In ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology, the phoenix is a mythical bird and associated with the Egyptian sun-god Re and the Greek Phoibos (Apollo). According to the Greeks the bird lives in Arabia, nearby a cool well. Each morning at dawn, it would bathe in the water and sing such a beautiful song, that the sun-god stops his chariot to listen. There exists only one phoenix at the time.
When it felt its death approaching (every 500 or 1461 years), it would build a nest of aromatic wood and set it on fire, and was consumed by the flames. When it was burned, a new phoenix sprang forth from the ash.
The phoenix symbolizes immortality, resurrection, and life after death. In that aspect it was often placed on sarcophagi. It is associated with the Egyptian Benu, the Garuda of the Hindus, and the Chinese Feng-huang.
There are many, many descriptions of this legendary bird. Al-Jili considers the phoenix a prime example of unseen things (such as God), which can only be understood through their names and attributes. Some describe the phoenix as an eagle-sized bird; half eagle and half pheasant. Others say it is heron-like or a conglomeration of the most beautiful parts of all the birds in the world. Its name comes from the Greek word for "purple" because the phoenix is associated with fire and the sun. It has been described as golden or multi-colored. Some say it never eats. Others say it eats only dew. Most believe there is only one of its kind and it lives alone in Arabia or Ethiopia. All agree it is a bird of great beauty.
The Phoenix enjoys immortality, which had to be renewed with fire every 300 to 500 years. When the end of its life cycle drew near, the phoenix would gather aromatic herbs, woods, and spices from around the world with which to build its own funeral pyre or nest. Sitting in the nest, 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. Once the old body was consumed, the phoenix would be reborn from a worm, its marrow, or an egg found among the ashes and would embark on another 500 years of life. According to some legends, the renewed phoenix carried its old bones to the City of the Sun in Egypt where they were disposed of with special funeral rites.
Identified as a heron with its long straight back and head adorned at the back with two erect feathers, the Bennu was later named Phoenix by the Greeks. The Bennu lived on the ben-ben stone or obelisk within the sanctuary of Heliopolis and was worshipped alongside Ra and Osiris. Bennu was also considered a manifestation of Osiris, said to spring from his heart as a living symbol of the god. The Bennu symbolizes rebirth as it rises from the ashes, just as the new sun rises from the old.
Every 500 years, the Bennu flew to the Sun Temple in Heliopolis where the priests were waiting to assist it. The bird then built a large funeral pyre of spices, climbed on top, and allowed the sun's rays to consume it. From the ashes, a worm was born which grew into an adult Bennu by the end of the day.
Greek mythology places the phoenix in Arabia, where it lives close to a cool well. Every morning at dawn it bathes in the water and sings a beautiful song. So beautiful is the song that the sun god would stop his chariot to listen. There only exists one phoenix at a time. When the phoenix feel sits death approaching (every 500 or 1461 years) it builds a nest, sets it on fire, and is consumed by the flames. A new phoenix springs forth from the pyre. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh and flies with it to the City of the Sun. There the egg is deposited on the altar of the sun god.
In Jewish legend, the phoenix's name is Milcham. According to tradition, after Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she became jealous of the immortality and purity of the other creatures in the garden. Eventually, she persuaded all the animals except the phoenix to share in her fallen state by eating from the forbidden tree. God rewarded the phoenix by setting him up in a walled city where he could live in great peace for 1000 years. At the end of every 1000-year period, the bird is consumed by fire and reborn from an egg found in its ashes. One variation of this Jewish legend states that at the end of each 1000-year period, the phoenix's body becomes small and featherless like a baby's and then he grows up all over again. In any case, the Angel of Death may never touch him.
Ovid tells the story of the Phoenix as follows: "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 odours. 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."
In Chinese mythology, the phoenix is represented by the Feng-huang, a bird symbolizing the union of yin and yang. It is made of all the most desirable parts of earth's creatures: the snake's neck, the crane's forehead, the dragon's stripes, the fish's tail, the tortoise's shell, the swallow's throat, and the fowl's bill. It carries in its bill either two scrolls or a square box that contains sacred books. According to tradition, the phoenix's song includes all the five notes of the traditional musical scale; its feathers include the five fundamental colors and its body is a composite of the six celestial bodies: the head symbolizes the sky; the eyes, the sun; back, the moon; the wings, the wind; feet, the earth; and the tail, the planets. The phoenix appears only in peaceful and prosperous times, and hides itself when there is trouble. It is sometimes pictured with a fiery ball representing its association with the sun. It is the emperor of birds and is called the "scarlet bird."
The Feng-huang lives in the Kingdom of the Wise, which is somewhat to the east of China. It drinks the purest water and eats bamboo. Whenever it sings, all the roosters in the world join in its five-noted melody. Its marrow is considered heavenly food. The legendary phoenix was a symbol of high virtue and grace to the Chinese. This bird is the Chinese emperor's protector. The male Feng-huang symbolizes happiness and the female Feng-huang represents the empress. A pair of Feng-huangs symbolizes marital bliss. At conception, this remarkable bird delivers the soul of the infant to its mother's womb.
In the legends of native North Americans, the thunderbird is a powerful spirit in the form of a bird. Lightning flashes from its beak, and the beating of its wings is creates the thunder. It is often portrayed with an extra head on its abdomen. Lesser bird spirits, frequently in the form of eagles or falcons, often accompanies the majestic thunderbird. The thunderbird petroglyph symbol has been found across Canada and the United States. Evidence of similar figures has been found throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Wherever it is found, the phoenix is associated with resurrection, immortality, triumph over adversity, and that which rises out of the ashes. Thus it became a favorite symbol on early Christian tombstones. In chapters 25-26 of his letter to the Corinthians, St. Clement, Bishop of Rome, upheld the legendary phoenix as an evidence of Christ's ability to accomplish the resurrection of the faithful. He quotes Job as saying, "Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things."
In numerous ways, the phoenix was found to be a symbol of Christ. In most countries, it was believed that only one phoenix lived at a time. It was born from itself without following the natural laws of reproduction. During the Middle Ages, it was believed to rise from the dead after three days.
Often, as an emblem of Christ, it was found with the palm tree (another symbol of resurrection) or carrying a palm branch (a symbol of triumph over death), or carrying an olive branch (a symbol of God's peace offered to humans).
The Phoenix is symbolic of rebirth, hope, purity, chastity, marriage, faith, constancy, summer, eternity, immortality, and light. It is an image of the cosmic fire some believe the world began and will end in. The Taoists called it the "cinnabar bird." Romans placed the phoenix on coins and medals as an emblem of their desire for the Roman Empire to last forever.
There is a bird that lays no eggs and has no young. It was here when the world began and is still living today, in a hidden, faraway desert spot. It is the phoenix, the bird of fire.
One day in the beginning times, the sun looked down and saw a large bird with shimmering feathers. They were red and gold--bright and dazzling like the sun itself. The sun called out, "Glorious Phoenix, you shall be my bird and live forever!"
Live forever! The Phoenix was overjoyed to hear these words. It lifted its head and sang, "Sun glorious sun, I shall sing my songs for you alone!"
But the Phoenix was not happy for long. Poor bird. Its feathers were far too beautiful. Men, women, and children were always casing it and trying to trap it. They wanted to have some of those beautiful, shiny feathers for themselves.
"I cannot live here," thought the phoenix. and it flew off toward the east, where the sun rises in the morning.
The Phoenix flew for a long time, and then came to a far away, hidden desert where no humans lived. And there the phoenix remained in peace, flying freely and singing its songs of praise to the sun above.
Almost five hundred years passed. The Phoenix was still alive, but it had grown old. It was often tired, and it had lost much of its strength. It couldn't soar so high in the sky, nor fly as fast or as far as it was young.
"I don't want to live like this," thought the Phoenix. "I want to be young and strong."
So the Phoenix lifted it's head and sang, "Sun, glorious sun, make me young and strong again!" but the sun didn't answer. Day after day the Phoenix sang. When the sun still didn't answer, the Phoenix decided to return to the place where it had lived in the beginning and ask the sun one more time.
It flew across the desert, over hills, green valleys, and high mountains. The journey was long, and because the Phoenix was old and weak, it had to rest along the way. Now, the Phoenix has a keen sense of smell and is particularly fond of herbs and spices. So each time it landed, it collected pieces of cinnamon bark and all kinds of fragrant leaves. It tucked some in among its feathers and carried the rest in its claws.
When at last the bird came to the place that had once been its home, it landed on a tall palm tree growing high on a mountainside. Right at the top of the tree, the Phoenix built a nest with the cinnamon bark and lined it with the fragrant leaves. Then the Phoenix flew off and collected some sharp-scented gum called myrrh, which it had seen oozing out of a nearby tree. The Phoenix made an egg from the myrrh and carried the egg back to the nest.
Now everything was ready. The Phoenix sat down in its nest, lifted its head, and sang, "Sun, glorius sun, make me young and strong again!"
This time the sun heard the song. Swiftly it chased the clouds from the sky and stilled the winds and shone down on the mountainside with all its power.
The animals, the snakes, the lizards, and every other bird hid from the sun's fierce rays -- in caves and holes, under shady rocks and trees. Only the Phoenix sat upon its nest and let the suns rays beat down upon it beautiful, shiny feathers.
Suddenly there was a flash of light, flames leaped out of the nest, and the Phoenix became a big round blaze of fire.
After a while the flames died down. The tree was not burnt, nor was the nest. But the Phoenix was gone. In the nest was a heap of silvery-gray ash.
The ash began to tremble and slowly heave itself upward. From under the ash there rose up a young Phoenix. It was small and looked sort of crumpled, but it stretched its neck and lifted its wings and flapped them. Moment by moment it grew, until it was the same size as the old Phoenix. It looked around, found the egg made of myrrh, and hollowed it out. Then it placed the ashes inside and finally closed up the egg. The young Phoenix lifted its head and sang, "Sun, glorious sun, I shall sing my songs for you alone! Forever and ever!"
When the song ended, the wind began to blow, the clouds came scudding across the sky, and the other living creatures crept out of their hiding places.
Then the Phoenix, with the egg in its claws, flew up and away. At the same time, a cloud of birds of all shapes and sizes rose up from the earth and flew behind the Phoenix, singing together, "You are the greatest of birds! You are our king!"
The birds flew with the Phoenix to the temple of the sun that the Egyptians had built at Heliopolis, city of the sun. Then the Phoenix placed the egg with the ashes inside on the sun's altar.
"Now," said the Phoenix, "I must fly on alone." And while the other birds watched, it flew off toward the faraway desert.
The Phoenix lives there still. But every five hundred years, when it begins to feel weak and old, it flies west to the same mountain. There it builds a fragrant nest on top of a palm tree, and there the sun once again burns it to ashes. But each time, the Phoenix rises up from those ashes, fresh and new and young again.