The phoenix bird and its legend has been with humankind for ages. Here’s everything you have always wanted to know about this awe-inspiring mythical creature.
Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. They burst into flame when it is time for them to die, and then they are reborn from the ashes. Ah, fascinating creatures, phoenixes.
– Albus Dumledore to Harry in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
The phoenix that caught everyone’s attention in the Harry Potter series is actually a mythical creature that appears more often than not in mythologies of different cultures, with different names but with similar interpretations. Mythology is a powerful amalgam of reality and fiction. The main aim of mythology is to preach values of life to the humans through a series of stories and legends which often portray, as their heroes and villains, characters/creatures that are fictitious. Nevertheless, it is extremely interesting how these characters get imbibed into the folk as well as popular culture and become a part and parcel of our religion/belief system for generations. These characters are often not to be analyzed at face value as in numerous instances they may have deep philosophical connotations about life and death.
Myth and Etymology
Traditionally, a phoenix is an ancient fire-bird believed to have risen from its own ashes. An interesting description about this mythical bird appears in a 16th century religious text by Christopher Plantin called ‘Sancti Ephiphanii Ad Physiologum‘ (Collection of moral stories by St. Epiphanius). It states that the phoenix resides in the wilderness of Indian jungles from where, after every 500 years, it flies to the cedar forests of Lebanon, washes itself in the fragrance of the trees and then summons the head priest of the Egyptian city of Heliopolis to prepare an altar for it. It then travels to Heliopolis from Lebanon, alights on the altar and sets itself on fire that consumes it completely. The very next morning, the priest finds a worm in the ashes that transforms into a small bird on the second day and a fully-grown phoenix on the third. After this process of self-immolation and subsequent resurrection from its own ashes, it returns to its home in India, where it stays again for the next 500 years. The text further provides the physical description of the bird. It states that the phoenix is of the color of precious stones, its feet resemble the color of fire and it bears a crest on its head. Also, Pliny the Elder, in his ‘Natural Histories’ states that the phoenix is as big as an eagle, has golden feathers around its neck, a purple body, a blue and rose-colored tail and a feathered crest on the head.
Numerous scholars have given varied sources from which the word ‘Phoenix’ may have been derived. According to one opinion, it comes from a Latin word ‘phoeniceus’ meaning deep-red or scarlet and that is why it is described as having scarlet feathers. The color ‘red’ stands for blood as well as fire, the two interpretations that fit perfectly within the phoenix myth. It thus symbolizes both war and purity which more often than not depends on the context. It has also been stated that the Greek word ‘phoinix’ which made its appearance for the first time with reference to the ancient Phoenicians in Homeric literature, has also been derived from ‘phoinos’ meaning blood-red. Notably enough, Illiad and Odyssey are Greek epics celebrating war. Moreover, the ancient Greek epics assign the name phoenix to an old war hero and this association further enhances the relationship of the bird with warfare, bloodshed and courage. However, it should also be noted that the myth of phoenix holds a prominent place in other cultures as well apart from Egypt and Greece and interestingly enough, there are various versions of the tale in different cultures that form part of their mainstream mythologies.
Phoenix Myths in Different Cultures
Phoenix bird conceptually makes its appearance in various old world mythologies of different countries. Though the physical description and the nomenclature may vary from country to country, the symbolism more or less remains the same. It is indeed very interesting to note how cultures that are distinct from each other in every aspect, right from geographical location to religious beliefs share certain common traits.Phoenix bird conceptually makes its appearance in various old world mythologies of different countries. Though the physical description and the nomenclature may vary from country to country, the symbolism more or less remains the same. It is indeed very interesting to note how cultures that are distinct from each other in every aspect, right from geographical location to religious beliefs share certain common traits.
…in Egyptian Mythology
The ancient Egyptians were seemingly the first people to have incorporated in their mythical tradition, the concepts of immortality, resurrection and rebirth. In lieu of these beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, we find references to a mythical bird known as Bennu in their mythology. Bennu has been depicted as a tall bird that resembles a stork or a heron. The Egyptian Book of the Dead describes Bennu as the heart and soul of Ra and the guide of the gods of the underworld. This description shows the association of Bennu with sun-god. Moreover, in the Egyptian hieroglyphs, Bennu represents both, rising as well as setting sun. It is often depicted as bird with long legs and a long beak and having two long feathers on its head. In some depictions, the crown of Osiris, the lord of the underworld or the disc of the Ra, the sun-god also appear as its headdress. In ancient paintings, it bears a red and golden plumage.
Bennu is believed to have hailed from Arabia from where it flew to Heliopolis after every 500 years. It was here that bird immolated itself and was reborn from its own ashes. The Greek historian Herodotus, who traveled to Egypt and spoke to high-priests of Heliopolis, wrote in his account, “…I have not seen a phoenix actually, except in the paintings, because it does not visit the country often, in fact, at Heliopolis, it can be seen only after a considerable period of 500 years. I am told that it comes to Egypt after the death of its father in order to bury the remains in the sanctuary of the sun, a feat that I do not believe in.” This description is very interesting in that it does not in any way associate Bennu or Phoenix with fire. So, the relationship with fire may have been a consequence of a later development of the myth. Nevertheless, in Egypt, the Bennu (much like the Greek Phoenix) came to symbolize cycle of creation and destruction, resurrection, rebirth and self-realization. It also stands for fertility, wealth and the flooding of the Nile. The association of the Egyptian Phoenix with the Nile as well as the solar cycle is on account of the myth which states that just as the sun rises daily, the phoenix also rises at every dawn from the depths of the Nile and just like the sun sets every evening, the bird immolates itself to ashes in the dark of the night, only to be reborn the next day with fresh life and energy.
…in Greek Mythology
In Greek and Roman mythological traditions, the phoenix has been portrayed either as a peacock-like or an eagle-like bird bearing crimson and gold feathers. It has been chronicled that the phoenix is the most beautiful of birds. The Greek word phoenix stands for both crimson color and palm tree. The Greek mythology states that the phoenix lives in Phoenicia (present-day Lebanon). Its nest lies next to a well in which it bathes at dawn. The song that it sings while bathing is so sweet that God Helios (the Greek sun-god) stops his chariot to listen to it. Ideally, the phoenix does not reproduce and so it leads a solitary existence. This means that there exists only one phoenix in the world at a time and after a specific period of time, when it feels that it has grown old and needs to be revitalized, it sets itself on fire to be reborn as a brand new bird full of life and energy.
In Greek mythology, the phoenix inevitably represents self-sacrifice and rebirth when it destroys and recreates itself. It thus symbolizes the ongoing process of creation and destruction that goes on in full circle. The portrayal of the phoenix as a bird living constantly for a very long time also symbolizes constancy and consistency of life. The bird’s act of rising from its own ashes stands for the regeneration of life from nothingness.
…in Persian Mythology
In the Persian legend, there are two mythical birds which in some way or the other, resemble the phoenix. The first of the two is Huma orHoma, a fire-bird occupying a prominent place in Persian mythology as well as Sufi lore. According to a common myth, the Huma continuously flies all through its life in high skies, and is not visible to the human eye. So, it is sometimes also referred to as the ‘bird of paradise’. Some versions even mention that it never alights on earth because it does not have limbs. It is believed to be reborn from its own bodily ashes after setting itself on fire every few hundred years, a common trait that it shares with the popular phoenix legend. An interesting facet of the personality of the Huma is that it encompasses both male and female aspects in one single body thus representing fullness or completeness of life. The Sufi legend says that capturing the bird alive is an impossible task and whoever kills the bird in order to capture it dies soon after the heinous act.
Another flying being that forms part of Persian mythology is the composite creature with the head of a human (sometimes a dog), the claws of a lion and the body of a peacock and is called the Simurgh. Owing to the fact that the bird is a fusion of different living creatures, it certainly would have some of their peculiar traits. It can thus be inferred that the Simurgh is as witty as a human being, a loyal as a dog (if it is depicted bearing a head of a dog), as courageous as a lion and as beautiful as a peacock. The Persian myth often visualizes the bird as a benevolent motherly creature. Its similarity to the phoenix lies in the myth that after living on for almost 1700 years, it immerses itself into flames and later on reappears young from its own ashes. It thus symbolizes resurgence, purity and fertility.
…in Chinese Mythology
The Chinese version of the phoenix is very interesting. The bird is called Fèng Huáng and is a union of male and female characteristic traits. The male part is called is Feng and the female part is called Huang. Initially, these were two different birds which were incorporated into one at a later period. With the passage of time, the distinction between the Feng and the Huang seems to have ceased to exist and the bird is visualized as a feminine entity, a consort of the Chinese dragon. Nonetheless, the Feng and the Huang are said to be so devoted to each other that they became the symbols of eternal love. Actually, the entire concept of the bird stands for the divine union of the yin and the yang, the male and the female entities.
Like the Simurgh, the Fèng Huáng is also a composite creature. According to the description given in the Erya, the oldest surviving Chinese encyclopaedia, the Fèng Huáng has a head of a swallow with a rooster’s beak. Its neck resembles that of a snake’s, the back is that of a tortoise’s and tail of a fish’s. Interestingly, its body symbolizes six celestial entities, viz., sky, sun, moon, wind, earth and planets. The myth says that it appears only at places which are peaceful and devoid of chaos. During the reign of the Han dynasty, the Chinese Phoenix represented the powers bestowed upon the Empress by the Gods. It was thus a symbol of merit and grace. However, with respect to the Chinese Phoenix, we do not find any references of self-sacrifice and rebirth.
…in Japanese Mythology
In Japan, the phoenix is called the Hou-ou and it symbolically represents the royalty, with regards to the Queen or the Empress and so represents justice and fidelity. It is thus a feminine creature. The myth of the phoenix was supposedly introduced in Japan between 6th and 7th century A.D. and has its roots in the Chinese tradition. The bird is portrayed as having the jaw of a swallow and the neck of a snake. The front-half of its body resembles that of the giraffe’s, whereas the back-half of its body is like that of a deer’s. Like Fèng Huáng, its back and tail resemble those of the tortoise and fish respectively. It is often shown seated on a Paulownia tree surrounded by rich foliage patterns.
Legend says that the Hou-ou appears only on rare and specific occasions, for instance to mark the birth of a new ruler, etc., when it descends on the earth from its heavenly abode. Moreover, it makes its appearance only when the world experiences peace, stability and prosperity. However, during troubled times, when the world is in the state of instability, anarchy and chaos, the Hou-ou hides itself and awaits for a right time when it can make its appearance. Thus, it is a symbol of order as well as pandemonium.
Credit: Hiart (Own work) [CC0],
via Wikimedia Commons
…in Russian Mythology
In the Russian legend, the Zhar-Ptitsa is a mythical bird that does resemble the phoenix in some ways. This fire-bird that belongs to a ‘faraway land’ brings both joy as well as sorrow to its captor/master. Therefore, it has been advised not to capture these birds for the purpose of joy, for they can be responsible for one’s eventual doom. It has been described as a bright majestic bird with feathers that glow like fire. However, there are no references to the bird rising from its own ashes or even to its solitary existence. Its luminescent plumage is its only link to fire or sun and hence it can be compared to the phoenix. Otherwise, it does not have anything common with the classic depictions.
The Zhar-Ptitsa makes its appearance in Russian and Ukrainian legends, folklores and fairy tales, wherein a lone feather of the bird symbolizes a tough and a magical journey and guides the hero from darkness to light.
…in Other Mythologies
There are references to phoenix-like mythical birds in some other mythological traditions as well.
• In Arabia, phoenix is known by the nameGhoghnous. The Arabian legends depict this bird as a large fire-bird that burns itself and then rises from its own ashes. It lives on a date palm in the Arabian desert.
• In the Korean version of the phoenix myth, the bird is called Bulsajo which literally means ‘immortal bird’. It resembles the Chinese depiction with respect to the gender of the bird, but it also resembles the Egyptian and the Greek legends with respect to the self-sacrifice and subsequent rebirth.
• Avalerion is an Indian mythical bird living near the Indus and Jhelum rivers having some resemblances to the phoenix myth. There is only one Avalerion couple at a time and after every sixty years, the female lays a pair of eggs. Immediately after the eggs hatch, the parent birds drown themselves into the river waters.
• The Turkish version of the phoenix is calledZümrüdüanka and it shares all the traits of the Egyptian and Greek Phoenix.
• In the folklore of Finland, Kokko is a mythical bird resembling an eagle and having close connections with iron and fire.
• The Hungarian folklores refer to a mythical bird called Turul which resembles a falcon in many ways. It perches on the tree of life and symbolizes strength, divine power and stability.
It can thus be seen that the myth of the phoenix bird has penetrated deep within the mythological traditions of the world and the symbolism that it holds has an everlasting impact on the minds of the people.
Religious Variations of the Myth
Because the roots of the legend of the phoenix are mythological in nature, we find versions of the myth in literature belonging to different religions.
• The phoenix is named as Milcham in the Jewish tradition. The legend says that after consuming the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the garden of Eden, Eve became extremely envious of the other creatures who enjoyed their immortal existence. Therefore, she convinced them to eat the ‘forbidden fruit’ as well so that they lose their immortality and become lowly mortals. The only creature she could not persuade to do so was the phoenix, who remained immortal. It was thus blessed with eternal youth by god and so, after every 1000 years, it sets itself on fire and then re-emerges young from its own ashes.
• In Christian tradition, the phoenix symbolism is often equated with the notion of resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostolic Father Clement, the Bishop of Rome, wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that if a phoenix can resurrect itself from the ashes, so can Christ.
• The Taoist version of the phoenix is called the Cinnabar Bird and according to the Tao religion, this bird symbolizing peace and well-being descended on God’s order from its heavenly abode on earth in a palace overlooking a serene lake. When the hostile states attempted to capture it, the phoenix disappeared along with the palace which was replaced by a pond full of deadly dragons, thus marking the end of peace and the beginning of chaos.
• In the Hindu tradition, the bird Garuda is associated with the sun and has been described as ‘the mount of Lord Vishnu’. It sometimes bears a human face and has scarlet and golden plumage.
• Garuda is also present in the Buddhist mythology, where it is considered as the ‘bird of life’ and is generally depicted as a composition of an eagle and a human.
There are numerous variations in the myth as far as the different religions of the world are concerned. This is not just because of the diversity of the religious beliefs but also due to the fact that religions tend to undergo several changes with the passage of time.
Credit: GourangaUK/Wikimedia Commons
Usage in Popular Culture
The bird itself and its myth have been represented in various different ways by artists, writers, poets, musicians and so on. The very fact that the phoenix is a mythical creature triggers the imaginative capabilities of the artists with each one of them visualizing the bird in his own way and then recreating the myth altogether.
…in Secular Literature
The bird, along with its appearance and symbolism has been a subject of great inspiration for the writers from across the globe. In some tales (prose and poetry included), the phoenix itself is one of the characters, while in some others, a character or his situation is compared with the symbolism of the bird.
• The noted French author Gustave Flaubert, in his popular tale, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, has included phoenix as one of the characters and it speaks to the hero of the tale in first person.
• On the other hand, Michelangelo, in one of his sonnets, later translated from original Italian to English by the renowned poet H.W. Longfellow, compares human optimism with the symbolism of the phoenix.
• Moreover, the medieval French allegorical masterpiece, Romance of the Rose also uses the idea of the singularity of the phoenix and states that even if only one human being survives in the world, he would represent an eternal form common to all just like the phoenix.
• Even William Shakespeare, in his poem The Phoenix and the Turtle presents the creatures (Phoenix and the Turtle Dove) as the symbols of true and eternal love.
One of the recent instances of popular fiction wherein the bird itself has a character to play is J.K. Rowling’s famous Harry Potter series that has a tremendous fan following of children and adults alike. Fawkes, the phoenix in the Harry Potter series is a pet and defender of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry Potter is a student. Fawkes has been portrayed as a highly intelligent bird with crimson feathers and a golden tail. Its tears have healing powers and it sings a very soothing song. Even its feathers have amazing powers and were an important constituent of Harry’s as well as Voldemort’s magic wands. It has also been depicted as assisting both Harry and Dumbledore in many of their heroic feats. Thus, the bird has captured the imaginations of authors for ages together and still continues to fascinate them.
The idea of a lone bird setting itself on fire and then rising from its own ashes is so fascinating in itself. Painters and sculptors from across the world have tried to emphasize on the various characteristics of the phoenix bird (and parallel myths in respective cultures) and portray them through their works. We have therefore, so many distinct views of the myth through the artworks that actually present before us the individual imaginations of artists.
• Depictions of the phoenix have been made by the artists right from the wall paintings of ancient Egyptian tombs to the sculptures on the temples of China and Japan.
• While some artists have portrayed a lone phoenix in a peaceful pose, some others have used their liberty to depict the creature either immolating itself or rising from the ashes or even as a symbol of some greater good.
• The famous sculptor Theodore Roszak was so inspired by the bird that he created in 1952, his world-famous artwork known as the Night Flight.
• The mural by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh that adorns the central wall of the Chamber of the United Nations Security Council has its entire theme revolving around a large figure of the phoenix. This gift of Norway to the United Nations symbolizes the world being reconstructed on the principles of peace, harmony, equality and liberty after the end of the second world war with the help of the United Nations.
• The phoenix also found a place on ancient Greek and Roman coins. Likewise, a recent Belgian €10 silver coin which is a commemorative issue celebrating 60 years of peace, has an image of the phoenix rising from the ashes on its obverse. Several Chinese coins with ‘the Dragon and the Phoenix’ motif on the obverse are also in use.
Apart from these, the bird has been depicted in various ways on tapestries, vases, votive objects and of course, tattoos.
Even the musicians have not been able to escape the fascination that surrounds the phoenix myth. In numerous musical lyrics, we find references either to the bird itself or to its symbolism.
• ‘Grey Seal’ is the Elton John song in which he refers to the phoenix. The song ends with the lines,
“The Phoenix bird will leave this world to fly
If the Phoenix bird can fly then so can I.”
• Robbie Williams’ album ‘I’ve Been Expecting You’ contains a song titled ‘Phoenix from the flames’. It goes:
“Phoenix from the Flames
We will rise together…”
• ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, the opera by Mozart mentions that it is as difficult to find a faithful and a trustworthy woman as it is to find the phoenix bird.
• The American band ‘Senses Fail’ end their song ‘Bite to break skin’ with the line,
“A Phoenix will die inside the firestorm…”
• The music video of the song ‘Marry the night’ by Lady Gaga, uses a lot of phoenix symbolism in the final scene.
• Similarly, ‘Runaway’, the music album by the American musician Kanye West is about a phoenix who has accidentally fallen on Earth and is harassed by the mortals after which she immolates herself to be able to return to her heavenly abode.
There are many more instances of musical compositions that highlight the symbolism of the phoenix in varied ways, thus showing how popular the myth is with the music composers and the people in general.
…in Audio-Visual Media
Phoenix bird is a popular subject with the filmmakers and television producers. Also, the myth is an all-time favorite with regards to the audience.
• In the popular American television series, Charmed, a group of powerful witches is named as ‘The Phoenix’. This was due to the fact that they also possess the ability to rise from the ashes.
• In the film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe(Part I) which is based on a book of the same name, a phoenix saves Peter from the White Witch by forming a wall of flames around his retreat.
• In the cartoon series Battle of the Planets aired in 1978, Phoenix was the name of the main battleship of the G-Force. The Phoenix was capable of traveling in the air, under the water and in the space. When put on a ‘Fiery Phoenix Mode’ it transformed into a huge bird surrounded by fire and could destroy almost anything that came in its way.
• The 1983 children’s movie, Big Bird in China is about the journey of Big Bird from New York to China in quest of the Fèng Huáng, the Chinese Phoenix and what happens when he finds it.
• The animated cartoon series Storm Hawks portrays the phoenix as a giant fiery bird that breathes fire.
There are numerous more instances wherein the bird appears in the audio-visual media and every time it does, it strikes the right chords.
The phoenix bird, because of its powerful symbolism, also appears as a mascot or an emblem of several cities/organizations/events. Given below are some instances:
• The flag and the official seal of Atlanta, Georgia and those of San Francisco, California, U.S.A. have a symbol of the phoenix rising from the ashes.
• Also, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A. has a phoenix on its flag. It is also the logo of the city.
• The phoenix rising from the ashes is a mascot of the University of Chicago and is found on their logo.
• Phoenix bird is one of the supporters of the coat of arms of the city of Coventry, West Midlands, England and signifies the city’s resurgence after it was bombed and destroyed during the second world war.
• Recently, an illuminated phoenix statue was used during the closing ceremony of the Games of the XXX Olympiad held at the English capital city, London.
It can thus be seen that phoenix is a very best-selling subject of representation in modern popular culture and this trend is not limited to a certain region but it covers the entire globe.
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Lessons from the Various Myths
The legend of the phoenix bird forms an inevitable part of the mythological traditions of many diverse cultures. This makes one ponder as to what makes the bird so special that its parallels are found even in some of the remotest reaches of the world. Basically, we humans have a lot to learn from the bird and its symbolism.
It teaches us about the importance of constancy and consistency in life.
At the same time, it also focuses on the fact that change is extremely necessary and inevitable.
It tells us that creation and destruction are two sides of the same coin and both these processes are bound to take place after specific intervals.
The older things need to be destroyed for the newer ones to take their place. This is the law of the universe.
Just like creation and destruction are two opposites, the myth vaguely states that for every negative there exists a positive.
One should never lose hope as for every end, there is always a new beginning.
The singular existence of the bird at any given point in time highlights that a person is always lonely on his life’s journey.
All the magical powers that the phoenix possesses (the tears that heal or the divine song, etc.) might have been incorporated in the myth with its inclusion in alchemy and occult religion, two traditions that delve on the notions of spiritual healing and magic. Nevertheless, the entire mythology of the phoenix bird is an arresting subject in itself. The powerful symbolism of this mythical creature is what draws us towards it. It is a very good example that shows how things get purified and refreshed after being burnt by fire (after a period of hardships). Its resurgence after being completely burnt down is a very strong indicator of the ‘never say die’ spirit which every human should cultivate within himself. In short, the phoenix stands for everything that forms part of the vicious circle of life and death.