If I die it’s only to be reborn hopefully better and brighter than before.

-“Phoenix” in Excalibur: The Sword is Drawn by Chris Claremont

phoenix lit sculptureThis month’s theme is new beginnings. I thought it would be fun to look at a symbol of this phenomenon, the phoenix.

You know, the bird that rises from the ashes. We are all a little familiar with the phoenix, but what we know may differ because of the abundance of stories surrounding this fabled beast. Each culture has its own adaptation.

Its appearance varies broadly. With its size ranging from similar to an eagle up to an ostrich. Coloration also differs. Plumage of fire-reminiscent colors such as red, orange, yellow, and gold to a royal purple. Oftentimes it has a nimbus or crest of feathers on its head.

Lifetimes of 500, 1,000, 1,461, or 1,700 years are cited in various lore, with other depictions claiming complete immortality. Magical or healing powers are attributed to many of the phoenix-like creatures.
phoenix grotesque

We see references to the phoenix in literature, music, art, film, television, games, heraldry, and national symbols. Symbolic themes include the Sun, royalty, healing, prosperity, faith, and rebirth. There is so folklore on this fantastical bird.

History has shown us that stories are very effective at teaching, and the legends of the phoenix are no exception. They engage us. The activity, senses, and emotions involved in the story make it easy to understand.  We can then apply the lessons to our own lives.

(See Related: Why stories are irresistible)

This makes the phoenix even more powerful, the power to influence people. ha!

 

History of the phoenix across different cultures

Egyptian bennu (benu)

bennu bird hieroglyphThe earliest instance of a phoenix-like bird is seen in ancient Egyptian culture. It is shown in hieroglyphs and the Book of the Dead. It closely resemble a large extinct heron called ardea bennuides.

The bird is closely associated with Ra (the god of the sun), Osiris (the god of resurrection), and Atum (the god of creation). When seen in hieroglyphs, it is often intended to be interpreted as Osiris.

(See Related: How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: 10 tips for the beginner)

The story goes that the universe began with the cry of this bird, thus the tie to the god of creation. The bird lived upon the ben-ben stone which was considered the most holy place on Earth. This pointed stone (later replicated and used on the tops of pyramids and obelisks) was where the first rays of the fiery Sun fell in the morning.

At the end of its life, the bennu would create a funeral pyre composed of boughs and spices. It would then sit upon this nest and set itself on fire. After being completely consumed by the flames a strong, young bird arose from the ashes. The young bird then embalmed the ashes into an egg of myrrh. It then took the remains and deposited them at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis, the City of the Sun.

Persian huma

The huma is considered a bird of paradise. Like the phoenix, it dies a fiery death every few hundred years only to rise from the ashes.

It can bring great fortune, especially to those lucky enough to fall in the shadow of the bird. If the bird lands on your head, you evolve to such a high level that you become a king.

Another version of this story has the bird living its entire life in flight. It even lays eggs and hatches while tumbling from the skies.

Persian simurgh (simorgh, angha, anka)

simurgh chimera

Credit: By Imperial_Coat_of_Arms_of_Iran.svg: Sodacan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

While the simurgh is considered a flying creature, it doesn’t really look like one to me. But, the name does have ties to a bird. Despite naming convention, this mythical creature is a chimera with the features of a dog, lion, and possibly even a human face. It most closely resembles a griffin.

(See Related: Gargoyles, grotesques, chimeras, and guardians: The Hall of Fame)

It does share a similar story to the phoenix. Legend says it lives 1,700 years before setting itself on fire.

Chinese fenghuang (Chinese rooster, Japanese hō-ō)

phoenix colorful rooftopThis bird joins the feng (male) and huang (female) to form one animal. As such, it symbolizes balance and harmony. This concept can also be seen in the yin-yang symbol.

The fenghuang aided in the creation of the world and heavens. It has dominion over the southern heaven quadrant, summer. However, the bird is reclusive and only appears at the beginning of a new era or at times of peace and prosperity.

While it does enjoy eternal life, it doesn’t have to endure a violent fiery death to resurrect. This is where is departs from our current understanding of the phoenix.

The fenghuang represents all things peaceful and noble such as the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity. It calls to humans to live a life filled with peace, prosperity, and faith. In kind, it never kills for food and subsides on bamboo seeds and dew drops.

As a chimera, it is the composite of many animal features including snake, tortoise, and fish. The major body parts represent the 6 celestial bodies of the sky, sun, moon, wind, Earth, and planets. While its feathers represents the fundamental colors of black, white, red, blue, and yellow.

Jewish chol (off ha’chol)

This bird also participates in a fiery resurrection each 1,000 years.

Legend gives 2 different reasons the bird was given this gift. The first is said to be bestowed upon the bird because it didn’t overburden Noah on the ark during the great flood. The second story recounts that it was given immortality because it didn’t eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.

There is a bible verse that stirs a semantic debate. The dispute revolves around the interpretation of “chol” into phoenix, with some arguing it means sand not the bird.

Then I said, I shall die in my ken (nest, house), and I shall multiply my yamim like the chol (sand).

Iyov 29:18 (OJB)  from biblestudytools.com

Greek or Roman Phoenix

The phoenix was introduced from the bennu of Egypt via Hesiod and Herodotus.

It did slightly change appearance in translation and more closely resembles an eagle or peacock. Its coloring is a vibrant purple. This was likely caused by an association with the ancient civilization of Phoenicia. They produced a rare purple dye from the conch shell. The rarity of the color gave it special status and was considered royal.

The tale goes that the phoenix bathed in a well every morning. The Sun god, Apollo, would stop his chariot in the sky to listen to the song of the phoenix.

The phoenix ate a special diet of frankincense and aromatic gums. Depending on the variation, the bird lived 500 or 1,461 years before its signature flaming resurrection.

 

Lessons from the phoenix

1. Life has a pattern of beginnings, endings, and new beginnings

Obviously, this theme speaks to humanity across cultures and time. We all wonder what happens after this life here on Earth. It is one of the big questions. There is a reason why this question is common amongst many religions.

Regardless, the pattern is evident everywhere. From the large scale collapse and rebuilding of empires to momentary encounters with strangers. It isn’t a reason to be sad, but it is definitely helpful to acknowledge this cycle.

2. Focus on the here and now

The past is in the past. There is no need to dwell on what has happened previously. It need not influence what happens now and what happens in the future.

We don’t know what the future holds for us, but today is a new day, a new life. Live it.

(See Related: Predicting the future series: Future forecasts and you)

3. Have faith in the future

The pattern of new beginnings presents hope. Times change.

This is especially helpful when things aren’t going so well. The phoenix shows great faith when it sets itself ablaze. Talk about it being darkest before the dawn, yikes! We don’t have to be so extreme, but it certainly tells a compelling story to get our attention.

Having faith in the future is also helpful to remember if things are going well. When we are comfortable we can become fearful of change. We have to remember that we got to where we are today because of changes in the past. Slough off the old for the new just like the phoenix. Fresh starts can be so invigorating.

(See Related: 3 reasons to embrace change even though it is hard)

4. It is all connected

By it, I mean everything. All of it. The Sun, the Earth, humans, and the Universe.

A mystical bird can uniquely show this connection. Birds have the privilege to fly in the sky and walk on the ground. They provide a perfect anecdotal link between the Earth and the heavens.

How are we linked? The Earth is undergoing climate change, likely in part because of human behavior. The Sun and the Earth manipulate each other through gravity and space weather. Humans would never have existed if it wasn’t for massive supernova explosions in the Universe to create our building blocks.

(See Related: Beyond the basics of the Sun: 10 things you didn’t know)

From the smallest particles in our bodies to the farthest reaches of our Universe, it is all connected. It kind of helps to put things into perspective, or not since it is so mind-boggling. A helpful reminder, none-the-less.

 

Rising from the ashes

phoenix gray sculptureDid you learn any lessons from the phoenix? What about the history of the phoenix? There are many mythical creatures that have been tied to the phoenix, but I really think that without a fiery resurrection it doesn’t hold much water.

I had no idea that the concept was so prevalent across cultures. It truly shows how universal the lessons are across humanity.

If you have a response or a comment to share, visit my social media channels. Otherwise, if you like what you read, please share with your friends.

Go now, rise from the ashes, and start a new beginning.

 

Resources

Ancient Symbolism of the Magical Phoenix from Ancient Origins

Feng-huang from New World Encyclopedia

How to make the most of being toast: embracing burnout from Danielle LaPorte

Phoenix from Encyclopædia Britannica

Phoenix from Pantheon.org

Phoenix (mythology) from New World Encyclopedia

Phoenix (mythology) from Wikipedia

Phoenix Symbol from Signology.org

Quotes from Quotes.yourdictionary.com

Simurgh from Wikipedia

The 10 Best Pieces Of Advice For Making A Fresh Start from Fast Company

The Ancient Persian Symbols from Ancient Symbols

The Beastiary – Phoenix: Myth and Reality from YouTube

The phoenix through the ages from Swarthmore