Phoenix

Mythical Bird of West Asia and North Africa that regenerates itself from its own ashes.

Etymology: From the Greek phoinix, probably in reference to Phoenicia. The Greeks called the Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) phoinix, since the Phoenicians were said to have cultivated it. The term is apparently unrelated to the Greek phoinos, "blood red." The word may also derive from the Egyptian benu, the BENNU Bird. Variant name: Fenix.

Physical description: Size of an eagle. Crest on top of head. Jewel-like eyes. Emerald-green neck with a ring of gold feathers. Multicolored breast. Crimson wings. Red, gold, brown, and purple tail feathers.

Behavior: Said to be a single animal with a life cycle between 500 to 12,994 years. At the end of the cycle, the Phoenix gathers myrrh, cinnamon, and other herbs to line its nest; then the sun ignites the concoction and burns the bird to ashes. At night, a worm emerges from the ashes and grows into a birdlike shape that spreads its wings and takes flight at dawn. Said to have flown to the solar temple at Heliopolis in Egypt to place its egg on the altar, construct a new nest, and begin the cycle again. Its call is sweet and melodious. Said to feed on rare herbs. Distribution: India; Arabia; Ethiopia; Egypt. Significant sightings: A Phoenix was reportedly seen in Heliopolis, Egypt, in the sixth and the third centuries B.C.

Another Phoenix was put on display in Rome in a.d. 34 or 47. Possible explanations: (1) Imported Bird of paradise (Family Paradisaeidae) feathers from New Guinea may have been attributed to the Phoenix. These birds were officially discovered in the sixteenth century by Ferdinand Magellan but were probably known centuries earlier. The Roman emperor Heliogabalus (a.d. 218-222) is said to have dined on birds of paradise. New Guinea natives may have been exporting feathers and skins to Phoenicia as long ago as 1000 B.C. The skins were kept in an egg-shaped container, covered with myrrh and enclosed in a parcel of burnt banana leaves.

(2) Count Raggi's bird of paradise (Paradisaea raggiana) has an extraordinary mating display in which it expands and deflates its red plumage as if it were dancing in the midst of red flames.

(3) The male Common peafowl or Peacock (Pavo cristatus), native to India, has a spectacular set of 150 multicolored train feathers that are raised in a half-circular fan when strutting in front of a female.

(4) The Salamander has been confused with the Phoenix, since it was also thought to live in fire.

(5) The Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) has fiery-pink plumage and is found in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.

(6) A stray Golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus) from China. Adult males have a full, silky-golden crest, while the face, throat, and neck are rusty tan. The upper back is green, and the rest of the back and rump is a golden-yellow. The breast is scarlet; the flanks and underparts are scarlet fading into a light chestnut. The central tail feathers and upper tail coverts are black, spotted with cinnamon.

(7) The Egyptian Bennu Bird, the sacred heron of Osiris and a symbol of resurrection, is closely associated with the Phoenix, and the Greeks certainly thought they were the same creature. However, the Phoenix is not particularly heronlike.

(8) An exotic Parrot (Family Psittacidae), perhaps imported from Southeast Asia.

(9) Some birds engage in "anting," a vigorous and apparently recreational rubbing of the plumage with ants or acrid substances. Some 250 species indulge in this activity, which often consists of the bird settling down on an

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anthill, spreading its wings, and allowing ants to swarm through its feathers. Angry ants emit formic acid, which may help repel parasites inhabiting a bird's feathers. However, some birds also engage in similar behavior with the smoke from burning leaves, cigarettes, or matches. Maurice Burton suggested that ancient observations of this peculiar behavior may have given rise to the legend of a bird reborn in fire. It is even possible that the priests of Heliopolis encouraged smoke-related anting in temple birds as part of their solar rituals. Sources: Herodotus, The Histories, ed. John Marincola (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 112 (ii. 73); Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. Horace Gregory (New York: Viking, 1958), pp. 425426 (XV. 391-407); Statius, Slvae (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) (II. 4.36); Pliny, Natural History, trans. Harris Rackham (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938- 1963), pp. 293-295 (X. 2); Tacitus, The Annals ofTacitus, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (New York: Macmillan, 1891), p. 185 (VI. 28); Lucian of Samosata, De morte peregrini 27; ^lian, On Animals, trans. A. F. Schofield (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 241-243 (IV. 27); Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F. C. Conybeare (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 334-335 (iii. 49); Lactantius, The Phoenix, in J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff, eds., Minor Latin Poets (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934), pp. 651-665; Claudius Claudianus, "The Phoenix," in Claudian, trans. Maurice Plattauer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1922), vol. 2, pp. 227-229; Physiologus, trans. Michael J. Curley (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), pp. 13-14; Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica [1646] (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), pp. 202-208, 825-830; Alexander Ross, Arcana Microcosmi (London: Thomas Newcomb, 1652), pp. 204-205; Jean Hubaux and Maxime Leroy, Le mythe du phénix dans les littératures grecque et latine (Paris: E. Droz, 1939); Peter Lum, Fabulous Beasts (New York: Pantheon, 1951); Maurice Burton,

Phoenix Re-born (London: Hutchinson, 1959); Thomas P. Harrison, "Bird of Paradise: Phoenix Redivivus," Isis 51 (1960): 173-180; Valentin Kiparsky, "Paradiesvogel im Russischen Schrifttum," Arsbok, Societas Scientiarum Fennica 39B (1961): 1-18; R. van den Broek, The Myth of the Phoenix, According to Classical and Early Christian Traditions (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972); Peter Costello, The Magic Zoo (New York: St. Martin's, 1979), pp. 63-70; Joe Nigg, A Guide to the Imaginary Birds ofthe World (Cambridge, Mass.: AppleWood, 1984), pp. 41-43, 145-146.

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