According to tradition . . . only one Phoenix at a time could live in our world. Its true home was Paradise, a land of unimaginable beauty lying beyond the distant horizon towards the rising sun.
Nothing dies in Paradise, and here was the crux of the bird’s dilemma.
After a thousand years had passed, the Phoenix had become oppressed by the burden of its age; the time had come for it to die.
To do so, the Phoenix had to wing its way into the mortal world, flying westwards across the jungles of Burma, and the torrid plains of India until it reached the scented spice groves of Arabia.
Here is collected a bunch of aromatic herbs before setting the course for the coast of Phoenicia in Syria. In the topmost branches of a palm tree, the Phoenix constructed a nest out of the herbs and awaited the coming of the new dawn which would herald its death.
As the sun soared above the horizon the Phoenix faced east, opened its bill, and sang such a bewitching song that even the sun god himself paused for a moment in his chariot. After listening to the sweet tones, he whipped his horses into motion and a spark from their hooves descended onto the Phoenix’s nest and caused it to the blaze.
Thus the Phoenix’s thousand-year life ended in conflagration. But in the ashes of the funeral pyre, a tiny worm stirred.
Within three days the creature grew into a brand-new Phoenix, which then spread its wings and flew east to the gates of Paradise in the company of a retinue of birds.
The Phoenix represents the sun itself which dies at the end of each day but is reborn the following dawn. Christianity took the bird and the authors of bestiaries equated it with Christ, who was put to death but rise again.
In ancient Egyptian mythology and in myths derived from it, the Phoenix is a female mythical sacred firebird with beautiful gold and red plumage.
Said to live for 500 or 1461 years (depending on the source), at the end of its life-cycle the phoenix builds itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arises.
The new phoenix embalms the ashes of the old phoenix in an egg made of myrrh and deposits it in Heliopolis (“the city of the sun” in Greek), located in Egypt.
The bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible – a symbol of fire and divinity.
Originally, the Phoenix was identified by the Egyptians as a stork or heron-like bird called a bennu, 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 adapted the word bennu (and also took over its further Egyptian meaning of date palm tree) and identified it with their own word phoenix meaning the color purple-red or crimson (cf. Phoenicia).
They and the Romans subsequently pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to the Greeks, the phoenix lived in Arabia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun-god Apollo stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song.
One inspiration that has been suggested for the Egyptian phoenix is the flamingo of East Africa. This 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 resemble the turbulence of a flame.
Becoming the Phoenix
(Egyptian Book of the Dead)
I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets. I came into being as I came into being. I grew as I grew. I changed as I change. My mind is fire, my soul fire. The cobra wakes and spits fire in my eyes. I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. I am what I have made. I am the seed of every god, beautiful as evening, hard as light. I am the last four days of yesterday, four screams from the edges of earth – beauty, terror, truth, madness – the Phoenix on his pyre.
In a willow, I make my nest of flowers and snakes, sandalwood and myrrh. I am waiting for eternity. I’m waiting for four hundred years to pass before I dance on a flame, turn this desert to ash, before I rise, waking from gold and purple dreams into the season of god. I will live forever in the fire spun from my own wings. I’ll suffer burns that burn to heal. I destroy and create myself like the sun that rises burning from the east and dies burning in the west. To know the fire, I become the fire. I am power. I am light. I am forever. On earth and in heaven I am. This is my body, my work. This is my deliverance.
The heat of transformation is unbearable, yet change is necessary. It burns up the useless, the diseased. Time is a cool liquid; it flows away like a river. We shall see no end of it. Generation after generation, I create myself. It is never easy. Long nights I waited, lost in myself, considering the stars. I wage a battle against darkness, against my own ignorance, my resistance to change, my sentimental love for my own folly. Perfection is a difficult task. I lose and find my way over again. One task done gives rise to others. There is no end to the work left to do. That is harsh eternity. There is no end to becoming. I live forever striving for perfection. I praise the moment I die in fire for the veils of illusion burn with me. I see how hard we strive for Truth, and once attained how easily we forget it. I hold that fire as long as I can. My nose fills with the smell of seared flesh, the acrid smoke of death, so that years from now I might look on that scar and remember how it was to hold the light, how it was to die and come again radiant as light walking on sand.
I change and change again, generation after generation. I find anguish than peace. I am satisfied with my birth and the faith to which it led me. I do not regret the discomforts and terrors of my mortality any more than I regret the company of angels. I have entered fire. I become invisible; yet I breathe in the flow of sun, in the eyes of children, in the light that animates the white cliffs at dawn. I am the God in the world in everything, even in darkness. If you have not seen me there, you have not looked. I am the fire that burns you, that burns in you. To live is to die a thousand deaths, but there is only one fire, one eternity.
Sedona Cathedral Rock
The Phoenix was adopted by early Christianity as a symbol of resurrection. It’s also a popular emblem in heraldry: both Elizabeth I and Mary the Queen of Scotts used it as their emblems.
It is the seal on the flag of the city of Phoenix Arizona. Originally named Pumpkinville due to the abundance of large pumpkins, growing along the canals, the city was named Phoenix by way of suggestion of Lord Darrel Duppa:
“as it described a city born from the ruins of a former Hohokam civilization.”
*This article was originally published at www.labyrinthina.com.