The mythical bird known as the phoenix combines the acts of death and rebirth into a powerful image; that of a creature of such strength and majesty that it can burn itself up and then rise again from its own ashes. But where did such a concept arise and what does it represent?
Some credit the Phoenicians with the birth of this mythical bird. Others credit ancient Egypt. Either way, the phoenix was a symbol of immortality. It would heal itself upon injury and it could live for hundreds and, in some cases, even thousands of years.
With the Egyptian obsession with immortality, it is easy to see why many believe that the mythical bird sprung from their fertile imaginations. It is definitely the sort of story that fits in with their culture and religious beliefs.
As the myth goes, only a single phoenix existed at any given point in time. It was considered the most noble among birds and, therefore, often equated with symbols of power like the gods themselves.
Every 500 years or so (depending upon the culture), the bird would feel its death coming upon it. When this occurred, it would build a nest from fragrant spices. This would become both its funeral pyre and its place of rebirth.
But the Egyptians weren’t the only culture to believe in the phoenix myth. It also existed throughout Europe, Asia, and the Orient. Over time, the phoenix became associated with creation itself and even, in some instances, with death as well.
In Egypt, the phoenix was pictured as a “bennu,” a kind of heron like bird with feathers on its head that gave it a resemblance of a crown. Its name literally meant “to rise.” The bennu was a sacred bird that was believed to represent the resurrection of the Egyptian god Osiris. It could heal any mortal wound with its tears.
The Greek’s are credited with giving the bird the name by which it would eventually be known to all – – the phoenix. Like the Egyptians, both the Greeks and the Romans attached the bird symbolically to their gods, most specifically the sun god.
However, the Greek and Roman phoenix birds bore little resemblance to Egypt’s depiction. Instead, they were more often pictured as peacock or eagle-like. The one thing that all versions of the phoenix had in common was the color – – the flame red of fire.
It is the Arabian phoenix that most closely resembles the mythical bird as we know it today. Their interpretation of the bird was majestic. It was said to be covered in scarlet red plumage with golden accents that glistened in the sun as it flew.
In Chinese mythology, the phoenix, which was called the Feng Huang, took on new meaning. It became the symbol of the sacred power granted to the Empress from the gods themselves. It also represented the merger of the ying and the yang (male and female).
The Chinese phoenix was often considered a much gentler creature than most other versions. It was described as a bird of grace and refinement, much like the Empress herself. However, other descriptions were much more horrific in nature, combining not only the qualities and features of various birds, but those of other animals as well.
Depictions and stories of the phoenix can be dated back over 7,000 years in China. Many tell of the bird’s bravery and courage, grace and wisdom, virtue and good luck.
The Japanese phoenix bears a great deal of resemblance to that of the Chinese. It too, is considered a symbol of the merger of male and female, with Ho representing the male side and Oo representing the female side. This version of the bird, called the HoOo, was believed only to appear when a ruler of great virtue sat upon the throne, heralding in a period of peace and prosperity for the Japanese people.
For a while, the idea of the phoenix was even accepted as an early Christian symbol representing Christ’s ultimate defeat of death through the resurrection. But many took offense to the drawn parallel and it didn’t survive over time. It was replaced with a much stronger sign of Christ’s miraculous life-after-death ascension; that of the cross.
Over the years, the mythical bird began to live anew in magical tales of flight and fancy in the pages of literature. Even today, it is recognized in one of the most beloved modern day book and movie series, the tales of Harry Potter.
Whether or not the phoenix ever really existed seems to matter little. For it is the idea behind the bird – – its symbology – – that holds the real power. It is a symbol of power over death and the constant rebirth of life. In short, it symbolizes the circle of life as it truly exists today and forever more.