Folklore Snippets: Phoenix, Firebird Without the Fire


Peggy’s face lit up. I don’t think she gets enough opportunity to show off all that knowledge she stores up from being around books all day. “Well, the phoenix is a mythical regenerating bird that is said to live forever. Or rather, it begets a new phoenix from the remains of the old, sort of asexually reproducing. Most commonly it’s thought to die in a burst of flame and then be reborn anew in the ashes. Tales about the phoenix range across the world and through the ages: there’s the Greek historian Herodotus who suggests the phoenix is native to Arabia but flies to Egypt to be reborn; Pliny the Elder catalogues a possible live specimen sent to the Roman Emperor Claudius (but that one’s probably a fake); it crops up in all sorts of medieval bestiaries, and of course in religious imagery and symbolism, you know how popular the idea of rebirth is–”
“Myffical, ye said,” Ang pointed out flatly.
“That’s the interesting part,” I interposed. “Despite all the stories, general consensus is that the thing doesn’t exist. You’d think it’d have turned up on the Black Market by now, if it did.”

It looks like Hansard’s been tasked with finding the legendary regenerating firebird, the phoenix. I bet you could give me the low-down on this one yourself. The phoenix lives forever, it ‘dies’ in a burst of flames, and it’s reborn from its own ashes. Just like the lovable Fawkes from Harry Potter. Right?

Right. Well, sort of.

The above clip, Peggy’s explanation from Episode 17, gives you the bare bones of some of the earliest accounts of the mythical phoenix. Travelling historian Herodotus ranks the phoenix among the sacred animals of the Eyptians (we’re talking 5th century B.C. here), though he takes care to mention he’s never seen the bird himself and he’s just retelling what the locals told him. According to his report, the phoenix has gold and red feathers and is about the size of an eagle. It apparently lives in Arabia and flies to a specific Egyptian temple (the temple of the Sun in Heliopolis) once every five hundred years. It makes this journey in order to rebirth its parent – the phoenix makes a shell out of myrrh and puts its parent inside, then carries it to the temple of the Sun. That’s all Herodotus says on the matter.

The implication seems to be that the old parent bird will be born anew from the egg of myrrh. The fact that this happens every five hundred years suggests the lifespan of the phoenix could be one millennium. (Think about it: the new bird hatches and flies back to Arabia – it brings its parent back to the temple in five hundred years; then five hundred years later the original phoenix is brought by its child to the temple.)

So far, no explicit mention of immortality, and certainly no flames or rising from the ashes involved.

It’s through this link with Egypt – and Heliopolis in particular – that we might find the deeper origins of the phoenix story. Heliopolis (or ‘City of the Sun’) was a big center of worship for the Egyptian sun-god Ra. The Egyptians had a sacred bird called the Bennu, a divine being that formed part of the soul of Ra. Predictably, the Bennu is associated with themes of creation and rebirth and may have been worshipped at Heliopolis as well. Seems probable that this strong link to the sun is what could have later led to the fiery nature of the phoenix. The Bennu bird looks more like a purple heron than the majestic, eagle-like form of the traditional phoenix, but I reckon it’s not too big a leap if you squint.

Back to the actual phoenix. Sorry, tangents. Can you tell I studied Ancient History? Totally putting that degree to good use.

In the clip above Peggy also mentions Pliny the Elder, another contemporary historian who records a ‘real’ phoenix presented to Roman Emperor Claudius (knocking around in the 1st century A.D.) but he rejects this ‘live specimen’ as an obvious fake. He gives us some more hearsay on the bird though, describing it as gold and purple over the body, with a long blue tail and a crest on the throat and neck. He tells us it has a sacred link to the sun (hello, Bennu origins?) and that when it’s time to die the phoenix will build a nest out of spices and perfumes, then lay down and die on it. From the nest a small worm emerges; the worm becomes a small bird, and then a full-grown phoenix. Still no fire.

Fast-forwarding a little to medieval Europe the story has morphed to include flames, and the echoes of both the Greek phoenix and the Egyptian Bennu run through it. Take this entry from the Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200 A.D.) as a prime example:

“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.”

By this point in time the phoenix had become a popular symbol of rebirth across the world and in Christian and Jewish symbolism. Can’t tell you when fire became such a huge part of the story, though. Would be great if I could point at a specific record and go, “that one, guv”. Anyone out there got any leads on the subject?

Our snippet ends here, because if I go on any longer it’ll become an essay rather than a snippet. If you want to read more, there’s this book available through google.books preview that seems pretty interesting.

Thanks for reading; here’s hoping I managed to tell you something you didn’t already know 😛

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