26 August 2011

The Mystical Phoenix

I thought I would share an article that I wrote for Insight magazine back in October 2005 about  the phoenix ...

"Like a phoenix from the flame, I will rise again …" so yelled Irish songstress Sinead O'Connor in the song "Troy" from her first album "The Lion and the Cobra".

The phoenix, a mystical bird most commonly believed to be of Arabic descent, is often described as being the size of an eagle, with a brilliant scarlet and golden plumage.  A popular medieval legend, which has been passed down to us today, states that after living for several centuries, the phoenix builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself upon the flames to be burnt up.  Then, after a number of days, the phoenix emerges from the ashes (or flames, depending on the source of the legend).

It is this ability to renew itself that caused Pope Clement of Rome, in around 96 CE (common era), to suggest that the phoenix was evidence for the resurrection of the righteous.  A few centuries later, in 386 CE, Cyril of Jerusalem boldly proclaimed that God had created the phoenix in order to help man believe in the resurrection of Christ.  However, as Barbara Walker points out, the phoenix is a purely mythical pseudo-bird, created by neither God nor nature.  She brings our attention to the Hebrew text, the Haggadah, where the phoenix is described as a vast Sun bird on whose wings were the letters: "Neither the Earth produces me, nor the heavens, but only the wings of fire".

Ms Walker believes that the phoenix more likely evolved from ancient Sun worship, where the imagery may have originated from the Egyptian horned wing Sun disc, however an earlier image comes from ancient Mesopotamian iconography where the Sun image appears more bird-like.  There, it was believed that the Sun flew on wings through the heavens and was constantly immolated and reborn from the fires of Sunset and Sunrise.

The ancient Egyptians identified the phoenix with their "bennu" bird, a heron sacred to Osiris, symbolising the human soul, as well as the God's cycle of rebirth or resurrection.  According to a legend recorded on papyri, the bennu rose from a burning tree with such melodious song that even the Gods are transfixed by it.  Thus, the bird became a symbol of the Sun God, Ra, and his rebirth each morning in a fiery glow of dawn. 

In Phoenicia, when a king was cremated, his soul was released from his body above the pyre and took the shape of a bird, the phoenix, which some believe to be a representative of a God bearing the same name.  The Egyptian pharaohs believed that a similar thing happened to them, only that their souls took the form of Horus, the hawk-headed God.

The first written account of the phoenix appeared in the works of Greek writer Herodotus (485-425 BCE), who related that as one bird died after 500 years, another took it to the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis for burial.  This was later contradicted by both Ovid and Pliny the Elder, the latter suggested that the living phoenix constructed a nest of spices, upon which it incinerated itself.  From this a sort of maggot merged, which then developed into the progeny that took the ashes of the former bird in the nest to Heliopolis.  A later version still stated that the phoenix constructed its nest of spices and sang to the Sun God, who filled it with fire, consuming the bird.  From the ashes a mature phoenix emerged, taking the ashes to the altar at Heliopolis.  Within the legends and traditions of both Greece and Rome, the phoenix was the symbol of immortality and was portrayed on funerary furnishings.

Images of the phoenix also appeared in the East for in Chinese mythology the bird symbolises high virtue and grace, and well as prosperity.  It encapsulates the union of yin and yang (the masculine and feminine energies), and is associated the Sun and the Moon.  If the phoenix is depicted next to a dragon (which represents supreme spirituality to the Chinese), the phoenix was said to represent the undivided nature of imperial power, while as a piece of jewellery, shows that the wearer is of high moral values or of importance.

The major difference between the Arabic and the Chinese phoenix is that the Chinese version is depicted as having a large bill, neck of a snake, back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish.  It is also said to carry two scrolls in its bill, and its feathers are those of the five fundamental colours to the Chinese – black, white, red, green, and yellow.

From the various myths that come to us from all around the world, the phoenix appears to have captured the imagination of many cultures, and is still an extremely powerful image today.

"The Woman's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects" by Barbara Walker