A symbol of resurrection and immortality, a mythical winged creature and much-loved tattoo - ladies and gentleman, I give you the glorious phoenix….
The phoenix is a highly significant mythological bird, which is recognised in various cultures, although the phoenix as it is known in the west is based on ancient Mediterranean myths. The ancient
Egyptians were the first to describe the sacred bird Bennu (that regenerates itself), which went on to become the phoenix of Greek legends and the Arabic phoenix of Middle-Eastern myths. Like the heron taking flight, which poets have compared to the sun rising out of the water, the phoenix was associated with the soul of the sun god for important Egyptian divinities such as Ra, whose emblem it was, and Osiris.
Rising from its own ashes
An amazing sacred bird, the phoenix is depicted as a golden eagle with splendidly coloured plumage: a golden head and neck, red feathers on its body and mostly blue with some pink tail feathers, purple and gold wings and long feathers on top of its head that either stand up straight or flow gently down. In Egypt it was shown with a crown made of the sun emblem.
The phoenix is best known as the bird that rises from its own ashes. At the end of its life cycle (which lasts five hundred years) it builds an egg-shaped nest by weaving twigs from the most precious balsamic plants. Then it sits in the nest, lets the sun’s rays set it alight and is burned by the flames while it sings an extraordinarily beautiful song. Both the nest and the bird are reduced to ashes, from which a new and even more splendid phoenix emerges. It is therefore a symbol of immortality, since it renews itself through death and cyclical rebirth.
The phoenix family
There are equivalents of the phoenix in practically every culture: Sumerian, Assyrian, Inca, Aztec, Russian (the legend of the fire bird), Native
American (where it is called Yel), in Chinese mythology (Feng), as well Hindu and Buddhist (Garuda bird), Japanese (Ho-oo or Karura) and Hebrew tradition (Milcham).
Sacred animals similar to the phoenix are Quetzacoatl, a bird god (or feathered snake) of Central America that was able to die and rise up again. From an ancient inscription we know that the Mayas called it Kukulkàn; the Toltecs describe it as a king or priest who died on a ceremonial fire (like the phoenix).
There is also Wakonda, the thunderbird for certain Native American tribes. A phoenix also appears in the Harry Potter series, it is known as Fawkes
and is the guiding spirit of Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts school of magic.
It is said that the phoenix…
– Cannot have any master, since it creates itself.
– Because it is a unique bird (there is only ever one in existence at a time), it is a solitary being.
– It is even more solitary because it does not reproduce and can live for hundreds of years, but always alone, without any companions.
– Although its life purpose is to bring happiness to earth, the phoenix has to give up its own earthly happiness (because it cannot have a mate). It has a spiritual life.
Did the phoenix ever exist?
In the Middle Ages the phoenix was associated with the Resurrection of Christ: both enjoyed the gifts of coming back to life and immortality or cyclical rebirth. Nonetheless, many academics over the centuries have wondered whether such a fabulous bird did actually exist. Some believe it is a fantastic creature created by followers of the Sun God, for others the myth of the phoenix is based on the existence of a real bird with brilliant plumage that lived in Asia Minor. Some writers identify it as a golden pheasant, an ibis or a peacock; others still associate it with a pink or grey heron, referring to the Ancient Egyptian custom of celebrating the return of the first grey heron on the sacred willow of Heliopolis, an event that was said to bring good luck, joy and hope.
by Mary Tiussi
English translation by Victoria Edmenson