The phoenix; the firebird. It’s a popular mythic creature for fantasy – beautiful, unnatural and filled with symbolism.
In fantasy, the phoenix is a large bird, usually with red and gold feathers, which is associated with fire and regenerates itself by burning up into ash and being reborn from those ashes. It has been written by big name authors like C S Lewis, Terry Pratchett and J K Rowling, appears in games and TV shows, and is used by cities and sports clubs as a mascot.
But where did the myth come from, and what is the phoenix really all about?
The Phoenix in Ancient Myth
The earliest textual reference to the Phoenix is by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, writing in the 8th century BCE. Hesiod says that a crow’s life lasts nine generations of men, a stag lives four crow’s lives long, a raven outlives three generations of stags, and a phoenix nine generations of ravens – but the daughters of Zeus, the nymphs, live ten times as long as a phoenix. This mythical creature, then, is upheld as an example of something that lives a great long time, something that later writers refer to as well – albeit in more precise terms.
In the 5th century BCE, the Greek historian Herodotus gives us our first description of the phoenix:
Another sacred bird is the phoenix; I have not seen the phoenix myself, except in paintings, for it is very rare and visits the country (so they say at Heliopolis) only at intervals of 500 years, on the occasion of the death of the parent-bird. To judge by the paintings, its plumage is partly golden, partly red, and in shape and size it is exactly like an eagle. There is a story about the phoenix which I do not find credible; it brings its parent in a lump of myrrh all the way from Arabia and buries the body in the temple of the Sun. To perform this feat, the bird first shapes some myrrh into a sort of egg as big as it finds, by testing, that it can carry; then it hollows the lump out, puts its father inside and smears some more myrrh over the hole. The egg-shaped lump is then just of the same weight as it was originally. Finally it is carried by the bird to the temple of the Sun in Egypt. Such, at least, is the story.
From Herodotus’s Histories, 2.73
The Egyptians did have a mythological bird, the Bennu, associated with the sun god, Ra, but it took the form of a grey heron in Herodotus’s time, not a gold-and-red eagle; the reference centuries earlier by Hesiod suggests the Phoenix is a Greek myth from the outset, and thus its links to Egypt are probably similarly part of that myth. Later, in Roman times, the Bennu and Phoenix converged into a single myth.
Herodotus’s account doesn’t mention ashes at all. The focus of what he records here is the regular cyclical nature of the phoenix in that it regenerates at 500-year intervals, and its filial piety and piety to the gods demonstrated by taking the body of the parent, encased in a strong-smelling substance, to the sun god’s temple.
The next references to the phoenix come from Roman writers of the 1st century CE.
The poet Ovid follows Herodotus in giving the phoenix a 500-year lifespan and having it take the body of its parent to the temple in the city of the sun god, though he doesn’t specify that this city is in Egypt. But he differs by leaving out the myrrh egg and instead saying that the phoenix builds a nest in the top of a palm tree and fills it with spices. Ovid also adds that the phoenix doesn’t eat insects or seeds, but frankincense and the nectar of the amomum flower – which was native to east Asia.
Shortly after Ovid, Pliny the Elder follows Herodotus’s description of the phoenix as being eagle-like, but adds azure tail plumage and a golden tuft of feathers on the top of its head. It comes, he says, from Arabia, and there is only one of it; it is not merely rare, but unique. It has never been seen to eat. Unlike his predecessors, Pliny gives the phoenix a life of 540 years, but follows Ovid in the description of the nest filled with spices. A worm is formed, and this worm grows into the shape of a bird, before taking its parent’s body to the temple of the god of the sun.
Clement, an early pope in the late 1st century CE, repeats Pliny’s claims that the phoenix is unique and from Arabia, but reverts to Ovid and Herodotus for its lifespan of 500 years. Clement’s account of the phoenix follows Ovid and Pliny, in which it builds a nest and fills it with spices, including frankincense and myrrh, then dies and is reborn from the juices of the body. The young bird then carries its parent’s body to the temple of the sun in Heliopolis.
While these stories differ in some of their detail, such as whether the phoenix eats or not, many of the points in these accounts echo one another. The focus is always upon the bird’s death and how it prepares for it, and thereafter on carrying its former body to dedicate it to the sun god. Its long life is also a key element, and another Roman writer, Aelian, claims that the phoenix knows better than even the priests at Heliopolis when 500 years have passed (though I wonder how Aelian can measure the phoenix’s accuracy if the only other metric is the priests’ records.)
Rising From the Ashes
It isn’t until Claudian, writing in the 4th century CE, that we see the first reference to fire and ashes in these accounts: he says that Phoebus, the god of the sun, comes to the phoenix as it is dying and speaks comforting words to it, and that a hair from Phoebus’s head falls on the nest to ignite it. Claudian goes on to describe in detail how, once the parent bird has been consumed by the fire, the ashes start to move and form into feathers and eventually a whole new bird. This new phoenix then bundles up the ashes in a nest of grass and, echoing the earlier accounts, carries it to Heliopolis to lay on the altar.
Claudian also describes an immortal land to the east where the phoenix lives, emerging from it only once every 500 years to die and be reborn. This heavenly land also described by Claudian’s contemporary, pseudo-Lactantius.
By the 7th century CE, Isidore of Seville’s account merely describes how the phoenix builds its nest of spices at the end of its 500 year life, before rising reborn from the ashes; Isidore’s phoenix has no journey to take those ashes upon, and no sun god to dedicate them to. In Christian writings, though, there could not be such a journey, because there could not be such a god, and so the phoenix, linked by Clement to Jesus by the mention of both frankincense and myrrh and by the simple fact of its rebirth, is severed from its pagan past by Isidore.
The Changing Myth
The rebirth from the ashes has become a fundamental part of the modern perception of the phoenix. It is the reason that cities like Chicago – which suffered from several large destructive fires in the 19th century and most famously in 1906 – and Coventry – which was bombed heavily in World War Two – use the phoenix as an emblem; these cities and many others were literally turned to ash, and the people of them then rebuilt, were reborn into a modern era. The rebirth from ashes has become central to the phoenix myth, while elements which were fundamental to the ancients were left behind – the nest filled the spices, the dedication of the parent’s body on the altar of the sun god. Even the phoenix’s uniqueness is discarded by some, making it a species instead of a singular bird that is eternally alone.
This is one of my favourite things about mythology: the way it changes. In the ancient world, the phoenix was about the sun, about dealing with the body of a parent appropriately, and about cycles that repeat. It came from the sun (or at least, from the east) and returned its parent body to the sun god at his altar, every five hundred years. Pope Clement I brought two elements mentioned in different accounts, frankincense and myrrh, to draw a parallel to Jesus, who had received these spices as gifts upon his birth and who had risen from his grave. The idea of the phoenix being reborn not merely from its parent’s body, but from ashes, was added at a time when the Roman empire was tearing itself apart with civil wars, coups, assassination attempts on successive emperors, and was repeated as the Roman empire continued to decline. This imagery was also used in the modern world by cities which had quite literally burned to the ground as a result of wars and natural disasters.
In some respects, things come full circle. One of the most famous depictions of a phoenix in recent decades is that of Fawkes in the Harry Potter books. Rowling alludes to the earliest elements of the myth in having phoenixes in her world capable of carrying great weights. Those weights are not, in the Harry Potter series, the phoenix’s parent bird, but the allusion is there. At the same time there are additional traits, such as the healing effect of a phoenix’s tears, not attested in ancient sources. And so the phoenix is reinterpreted, once again, to suit the needs of this generation of writers.
For Further Thought
How do you think the phoenix will change with the next generation of writers? What elements will be kept, and what will be added?
What are your favourite portrayals of the phoenix in fiction you’ve read, and which parts of the myth are included?
For articles on fantasy, ancient history, and writing fiction, visit Alice Leiper’s website, Ally’s Desk.