Bennu Bird

The sacred Bird of Egypt that escorted souls to heaven. Found in texts of the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom (2498-2345 B.C.). It was a symbol of Osiris and resurrection and thus a possible source for the Greek Phoenix.

Etymology: The ancient Egyptian bn.w or benu, for both "purple heron" and "date palm."

Physical description: Giant, heronlike bird. Taller than a man. White plumage. Twin red and gold plumes (or tufts) on head. Pointed bill.

Slender, curved neck. Long tail feathers. Long legs.

Behavior: Gregarious. Distribution: Egypt; Arabia. Significant sightings: A large stork or heron is shown on a painted bas-relief on the inner wall of a tomb of an officer in the household of Pharaoh Khufu (2589-2566 B.C.), the builder of the Great Pyramid.

Enormous, conical bird nests, about 15 feet tall, were discovered along the coast of the Gulf of Suez, Egypt, by James Burton around 1822. The local Arabs told him they were built by a large, storklike bird that lived in the area until recently.

Possible explanations:

(1) The Gray heron (Ardea cinerea) is 3 feet 2 inches long and gray, with a black shoulder patch and black crest. It often stands

Bennu Egyptian Mythology
The BENNU BIRD. Detail from the Papyrus of Anhai (British Museum no. 10,472). (Fortean Picture Library)

with its neck in an S curve and is a common sight in lakes, rivers, and marshes of North Africa and the Arabian coast.

(2) The Goliath heron (Ardea goliath) is the largest living heron, nearly 5 feet long. It is blue-gray above, with a brown shoulder patch and a marbled pattern on its neck but no crest. It favors large lakes and swamps where it can wade deeper than other birds. The neck is folded when resting, but it can suddenly straighten, shooting the head forward. The bird is found on both sides of the Red Sea.

(3) The Purple heron (Ardea purpurea) is about 3 feet long, with a snakelike neck held in a distinctive kink. It is purplish-brown with a long, black crest and is found throughout Africa and the Middle East.

(4) A surviving Giant heron (Ardea ben-nuides), an extinct bird that was larger than the goliath heron. Fossil bones have been found on the island of Umm Al Nar near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Radiocarbon dating indicates the birds lived in the third millennium B.C., which encompasses the Egyptian First to the Eleventh Dynasties. Ella Hoch gave the bird its scientific name based on the possibility that it had inspired the Bennu bird symbol. Sources: Bonomi, "On a Gigantic Bird Sculptured on the Tomb of an Officer of the Household of Pharaoh," American Journal ofScience 49 (1845): 403-405; A. Wiedemann, "Die Phönix-Sage im alten Aegypten," Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 16 (1878): 89-106; The Book ofthe Dead: The Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, trans. E. A. Wallis Budge [1895] (New York: Dover, 1967), pp. 280-282, 339; Karl Shuker, In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (London: Blandford, 1995), pp. 73-74.

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