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The Phoenix

Updated on December 3, 2017
Source: Aberdeen Bestiary
Source: Aberdeen Bestiary | Source

The beautiful phoenix is a mythical fiery bird. It is most famous for having a form of immortality in that the phoenix at the end of its long life of 500 or 1000 years (depending on the version of the myth) burns itself in a flaming nest, from which a new egg or infant phoenix emerges. As the poet Ovid explained: "Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself."

The phoenix myth may have an Egyptian original (see 'bennu', below), but was propagated via ancient Greece into many other countries and cultures. there are links between various mythical birds of fire including the phoenix (Greek), bennu (Egyptian) and firebird (Russian).

A number of ancient texts such as an early 13th Century English bestiary held by the British Library depict the phoenix on it's funeral pyre and the Aberdeen Bestiary (shown right). As such the phoenix is used variously as an emblem to symbolize immortality, revolution or the resurrection of Christ.

Also Known As:

  • Feniex, Fénis, Fenix, Phénix

3rd century mosaic
3rd century mosaic

The Phoenix in the Bible

The Hebrew word 'khol'can be variously translated as palm tree, sand, or phoenix. Thus, some transaltions of the Bible do speak of the phoenix, but it is unclear as to whther this was the author's original intent.

For example Job 29:18 may be translated as

"Then I thought, ‘I shall die in my nest, and I shall multiply my days like the phoenix." (NRSV) or

"And I said: I shall die in my nest, and as a palm tree shall multiply my days." (D-R B) or

"Then I thought, ‘I will die in my own home, my days as numerous as the grains of sand" (NET).

The Phoenix, The Eagle, and The Great Seal

In 1782 the United States of America need a design for an official seal for the purpose of ratifying a peace treaty (shown right).

Both the phoenix and the eagle were suggested as designs. Some suggest the earliest version of the seal showed a phoenix, but others argue that it was always an eagle.

Later versions of the seal more clearly identify it as an eagle, specifically a bald eagle.

Phoenix Symbolism

The phoenix is used as a metaphor for many entities that have a long life through periods of destruction rebirth. For example, the forest which goes through outbreaks of fire and verdant regrowth. It is frequently used in politics as a symbol of reformation and revolutionary change.

The Firebird

Slavic/Russian folklore mentions an auspicious bird called the fire bird. In several stories, heroes conduct a quest to find the fire bird at the nehset of a king or tsar.

For example:

The Fire Bird

Bennu

The bennu is the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the phoenix. It resembles a stork or heron and has a blue coloration. The bennu is symbolic of the sun god Ra.

The name 'bennu' imples 'to rise; and 'shining'.

The bennu is referred o in The Book of the Dead in relation to the resurrected Osiris as follows: "I go in like the Hawk, and I come forth like the Bennu, the Morning Star of Ra; I am the Bennu which is in Heliopolis".

Also known as:

  • Benu

The Hō-ō or Fenghuang

Often referred to as the Chinese phoenix, the Hō-ō is made up of the parts of many birds like the rooster, duck, crane and peacock. It is a symbol of extreme or perfect virtue and is often depicted attacking snakes with its talons.

Also known as:

  • August rooster

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      Toby Hansen 

      7 years ago

      Interesting Hub, thank you. Sorry to upset any Americans, but to this Aussie, the bird in the picture of the seal looks like a phoenix.

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