The phoenix (Classic Greek: ϕοῖνιξ) is a bird from Greek mythology that, when it died, went into self-combustion and, after a while, rose from its own ashes. Another characteristic of the phoenix is its strength, which allows it to carry very heavy loads while flying, and there are legends in which it even carries elephants. Finally, it can transform into a bird of fire.
The Latin word comes from the Greek φοῖνιξ, phoinīx. The Greek word is first attested in the Mycenaean Greek po-ni-ke, which probably meant 'griffin', although it could mean 'palm tree'. This word is probably a borrowing from a Western Semitic word for the garance dye, made from Rubia tinctorum.
The word 'Phoenician' seems to have the same root, meaning 'those who work with red dyes'. Thus, phoenix can mean 'the Phoenician bird' or 'the red-purple bird'. Ovid and Martial refer to the bird by stating that the 'Assyrians' called it the phoenix; van der Broeck, however, demonstrates that the people they both call 'Assyrian' most often actually refer to the Phoenicians.
The symbolic parallelism of resurgence and immortality of this bird may also be associated with solar terms and symbolism in Phoenician and Egyptian mythology.
It would have bright, golden, and purplish-red feathers, and be equal to or larger in size than an eagle. According to some Greek writers, the phoenix would live exactly five hundred years.
Others believed that its life cycle was 97,200 years. At the end of each life cycle, the phoenix would immolate itself on a funeral pyre. The phoenix's long life and dramatic rebirth from its own ashes made it a symbol of immortality and spiritual rebirth.
The Greeks seem to have based this on Bennu from Egyptian mythology, represented in the form of a grayish bird similar to the now extinct heron that once inhabited Egypt.
Once Bennu's life cycle was complete, he would fly to Heliopolis, land on the pyre of the god Ra, set fire to his nest and let himself be consumed by the flames, to ultimately be reborn from the ashes.
Hesiod, a Greek poet from the 8th century B.C., claimed that the phoenix would live nine times as long as the raven, which has a long life. Other calculations have mentioned up to 97,200 years.
Similar to Bennu, when the bird felt death approaching, it would build a pyre of cinnamon branches, sage and myrrh in whose flames it would self-immolate. From these ashes a new phoenix would then rise, which would then piously place the remains of its progenitor in a myrrh egg and fly with it to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, where it would place it on the Altar of the Sun.
These ashes were said to have the power to resurrect a dead person. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus (204-222 AD) decided to eat phoenix meat in order to achieve immortality. He ate a bird-of-paradise, which was sent to him instead of a phoenix, but was murdered shortly afterwards.
Today scholars believe that the legend originated in the East and was adapted by the Sun priests of Heliopolis as an allegory of the daily death and rebirth of the king star. In Christian art, the reborn phoenix became a popular symbol of the resurrection of Christ.
Interestingly, its name may be due to a misunderstanding by Herodotus, a Greek historian of the 5th century BC. In his description of the bird, he may have mistakenly called it the phoenix (Phoenix), the palm tree (Phoenix in Greek) upon which the bird was at that time depicted.
The belief in the legendary bird that is reborn from its own ashes existed among many ancient peoples such as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Chinese. In all mythologies the meaning is preserved: perpetuation, resurrection, hope that never ends.
For the Greeks, the phoenix was sometimes linked to the god Hermes and is depicted in many ancient temples. There is a parallel of the phoenix with the sun, which dies every day on the horizon to be reborn the next day, making it the eternal symbol of death and rebirth in nature.
The Egyptians had it as Bennu and it was related to the star Sótis, or five-pointed, flaming star, which is painted next to it.
In ancient China the phoenix was represented as a wonderful bird and made into a symbol of happiness, virtue, strength, freedom, and intelligence. In its plumage, the five sacred colors shine.Purple, blue, red, white, and gold.
At the beginning of the Christian era this fabulous bird was a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. In this sense, it symbolizes the Christ or the Initiate, receiving a second life, in exchange for the one he sacrificed.
The flag of the city of San Francisco shows a phoenix, believed to be a symbol of renewal after the earthquake that devastated the city in 1906. The flag and seal of the city of Atlanta show a phoenix as well.
In the San Jose Mine Accident in 2010, the capsule that was pulling out one by one of the 33 miners was called a phoenix, because their rescue from a very deep depth of earth resembles the resurrection of the mythical bird from the ashes.
"The phoenix! Ah, but what is a phoenix? Here we are suddenly thrown into lying antiquity, almost into mythology." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his book Emilio (Part II). The Enlightenment philosopher from Geneva is an avowed opponent of Greek mythology; he judges it corrupting, especially if taught to children and young people.
The myth of the phoenix, for example, teaches the desire for immortality, as opposed to affirming the natural finitude of individual human life. "There is another sacred bird, too, whose name is phoenix. I have never seen it myself, only figures of it.
The bird rarely comes to Egypt, once every five centuries, as the people of Heliopolis say. It is said that the phoenix comes when its father dies. If the picture truly shows its size and appearance, its plumage is partly golden and partly red. It resembles an eagle in its shape and size.
What they say this bird can do is amazing to me. It flies from Arabia to the temple of Helios (the Sun), they say, it encloses its father in an egg of myrrh and buries him in the temple of Helios.
This is how they say: first he molds a myrrh egg as heavy as he can carry, then he opens cavities in the egg and puts his father's remains in it, sealing the egg. And they say, he encloses the egg in the temple of the Sun in Egypt. This is what this bird is said to do." - Herodotus,
"And the phoenix, he said, is the bird that visits Egypt every five centuries, but the rest of the time it flies to India; and there can be seen the rays of sunlight that shine like gold, in size and appearance it resembles an eagle; and it sits in a nest; which is made by it in the springs of the Nile. The story of the Aegyptos about him is testified by the Indians also, but the latter add a touch to the story, that the phoenix while being consumed by fire in his nest sings funeral songs to himself." - Apollonius of Tyana,
"These creatures (other races of birds) all descend from their first, from others of their kind. But one alone, one bird, renews and is reborn of itself - the Phoenix of Assyria, which feeds not on seeds or green leaves but on balsam oils and drops of olibanum.
This bird, when the five long centuries of life have passed, creates a nest in an elevated palm tree; and the lines of the nest with cassia, golden myrrh and pieces of cinnamon, established there, set aflame, surrounded by perfumes, ends the span of its life.
Then from her father's body is reborn a little Phoenix, as they say, to live the same long years. When time rebuilds its strength to the power to bear its own weight, it lifts the nest - the nest that is its cradle and its father's tomb - as the imposition of love and duty, from that high palm and carries it across the heavens until it reaches the great city of the Sun (Heliopolis in Egypt), and before the gates of the sacred temple of the Sun, buries it." - Ovid,
The Phoenix among the Persians
The Persian Sufi poet Farid al-Din Attar, in his 1177 book The Conference of the Birds, describes the phoenix:
"In India lives a bird that is unique: the charming phoenix has an extraordinarily long and very hard beak, pierced with a hundred holes, like a flute. It has no female, lives in isolation, and its reign is absolute.
Each opening in its beak produces a different sound, and each of these sounds reveals a particular secret, subtle and profound. When she makes these plangent notes sound, the birds and the fish stir, the most ferocious beasts go into ecstasy; then everyone falls silent.
It was from this song that a wise man learned the science of music. The phoenix lives about a thousand years and knows beforehand the hour of its death. When it feels that the moment is approaching for it to withdraw its heart from the world, and all the signs confirm that it must leave, it builds a pyre, gathering around it wood and palm leaves.
Amidst these leaves he sings sad melodies, and each mournful note he emits is evidence of his immaculate soul. As she sings, the bitter pain of death penetrates her innermost being, and she trembles like a leaf.
All the birds and animals are attracted by her song, which now sounds like the trumpets of the Last Day; they all approach to watch the spectacle of her death, and, by her example, each one of them determines to leave the world behind and resigns himself to die.
In fact, on that day a great number of animals die with bleeding hearts before the phoenix, because of the sadness with which they see it. It is an extraordinary day: some sob in sympathy, others lose their senses, still others die upon hearing her impassioned lament.
When it has only a breath of life left, the phoenix flaps its wings and shakes its feathers, and from this movement a fire is produced that transforms its state. This fire spreads quickly to foliage and wood, which burns pleasantly. Soon, wood and bird become live coals, and then ashes. However, when the pyre has been consumed and the last spark is extinguished, a small phoenix awakens from the bed of ashes.
"Has it ever happened to anyone from this world to be reborn after death? Even if you were granted a life as long as that of the phoenix, you would have to die when the measure of your life was filled. The phoenix remained for a thousand years completely alone, in mourning and pain, without companion or progenitor.
It bonded with no one in this world, no child rejoiced its age, and at the end of its life, when it had to cease to exist, it cast its ashes to the wind, so that you may know that no one can escape death, no matter how cunningly they use it. In the whole world there is no one who does not die.
Know, by the miracle of the phoenix, that no one has shelter from death. Though death is harsh and tyrannical, we must live with it, and though many trials fall upon us, death remains the hardest test that the Way will demand of us."
The Phoenix in Modern Western Literature
A phoenix is the protagonist of Voltaire's novella "The Princess of Babylon." Voltaire gives the following description of this fabulous bird:
"It was of the carving of an eagle, but its eyes were as soft and tender as those of the eagle are haughty and menacing. Its beak was pink and seemed to have something of the beautiful mouth of Formosante. Its neck gathered all the colors of the rainbow, but more vivid and bright. In infinite nuances, the gold shone in its plumage. His feet looked like a mingling of silver and purple; and the tails of the beautiful birds that hitched afterwards to Juno's chariot were incomparable to his."