What Was the Phoenix?
The phoenix was, according to legend, a bird which died in a fire but came out of the flames alive. In ancient Egypt the phoenix was connected with the worship of the sun. According to some stories, it was like a large eagle, with red and gold feathers. It lived for hundreds, or even thousands of years. But when its death was near, it built a nest of the scented branches of trees, and spices. It then sang a beautiful, haunting and sad song, and fanned the nest until it burst into flames. The phoenix died in the fire it had made, but from the flames and ashes came a new phoenix, which would live for many years.
In other legends the phoenix was like an Egyptian heron called the bennu. It was also associated with the worship of the sun and is found carved on ancient Egyptian monuments as a symbol of the rising sun and life after death. Because the phoenix was regarded as immortal, it was adopted by the Christian Church as a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus and of eternal life. It has also been used as a sign over chemists’ shops from its association with alchemy and the search for immortality.
According to some texts, the phoenix could live over 1,400 years before rebirth. Herodotus, Lucan, Pliny the Elder, Pope Clement I, Lactantius, Ovid, and Isidore of Seville are among those who have contributed to the retelling and transmission of the phoenix motif.
The phoenix is sometimes pictured in ancient and medieval literature and medieval art as endowed with a nimbus, which emphasizes the bird’s connection with the Sun. In the oldest images of phoenixes on record these nimbuses often have seven rays, like Helios (the personified sun of Greek mythology). Pliny the Elder also describes the bird as having a crest of feathers on its head, and Ezekiel the Dramatist compared it to a rooster.
Although the phoenix was generally believed to be colorful and vibrant, sources provide no clear consensus about its coloration. Tacitus says that its color made it stand out from all other birds. Some said that the bird had peacock-like coloring, and Herodotus’s claim of red and yellow is popular in many versions of the story on record. Ezekiel the Dramatist declared that the phoenix had red legs and striking yellow eyes, but Lactantius said that its eyes were blue like sapphires and that its legs were covered in scales of yellow-gold with rose-colored talons.
Herodotus, Pliny, Solinus, and Philostratus describe the phoenix as similar in size to an eagle, but Lactantius and Ezekiel the Dramatist both claim that the phoenix was larger, with Lactantius declaring that it was even larger than an ostrich.