It’s interesting to note that ancient cultures must have had similar experiences when devising this myth from what I presume out of their own desires and thus assign the sentiment with mythological cadence that is still prevalent in cultures today. Consider our use of the comic book, and the characters in these stories. Part entertainment, part wonderment, with the only difference that we now can monetize these ideas and sell them for money. We are only following a tradition that has been going on for a millennia and probably longer. Challenging the human condition by testing the boundaries of our abilities often played out in the Olympic fields of Greece, as well as an understanding of the limitations of the human being. We are mortal, and we have always known that.
The verbal traditions of story-telling may be lost to many of us today simply because those traditions died out many, many generations ago. Prior to the written languages, we spoke and told stories to others to pass on knowledge, culture, and tradition. The only remaining evidence we have of what they have thought are only in ancient texts, and thus written accounts of these mythologies are all we have left since nothing else exits.
To bring about a change in a person, to develop a kind of philosophy that can motivate someone to rise up out of the ashes from a former existence is a powerful talisman that many would like to employ to reach a new beginning and start again from a foiled past. One must think of what is possible. One must align with a rejuvenated sense of themselves to enact and embark on a new path that allows them to achieve planned goals. The desire to reinvent themselves leaving behind them the dead weight which had possibly bogged them down and hindered their personal growth from a shadowy past is a very strong motivator if it led to the creation of an anthropomorphic myth. In these times I’m sure that it was probably a matter of life or death, when facing some challenging goal against another tribe, country, or nation. One can only wonder the kind of ethic that operated during ancient times when the myth’s were conceived and told.
Questing to overcome obstacles and reexamining our strategy can bring about newer ideas on how we can master these impediments. When the paradoxical question of an unstoppable force meets an immovable object comes to mind in our accounts of life, we are either left to consider that they would surrender to one another, or that it was the cause of our unsuccessfully mastering our former failed plans. The human mind always considers the boundaries and sometimes it does not. The paradox arises because it rests on two premises—that there exist such things as irresistible forces and immovable objects—which cannot both be true at once. If there exists an irresistible force, it follows logically that there cannot be any such thing as an immovable object, and vice versa. Thus even the ancients were playing language games back in the day. The thought of exposing oneself revealing their vulnerabilities has persisted in these timeless tales of myth and defines us since we create these extensions of human thought that reach out to us even in this day. Instead of Zeus, the topic instead may be replaced by the fictions of Marvel comics or movies.
One can argue that the myths and legends were believed and thought to be true by the ancients, whereas, we today know that they are just simple stories for entertainment, but I suggest that this is irrelevant and thus believing in them does not refute the nature of them despite their truthfulness. The fact that they are conceived in the first place is all that matters, since we as mortal beings define what it is to be human, or god, or superhero. It does not matter whether we create myth to explain our universe in a language that we can understand prior to a scientific knowledge, but the fact that we still continue to create an explanation given whatever understanding we do have that can make sense out of it continues to define us as human. Do we not project explanations such as ghosts, spirits, and demons to this day?
However these interpretations affect us, the use of mirth and woe are common in such tales, and we are surely linked by this expressive human idiosyncrasy. With few exceptions, I don’t believe that a second passes without someone of our kind who does not ponder their relationship to themselves and to the human condition that binds our experience in this world. This is the quintessential human undertaking that faces us all. How we choose to deal with it, is up to us.
The earliest representation of the phoenix is found in the ancient Egyptian Bennu bird, the name relating to the verb “weben,” meaning “to rise brilliantly,” or “to shine.” Some researchers believe that a now extinct large heron was a possible real life inspiration for the Bennu. However, since the Bennu, like all the other versions of the phoenix, is primarily a symbolic icon, the many mythical sources of the Bennu in ancient Egyptian culture reveal more about the civilization than the existence of a real bird.
One version of the myth says that the Bennu bird burst forth from the heart of Osiris. In the more prevalent myths, the Bennu created itself from a fire that was burned on a holy tree in one of the sacred precincts of the temple of Ra. The Bennu was supposed to have rested on a sacred pillar that was known as the benben-stone. At the end of its life-cycle, the phoenix would build itself a nest of cinnamon twigs that it then ignited; both nest and bird burned fiercely and would be reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix arose. The new phoenix embalmed the ashes of the old phoenix in an egg made of myrrh and deposited it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis (“the city of the sun” in Greek).
The Bennu was pictured as a grey, purple, blue, or white heron with a long beak and a two-feathered crest. Occasionally it was depicted as a yellow wagtail, or as an eagle with feathers of red and gold. In rare instances the Bennu was pictured as a man with the head of a heron, wearing a white or blue mummy dress under a transparent long coat. Because of its connection to Egyptian religion, the Bennu was considered the “soul” of the god Atum, Ra, or Osiris, and was sometimes called “He Who Came Into Being by Himself,” “Ascending One,” and “Lord of Jubilees.” These names and the connection with Ra, the sun god, reflected not just the ancient Egyptian belief in a spiritual continuation of life after physical death, but also reflected the natural process of the Nile River‘s rising and falling, which the Egyptians depended upon for survival. The Bennu also became closely connected to the Egyptian calendar, and the Egyptians kept intricate time measuring devices in the Bennu Temple.
The Huma, also known as the “bird of paradise,” is a Persian mythological bird, similar to the Egyptian phoenix. It consumes itself in fire every few hundred years, only to rise anew from the ashes. The Huma is considered to be a compassionate bird and its touch is said to bring great fortune.
The Huma bird joins both the male and female natures together in one body, each sharing a wing and a leg. It avoids killing for food, rather preferring to feed on carrion. The Persians teach that great blessings come to that person on whom the Huma’s shadow falls.
According to Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Kahn,
The word huma in the Persian language stands for a fabulous bird. There is a belief that if the huma bird sits for a moment on someone’s head it is a sign that he will become a king. Its true meaning is that when a person’s thoughts evolve so that they break all limitation, he then becomes a king. It is the limitation of language that it can only describe the Most High as something like a king.
The Greeks adapted the word bennu and identified it with their own word phoenix ‘φοινιξ’, meaning the color purple-red or crimson. They and the Romans subsequently pictured the bird more like a peacock or an eagle. According to Greek mythology, the phoenix lived in Arabia next to a well. At dawn, it bathed in the water of the well, and the Greek sun-god Apollo stopped his chariot (the sun) in order to listen to its song.
The phoenix (known as Garuda in Sanskrit) is the mystical fire bird which is considered as the chariot of the Hindu god Vishnu. Its reference can be found in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
In Tibet, the phoenix is also called Garuda, which means “the bird of life” and is depicted as a conglomerate of the typical brightly colored bird, eagle, and human.
In China, the phoenix is called Feng-huang and symbolizes completeness, incorporating the basic elements of music, colors, nature, as well as the joining of yin and yang. It is a symbol of peace, and represents fire, the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity. The Feng-huang, unlike the phoenix which dies and is reborn, is truly immortal although it only appears in times of peace and prosperity.
Judaism and Christianity
In Judaism, the phoenix is known as Milcham or Chol (or Hol): The story of the phoenix begins in the Garden of Eden when Eve fell, tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit. According to the Midrash Rabbah, upset by her situation and jealous of creatures still innocent, Eve tempted all the other creatures of the garden to do the same. Only the Chol (phoenix) resisted. As a reward, the phoenix was given eternal life, living in peace for a thousand years and then being reborn from an egg to continue to live in peace again, repeating the cycle eternally (Gen. Rabbah 19:5). Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, better known as Rashi, commented that death has no power over the phoenix, “because it did not taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge.”
The phoenix also appears in the Book of Job: “I shall multiply my days as the Chol, the phoenix” (Job 29:18), again indicating long life if not immortality. This reference, however, is controversial since chol has been translated as phoenix, sand, and palm tree in different versions.
The phoenix became a symbol of Christianity in early literature, either from the ancient Hebrew legend or from the incorporation of Greek and Roman culture, or from a combination of both. In any case, the ideology of the phoenix fit perfectly with the story of Christ. The phoenix’s resurrection from death as new and pure can be viewed as a metaphor for Christ’s resurrection, central to Christian belief. The phoenix is referenced by the early Christian Apostolic Father Clement in The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. Most of the Christian-based phoenix symbolism appears within works of literature, especially in Medieval and Renaissance Christian literature that combined classical and regional myth and folklore with more mainstream doctrine.
In Greek mythology, a phoenix (Greek: φοῖνιξ phoinix) is a long-lived bird that is cyclically regenerated or reborn. Associated with the sun, a phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. The phoenix is a sign of rebirth, The image of the mythological bird rising from the ashes is understood the world over as being a symbol of resurrection.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus (b: 484 BC), the phoenix was a mythical bird from Ethiopia. It was spectacularly large, beautiful and adorned with mind-blowing plumage. The historian also reported that the phoenix made a nest cypress branches. Rather preparing to lay eggs, the phoenix was preparing to die. While sitting in the nest, the bird created a great deal of heat, and set itself on fire from its own heat with the cypress serving as kindling. After three days, the phoenix emerged from its own ashes – reborn and released from the sentence of death, able to live on forever.
Herodotus may have borrowed some of his impressions about the meaning of the phoenix from the Greek poet, Hesiod, (b: 700 BC) who proclaims the phoenix as a brilliant bird who could outlive nine generations of ravens. That’s about 90,000 years in Hesiod-time.
In Rome, the phoenix was a symbol of the perpetual continuation of the Roman Empire, and the bird was featured on Roman coins as a reminder of the indomitable strength of the Empire. That didn’t pan out too well – the Empire didn’t last forever, but the legend of the phoenix certainly did.
Because of its ability to die and come back to life, the meaning of the phoenix has a foundation of resurrection. To wit, the phoenix was a symbol of Christ in the Middle Ages – specifically, His resurrection – having died on the cross and returned from death in three days, just as the legend of the phoenix.
In Egypt, the meaning of the phoenix is connected with the sun and the Nile. Their version of the phoenix was a Bennu, which was part heron, and part falcon. The Bennu was said to control the cycle of the sun each day. It flew with the sun in its beak, plucking it from its sleeping place at dawn, and putting it to rest at sunset. In this way, the Bennu is symbolic of the daily death and birth of the sun. This symbolic connection is far-reaching, it implies the Bennu affected life and death for the Egyptians, as there would be no food crops without the Bennu establishing the rising and setting of the sun. The Egyptian phoenix continues its life-giving role with the Nile. The Egyptians felt the Bennu was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile. This flooding was relied upon to sustain agriculture in this region. In short, the Egyptian meaning of the phoenix deals primarily with themes of life and death associated with provision.
In addition to the Nile, the art of alchemy also runs through the land of Egypt. Ancient alchemists employed the Egyptian Bennu in their alchemical rituals concerning life, death and renewal. In alchemical texts, the phoenix is connected with powerful correspondences. Here are a few…
Phoenix Correspondences in Alchemy
- Direction: South
Southern symbolism (and hence phoenix symbolism in alchemy) deals with purity, renewal, strength, health and the present moment in time.
- Element: Fire
Fire in alchemy is a symbol of transformation, purification, life, creation/creativity, consumption.
- Celestial: Sun
Much like fire, the sun’s connection to the phoenix in alchemical practice is akin to the cycle of time and cycles of life. It’s also symbolic of clarity, illumination, immortality and expression.
- Season: Summer
The summer season in alchemy is the same for almost every other cultural wisdom. It equates to growth, rejuvenation of the earth, continuation of life, and the symbolic celebration of the strength of the sun after being weakened though winter.
- Chemical: Sulfur
Alchemy is a practice that incorporates physical, mental, mythical. Red sulfur and phoenix energy would be simultaneously invoked in ceremonies intended to influence the universal principal of life. The element of sulfur in alchemy is synonymous with the animus (the soul), and is a powerful chemical representative of existence.
In Chinese wisdom, the phoenix is commonly seen in twos, male and female. But it’s not as simple as gender identification. Two phoenixes together represent yin and yang. Now we’re talking about symbolic themes of balance, duality and polarity. The female meaning of the phoenix deals with yin energy. Yin phoenix is passive, intuitive, moon, winter. Conversely the yang (male) phoenix is iconic of assertion, action, sun, summer. These are just a few of a long list of yin-yang meanings. As a whole, a dynamic phoenix duo is an emblem of divine, immortal partnership. In fact, a display (illustration, embroidery, etc) of two phoenixes were commonly extended as a wedding gift. It was said to be an auspicious gift, insuring a happily-ever-after lived marriage.