Myths and Folklore Wiki
Myths and Folklore Wiki



This article is about the bird. For the Phoenician king, see Phoenix (king).

The Phoenix (Ancient Greek: Φοῖνιξ, phoínix, Persian: ققنوس, Arabic: طائر الفينيق, Hindi: फ़ीनिक्स) is a mythical, sacred firebird that can be found in the mythologies of the Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, (according to Sanchuniathon) Phoenicians, Hindus, and other cultures.

In Mythology

The phoenix is a mythical bird that is the true spirit of fire with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold or yellow and red. It was said to have eyes as blue as sapphires. It was said to be the spirit of Ra himself because its fire was so fierce. It has a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds itself a nest of incense and sacred materials that it then ignites; the bird burned fiercely, then was reduced to ashes, from which the new, young phoenix arises, reborn anew to live a better life than the previous one.

The new phoenix is destined to live as long as its previous incarnation. In some stories, the new phoenix embalms the ashes of its old self in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis (literally "sun-city" in Greek). It is said that the bird's cry is that of a beautiful song. The Phoenix's ability to be reborn from its own ashes makes it essentially immortal. In very few stories, they are able to change into people and other birds. There is only ever one phoenix at a time. The tears of the phoenix have the ability to heal any wound or infection and raise the dead. The phoenix's size is not definite since it can change its size, but its typical size is the size of a house.

The Phoenix in Medieval Christian Bestiaries

Medieval bestiaries were not naturalistic or scientific descriptions of animals, like what one would expect from a modern encyclopedia. Instead, their purpose was theological. Bestiaries were collections of moral and symbolic stories about animals, plants, and sometimes stones which served to show how all of the natural world is part of God's creation.

The Aberdeen Bestiary:

The Aberdeen Bestiary is a bestiary from 12th century England. The entry for the Phoenix begins as follows:

"[Of the phoenix] The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world. It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire. But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.[1][2]"

Within this bestiary, the Phoenix is considered to be a fantastical bird from Arabia, which may have seemed like a far off and exotic land to medieval Europeans. The Phoenix is said to be purple in color based off of it's name. This is because the pigment Tyrian Purple, also known as Phoenician Purple, was first produced in the city of Tyre in Phoenicia.[3] Tyrian purple was difficult to produce, being a pigment extracted from shellfish, but was resistant to fading over time.[3] As such, it was very expensive and highly valuable.[3] Due to this, Tyrian Purple was often associated with royalty, and in later periods, the Roman empire itself.[3] This color therefore gives the Phoenix regal associations.

The Phoenix is considered to be a single creature, rather than being a species with multiple individuals, making the Phoenix unique and one-of-a-kind. It has an extremely long lifetime, living longer than five hundred years. When it's life cycle comes to an end, it gathers pleasant-smelling aromatic plants and creates itself a funeral pyre. It then faces the sun- a nod to the Phoenix's ancient association to the Greek god Helios- as it fans the flames of it's pyre and is consumed by flame. But then, after nine days, it regenerates. This cycle of death and resurrection caused medieval Christians to associate the Phoenix with Jesus Christ, with the author associating the aromatic plants with the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Bible), and the New Testament of Christianity:

"Our Lord Jesus Christ displays the features of this bird, saying: 'I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again' (see John, 10:18). If, therefore, the phoenix has the power to destroy and revive itself, why do fools grow angry at the word of God, who is the true son of God, who says: 'I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again'? For it is a fact that our Saviour descended from heaven; he filled his wings with the fragrance of the Old and New Testaments; he offered himself to God his father for our sake on the altar of the cross; and on the third he day he rose again.[2]"

The author also gives an alternate interpretation of the Phoenix, where the Phoenix represents the Christians who will be resurrected during the final judgement, with the sweet-smelling aromatic plants representing the virtues that the saved had gathered in life:

"The phoenix can also signify the resurrection of the righteous who, gathering the aromatic plants of virtue, prepare for the renewal of their former energy after death.[2]"

Within this bestiary, the Arabs, as a Muslim people, are considered to be "unsaved" by the author, and therefore "of this world" as opposed to "the world to come" after the final judgement. The author associates the Phoenix with those who have separated themselves from the vices of the world and turned themselves toward the transcendent virtues of Christianity:

"The phoenix is a bird of Arabia. Arabia can be understood as a plain, flat land. The plain is this world; Arabia is worldly life; Arabs, those who are of this world. The Arabs call a solitary man phoenix. Any righteous man is solitary, wholly removed from the cares of this world.[2]"

The Phoenix is not considered by the author to be merely the product of fanciful stories and traveller's tales. Instead, the author considers the Phoenix to be a real flesh-and-blood creature, and goes into detail about the process it goes through to regenerate itself: starting as a fluid, then a worm, and eventually back to it's glorious bird form. The author sees the real existence of this creature as objective proof of the resurrection of at the final judgement:

"The phoenix also is said to live in places in Arabia and to reach the great age of five hundred years. When it observes that the end of its life is at hand, it makes a container for itself out of frankincense and myrrh and other aromatic substances; when its time is come, it enters the covering and dies. From the fluid of its flesh a worm arises and gradually grows to maturity; when the appropriate time has come, it acquires wings to fly, and regains its Previous appearance and form. Let this bird teach us, therefore, by its own example to believe in the resurrection of the body; lacking both an example to follow and any sense of reason, it reinvents itself with the very signs of resurrection, showing without doubt that birds exist as an example to man, not man as an example to the birds. Let it be, therefore, an example to us that as the maker and creator of birds does not suffer his saints to perish forever, he wishes the bird, rising again, to be restored with its own seed. Who, but he, tells the phoenix that the day of its death has come, in order that it might make its covering, fill it with perfumes, enter it and die there, where the stench of death can be banished by sweet aromas?[2]"

The author then implores his audience to, like the Phoenix, shed away their old, sinful life, and be reborn in Jesus Christ- associating the aromatic plants this time with the sweetness of martyrdom:

"You too, O man, make a covering for yourself and, stripping off your old human nature with your former deeds, put on a new one. Christ is your covering and your sheath, shielding you and hiding you on the evil day. Do you want to know why his covering is your protection? The Lord said: 'In my quiver have I hid him' (see Isaiah, 49:2). Your covering, therefore, is faith; fill it with the perfumes of your virtues - of chastity, mercy and justice, and enter in safety into its depths, filled with the fragrance of the faith betokened by your excellent conduct. May the end of this life find you shrouded in that faith, that your bones may be fertile; let them be like a well-watered garden, where the seeds are swiftly raised.
Know, therefore, the day of your death, as Paul knew his, saying: 'I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness' (2 Timothy, 4: 7-8). And he entered, therefore, into his covering like the worthy phoenix, filling it with the sweet odour of martyrdom. In this way, therefore, the phoenix is consumed by fire but from its ashes is born or brought forth again. When it dies, it is also born again from its ashes. The point of this example is that everyone should believe in the truth of the resurrection to come. Faith in the resurrection to come is no more of a miracle than the resurrection of the phoenix from its ashes. See how the nature of birds offers to ordinary people proof of the resurrection; that what the scripture proclaims, the working of nature confirms[2]."

See also

In some Christian and occult traditions, there is a demon called "Phenex" who takes the form of the Phoenix.

Gallery

Trivia

  • The phoenix is essentially immortal, as it can reincarnate itself over and over.
  • In some stories, before the universe existed, the phoenix was said to be flying around over the sea of chaos to land on a lone island pyramid and sing a beautiful song, which is said to be the trigger that started the beginning of the creation of the universe itself.
  • The phoenix was originally from ancient Egypt, where it was called the Bennu Bird. The Bennu Bird looked like a heron or stork, but this evolved over time into the eagle-like form it has now.
  • The phoenix myth went by many names in its incredibly long life: the Egyptian Bennu, the Chinese Fenghuang, The Japanese Ho-o, the Hindu Garuda, the greek Phoenix, the Russian Firebird, the Persian Simorgh, Georgian Paskunji, Arabian Anqa, Turkish Zümrüdü Anka, and the Tibetan Me byi karmo.

References