A Brief Account of Life with Phoenixes
Like dragons, unicorns, and mermaids, the phoenix is a popular mythical creature that has similar iterations all around the world. Undying and eternal, the phoenix is seen as a creature of purity and good-fortune, immortalised as a symbol of rebirth.
The name Phoenix originated in Greece. The word comes from the Mycenaean, Ponike, which is thought to refer to a reddish-purple dye, and likely a reference to the supposed colour of the bird.
The Greek Phoenix was associated with the Greek Sun-God, Helios (later supplanted from this position by Apollo) and was said to sing so sweetly that even Helios would stop his burning chariot to listen. There was little agreement among the Greek people regarding what the bird looked like. Some claimed it to be the size of an eagle, while others thought it was bigger. In some legends, the phoenix is multi-coloured, standing apart from other birds, and in others, it is described as having red and gold feathers, and scaly yellow legs.
Regardless of its appearance, however, there is one defining characteristic of the Greek phoenix – when it reaches the end of its lifespan, it dies, and is born anew. This life span varies between five hundred and a couple thousand years. In some myths the phoenix passes away, and decomposes, a new phoenix rising from the corpse. The most popular myth however is, of course, that the phoenix bursts into flame and is born again from the ashes. In versions of the legend that give the phoenix a home in Egypt, it is said that the bird gathers a collection of spices, including frankincense, and builds itself a pyre, which it sets on fire.
While the modern interpretation of the myth usually describes the phoenix chick as being the same phoenix, reborn as a youth, this was not always the case in earlier myth. In these legends, there was only ever one phoenix at a time and when they died, it was the phoenix’s child that emerged from the flames.
Legends around the Egyptian version of the myth are disputed, largely because it is thought that Greek philosophers interpreted a similar creature through the lens of their own mythology. It is thought that the Greek phoenix was conflated with the Egyptian Benu bird. Like the phoenix, the bird was associated with rebirth, and said to be immortal. It was described as being similar to a heron, and associated, with the sun-god Ra. With these similarities, it is easy to see why the bird may have become conflated with the Greek phoenix Unlike the Phoenix, however, the Benu, is said to have existed before the creation of the world – bringing itself into the being, the same way that the creator God, Ra did.
The Benu is not the only bird that has grown to be associated with the phoenix. The Russian firebird is often seen as similar, and firebird is sometimes used as a synonym for phoenix. The firebird is described as either a large bird with glowing feathers in red, orange and yellow, or a falcon-sized bird with glowing eyes and a crest on its head. The glow of the firebird’s feathers is so bright that they can light an entire room, and they continue to glow even if separated from the bird. These feathers often herald the beginning of legend or folk-story. The hero finds a feather and is tasked with capturing the bird, which is thought to bring good fortune and, in some versions, were able to create pearls, providing wealth. Alternately, the hero may be gifted a feather by the firebird – with the feather providing protection to the hero against enchantment and evil.
While the bird is not necessarily associated with rebirth, it was associated with fire, fortune and purity, much as the phoenix is. There are also similarities between the appearances of the birds, with their red and gold colour schemes – although this may just be because they both draw on fire symbolism.
Like the firebird, and the Benu, another magical creature that has become largely assimilated into the phoenix mythology, is the Chinese Phoenix. There is now a lot of crossover between the European, and Chinese Phoenix and they are often considered indistinguishable – despite being two separate creatures entirely.
This Phoenix’s true name is the Fenghuang (Phụng hoàng in Vietnam, Bonghwang in Korea and Ho-Oh in Japan) and its legend can be traced over 8000 years, appearing in jade and bronze sculptures. Early depictions distinguished between the male, Feng and the female, Huang, but as the dragon and phoenix both became important symbols to the empire this was altered. The dragon became associated with the Emperor, and so masculine energy, while the phoenix became associated with the Empress, and so feminine energy. In early myths the Fenghuang’s tail is made up of different coloured feathers – red, blue, yellow, white and black, the five sacred colours in Chinese symbolism, each colour attributed to one of the five Chinese elements.
The dragon and the fenghuang became known as part of a complimentary set, associated with weddings. The dragon would represent the groom, while the fenghuang represented the bride. Together, the two represented a harmonious marriage. Red and gold are both traditional colours of a Chinse wedding – gold representing wealth, and red good fortune – so much like the phoenix and the firebird, the fenghuang is sometimes associated with these colours.
Much like the Asian dragon, and Asian unicorn, the fenghuang is said to be made up of composite parts. These included the neck of a snake, beak of a rooster and breast of a goose. More recent mythology however describes them with the body of a brightly coloured mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, and the wings of a swallow. The fenghuang is considered a positive creature, and a symbol of good fortune.
A symbol of virtue, and grace, there are two possible times that a fenghuang will appear. In some version of the legend, the fenghuang will not appear during times of war, and will hide away, only returning when peace is restored. In other versions, the fenghuang appears only to mark the beginning of a new era.
Unlike the phoenix of Western myth, the fenghuang is immortal and never dying. It cannot, therefore, be reborn. Much like its companions the dragon and the unicorn (or the Long and the Qilin) the fenghuang is likely referred to as a phoenix, because of superficial similarities which led to the fenghuang being identified with its Western counterpart.
While each variation of the phoenix myth is very different, there are several theories about where these myths came from. One popular contender for inspiration for the fenghuan is the golden pheasant. Native to Western China, the bird shares many characteristics with descriptions of the fenghuang. It has a long neck, golden crest, and long tail feathers. The male is also, notably, the same five colours as described in the fenghuang’s tail.
For the Greek phoenix there are two different birds usually discussed. One is the peacock, which tends to be similar in size and description to several of the phoenix myths, and the colouration of the bird is certainly enough to capture the imagination and inspire myths of magical creatures. The peacock however is also often viewed as an almost mythical creature in its own right, associated with multiple deities from different countries, and in some places thought to be semi-divine themselves.
A third option that may have served as inspiration for the mythical bird is the flamingo. The bird’s unusual appearance and bright plumage may have served as inspiration for the mythical bird. Flamingos are not native to Egypt, but do migrate there during winter, so may have contributed to Egyptian myths of the Benu bird, which Greek’s later associated with their phoenix.
Although the phoenix is no longer widely believed in, the creature still continues to be culturally significant. The phoenix is a common creature in fantasy books and films, most recently appearing in the 2020 live action Mulan remake. It also continues to be used as a symbol of rebirth, and renewal, and remains a popular and well-known symbol to this day.