The phoenix is a mythological creature, well known in ancient legends and modern stories. It’s a fascinating idea – the phoenix is immortal, it burns to death then rises again from its own ashes. It is traditionally equated with the sun, dying and rising as the sun rises and sets, and has been used as a symbol of Christianity.
The possible earliest form is the Bennu bird, from Egyptian mythology. The Bennu was sacred, said to be present at the dawn of creation, and was part of sun worship, associated with the gods Ra and Atum. Often depicted as a grey heron, the bird would be shown with a two-feathered crest, sitting on a benben stone (the primordial mound), and would also be depicted with a sun disc, all to show its affiliation with the sun god Ra. The Bennu bird was sometimes seen as the soul of Ra. The word ‘bennu’ means ‘to rise’ and as such it is a symbol of rebirth, linking it also to Osiris. It sits on the primordial mound at the dawn of the world and calls for creation to begin. In some accounts the Bennu is an aspect of Ra, and in others an aspect of Atum. Though the Egyptians did not talk about the death of gods in their myths, the association of the Bennu with creation, with sunrise, and with Osiris suggests there may have been a death to life aspect to this being. As such, it is considered to be a potential precursor to the phoenix.
The Phoenix as we are familiar with it comes from Greek mythology. Hesiod, in the eighth or seventh centuries BC, was the earliest known source for this myth, where he mentions that nymphs say they live longer than ten phoenixes. Later mythology will put a phoenix’s lifespan at five hundred years. Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BC, describes the Phoenix as a red and golden eagle-like bird who flies from Arabia to Egypt once every five hundred years, to die and then be reborn.
The Roman poet Ovid (1st century BC) takes up the story in his work “Metamorphoses”, re-telling Greek myths involving change, or transformation. He gives more details of the Phoenix’ death, saying that after five hundred years it builds a nest in the top of a palm tree and dies there, after which the reborn Phoenix carries its predecessor’s ashes to the city of Hyperion.
Medieval Europe used books called ‘bestiaries’ to collect moral stories about animals and plants with the purpose of linking all life to God’s creation. The Aberdeen bestiary, from the twelfth century, seems to be the first to be specific about the phoenix dying in fire, describing how it builds a pyre, fans the flames itself in order to die, then resurrects after nine days. It is also at this point that the Phoenix is described as being resurrected, rather than each phoenix being a descendant of the previous one as in the Greek and Roman tales. The phoenix in this tale is described as purple in colour (from Phoenician purple). The phoenix thus becomes an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ. This author is quite convinced of the existence of the Phoenix, giving details of its return to life, and uses this as objective proof of Christ’s resurrection. A century later, Guilliame Le Clerc’s ‘Bestiare’ places the Phoenix in India, and its death and resurrection in a temple of a city called Leopolis. The period between death and resurrection is now listed as three days, bringing it more closely in line with the death and resurrection of Christ.
Interestingly, certain demonologies, such as the Lesser Key of Solomon (seventeenth century), list ‘Phenex’ as a powerful demon who appears as a Phoenix.
The Phoenix has made many appearances in literature. William Shakespeare made frequent mentions in his plays. Ben Jonson and John Webster also mentioned the phoenix in their works. In more recent times, Edith Nesbit, DH Lawrence, CS Lewis, Robert E Howard, JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and many other authors use the Phoenix in their works.
Music is also filled with the Phoenix. Mozart mentions it in ‘Cosi fan tutte’. The logo of the British band Queen has a phoenix at the top. There is a Romanian rock band with the (rather awesome) name ‘Transsylvania Phoenix’. The music video for ‘Marry the Night’ by Lady Gaga uses the phoenix imagery, and “Runaway” by Kanye West is about a literal phoenix who has fallen to earth.
Film and television also use the phoenix. The Harry Potter films are probably the most obvious example. “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” uses a phoenix in the climactic battle. In the X-Men films (and comics), character Jean Grey becomes the Phoenix, a powerful and apparently immortal entity. TV series such as “Charmed”, “Supernatural”, “Star Trek”, “Stargate” and “Merlin”, phoenixes are featured either symbolically or literally.
The Phoenix does not have the multicultural mythological basis that other legendary beasts have, but I find its story unique and interesting. The idea that there is only one, endlessly dying and renewing over the millenia, makes it stand apart from other creatures from old stories. I also see the Phoenix as having a message for us today – if the Phoenix can rise from its own ashes, maybe we can rise from disaster and ruin in our own lives.