Magical Creatures for Magical Worlds: The Phoenix

PhoenixThe 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.

Alice Leiper

12 thoughts on “Magical Creatures for Magical Worlds: The Phoenix”

  1. Thank you! It is very interesting to actually read some historical context behind the myth of the phoenix! It’s such a beautiful myth and the symbolism of the phoenix in literature is so powerful. Great to have those sources for further reading!

  2. The phoenix has always been a favorite of mine. I’d love to read fantasy that develops them a bit as characters, along the line that many works do of dragons, than just as magical beasts. Thinking about the actual experience of a phoenix, rising from its own ashes, has a deep and personal potential as a story.

  3. This was a phenomenal article, Thank you! It has inspired me to question the possibility of whether or not the Peacock Angel of the Yezidi tradition and the fire-bird from Indo-European mythology might be involved in the formation of the Phoenix – I actually see some strong parallels in the Fisher King, oddly enough, and Horus.

    Horus is the most obvious, as he was represented as a falcon and the new-born eastern son (sun bird). He was also seen as his father’s reincarnation. Insofar as the death of Osiris and birth of Horus represented the death of the Pharoah and ascension of his son, and, insofar as they were both seen as living incarnations of the sun’s divinity, the elements of the Phoenix you elucidated begin to emerge: fire/bird, egyptian solar reincarnation, and parent’s rebirth in the son.

    The obvious meeting point of phoenix and falcon is as fire/sun-bird.

    In indo-european mythology there is an emphasis on the fall of divine fire into corporeal bodies – thus the Prometheus myth in which fire animates (and then educates) humans. Creation from ash occurs in the story of Dionysus in which he is eaten by Titans who are struck by lightning before their ash is made into humans – and this is a story of how the divine soul (Dionysus/Zoe) gets stuck in corporeal form. Note the eating motif, which is repeatedly crucial in stories of the soul’s fall – Adam and Eve for example.

    The Peacock appears in the story of Eden – for the Muslims it is the (proud) bird who lets Satan into the garden. The Yezidi, who the Muslims interpret as devil worshipers, tell a story of Adam and Eve in which the Satan figure is the “peacock angel,” and in this (I think originally Assyrian) story, the peacock angel is not a bad guy. So the Yezidi worship who the Muslims take as the devil, but who they see as an unfallen angel.

    “God has delegated his earthly powers to seven angels led by the Peacock Angel, who have responsibility for human and worldly affairs. In Yezidi belief, this angel is the mediator between God and the Yezidi people. He leads directly to God and is not in opposition but is an independent entity. At the same time, he is God’s alter ego who became the same, a united and inseparable. He is the manifestation of the Creator, not the Creator himself. Nevertheless, Muslim and Christian neighbors of the Yezidis in the Middle East consider the Peacock Angel as the embodiment of Satan and an evil rebellious spirit. The devil was identified with the fallen angel, who was expelled from Paradise because of his disobedience to God. And as the Yezidis pray to God through his banners in the form of the peacock, they were considered to be worshipers of Satan…Although Yezidis recognize this concept of evil, they do not have the same comprehension of Satan as the other religions do. In the Yezidi religious belief system, Satan is not a fallen angel but the only representative of God on earth” (Acikyildiz 2).

    In the Muslim story, Iblis, the satan figure, is a Jinn – a fire creature – who refuses to bow to Adam – an earth made creature. When he is imprisoned in the earth, it is an emanation of the common story in which fire/consciousness is imprisoned in matter.

    It is so interesting that the Arabian phoenix was never seen to eat, yet it was the Arabian peacock who seduced Adam and Eve into eating, for which they fell. That he never ate suggests that he never falls, for which reason he should be minimally affected by mortality, if at all – like the Phoenix.

    In the Indo European stories of the fire-birds, the beautiful colors of birds are explained as the fire coming into the flesh. As lightning commutes from sky to earth, so too do birds, for which reason they become central figures in the stories of heavenly fire entering into the earthly.

    The phoenix is the ultimate fire-bird, and the Peacock is the ultimate bird of color and beauty. I would venture a bet that the peacock should, in this way, be seen as the ultimate fire-bird. I would not be the first to connect the peacock and phoenix, I am sure, though I forget how that connection is usually made. I love the idea of the single phoenix though, which fits with the lone peacock-angel.

    It would definitely be too far to go into the way these lone and ancient figures relate to the Fisher King, but I do wanna point out one last thing about the Phoenix…

    The name, Phoenix, is obviously related to the name, Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were the most immediate neighbors of the the Jews during the height of their civilization (Masons from tyre and byblos built Solomon’s temple), and they taught the Greeks metallurgy and the written language we still use. Their role in history is suspiciously under-represented.

    Strabo even describes the origins of the Phoenicians in Dilmun (an island in the Persian Gulf that the Babylonians identified as an Edenic origin point before it later became associated with Eden). The Dilmunian civilization was lost, but if Strabo is right, they were resurrected in the form of the Phoenician civilization (maybe enabled by the Pharoah who connected the Red Sea to the Nile, which allowed the bad ass boat people that connected the Harappan, Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations through the Indian Ocean to then take over the Mediterranean, which the Phoenicians surely did).

    If we were to connect the reborn Phoenicians to the Phoenix, we would also be connecting the phoenix with their boating culture, which starts into the deep end in which the Fisher King waits…

  4. I’m curious about your take on the Marvel comics character Phoenix. In many of the stories, she is associated with death and resurrection, along with carrying the cosmic power (a possible science fiction extension of sun deities?). The power and title of Phoenix even carries to others in Jean Grey’s lineage, which sounds similar to ancient connection to cycles and family legacies.

    • I don’t think I’m sufficiently familiar with Jean Grey/Phoenix to really give you any depth on this, sorry. Having done a bit of googling on the topic because of your question, I’d say it’s certainly possible the writers were aware of the cyclical symbolism and the sun deity connection. It seems the Phoenix Force has elements drawn from the idea that it comes from outside the mortal realm, with an upgrade to move that immortal plane outside our own atmosphere. While the rebirth part of it seems like the key thing – and an enabler for a theme that often comes up in comic books, namely bringing popular characters back to life – I’d say there’s very likiely to have been some deeper consideration of the myth than just that.

  5. Great work. I loved seeing the myths organized like this. It is interesting to see parts of the myth come in and out of favor, and to see when certain parts originated.

  6. If anyone is interested in some further reading, my sources are as follows:

    Ovid, Metamorphosis, 15.391

    Pliny the Elder, Natural History, X.2

    Pope Clement 1, 1 Clement, ch 25

    Claudian, The Phoenix

    Pseudo-Lactantius, The Phoenix

    Isidore of Seveille, Etymologies book 12, 7:22

    The Claudian and Pseudo-Lactantius poems in particular are both really interesting and can easily be found in full in English translation with some googling.


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