliopolis. The temple was said to be where the Sun god, in his aspect of the Bennu Bird, arose to renew Egypt from time to time.
There are many stories of the phoenix including some which conflict with each other. One of the stories associated with it is that when it approaches the very end of the current cycle of it’s life it flies from Arabia all the way to Heliopolis, Egypt, the City of the Sun. In the long flight it is accompanied by thousands of ordinary birds. There it builds a nest of spices on top of the Temple of the Sun. The sun ignites it and from the ashes arises a new Phoenix.
Despite it’s strong association with Egypt it’s true home was the Arabian desert and it only came back to Heliopolis to die and be reborn.
The Greek Phoenix Bird – phóinīx
The Greeks depicted their phoenix bird as a kind of peacock or eagle and gave it a name which meant the color purple-red or crimson. It was a fabulous golden-red feathered bird with green eyes whose body emitted rays of pure sunlight. It fed upon oils of balsalm and frankinsense in Arabia. Another account says it nurtured itself on sunlight and sea spray. It was a symbol of immortality and resurrection and associated with their sun god.
Another account is given by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. While he is recounting the story of the Egyptian phoenix it no doubt contributed towards the Greeks understanding and stories of the bird. “There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is Phoinix (Phoenix). I myself have never seen it, only pictures of it; for the bird seldom comes into Aigyptos (Egypt): once in five hundred years, as the people of Heliopolis say. It is said that the Phoinix comes when his father dies. If the picture truly shows his size and appearance, his plumage is partly golden and partly red. He is most like an eagle in shape and size. What they say this bird manages to do is incredible to me. Flying from Arabia to the temple of the Helios, they say, he conveys his father encased in myrrh and buries him at the temple of Helios. This is how he conveys him: he first molds an egg of myrrh as heavy as he can carry, then tries lifting it, and when he has tried it, he then hollows out the egg and puts his father into it, and plasters over with more myrrh the hollow of the egg into which he has put his father, which is the same in weight with his father lying in it, and he conveys him encased to the temple of the Sun in Aigyptos (Egypt). This is what they say this bird does.”
* Herodotus, Histories 2. 73 (trans. Godley) (Greek historian C5th B.C.)
In Greek mythology the phoenix lived in Phoenicia next to a well. At dawn while bathing in the well the Greek sun-god Helios stopped his chariot and listened intently to it’s enchanting and melodious song.
The Chinese Phoenix – Feng Huang
The Chinese phoenix has a history that stretches back at least several thousand years and arguably has an unrivalled pedigree. In all my travels around the world it is rare to afford even a glimpse of a phoenix. In Taiwan and China though a trip the local temple will likely reward your visit. There might be a statue of a phoenix on the roof, one carved into one of the temple’s decorated columns or in artwork somewhere.
This is a Phoenix distinct from many others. A sacred and celestial bird that embodies the five virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity. It symbolizes good fortune, eternity, nobility and happiness. A bird content with roosting in the finest firmiana tree, eating and drinking nothing but bamboo seeds and sweet spring water. Unlike other Phoenix’s depicted around the world it is not associated with fire and it never dies.
It’s very name resonates the concept of Yin-Yang. Feng being male and huang female. The dragon and phoenix were often paired together to represent the emperor and the empress. It also symbolized good luck and harmony between husband and wife.
A History to Boast About
The Phoenix bird has much to boast of. Ancient Roman coins bearing the emperor’s head on one side and the Phoenix on the other. During the middle ages monks included them in the bestiaries of the Middle Ages in remote monasteries. A golden seal used by an Emperor of Java as well as being depicted on the first Great Seal of the United States in 1782. From local festivals and rites to the heights of literature and fine art through to the representation of imperial nobility and authority. With China’s rise to power and people around the world flocking to it’s shores the phoenix is likely to be seen more than ever before.
For those who like the Phoenix bird as much as I do I have put together a few things below including products from Amazon in the United States that you might like to take a look at.
The Phoenix Through the Ages
By Heather Shumaker
By the Mythical Creatures Guide