The phoenix (Ancient Greek: Φοῖνιξ, phoínix, Persian: ققنوس, Arabic: العنقاء) is a
mythical sacred firebird that can be found in the mythologies of the Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, and
(according to Sanchuniathon) Phoenicians.
A phoenix is a mythical bird that is a fire spirit with a colorful plumage
and a tail of gold and scarlet (or purple, blue, and green according to some
legends). It has a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds
itself a nest of twigs that then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and
are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix or phoenix egg arises,
reborn anew to live again. The new phoenix is destined to live as long as its
old self. 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. In very few stories they are able to change into people.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote the following
about the phoenix:
Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which
reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit
or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five
hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top
of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of
these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes
out its last breath amidst odors. From the body of the parent bird, a young
Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When
this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the
tree (its own cradle and its parent's sepulchre), and carries it to the city of
Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun.
French author Voltaire thus
described the phoenix:
It was of the size of an eagle, but its eyes were as mild and tender as those
of the eagle are fierce and threatening. Its beak was the color of a rose, and
seemed to resemble, in some measure, the beautiful mouth of Formosante. Its neck
resembled all the colors of the rainbow, but more brilliant and lively. A
thousand shades of gold glistened on its plumage. Its feet seemed a mixture of
purple and silver; and the tail of those beautiful birds which were afterwards
fixed to the car of Juno, did not come near the beauty of its tail
The phoenix originated in ancient mythology and has gone through a variety of
representations in art/literature, ranging from being fully birdlike to having
the head of a dog and suckling its young. Typically, it is considered
benevolent, but some tales suggest that humans are not always safe around it.
Further, many tales share many elements with those of the phoenix.
Flavius Philostratus (c. AD 170), who wrote the biography Life of Apollonius of Tyana,
refers to the phoenix as a bird living in India, but sometimes migrating to Egypt every five hundred years. His
account is clearly inspired by Garuda,
the bird of the Hindu god Vishnu. He considered the bird as an emanation of
sunlight, being in appearance and size much like an eagle. His contemporary Lactantius is probably the author who wrote the
longest poem on the famous bird. Although descriptions (and life-span) vary, the
Egyptian phoenix (Bennu bird) became
popular in early Catholic
art, literature and Catholic symbolism, as a symbol of Christ
representing his resurrection, immortality, and life-after-death. One of the Early Catholic Church
related the following regarding the Phoenix in chapter 25 of The First Epistle
Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place
in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain
bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five
hundred years. And when the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die,
it builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into
which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies. But as the flesh decays a
certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the juices of the
dead bird, brings forth feathers. Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes
up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and bearing these it passes
from the land of Arabia into Egypt, to the city called Heliopolis. And, in open
day, flying in the sight of all men, it places them on the altar of the sun, and
having done this, hastens back to its former abode. The priests then inspect the
registers of the dates, and find that it has returned exactly as the five
hundredth year was completed.
Michael W. Holmes points out that early Christian writers justified their use
of this myth because the word appears in Psalm 92:12 [LXX Psalm 91:13], but in
that passage it actually refers to a palm tree, not a mythological bird. However, it was the
flourishing of Christian Hebraist interpretations of Job
29:18 that brought the Joban phoenix to life for Christian readers of the
seventeenth century. At the heart of these interpretations is the proliferation
of richly complementary meanings that turn upon three translations of the word
chol (חול) — as phoenix, palm tree, or sand — in Job 29:18.
In critical editions of English translations of I Clement, it is also noted
that the story of the phoenix, with variations, is also found in Herodotus (ii. 73), Pliny (Nat.
Hist. x.2), and used as above by Tertullian (De Resurrectione Carnis, §13) and
Originally, the phoenix was identified by the Egyptians as a stork or heron-like bird called a benu, known from the Book of the Dead and other Egyptian texts
as one of the sacred symbols of worship at Heliopolis, closely associated with
the rising sun and the Egyptian sun-god Ra.
The Greeks (along with the Romans) subsequently pictured the bird more like a
peacock or an eagle and identified it with their own word
phoenix (Φοίνιξ), meaning the color purple-red or crimson (cf. Phoenicia). According to the Greek mythology the
phoenix lived in Phoenicia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of
the well, and the Greek sun-god Helios
stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song. Featured in the
painting Heracles Strangles Snakes (House of the Vettii, Pompeii Italy)
as Zeus, the king of the gods. Herodotus spoke about the unique
capabity of the bird to be consumed in the flames and be reborn from the
One inspiration that has been suggested
for the Egyptian
phoenix is the flamingo of East Africa. This
bright pink or white bird nests on salt flats that are too hot for its eggs or chicks to survive;
it builds a mound several inches tall and large enough to support its egg, which
it lays in that marginally cooler location. The convection currents around these
mounds resembles the turbulence
of a flame. In zoology, flamingos are part
of the family Phoenicopteridae, from the generic name
Phoenicopterus or "phoenix-winged."
- Fenghuang, commonly referred
to as the Chinese phoenix.
- Firebird (Russian folklore), an
equivalent of phoenix in Russian mythology.
- Bennu, an Egyptian correspondence to
- Angha, a Huma, Simurgh, Persian phoenixes.
- Adarna, a
Philippine version of the phoenix.
- Avalerion, an Indian magic
bird that drowns itself once it has laid its eggs.
- Turul, a mythical bird of the Magyars.
- Garuda, mythical bird of ancient
- Kokko, a mythical bird of iron and
fire from Fennic folklores.
- 2020. All rights reserved.