The Legend of the Phoenix
The Phoenix; an ancient mythical symbol of resurrection, rejuvenation and immortality has recently received much renewed attention in Western popular culture through its role in J. K. Rowling’s enormously popular book; ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.’ While in the Harry Potter saga, J. K Rowling adds a little artistic license to her Phoenix which disappears mid-air in a flash of blinding light, heals wounds with its tears and bears magical feathers for young wizards’ wands, it nevertheless manages to retain a few of the legendary characteristics that make the Phoenix such an important allegorical and metaphorical literary source.
The Phoenix was said to be a large fabulously adorned bird similar in appearance to a peacock or pheasant. Its physical stature resembled that of a large heron bird, vulture or, in fact, an eagle depending on which legend you happen to be following.
The most common version of the myth tells of a solitary, spectacularly feathered creature that roamed the Arabian landscape for a period spanning 500 to 461 years, feeding off frankincense and aromatic oils. At dawn it would bathe in a cool pool of water and sing such a beautiful song that even the Egyptian sun god Ra (Greek god Apollo) would stop his chariot to gaze at its beauty. Once every 500 (or 1461) years, depending on the version, it was said that the Phoenix bird would anticipate its death and fly towards the city of Heliopolis (Greek for the “city of the sun”) in Egypt. There it would build a great nest of cinnamon and myrrh that it would set alight, consequently burning both the nest, and itself, to ashes. A new phoenix would rise from these ashes and subsequently embalm in an egg of myrrh the remains of the former Phoenix. This egg it then took and deposited at the Temple of Helios, in honor of the Sun God.
With its perpetual cycle of resurrection and rejuvenation and its close allegorical ties to the natural cycles of the earth, the seasons and the days, it is not hard to understand why the legend of the Phoenix translated so readily across such a broad spectrum of burgeoning cultures and societies. In fact its ability to raise itself from its own funeral pyre has even been cited in the Judeo/Christian religion as an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Whether or not such a fantastically crimson and gold feathered, light-reflecting, spontaneously-combustive, immortal creature ever realistically existed is not to be discussed or debated, rather the legend of the Phoenix should be approached and studied as a part of a complex cosmology that sought to elucidate and make sense of a mystifying and potentially overwhelming universe.
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